Today we continue our Dark Kitchen series, exploring themes of food and eating in times of collapse. For this month’s course, we join writer and permaculturist Matt Miles for a foraging expedition in the woods, following the mycelial threads connecting the ‘alien intelligence’ of mushrooms to human culture.
It’s a sunny August afternoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and I’m walking in the woods with my partner Tasha and some friends, Matthew and Jenna. We’ve gone no more than a few feet down a trail when Jenna becomes excited and rushes off into the brush. I see nothing and have no idea what she has just found, but we all follow her. It’s a mushroom of some sort for sure, but not one that I, a foraging neophyte, would recognise. Matthew and Jenna confer for a moment, trading taxonomies in botanical Latin, and settle on an ID. It’s inedible so they leave it and return to the trail.
A few minutes later as we descend into a gorge, Tasha’s the one to spot a cluster of oyster mushrooms growing on a tree on the other side of a creek. Before I know it, Matthew’s perched like a surfer, hands in the air, torso balancing, precariously moving along a moss-covered fallen tree trunk that appears to be the quickest way across the creek. He’s 15 feet above the rocks of the creek bed and grinning like a little kid as he retrieves the delicious white cluster of fungi.
Our foray goes on in this vein for much of the afternoon, yielding several more edible scores. Near the end of our walk, Jenna exclaims ‘chanties!’ She’s found the first chanterelle of the day, a delicious and improbable find at this point in the season. Soon after that, we spot another patch of apricot-orange amongst the dead leaves of the forest floor. On closer inspection, this mushroom proves to be a hedgehog: just as tasty as the more famous chanterelle. Tasha, Matthew, and I also find some and return to the car with our bounty.
Later that evening back on our farm, we cook up the mushrooms and serve them on top of pizza baked in the cob oven I built outside in the yard. They are the perfect accompaniment to freshly made sauce from home-grown tomatoes, topped with Tasha’s goat milk mozzarella, and sprinkled with bits of the fresh Italian basil that proliferates on our herb spiral in the heat of summer.
Matthew and Jenna clearly love foraging, which is part of how they make a living, and their enthusiasm is infectious. But something else is happening too in those moments out in the woods among the trees and shrubs, like a dance or a conversation between them and the surrounding landscape. There is a sentience here: the forest, and particularly the mushrooms – they seem to be somehow aware of our presence, engaging my friends in a kind of dialogue through a subtle language in which they’re both particularly fluent.
I think of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and how this excursion would have been a typical day for them. According to some researchers, paleolithic societies likely worked only a few hours a week to provide themselves with food, unlike later agricultural societies that formed the roots of what we now call civilisation. It was here that the notions of surplus, capital, interest, and planning for – or worrying about – a future of potential scarcity were born. For many of us alive today, this world obsessed with a myth of scarcity is all too present in our daily lives.
My entre into the world of mushrooms – not counting a few odd attempts at foraging in my old suburban neighbourhood – came mainly through cultivating shiitake mushrooms on my farm. Shiitake mushrooms grow on a variety of hardwoods, though oak is one of the best species to grow these beautiful and delicious mushrooms on. In my current locale, oak logs are easy to come by since the small-scale timber operations in the area are mainly interested in the larger trunk wood, often leaving the smaller limbs which make excellent substrate on which to cultivate shiitake. For several years now, I’ve successfully grown and enjoyed these culinary mushrooms which, as some recent studies indicate, may also have significant medicinal value. Growing them at a medium scale has provided me with a little bit of an income as well, since one pound of these mushrooms can fetch as much as $16 at local farmers’ markets.
Mushrooms have until relatively recent times been considered by many westerners only as a seasonal wild food, though some indigenous and eastern cultures, particularly in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, have long sought them out not only as a food but also as potent medicines in their pharmacopeias. Turkey tail, reishi, and chaga are three medicinal mushrooms well known for their multiple health-enhancing properties.
Turkey tail contains immune-system-enhancing and antiviral properties. Reishi and chaga contain beta-glucans – polysaccharide compounds known to help modulate the immune system – as well as terpenes and triterpenes, compounds known for their anti-tumour effects. Shiitake, in addition to being delicious and nutritious, also contains lentinan, a beta-glucan which slows tumour growth while strengthening the immune system. Lentinan is also known to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties.
The far more extensive and crucial links of fungal organisms in maintaining life on Earth have only recently come to light, however, and the critical role of fungi in the soil food web is now better understood. Mycelium is the technical term used to describe the vegetative part of the fungus that we typically associate with mushrooms. Mycelia grow from spores, which spread in long, filament-like threads called hyphae. Hyphae form networks of branching arrays like nerves through flesh, or the root systems of trees, connecting and intersecting with other genetically compatible hyphae to create the mat-like structure of the mycelium. Mushrooms are the visible reproductive organs of the mycelium, which is the much larger and usually invisible underlying fungal organism. Mycelial fungi are categorised based on how they nourish themselves, and there are three or four main types, depending on who you ask, though saprophytic and mycorrhizal mushrooms are especially important in the larger web of life.
Saprophytes such as shiitake are decomposers that break down biomass like wood, digesting lignin and cellulose and forming soil and food in the process. Without saprophytes – in conjunction with bacteria – the natural processes of decay and soil formation would not exist and the landscape would be covered in a thick layer of dead organic matter.
Mycorrhizae are fungi that grow in association with the roots of trees or plants, usually in a mutually beneficial partnership. Truffles as well as chanterelle mushrooms are both delicious and sought-after examples of edible mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizal partnerships exist between fungi and the roots of botanical organisms, ranging from grasses to the largest trees, in which mycorrhizal fungi live off the sugars secreted through the roots. In exchange, they provide that root system with nutrients, moisture, and minerals within reach of the mycelial network that extends far beyond the plant’s root system. Plants that exist in conjunction with mycorrhizal fungi are much more disease resistant than those that do not, so clearly there is an advantage to this partnership.
But connection with other organisms and communities is perhaps the most essential characteristic of mycelia, the collaborative and mutually beneficial functions of which, in many instances, offer up a working paradigm for sustainability within the food web and beyond. As with the microbial communities that define fermented foods, co-existing within both the guts of individuals and within the broader local food community that enjoy ferments, mycelia are living, sensing, collaborative organisms. The mushrooms they produce are a delicious challenge to the notion that food exists as an industrial commodity, a lifeless amalgam of chemical nutrients and calories.
Industrial agriculture, since its inception at the end of World War II, has sought to define food and its production in just such terms: as a formulation of chemical inputs and outputs, an engineering process to be managed with chemical fertilisers and pesticides – both of which represent peacetime economic transitions of the munitions and chemical weapons industries respectively, that flourished during the war. The so-called ‘green revolution’ of the late 1960s sought to employ the technologies and methods of industrial agriculture to eliminate world hunger and famine, yet almost 50 years later these societal ills persist while the resources and energy feed stocks underlying industrial agriculture grow scarcer. Industrial agriculture is a top-down, centralised, technology-and-resource dependent paradigm that jeopardises our planet and its populations even as it claims to nourish them, but most of all it is a model of disconnection, of alienation between food, its producers, and its consumers.
Paul Stamets, one of the most vociferous advocates in North America for all things fungal, has remarked upon the similarity and connectedness of mycelia to human networks, titling the first chapter in his landmark book Mycelium Running, ‘Mycelium as Nature’s Internet.’ In this chapter Stamets not only makes the case that mycelia in their organic structure represent a sophisticated type of natural network for sensing and communicating information, but that mycelial organisms manifest a form of consciousness in their own right. Here also Stamets makes mention of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, co-authors of Gaia theory.
Gaia theory posits that Earth’s biosphere, from its atmospheric and geochemical macro processes down to the level of the least sophisticated forms of organic life, represents an emergent and self-regulating form of natural intelligence, a sentience which seeks a state of equilibrium favourable to organic life. Stamets writes:
I see mycelium as the living network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists. The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer, or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature… These sensitive mycelial membranes act as a collective fungal consciousness.
That mushrooms tend to grow where people go seems to be a fact echoed by several other authorities on mushrooms and foraging. I have found it to be true that mushrooms tend to favour the borderlands, the marginal spaces between wild lands and human haunts. Over the last year of working on a building project on my farm, at the edge of a cleared section of land before it returns to forest, I noticed a proliferation of mushrooms never seen there before. The mushrooms – boletes, chanterelles, old men of the woods – seemed to have appeared in response to my increased activity in the area.
While it’s true that humans and animals tend to spread the spores of the mushrooms they make off with, thus aiding mushrooms in propagating genetic offspring, I sometimes wonder who’s cultivating whom here. As Michael Pollan so eloquently demonstrated in his book The Botany of Desire, plant species as diverse as cannabis, apples, tulips and potatoes have evolved in their own mutualistic relationships with humankind to cater to the changing cultural norms of society while simultaneously ensuring a successful continuance of their own genetic lines. By appealing to the human desire for sweetness, for example, apples have essentially evolved in a mutualistic relationship with human beings, who will thusly ensure the apple’s perpetuation to meet humanity’s need for this particular taste. As the subtitle of Pollan’s book, A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, indicates, there is a reciprocal perspective present in many of our ‘human’ relationships amongst the natural world. In this light then, the myth of human centrality and free agency falls apart when we begin to acknowledge the extent of our interrelationship with other forms of life in the more-than-human world.
The late ethnobotanist and psychedelic advocate Terence McKenna believed that the addition of psilocybin mushrooms to our pre-human ancestors’ diet was a major catalyst for our evolution to Homo sapiens, particularly with regard to the advent of language, the making of art, and the universal primacy of religious experience. McKenna even went so far as to suggest that psychedelic mushrooms represent a form of alien intelligence that interacts with us through its own peculiar symbolic language present in the psychedelic experience.
In addition to the similarities with the human-created model of the Internet, Paul Stamets has also noted the likeness of the mycelial form to others that occur naturally throughout the universe, in particular, hurricanes, galaxies, and representations of dark matter. The ‘mycelial archetype’ as he calls it, seems to represent the natural pattern of expression of matter and energy flows. To me, the interlaced threads of hyphae diverging and combining endlessly to form a mycelium is an apt visual metaphor for the web of life, for a model of natural connectedness.
I’m sipping a cup of tea made from chaga mushrooms as I write this in early March. Although chaga is deadly to some species – a parasitic fungus that grows like a cancer on lesions in birch trees, ultimately causing their death over a span of years or decades – it is beneficial to humans, used historically as a folk medicine and in ongoing research. I foraged the chaga from the bark of local birch trees a few weeks ago with my friends Cameron and Janie. The tea is sweet and intense, earthy and delicately fragrant, like chocolate with a faint hint of clove or mild incense. I’ve added cinnamon, goat milk and honey. The elixir warms and energises on this chilly afternoon.
How to Grow Shiitake Mushrooms on Oak Logs
Shiitake mushrooms are known to grow on many types of hardwoods, including sugar maple, ironwood, beech, sweet gum, hickory, alder, black birch, basswood, hornbeam, cherry, eucalyptus, sassafras, and sourwood; however, most commercially available spawn strains favour red or white oak. Oak species are common and fairly easy to identify throughout much of Europe and North America, and parts of Asia and Australia, and oak is one of the traditional substrate used to grow these mushrooms in China and Japan.
While it is possible to manufacture spawn from the spore print or tissue culture of a shiitake mushroom, these techniques require some advanced skills and experience doing biological lab work. A much better alternative is to buy sawdust spawn or wooden dowel plugs pre-inoculated with spawn and use these to inoculate logs. Shiitake spawn is commercially available in many countries through various companies, most of which do business over the Internet and will typically ship to any address. This how-to will cover inoculating with dowel spawn, since this is the simplest technique.
Dowel spawn. Select a strain that will grow well in your climate and with your available species of log; spawn is commonly classified as wide-ranging, warm-weather, or cold-weather. Wide-ranging spawn is typically the most accommodating.
Logs. Procure a sufficient number of logs to inoculate with the corresponding amount of spawn. A package of 1,000 dowels will be sufficient for up to 20 logs. The logs should be between four and ten inches in diameter and no longer than four feet, shorter for wider diameter logs. The logs should be freshly cut and no older than six weeks.
Food grade wax. Cheese or soy wax are best, though beeswax or sealing wax can also be used.
Hammer or mallet
Electric drill with drill bit corresponding to diameter of dowel plug
Heat source. A hot plate or camp stove or chafing dish is necessary to melt the wax.
Pan or metal container to melt wax in. Old coffee cans or other heatable containers work well for this. Consider using a can or pot within a larger pot of water to make a double boiler to avoid the risk of the wax catching on fire.
Brush or dauber. Any type of small paint brush or cotton or foam dauber will work.
Drill each log with one-inch-deep holes at six-inch intervals down the length of the log to form a row. Space rows at two-inch intervals, offsetting the start of each row a few inches to form a diamond pattern. Try putting a ring of tape or marking the drill bit with a magic marker at one inch to ensure you don’t drill too deep.
When each log has been completely encircled with spawn holes, begin filling them with spawn. With a hammer, tap each dowel into the hole until its top is flush with the log bark.
After the log has been filled with dowel spawn, seal each hole with a coating of hot wax. This protects spawn from exposure to the elements and moisture loss, and will hasten the mycelial colonisation of the log.
Position the logs in a loose ‘crib’ stack in a shady spot outdoors to allow the spawn to incubate. A crib stack is a stack where the the logs are arranged next to each other lengthwise in layers, with each layer running perpendicular to the next. The first layer should be kept off the ground with blocks or an old shipping pallet. Incubation usually takes anywhere from 6-18 months. If you get less than one inch of rain per week, thoroughly water the logs. It is especially important to maintain moisture levels during the incubation phase or the mycelia will die.
The logs will begin to fruit on their own after a rain or watering when the mycelia have fully colonised them. This is sometimes apparent when the ends of the logs become covered with white mycelia, but ultimately you will notice primordia formation or ‘pinning’ occurring; that is, the nascent mushroom cap emerging on or around the waxed-over dowel holes.
If using a wide-ranging or warm-weather spawn, you will be able to force fruit your logs every eight to ten weeks by submerging them in a water filled tub or vat for 24 hours. The water should be at least 10° C colder than ambient temperature. Soaked logs should be stood on end in a shady spot after they have been soaked. Most cold-weather strains do not respond well to forced fruiting and should be allowed to fruit naturally.
Over the next five to ten days, you will notice mushrooms growing from your logs. Some caps will grow as large as five or six inches in diameter, and most will be larger than an inch. Harvest them by cutting or breaking the stem from the log when they have noticeably stopped growing and before heavy rains or high winds are expected.
Shiitake store well in a refrigerator for up to a week, but they can be dehydrated and stored indefinitely in glass jars or plastic bags. All shiitake should be cooked before eating however, as some people have difficulty digesting the raw mushrooms.
Images: Chaga mushrooms by Matt Miles; Donko cap shiitake mushrooms by Matt Miles; Stacked logs by Matt Miles
Matt Miles is a writer, poet, permaculturist, maker, and enthusiastic foodie. Among others, his interests include mycology, vegetable gardening, and most things fermentation related. He lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where he and Tasha Greer run the reLuxe Ranch, a whole-systems farmstead. He occasionally blogs at the-way-back.com.