My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student

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.

Now that I’m more domestic, I get to spend my evenings the way I’ve wanted to all along — reading books about obscure plants!

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.

Left, a computer model depicting dark matter. Right, an electron micrograph of fungal mycelium

A visual representation of the Internet

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.)

21 thoughts on “My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student

  1. That is fascinating. I first encountered this bit of knowledge while watching the 90’s show Northern Exposure. There was an episode in the last season that was called “The Great Mushroom” in which they talked about this very thing. Of course, at the time I thought they were just being “quirky” and I didn’t give it much thought or consider that it could actually be true.

    In a possibly related side note, I recently learned that Quaking Aspens have what I imagine to be a similar connectedness as the mycelium. This video explains it better than I can (you can fast forward to the 1:40 mark).

    The world continues to be a place of mystery and magic. I love this stuff.

  2. Whoa, that’s amazing. I’ve been rather obsessed with compost tea and other supposed fungi-stimulating activities, but to be honest, I know almost nothing about what they do.

    Can’t wait to read this. Great review!

    • The best ones, truth be told, are oyster mushrooms. Not only do the mycellae capture and digest innumerable nematodes, but you get edible fruiting bodies to go with them. (My wife and I discovered about seven years ago that oyster mushrooms tend to live in aged honey mesquite trees, and they produce fruiting bodies in the spring. Now, I keep an eye open for people trimming back sick or dead honey mesquites: the wood is exemplary for barbecues and smokers, and if you make sure the logs stay relatively moist by North Texas standards, you can stack up logs and harvest a ridiculous number of oyster mushrooms during the main growing season.)

      • I wish I had the knowledge and confidence to harvest wild mushrooms. I am pretty sure I would poison myself pretty quickly if I attempted it. Maybe I need to study the mushroom glossary in Stamets’ book a bit….even then, though, I think I’d be paranoid.

  3. Are you making “My Fungi are Smarter than Your Honor Student” bumper stickers yet?

    This book sounds amazing. I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  4. Mary, I am the Jack of the last comment. My garden blog is not the one listed on that note. Since I have a couple different blogs that one just happened to come up with that last note I sent. My garden blog which you might enjoy is Lots of photos with Lake Michigan often in the background.

    • Gorgeous photos, Jack! I love Michigan! Both my parents were from MI and I have many happy memories of waterskiing in Lake Huron as a kid. Also swimming in Lake Superior in high summer and freezing my tail off. Thanks for visiting my site!

  5. Here’s hoping that neither mushrooms nor quaking aspens become self-aware. You and another of my favorite bloggers, are talking mushrooms at the same time–maybe he can inspire you to forage for wild edibles! I’ve often wondered at the strange dearth of mushrooms and the like in my own woods, although I did write about the very cool Orange Peel Fungus that showed itself last fall–pretty and so vivid. I like your blog! Thanks, Caleone

      • Thank you for that! Right after signing off on the now-miserably-failed Mitigation Plan for my property, one of the city inspectors commented that I ‘needed to eradicate the invasive weeds near the Sensitive Area–particularly the thistles.’ Turned out to be how I feel about being forced to pay an idiot “Mitigation Planner,” buy a few hundred plants, and put a cash survival bond up–and then need to replace nearly all the original plants. Gotta have a sense of humor about that!

Leave a Reply to Thomas Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s