When I feel lost and feel like the hope is gone in the world, I go spend time with some mushrooms. Mushrooms, more than any other organism on this planet, give me hope. So much so, I’ve been doing an intensive year-long study of the fungi kingdom, learning their medicine, their magic, their visionary properties, their ability to cycle nutrients and break down dead matter, and their ability to connect this entire planet. I think there’s a lot of interst in mushrooms, thanks to pioneering people like Paul Stamets, Christopher Hobbs, Tradd Cotter who are working to bring resources, books, and knowledge into the mainstream on the incredible importance of these sacred beings. People are quickly recognizing that these incredible beings not only offer the world a wide range of bountiful gifts but also may offer many keys to help us address human-driven challenges we face.
This post is the first in a series on working with mushrooms physically and spiritually for transformation. This year, I’ve been doing a deep dive into the fungal kingdom to better understand the role mushrooms play in the world as well as in my own life as well as exploring them through my bardic arts practice, rituals, and more: I’m taking up a serious mushroom cultivation practice (both indoors and outdoors), beefing up my foraging and identification skills, creating healing medicines from mushrooms, and exploring their role in homesteading on the physical plane. On the spiritual plane, I’m exploring their uses in ritual, mediation, through my the bardic arts and botancial art practice. So as this year (or more )progresses, I will share a variety of different posts and perspectives. This post also is a precursor to a Mushroom Galdr (chanting and movement) transformation ritual that four of us will be leading at MAGUS 2023, and all four of us came up with the themes and information presented here in preparation for our ritual. I really like these themes and wanted to share them as a place to start a larger discussion on mushrooms as sacred beings.
What is a mushroom?
A mushroom is the fruiting body (that is, the sex organ) of a fungus. We call them mushrooms because the mushroom is what is most visible to us–that’s what you come across in the forest, the field, on cow dung, on the rotting log. In fact, the mushroom is only a small part of the fungus. The fungus consists of hyphae (which are branching, tube-like filaments) that form larger networks called mycelia / mycelum–these can span large areas, even up to several square miles (see later in this post). If you are walking through the woods and come across a downed log or recently upturned soil, you can often see the branching of the mycelium–they look like white, fine tree branches spanning out in many directions either on soil or wood (depending on the kind of mushroom). Once the mycelium reaches a stage of maturity, they will produce special fruiting bodies–the mushrooms–whose goal it is to release spores (similar to seeds) that fly off into the wind to land on the fertile substrate and create more mycelium. Some fungus can even live in the water, preferring freshwater streams; while another water fungus may form a symbiotic relationship with algae or lichen in particularly cold environments. The fungi kingdom is a distinct kingdom, different from any other on the planet, with its own magic and gifts–and they are bountiful. Let’s now consider four gifts of the fungi kingdom!
Mushrooms Decomposers and the Cycle of Life
Here in Western Pennsylvania, the land has been logged so many times. So. Many. Times. And it feels like this logging destruction only keeps getting worse. The cultural history of this land is now one rooted in 3 centuries of resource extraction, disrupting the soil web and harming the beautiful and once-abundant ecosystems here. At the turn of the 19th century, only 4% of the total tree cover was left due to the destruction of millions of acres of forests to fuel growing industrialization. Because I live among so much logging, I have found it is a useful meditation to pay attention to what happens next–a forest is clear cut, or mostly cut. What grows back first? What happens in the ecosystem? The mushrooms happen and the fungi kingdom begins the work of healing. Meeting the Reishi–Ganoderma tsugae–was one of my first experiences with the powerful cycles and healing of the land.
Here at the druid’s garden homestead, we came to land that was logged just before we bought the property. The logging was not done in a good way, with many parts of our 5 acres torn up, downed areas full of brush, growing quickly with multiflora and other opportunistic species…and a lot of impassible areas. I thought it very fitting at the time that I was a land healer drawn to yet another damaged and broken landscape–but what a joy it has been to watch the fungi restore this land, break down the damage, and bring healing and growth.
Mushrooms are nature’s great decomposers. After the bodies of the trees were removed for human consumption, the leaves, branches, uncommercially-viable wood, and roots remain. These often make forests impassible for a few years–until the mushrooms take hold. Mushrooms will quickly turn wood into soil, speeding recovery by creating a new and fertile ground in which to grow. Mushrooms are aided by a range of microbes, nematodes, and other insect life to speed decomposition. They are like the carrion feeders of the natural world, and without them transforming death into rich and fertile grounds for new life, nature’s processes would not take hold. For most mushrooms, something has to die for them to live.
We’ve watched so many species of mushrooms–including many who are extremely healing and nourishing–come in and take up residence. Turkey tail (tramates versicolor) is very dominant here, as are the shrimp of the woods (entoloma abortiva)–there must have been 50+ lbs of shrimp on the property last year as the land heals. As the years pass, we are watching this debris left over from logging turn into rich soil to make way for the first-responder trees and plants (on our land, that’s mainly Devil’s Walking Stick, Birch, and Staghorn Sumac).
Mushrooms and the Connections to All Life
The largest living organism on the planet is a fungus–Armillaria ostoyae–which is a type of Honey Mushroom. This magnificent being spans about 4 square miles (10 square kilometers), or 2500 acres of land, and it could be up to 8500 years old–and lives in the Blue Mountains of Oregon I wish I lived on the West Coast to go meet this incredible being (if any of my readers have, please share in the comments). I start by sharing this about connection because it speaks to the second incredible transformative gift of mushrooms–connection.
Again, we have a body of cutting-edge research in this area–just coming out about six months ago is the fact that mushrooms may have up to a 50-word vocabulary to communicate across mycelial networks! Electrical impulses are passed through the mycelial networks to send information–these same networks are used by other beings in symbiotic relationships with the mycelia, as I quote from the article, “There is also evidence of electrical current participation in the interactions between mycelium and plant roots during the formation of mycorrhiza.” In fact, the way that plant and fungi connect has been dubbed by Peter Wohlleben as the “woodwide web” which is basically a fungal network that can send electrical impulses, nutrients, and more. A key part of this network are the “mother trees” that form hubs for the branching mycelial networks.
This research is just lending credence to what ancient peoples already knew (see below) and what many of us are rediscovering–if we can connect with the fungal kingdom, which essentially forms the communication arm across natural networks–we can better communicate with the world of nature at our fingertips.
Mushrooms and Healing
Some of the most cutting-edge research on human healing right now is also taking place with the fungi kingdom. Mushrooms like Reishi (ganoderma lucidium, ganoderma tsugae) are traditionally known as the “mushroom of life” for good reason–they have incredible cancer-fighting properties, support cardiovascular health, and lower disease risk (there are 250+ entries in PubMed just for reishi!). We have the mighty turkey tail, another medicinal powerhouse, also fighting cancer, supporting the immune system, and removing heavy metals from the ecosystem. Pretty much every one of the major medicinal mushrooms has a growing body of research to support traditional folk uses–that mushrooms are some of the most healing substances on the planet, not only for humans but for all life.
The final use of Turkey Tail shows yet another powerful thing that mushrooms can do–in a new field called mycoremediation, mushrooms are able to literally clean up toxins and biohazards created by bad human activity. That is, we can use mushrooms to clean up oil spills, heavy metals, toxic dyes, and even radiation! In other words, the worst kinds of crud that humans can produce…mushrooms can break down and render harmless to the land and all life. It is no wonder that some ancient cultures worshipped mushrooms as gods.
Mushrooms and Visioning
The Stoned Ape theory was first described by Terrence McKenna in Food of the Gods, suggesting that one of the reasons Homo Erectus doubled their brain size and became the modern-day human, Homo Sapien, was due to their consumption of psychedelic mushrooms. Related theories from a huge new wave of research suggest that psychedelic mushrooms may have heavily influenced human social, linguistic, and cultural development (Arce and Winkelman, 2021), including openness and cultural bonds (Netzband, 2020, et al; Rocha, et. al., 2021); and continue to provide those opening effects today.
We can also see evidence of the importance of mushrooms–medicinal, psychedelic, food, and tool use–in archeological findings in ancient corpses, rock art, and cave paintings. The discovery of several ice-age and neolithic intact corpses suggests that mushrooms were widely carried and consumed. The Siberian Ice Maiden, Princess Ukok, was likely a shaman, healer, or another person of spiritual significance, with beautiful animal tattoos, including the stag, and was buried with a bag of cannabis and mushrooms. The Ice Man, who is currently the oldest corpse discovered in the world, carried medicinal birch polypore mushrooms with him (which have a range of healing and tool-based uses, including fire starting, wound healing, and healing stomach issues). Substantial evidence also exists about the spiritual and ritual uses of mushrooms for visionary and shamanistic purposes from ancient cave art and rock art in many cultures (Mayan, all throughout Siberia, Asia, and Central America) suggest that mushrooms were used to connect with the divine. Here in the Americas, I especially like this image of Cave Art from Tassili n’Ajjer, where over 15,000 cave art paintings are preserved on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Amanita Muscara, which continues to be one of the most recognizable mushrooms in the world, is one of several tied to these ancient uses.
The Fungi Kingdom’s Role in a Healed Planet
When you put all of the above together, you can see why I’m so excited about mushrooms. They are ancient beings, possibly connected with our own evolution, and they offer us so many ways to connect, communicate with each other and the world around us, heal our damaged and ailing lands, bring our own bodies back into a place of health and wholeness, and vision for the future. They seem to offer every single thing that we need right now in their quiet, gentle, and yet powerful way. I’m hardly the first to make this argument–Paul Stamets has been arguing this for over a decade! I think that mushrooms have a great deal to teach us on all levels.
A good place to begin to tap into this healing, connected, visionary being is by putting in your dirt time and going out to get first-hand experience with the fungi kingdom. Where do you frequently see mushrooms? What do they look like? Spend time with them as beings–before we think about what they can do for us, get to know them as friends and allies. A simple nature awareness meditation is useful here. Find some mushrooms, get permission to sit with them, and simply observe. Use your physical senses to observe what they look like, how they grow, their size, and what they are growing on (wood or soil). Use your metaphysical senses to sense their energy, their wisdom, and connect with their spirit. Offer your gratitude for their many gifts.