The fall of 2023 is a stunning year for mushrooms in the forests along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. They come in most every color: Yellow, red, brown, purple, pink, white, and even black. Some grow on the forest floor, some on logs, some only on individual Douglas fir cones. They occupy nearly every inch of the forest and are completely essential to its health.
In a recent class I taught for fifth graders at one of the Whidbey Camano Land Trust sites, I had the students stomp their feet on the forest floor. “Underneath one of your feet are 300 miles (480 kilometers) of mycelium,” I said. “They mostly can only be seen through microscopes, but if you laid these little thread-like roots under your foot end to end they would stretch from one end of our island to the other six times!”
And what do mycelium become? They become mushrooms when conditions of temperature and moisture are just right. The fifth graders received deep caution about trying to eat any mushrooms. The focus of our class was wonder, amazement, and respect for the role of these “creatures”.
Twenty years ago, mushrooms were still thought to be in the plant kingdom. Now, however, they have been catalogued by scientists to be in their own kingdom—a kingdom mostly invisible to us except during spectacular “blooms” like this fall. The more I learn about mushrooms, the more I am convinced they are the magicians of the natural world.
Need a two-ton tree on the forest floor removed? Mushrooms will do the job. Need to find a way to decompose plastics? Mushrooms are proving capable of that “impossible” job. Is there a disease in need of cure? Likely a mushroom exists that can be of help. And mental health challenges? Mushrooms are on the frontier of that field, too.
Mushrooms also provide us with spectacular metaphors for life. On a recent zoom call between Wilderness Guides in Ukraine, North America, and Europe I listened to the dire reports from my Ukrainian colleagues: those in their 20s and 30s struggling to have hope for the future, one in his 60s whose son had just been sent to the front line. Please, they asked us, tell us something of your lives so we can see beyond our own borders.
My check-in was about our forest mushrooms. “I know mushroom foraging is important in your country. Lately, I have been walking our forest trails and been absolutely amazed by the variety, color, and abundance of our mushrooms this fall. One month ago, there were scarcely any mushrooms out. Now they are everywhere. It is a poignant reminder that unseen, powerful forces for beauty and good are always at work around each of us.”
Mycology, the study of fungi, is a complex and fascinating field. One of the best, most accessible sources of information is the film by Louie Schwartzberg entitled “Fantastic Fungi”. The film with animation focuses on connection between all mushrooms and the earth’s systems. It can be accessed on line.
One of the best books I’ve read recently about fungi is Entangled Life, How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake.
And I pay tribute here to Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, mycologist, my professor at Iowa State University, who first opened my mind to the wonder of fungi. She was known as “Iowa’s mushroom lady”, taught at ISU for over 50 years, and received numerous national awards for her work. She passed away in 2009 and would be totally amazed by the knowledge gained in the mycological world since her death.