Calabogie Hiker: Fungi, The Brains of the Forest

BLOG 14: When you hike onto a dark and damp trail, a trail covered with a thick canopy of trees blocking most of the sun so that only thin beams of sunlight can make it through, you suddenly feel calm. Calmness is the automatic physical response an old growth forest gifts us. Your eyes relax. It's quiet although you can hear the Pilated Woodpecker’s ancient call in the distance. You begin to take deeper breaths and longer exhales. Your lungs fill with clean oxygen. Then you smell it. You smell what? Mushrooms. You look down and there right at your feet is a mushroom begging you with its scent to notice it. Do you think the mushroom is ugly? Do you think it’s beautiful? Seriously, when it comes to mushrooms the eye IS in the beholder. I promise you, the day you come across a velvety and vibrant orange Chicken of the Woods Mushroom and its shockingly larger than your head, you may easily get hooked on the fungi kingdom. It happened to me. It happened right here in the Madawaska Highlands.

As established in my last article, we know the highlands host a plentiful mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. Well guess what? Fungi’s primary food source is feeding on dead trees. Different mushrooms like different trees. This fact undoubtedly means the highlands house a super large collection and variety of fungi. This is good news. The more mushrooms the merrier. If we have a good variety of mushrooms in the highlands it means we live within an important healthy ecosystem. American mycologist Paul Stamets, states fungi have an important role and that role is to regulate the earth’s ecosystems. What? Mushrooms? Yes indeed. In his book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Stamets explains that mycelia form a thick networking web under the forest, like the internet highway, and it ‘unfolds into complex food webs, crumbling rocks as they grow, creating dynamic soils that support diverse populations of organisms’. Their power to breakdown and chew everything stems from how oxalic acid is formed in the carbon-rich mycelia. The implications of how mushroom mycelia can turn anything thought to be impossible to get rid of, like the toxic PCB’s for example, into a non-toxic form of food for its environment, has far reaching implications. You really need to go on YouTube and watch a Ted Talks video featuring Stamets lecturing about 6 major uses of mushrooms. One of the major uses is very encouraging for pollution control on Earth. Consequently, from years of studying the fungi kingdom in the forests of Washington state, forward-thinking Stamets has created many patents focused on the powers of fungi. Lucky guy.

I first learned about the importance of mushrooms over 15 years ago. I attended a lecture at a health show in Toronto hosted by Herbalist Terry Willard. He was into the business of marketing mushroom supplements and appeared to be a certifiable mushroom freak. (Sorry Terry, you were ahead of your time and I didn’t understand your genius yet) Terry started with explaining how fungi shares a common ancestor with animals and consequently are more related to animals than to plants. It’s fitting we call their group the fungi kingdom. Terry proceeded to talk about the intelligence of mushroom mycelia. And what he told us in that lecture created a paradigm shift in me concerning the environment. If what Terry said was true, scientists didn’t understand very much about mushrooms or the inner workings of the natural environment. So, Terry proceeded to tell us about the intelligence of mycelium. If you don’t know, Mycelia is plural for mycelium which is the vegetative part of a mushroom that travels underground creating a vast network of fine feathery white threads under the forest floor. Next time you are on a hike in the highlands flip over a rotting log so you can see the whitish mycelia for yourself. The above ground mushroom is simply the fruit of the fungus. Terry had slides and scientific facts before us. He talked about a fantastic scientific experiment done with mycelia in a petri dish. The experiment consisted of two identical mazes in two different petri dishes. Dead wood was put at the end of the maze. He wanted to see how the mycelium would travel to find its food. In the first petri dish, the mycelium found its food no problem in good time. He noted that it wasn’t fooled by the maze and didn’t even venture into the wrong pathways presented to it. Then he put the mycelium in the other identical maze and he shockingly didn’t have time to hit the stop watch. The mycelium was on the wood instantaneously. Wow, the scientist couldn’t believe it. Did that fungus memorize the route? Did it have intelligence? We all sat very quietly in the audience. Terry went on to mention how the knowledge concerning mushrooms was advanced in the far east. Slide after slide he showed us beautiful watercolors of emperors holding Reishi mushrooms in their hands. He said the Reishi mushroom was only consumed by world leaders at the time of the paintings and was kept from the citizens. He said the Emperors took Reishi they believed it rewired their neurological pathways and purified their thoughts so they could converse with gods of ancient wisdom. Terry was bottling it up and selling it medicinally for concentration and focus. He said it was great for students or anyone with concentration or memory issues. He said the Dali Llama ingests Reishi every day to gain ‘universal wisdom’. Wow. (Today, you can readily buy it in any health food store)

In year 2000, just after we discovered how wrong we were about the expected ‘millennium’ computer technology crash (at midnight December 31, 1999 remember? How unintelligent of us, eh?), scientist Toshuyiki Nakagaki published the controversial article that basically said because the mycelia in the petri dish experiment chose the shortest route and refused to venture down the wrong pathway it showed it had a ‘form of cellular intelligence’. That didn’t go over very well in 2000 but today in 2017, Stamets asserts that mycelium have been proven to be “aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of a host environment in mind. The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.” For example, during challenges like experiencing a drought, the ‘internet highway-like’ mycelia send everything they are connected to, information on how the ecosystem they host should behave to save itself from a shortage of water. The ecosystem responds accordingly to the information. It couldn’t survive without the informative mycelia.

The environments of a specific mycelium can be vast. In fact, while studying the extent of a fungus in Oregon, it was found to be almost as large as the whole state. It covered thousands of acres in a logging area. It was huge. I think of the common saying, ‘when a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound’. Yes, said the fungi kingdom. Ha-ha. As much as they do know, Mycologist’s will tell you they still have a lot to figure out. To date there are of tons fungi yet to be identified. Identification is a complex task so always consult and expert. If you go foraging for mushrooms it will be wise to stick to easily identifiable fungi. What we do know is the fungi found in old growth forests are the wisest and hold important and indispensable information for the Earth’s ecosystems. Stamets is worried at the rate of deforestation on our planet and believes governments should quickly protect our forests as a matter of ‘national defense’. This is serious stuff here.

As I sit here trying to finish this article and pique your interest in the lowly mushroom before you. A mushroom begging you with its scent to acknowledge its fundamental importance to your survival. I’m reminded of one more thing Terry Willard said so many years ago at the health show. He said, when you look at a cross section of the soil with the fruiting mushroom body on the surface and its rooting web-like mycelium below the surface, it uncannily looks like an upside-down tree! Cool. Archeologists around the world have uncovered innumerable artifacts with mushrooms, that were revered by shamans and leaders alike. I ponder the thought that maybe there is some reality to the mythical tree of life that has eluded us through the centuries. It is a long shot but just maybe it’s not an above ground tree but an upside-down ‘tree’ of the fungi kingdom.

Sources and videos to view:

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets, 2005.

Ted Talks Paul Stamets: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world 17:44 minutes and well worth the watch

National Audubon Society: Field Guide to North American Mushrooms Gary H. Lincoff 1995

Mushrooms of Northwest North America by Helen M. E. Schalkwijk-Barendsen 1991

RE: From my article published on pp. 14-15 in the www.MadawaskaHighlander.ca

{Photo by Colleen Hulett ARTIST'S CONK Calabogie Highlands}

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