It was 1973 and I was just beginning my semester-long university mycology class eager to learn about mushrooms. Mycology is the study of fungi. What could be cooler to a 20-year-old in the 70s?
In quick order, I discovered that mushrooms made up only a fraction of the fungi on earth. The remainder were slime molds and micro-fungi- such things as yeasts and molds. Not only that but then I found out that mushrooms are just the reproductive structures of fungi. Most live underground or in wood, unseen. This would be akin to a flower to a plant except that fungi don’t photosynthesize and generally obtain their nutrients by decomposition. The main body of a mushroom is the hyphae, those little white threads you may see in soil or rotting wood.
The class was taught by Dr. Donald Kowalski, the world authority on slime molds at the time. A slime mold is a splat of brightly colored matter found in nature that until that time, I never knew existed. You’ve got to be quite a character to dedicate your life to these gooey organisms and he was. Had the class been taught by another, quite possibly I wouldn’t have come to appreciate the obscurities of the fungal domain.
When I first peered into a dissecting scope to peer at micro-fungi it was like discovering an unknown alien world. Tiny crystalline form sparkled from the agar in the petri dish, a dazzling wonderland of nature previously unknown to me. I was smitten.
Since my university days, I have kept my awareness open to fungi. I have noticed in recent years an increasing body of research linking fungi to the overall health of ecosystems and human well-being. It turns out that fungi enable trees to obtain nutrients from soil and enables tree communities to communicate with one another. Fungi can cure physical and mental ailments, can improve soil and atmospheric health. Fungi also possess intelligence even though they lack a centralized brain.
Two recent amazing sources of information on fungi are out now for you to enjoy. The first is the book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake. This book takes a deep readable dive into all the latest discoveries of how fungi touch our world…
If you don’t have time for that read or if you want more, do watch the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi (which received a 100% score from Rotten Tomatoes).
You will be riveted by this fascinating exploration of the world of fungi and will even come away hopeful for planet earth after watching. Available for streaming on YouTube and other venues.