All of us who are working to build an equitable, just, abundant and resilient future here on Earth have much to learn from mycelia — the fungal network that binds the soil beneath our feet and works as a communication mechanism between trees, among other things.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelia, and can be used as food, medicine, fuel, creating materials for fashion or home building, detoxification of soil, and more — we are learning more possibilities all the time.
What impresses me most about mycelia is that the majority of its existence and work is done underground, and yet it tangibly contributes to the resilience and well-being of itself and its entire ecosystem. I think humans, and especially those of us who are seeking collaborative justice, have so much to learn from our distant fungal relatives.
How I Came to Learn About Mycelia
In the past few decades, there has been a growing interest in, and scholarship of, mushrooms and mycelia. Sometimes, in this fast-moving world of constant content, we can absorb terminology, and perhaps have a general idea of something, or just nod along when we hear the word, without really understanding the wealth of knowledge available to us. I am such a fan of the potential wisdom of mycelia that I want to slow down the trend of language here and explain what I know so far about what we can learn from the fungal world.
I first came to my obsession with mushrooms and mycelia through reading and hearing about the work of Paul Stamets (the American mycologist who has published mushroom scholarship classics including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World and Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness & Save the Planet) and Margaret Wheatley (whose book Leadership and the New Science: Learning About Organization from an Orderly Universe encouraged me to look to the world around me for models on how to organize humanity toward more alignment with the Earth and each other), and a trip that Movement Generation took me on to the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, where I got an early taste of what it could be like to live in partnership with a fecund Earth. I also had a sacred experience of eating chanterelle mushrooms harvested on a slow day in Minnesota, and became obsessed with the earthy, healing strength of chaga mushroom tea for my knees.
All of this aligned with the beginnings of my personal healing journey through the use of medicinal, or psilocybin, mushrooms. The experiences I have with mushrooms are rooted in profound connection, providing a sense of tether that I had imagined and perhaps tasted before but never understood to be a consistent truth I could tap into at any time. In my reading, I saw that what mushrooms did for me was aligned with what they do in the world, what fungi do in the world.
I included the wisdom of mushrooms in my book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, and I have continued to study how mycelia actually works because it feels like such an important teacher for humans and how we need to resource ourselves and communicate in this time.
In what follows, I offer four questions (and possible lessons) that can bring us into closer alignment with the wisdom of mycelia.
1. What’s Happening Underneath the Surface?
Mycelia are made up of millions of miles of thread-like structures called hyphae, which are constantly reaching and spreading themselves and their resources. They communicate messages between trees, warnings about disease in the neighborhood. Yes, some of us are called to be bombastic brief mushrooms on the surface of the world, but so much more is happening in the darkness of rich soil. We can impact the surface, the forest, the health of the whole world with our earnest organic underground labor. Learn from what moves under the earth.
2. How Can We Make the World Digestible?
Mycelia secrete enzymes that dissolve all of the material that can be food for them, making it possible to absorb the nutrients into their cells. This work of metabolization happens at the tip of each branch of hyphae, concurrently. I believe part of our work is to make sense of the world, for ourselves and for the communities we love who may not have the time and space to process the overwhelming input of the world. Organizers and activists and writers and artists can collaborate to make the world digestible and comprehensive, to take all the content and process it into action. We can help our folks focus on what is nourishing and possible right before us, even as we make the connections to understand that there are front lines and things to digest everywhere.
3. How Can We Strengthen Our Connections?
Mycelia growing underground actually bind the soil, which is made from the detritus of all that exists. Carrying necessary information along its network, mycelia help slow and stop the spread of dangerous toxins and preserve the fundamental life force of the forest. Similarly, by being mindful in our interdependence and communication, we can bind the chaotic content of our lives into a coherent and nourishing foundation for the world to grow. We can warn our communities of potential danger, and stop the spread of toxic behaviors and practices in our midst.
Mycelia work in a cyclical, spreading way — cyclical in how it processes the world around it into food and fuel, and spreading in how it is constantly seeking more information and resources under the earth. Reflecting on this motion gives me guidance in my world-shifting work: I cycle lived experiences of injustice and miracle through my system, and then spread to connect with others and communicate what I know, have and need.
4. What Do We Do With the Pain?
Death, grief, heartache, betrayal and other devastation are all part of our human experience. We spend an immense amount of time trying to escape or avoid these inevitable human experiences — one of the most important lessons mycelia can offer us is how to turn and face the toxicity and pain in our world, and find life in it.
Mycelia see the potential life in everything. Everything dead and alive goes into the soil and gets processed into life. When we understand that our pain and grief are part of our aliveness, part of how we learn to be, and part of how we ultimately contribute to the life of our planet, we can learn to eat everything and make it fuel. We can recycle and upcycle everything, because it is all material, data, content, source. We can make death into life.
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