For the first decades of my life I hated mushrooms. I found them disgusting to look at and disgusting to eat. And then a documentary film changed my life.
Mushrooms have a pretty bad reputation. Aside from the general hesitation people can have at the idea of eating a mushroom, mediums like it The last of us, destruction, and other mushroom horrors have successfully played up the pesky nature they can have, sprouting up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. But mushrooms are more than that.
In 2021 my partner and I bought digital tickets to the Indie Memphis Film Festival. We’ve seen a lot of movies that we loved including We’re all going to the World’s Fair and I was a simple man (both on Polygon’s Favorite Movies of 2022 list) and an incredibly funny documentary about a group of bus drivers who put on a stage production of extraterrestrial called Aliens on stage (still waiting for wider release of this one)!
But undoubtedly no film has impressed me as much as this one The mushroom speaksMarion Neumann’s documentary about the healing powers of mushrooms for our world and the importance of a human-fungus alliance for the long-term survival of our species on this planet.
The documentary spends time with a variety of people around the world whose lives revolve around mushrooms. Some are explorers, some are scientists, some are activists – and some combine these roles. One of the key characters in the film is the matsutake mushroom, a Japanese delicacy that is extremely expensive due to its rarity. The matsutake benefits from human involvement as it grows in forests inhabited by humans. Some say it was the first thing to grow in Hiroshima after the United States dropped the 1945 atomic bomb that killed over 100,000 people and left more with decades of radiation-related complications
The mycelial network is perhaps the perfect example of the wonderful mystery of the fungal world that we are still learning about. It is a vast network of underground roots that connects fungi and other organisms. His powers, while somewhat familiar to us, are still mysterious. We know it’s a vast communication network not only for fungi but also for plants and trees (the latter can use the mycelium to warn other trees of dangers like diseases and insects). We know it can distribute nutrients and water to organisms that need it. We know that mycelium can stretch for thousands of kilometers (it is famous The largest organism in the world is a mycelial network) and possess a certain intelligence. But there’s a lot we don’t know.
This is the kind of stuff that makes mushrooms easy villains, the cockroaches of the plant world that outlive us and will outlast us. It’s really hard to imagine that such a vast and powerful network could exist and work magically, and when confronted with something difficult to comprehend, an understandable impulse is to fear it. And as we’ve seen time and again – long tendrils that stretch beyond our wildest imagination, growths in places we don’t want growths – this is good horror fiction material.
So it makes sense that the mycelial network would be presented as a terrifying, existential threat The last of us, as a prologue from a scientist (played with delightful Scottish glee by John Hannah) who told a horror story on TV in 1978 about how mushrooms can alter our minds. I get it, and we’ve seen that in the literary world in recent years. From the terrifying transformative powers of Mexican Gothic‘s mushrooms to the blood red mushrooms from What moves the deadHer mushroom horror has grown like…well, you know.
Often as in The last of us, Fungal Horror is used to convey a giant hive spirit or mimic human body parts such as hair or communicate through the bodies of the dead. Pretty spooky, right? But the truth is even cooler than our wildest imaginations could imagine.
Fungi, like fungi, can break down organic compounds, and a mycelial network can remove pollutants from the environment. That’s right — fungi can literally remove chemicals from soil and water, and the process known as mycoremediation can decontaminate environments that have been polluted by heavy metals, petroleum fuels, pesticides, and other pollutants.
Fungi are also one of the few organisms that can compost complex biomass, and we can grow alternatives to plastic through mycelium. And that only scratches the surface of their potential and our relationship with them as we seek to rehabilitate our relationship with planet Earth. Mushrooms have been around longer than we have – they’ve been here as we know them since the dawn of time, and may have come from outer space (mushroom spores can survive out there too)! They are the experts on this planet and we are newbies compared to them. If we want to continue living here, we should listen to them.
With an environmental catastrophe looming, it’s easy to assume that humans are just a problem in this world. The Matsutake shows a different path – one of living together with the world around us and creating a better relationship with the earth. We don’t have to be the problem here; People can and should be a healthy part of the ecosystem of this planet.
The mushroom speaks encourages us to think not only about the role of fungi in our ecosystem, but also how they can inspire us to change our world. Mushrooms are constantly changing to adapt to the world around them. What if we approached our place here the same way?
Coming back to the point about mushrooms “changing our minds”. What if it could do this on a societal level for the betterment of the planet and our relationship with it? What if “changing our minds” instead looked like “changing our behavior” by ending our destructive practices to create a better future for us, our children, and the billions of other organisms we share this planet with? Telling the worst-case-scenario version of these stories is intriguing and compelling, to be sure, and a person’s discomfort with mushroom-related imagery is entirely understandable. But it is not difficult to imagine an alternative way for this narrative framework. Luckily, among the many endearing traits, mushrooms are admirably immune to the tides of discourse, so their frequent portrayal as a threat poses no problem for them.
It’s easy to embrace doomerism when it comes to the future of our climate. I tend to. I was at a particularly vulnerable point about the subject when I saw it The mushroom speaks, wary of a film that would touch some of my deepest fears. Instead, I found hope for the future and people fighting for it alongside our mushroom friends.
And all from someone who has only recently started his journey into the world of mushrooms. If you are also interested in learning more about them, I would definitely recommend checking them out The mushroom speaks and to read books like Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing The mushroom at the end of the world.
As we continue to destroy our planet, the solution to a better relationship with Earth lies in fungi and the mycelial network. By understanding them better, working with them, and being more aware of what we put into the world and what it costs, we can create a better future. And all through mushrooms. No matter how unnerving they are to look at or think about, they are even more invested in surviving this world than you are. And there is no better ally than this.
The mushroom speaks is available for digital loan at dafilms.com.