You’re no better than a mushroom. In fact, you’re far worse.
Without mushrooms, life would collapse. And not only do we owe our existence to them – they can also teach us about the meaning of life. Yet most of us don’t know much about mushrooms. Looking at the outside, all they see are toadstools. But mushrooms are not just insignificant hat-wearing creatures. They are at the very core of all life on earth. And they are much more advanced and life-sustaining than human beings will ever be.
It is easy to underestimate how completely life on earth depends on mushrooms. They are everywhere, outlive everyone, and help other species evolve - including our own. Interacting with plants and animals, they maintain biodiversity, control the climate and balance the atmosphere. They have been around for more than a billion years. They are simply indispensable.
In contrast, earth absolutely does not need humans. We have evolved in ecosystems that depended on mushrooms. Without them, there would be no us. You may feel more powerful than a mushroom, because your body is larger. You can pick it up and eat it, smash it with your foot for fun. But the truth is, no matter how much you tried, you cannot really harm a mushroom.
Small nor weak
A common misconception is that a mushroom – weak and short-lived, found everywhere while strolling in the forest, yet easily missed - is all there is to a fungus. But it is merely its fruit body, the tip of the iceberg. The underground mycelium - the uterus of life on earth – stretches into massive and long-lived colonies, some over two thousand years old and spanning over two thousand acres. Most of the fungus is underground in the form of white mycelia and black rhizomorphs, busy colonising decaying organisms, dead vegetation and dying tree roots, and preventing all that organic waste from piling up on the surface.
It is only during the so-called pneumatic process that the small fruit body appears overnight, with millions of pre-formed cells inflating and extending the stem, pushing themselves out of the soil to form the mushroom cap we all know. Once above ground, they form gills which can shed 30,000 spores per second. Mushrooms are the true masters of natural engineering.
In fact, before any plants were taller than a metre and before any animals made it out of the water, our planet was filled with mushrooms of more than six metres tall, called prototaxites. And even today, the largest living organism in the world is a fungus in Oregon, which covers over nine square km and weighs an estimated 35,000 tons.
So if you think you’re superior to a mushroom, think again. We are little bodies that don’t do anything to contribute to the natural cycle of life. We are superficial beings and our materialist view of life makes us rely entirely on our vision to believe in the existence of something. Most of the life of fungi is entirely beyond such a primitive sense of knowing things.
Here’s another thing: we do not deal with waste very well, do we? Instead of recycling waste - decomposing it into living matter like mushrooms do – we produce an insane amount of it every single day. And what do we do with it? Here’s an example. In 2019 alone, 7,809 tons of trash were imported illegally to Senegal from the US. American trash actually travels - illegally - in a circuit to eleven of the poorest countries in the world, including Ethiopia, Ghana and Kenya, a recent report showed. Instead of naturally decomposing waste, we form a multinational, industrial machine that produces mountains of waste without a clue of how to dispose of it. Fungi have been breaking down organic matter for millions of years, transforming it into soil. A handful of healthy soil contains miles of mycelia, invisible to the human eye. Something to think about.
We don’t even know much about mushrooms in the first place. It is estimated there are four million species of mushroom, the vast majority undocumented. Only maybe two hundred thousand have been properly described. Mushrooms are humble yet astonishingly versatile organisms, making soil, digesting pollutants, nourishing and killing plants, inducing psychedelic visions, producing food, making medicine and manipulating animal behaviour.
Home fermentation is becoming a mainstream hobby. Sourdough, kombucha, kimchee - amateur mycology is already a thing. Mushroom cultivation gives you the skills to cultivate your own food as well as medicine, while mycelium can be used to filter water. Mushrooms save us from deadly disease. They help trees communicate with each other. They are the vehicles of life and decay.
Fungi make their own food by secreting digestive enzymes into the environment and absorbing whatever is on the way. Upon closer inspection, the mould on your bread is a sponge of millions of tiny tips, busy breaking down matter into nutrients. Fungi recycle dead organic matter into life. They are here to protect us. They reincarnate matter, bringing it back to life.
Humans, on the other hand, are terrified of death. All we want to do is live, which for us means consuming, acquiring status and wealth. Mushrooms don’t care about that. Their life is all about death, which, ironically, makes them focus more on living than humans. By not resisting death, fungi are much more connected to the natural cycle of life than we are.
The secret of life
Mushrooms also provide a strong reason to believe that a traditional God does not exist, and that it is a man-made concept. Mushrooms show us that we are made from stardust, destined to diffuse. They show that the gods we pray to are figments of our imagination. Mushrooms show us that the divine is within us all, that it is life itself, physically and metaphysically.
Countless experiments with psilocybin, the hallucinogenic substance from Psilocybe mushrooms, show that the chemical can induce a sense of closeness to something greater than ourselves, a mystical experience. Psilocybin disconnects the part of your brain responsible for separation between you and the rest of the world, so a mushroom trip can literally make you feel like you’re one with the universe. People treated with it state they feel closer to God. But it is not the man-made God with a beard they experience. They felt a heightened connection to a collective consciousness, a feeling that we are all part of a divine life cycle.
People, on the other hand, have institutionalised spirituality over hundreds of years, turning it into monotheist religions. We developed it into industries, turning people against each other in the name of God. Wars, murder, sexual and physical abuse are just a few examples of what people have done to exploit others in the name of religion. And so I think it’s safe to say people are most definitely not like mushrooms. Mushrooms don’t get violent, maniacal or possessive. They don’t live in societal constructs, they don’t abuse children and they don’t crusade against other religions in the name of God, making the masses march and murder for years, luring them with the promise of a perfect afterlife for their own financial gain and power control.
Mushrooms don’t care what you think about them - and yet they save your life every day. The next time you feel you are superior to a mushroom or any other small-looking creature, think again.
Let mushrooms teach you humility, sustainability and harmony with others. Let them show you the secret of life – your own and all of ours.