Examining the power of mushrooms, as inspired by English Literature class.

Photo by Faridul Mowla (Flickr)
Photo by Faridul Mowla (Flickr)

I will forever be astounded by the conversations that come out of English Literature classes. If you have taken English, you are probably familiar with what I mean. I think English classes often deviate from literature topics because writers work with what they know and the world that surrounds them. The job of the artist is to find extravagant and mind-bending meanings for the mundane.

I am quietly sitting in my Canadian Fiction class and we are discussing Hiromi Goto’s debut novel, A Chorus of Mushrooms. Even though it is in the title, I never imagined that our lecture would become a space for mushroom enthusiasts. As we question the centric metaphor of the novel, the most random and amazing facts about fungi begin to be thrown around the room. This discussion was as enthralling as the novel itself. So much so that I had to write an article about it.

Hiromi Goto is a Japanese-Canadian editor, fiction writer, and activist, whose debut novel, A Chorus of Mushrooms, explores the voices of three generations of Japanese women as they navigate the ins and outs of the immigrant experience in Canada.

Photo by Sylvia Mcfadden
Photo by Sylvia Mcfadden

I could write a whole article about the novel, but what I really want is to share the moment of awe I experienced as my classmates not only showed an adeptness in literary analysis but proved to be well-rounded students by citing facts that make mushrooms some of the most fascinating organisms on the planet. I had to fact-check and share this new knowledge with the world! And, before anyone thinks about it, I will not be speaking to psychedelic mushrooms.

When I was a child, every time I saw mushrooms, I would want to step on them and destroy them. I know, pretty sadistic for a kid. However, you have to admit that mushrooms are not the most appealing form of life, and thus, they are also some of the most neglected and dismissed organisms. However, their incredible characteristics make them worthy of attention.

You know about the famous mushroom cloud that rose above Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Well, turns out that real mushrooms have the capacity to clean a disaster like that, because some mushroom species have the ability to bioaccumulate. In simple terms, this means that some fungi are capable of a process called mycoremediation; this allows them to break down oils and chemicals into less toxic substances. Mushrooms could be used to clean oil spills and perhaps even contamination around nuclear reactors.

Of course, most mushrooms are known as decomposers and as organisms that can grow out of filth. However, one particular species of mushroom — the morel mushroom — is phoenix-like: it grows out of the ashes. In places where wildfires are quite common, mycologists (scientists who study mushrooms) have noticed that this particular species of fungi grows out of the disaster for a short amount of time. The explanation for this is still in the works. This mushroom can even help spur the growth of plants in the burnt area.

The scientific name for this phenomenon, phoenicoid, even has the same root as the word phoenix. An organism that grows out of fire deserves mythological status.

No wonder mushrooms have been around for so long, with such adaptive and impressive characteristics. Quite recently, Australian geologist Birger Rasmussen discovered what looked like mushroom fossils that could potentially be two billion years old, as opposed to the 350,000 million years that mushrooms had been believed to be on earth. Fungi might as well be some of the oldest organisms on the planet.

They also take the place of the largest living organism on earth. The little mushroom heads that we see fruit from the soil are actually part of a larger organism called mycelium, which is a network of tissue made up of fine threads called hyphae. The mycelium of the ‘honey mushroom’ in Oregon extends along 2200 acres of land. Mycologists have suggested that if one were to pull out the mycelium of these honey mushrooms from the soil and weigh it, it might have the same weight as 200 gray whales.

This is insane! What is more insane, though, is the amount of environmental and health benefits that mushrooms can provide. Not only can mushrooms exist as bioaccumulators, but according to Eben Bayer’s TED Talk, mushrooms could be used to replace plastic. Some mushrooms’ characteristics allow the creation of fully compostable, recyclable, “self-assembling” containers.

As for the health benefits, some edible mushroom species contain essential amino acids and B vitamins, not to mention anti-oxidants, which of course aid in cancer prevention.

I could probably go on and on about what makes mushrooms more special, like the fact that there is a mushroom species that is able to control ants in order to reproduce, and why they deserve more attention from science. However, I will just end on an English major note.

It is amazing how an organism that at times creates such contempt and disgust in us is able to lead us into a more sustainable future. Studying nature with no consumerist/destructive intent and working alongside living organisms is a lesson that we have to learn sooner rather than later if we want to safeguard the only planet that we have been given. The resources are there — all we have to do is listen closely to the chorus of mushrooms.