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Excerpt from Dreams

Fungi (p. 83)

From chapter "Fungi"

I’ve long thought that evolution is strictly nonhierarchical. I’ve never had much patience for those—and there are a lot of them—who consider humans to be the “apex” of evolution, who evidently believe that all of evolution took place so that we can watch television. Oh, and destroy the planet (and as I’ll discuss in a little while, my current description of the mass extinctions is bothering me for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is feeling to me like it’s supporting both of those fallacies: that evolution is progressive and leading to humans, and that the sort of destruction industrial humans are causing is somehow natural. More on all this later). It’s long been clear to me that not only are we not the apex of evolution, but that there is no apex.

After reading Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, I’m not so sure. It’s not too much to say that the book fundamentally changed the way I perceive the world. Oh, yes, I still believe humans aren’t the apex, and I still believe that evolution isn’t hierarchical, but since reading this book (and talking to Paul Stamets) it’s become clear to me that mycelium—fungi, mushrooms, slime mold, the whole batch of them—know some things that we don’t. Quite a lot of things, actually.

Did you know, for example, that fungi are far older than we—animals—are, and that we are more closely related to fungi than to plants? Did you know—and I didn’t—that we evolved from fungi? As Stamets says, “About 600 million years ago we diverged from fungi. The branch of fungi leading to animals evolved to capture nutrients by surrounding their food with cellular sacs, essentially primitive stomachs.” Fungi kept their stomachs on the outside and let food come to them, and we animals grew around our stomachs and moved to find food.

He continues, “As species emerged from aquatic habitats, organisms adapted means to prevent moisture loss. In terrestrial creatures, skin composed of many layers of cells emerged as a barrier against infection. Taking a different evolutionary path, the mycelium retained its netlike form of interweaving chains of cells and went underground, forming a vast food web upon which life flourished.”

Okay, that’s nice, Derrick, but how does that change your perception of the world?

Did you know that fungi are intelligent? I didn’t. But Stamets writes, “I believe that the mycelium operates on a level of complexity that far exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers.”And he backs this up. Fungi demonstrate simple straightforward intelligence (even measured by our own narcissistic standards); if you put a slime mold at one end of a maze, it will grow randomly until it finds food. If you take a piece of this slime mold and put it in the same maze, it will remember where the food is, and grow directly toward it, with no false turns.Further, if you compare the information-transferring organization of mycelium to the organization of the Internet, you’ll find that, as Stamets says, the “mycelium conforms to the same mathematical optimization curves that Internet theorists and scientists have developed to optimize the computer Internet.” Or rather, the Internet conforms to the same curves as the mycelium.

I’ve long lived in forests, and have long been a forest defender. This book helped me understand that from the beginning I’ve been misperceiving forests. I literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees, by which I mean I thought that trees are what make a forest. But now I understand that the foundation of forests lies beneath the soil: the fungi. Once again, Stamets writes, “I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.”

I had to read that last phrase three times. But now I get it.

Have you ever wondered, for example, how tiny trees survive in the shade of their much-larger elders?

I asked Paul Stamets about this.

He answered, “If you’ve been in an old-growth forest, you’ve probably seen hemlock trees on rotting nurse logs. They’re usually the first trees to come up in these highly shaded environments. They have very little exposure to light. When these small saplings were dug up and taken to a greenhouselike environment and given a similar amount of low light, they all died. The question became, where are these young trees getting their nutrients? So researchers radioactively tagged carbon and watched the translocation of carbon in the forest. They found that birch and alder trees growing in more riparian habitats along rivers— where there is more sunlight—were contributing nutrients to the hemlocks via mycelium.”

I said, “Wait. Are they . . .”

He said, “Yes. The mycelium—which, if you remember, run all through the forest soil and connect different parts of the forest to each other like some form of Internet—are transferring nutrients from trees of one species who have nutrients to spare to trees of another species who need nutrients or they will die. The mycelium is taking care of the health of the forest. I think they are doing this because they understand that the health of the biodiversity of the ecosystem speaks to the survival of these fungal populations. I think these fungi have come to learn through evolution that biodiversity and resiliency of ecosystems are for the benefit of all the members, not just for one.”

Of course he’s right. And of course the fungi are right. Everyone knows this, except members of this culture, who do everything they can to try to forget, and to try to dismember those relationships.