In 1957, a man from New York named R. Gordon Wasson published an article in Life about two trips he had taken, three decades apart. The first was to the Catskills, in New York, where his wife, Valentina, took a rambling walk in the woods and became enamored of some wild mushrooms. “She caressed the toadstools,” Wasson recalled, “savored their earthy perfume.” She brought them home to cook, and soon he, too, was enchanted. They spent the next thirty years studying and cataloguing various species, searching out literary and artistic works about mushrooms.
According to Wasson, the world is divided into mycophiles and mycophobes. Reverence might take a variety of forms—think of Eastern Europe or Russia, where foraging is a pastime. There’s a famous scene in “Anna Karenina,” in which a budding romance withers during a mushroom hunt. Wasson was particularly interested in societies that venerated the fungus for spiritual reasons. In Mexico, wild mushrooms were thought to possess “a supernatural aura.”
There are any number of reasons that one might be mycophobic. Some people are put off by mushrooms’ taste or texture—supple, with a fleshy resistance—and the fact that they somehow resemble both plant and animal. Others are creeped out by the way they pop up overnight, hypersensitive to atmospheric changes. As fungi, they feed on organic matter, and can be seen as vehicles of decay. In Wasson’s view, Americans, and Anglo-Saxons as a whole, were mycophobic, and “ignorant of the fungal world.”
In his forays against this ignorance, Wasson learned of a so-called “divine mushroom” consumed in remote corners of the world. In 1955, he finally found one of these communities, a small town in the mountains of southern Mexico. At the house of a local shaman, Wasson drank chocolate, then spent thirty minutes chewing “acrid” mushrooms. “I could not have been happier: this was the culmination of years of pursuit,” Wasson wrote. For the next few hours, he experienced visions—resplendent motifs and patterns, mythical beasts and grand vistas, streams of brilliant color, constantly morphing and oozing, whether his eyes were open or closed—and he felt connected to everything he saw. “It was as though the walls of our house had dissolved,” he wrote, and his spirit were soaring through the mountains.
The fact that Wasson was an otherwise straitlaced, politically conservative bank executive at J. P. Morgan lent this adventure a serious and respectable air. He began to wonder if he had unlocked a mystery uniting all of humanity: “Was it not probable that, long ago, long before the beginnings of written history, our ancestors had worshipped a divine mushroom?” Wasson’s discovery turned, briefly, into a movement. Timothy Leary read about the Wassons and went to experience the mushroom himself, starting the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Spurred on by evangelists like Leary, young Americans turned to drugs (LSD, too, is derived from a fungus), along with alternative approaches to agriculture, diet, and sustainable living. Within a few years, the backlash against psychedelic drugs was in full swing, macrobiotic eating was relegated to the fringes, and it seemed that America had returned to its generally mycophobic ways.
But our attitudes toward the fungal kingdom may be evolving, with respect both to pharmacology and to food. In November, the residents of Oregon are scheduled to vote on whether to legalize psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in so-called magic mushrooms, for use in controlled settings. The effort has been backed by researchers and scientists, and passionately supported by David Bronner, the C.E.O.—in this case, cosmic engagement officer—of Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. The ballot initiative follows clinical trials conducted at Johns Hopkins, New York University, and U.C.L.A. in the use of mushrooms to treat addiction and depression. Psilocybin has already been decriminalized in Santa Cruz, Oakland, and Denver.
Meanwhile, the American diet includes more mushrooms than it used to—about four pounds per person a year, a gradual increase from just one in the sixties. The hefty portobello burger is ubiquitous, and, even before the current pandemic, there was a growing interest in the everyday role that fungi play in our lives on a microbial level: “home fermentation” (whether for sourdough, kombucha, kimchee, or harder stuff) has become a mainstream hobby. Amateur mycology has flourished on the Internet. There are videos about foraging, and how to induce any mushroom to release its spores onto a sheet of paper, leaving a beautiful print of its gills. I recently found a Web page devoted to pictures of mushrooms that convincingly resembled human butts.
Fungus, as Merlin Sheldrake writes in “Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures” (Random House), is everywhere, yet easy to miss. Mushrooms are the most glamorous but possibly least interesting members of this kingdom. Most fungi take the form of tiny cylindrical threads, from which hyphal tips branch in all directions, creating a meandering, gossamer-like network known as mycelium. Fungus has been breaking down organic matter for millions of years, transforming it into soil. A handful of healthy soil might contain miles of mycelia, invisible to the human eye. It’s estimated that there are a million and a half species of fungus, though nearly ninety per cent of them remain undocumented. Before any plants were taller than three feet, and before any animal with a backbone had made it out of the water, the earth was dotted with two-story-tall, silo-like fungi called prototaxites. The largest living organism on earth today is a fungus in Oregon just beneath the ground, covering about 3.7 square miles and estimated to weigh as much as thirty-five thousand tons. If fungus can inspire awe, it can also be a nuisance or worse, from athlete’s foot to the stem rust that afflicts wheat and is considered a major threat to global food security. Last year, the C.D.C. identified the Candida auris as an emerging public-health concern; it’s a sometimes fatal, drug-resistant pathogen that has emerged in hospitals and nursing homes around the world. The more we learn about fungi, Sheldrake observes, the less the natural world makes sense without them.
Sheldrake was drawn to fungi because they are humble yet astonishingly versatile organisms, “eating rock, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, surviving in space, inducing visions, producing food, making medicines, manipulating animal behavior, and influencing the composition of the earth’s atmosphere.” Plants make their own food, converting the world around them into nutrients. Animals must find their food. But fungi essentially acquire theirs by secreting digestive enzymes into their environment, and absorbing whatever is nearby: a rotten apple, an old tree trunk, an animal carcass. If you’ve ever looked closely at a moldy piece of bread—mold, like yeast, being a type of fungus—what appears to be a layer of fuzz is actually millions of minuscule hyphal tips, busily breaking down matter into nutrients.
The fungus kingdom spreads by way of spores. This is where mushrooms, the part of fungus that makes it above ground, show their prowess. The shaggy inkcap mushroom—soft and tender when cooked—can break through asphalt and concrete pavement. Each year, fungi produce more than fifty megatons of spores. Some mushrooms are capable of onetime exertions in which spores are catapulted through the air at speeds of fifty-five miles an hour. But the contribution that fungi make to the larger ecology is fundamental: by turning biomass into soil, they recycle dead organic matter back into organic life.
Sheldrake is in his early thirties, a biologist who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. But his evangelical zeal for the fungal world makes it plain that he’s drawn to the weirdness of it all. (His father, Rupert, is a former research biologist who became known for his belief in “morphic resonance,” which posits a kind of shared consciousness within nature.) His book recounts the requisite tales of champion truffle hunters, psychedelic adventurers, his own love of home-brewing beer. One of the heroes of “Entangled Life” is Paul Stamets, a logger turned mycologist and entrepreneur who lives in Washington State. (Stamets also steals the show in “Fantastic Fungi,” a 2019 documentary directed by Louie Schwartzberg and narrated, somewhat creepily, by the actress Brie Larson.) In 2005, Stamets published “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World,” an influential work that was taken up by fellow fungal enthusiasts as a kind of manifesto. A TED talk drawn from the book has been viewed millions of times.