I’m going to continue my tradition of reviewing books several months — or in this case, years — after they’ve actually been published. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, by mycologist Paul Stamets, was published waaaaay back in 2005, before I had kids. If there was some sort of uproar when this book was published, I might have missed it because I was busy leading the devil-may-care lifestyle of the child-free: going to movies, meeting up with friends, sometimes even staying out past 8pm.
And let me tell you, if your attitude toward fungi is anything like mine was (disdainful, ambivalent at best) then you need to read Mycelium Running.
First, a word about terminology. Mycelium refers to networks of fungus cells that inhabit soil or any other organic host – rotting logs, for example. The fungi strands in this network are threadlike, microscopic, often only one cell wide. Mushrooms, then, are actually the fruiting bodies of these mycelium.
That’s not the cool part, though.
What blew my mind are some of Stamets’ pronouncements about this living network of mycelium: that it is a form of intelligence not unlike the human brain, that it can form mats which cover hundreds of continuous acres, that it can sense movement and distress in its ecosytem and work to repair damage, that it acts as “a collective fungal consciousness.”
OMG, right? Shoulda called the book Mycelium Rocking.
Anyway, I can’t paraphrase Stamets adequately, so let me just offer up a few of his mind-blowing quotes:
“I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature.”
“I believe that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers.”
“I calculate that every step I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium.”
He goes on to suggest that the architecture of a mycelium network is merely an archetype — that it shares patterns with the information systems of the internet, with the neural networks of the human brain, even with the theoretical “dark matter” of the universe.
And that’s all just chapter one!
Subsequent chapters are devoted to mycelium’s astonishing potential for healing our environment. Here is just a sample of what mycelium may be able to do:
- clean up degraded watersheds by filtering pathogens, silt, and toxins from run-off
- speed the return of nutrients to the soil in managed forests (despite claims to the contrary, managed monocultures of trees are not at all a “renewable resource”)
- reduce risk of forest fires by retaining moisture in the forest floor
- help reduce or prevent erosion
- absorb radiation and heavy metals at toxic waste sites
- prevent and heal viral diseases — including HIV — in humans
Okay, so fungi can’t create world peace, and it’s not winning any beauty contests, but that list is pretty damn impressive.
I think that Paul Stamets has done for fungi what Doug Tallamy did for insects in Bringing Nature Home — taken a life form that many people ignored or even reviled, and showed us what idiots we’ve been to take it for granted. Stamets, like Tallamy, has shed miraculous light upon the natural world.
I’m not overstating it when I say the book will change the way you view the world.
(Click here to see Paul Stamets’ TED Talk called Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World.)