“Fungi are the antithesis of civilization, born of wild mycelium that is free of social constraints and defiant of imposed hierarchies.” - Peter McCoy, Radical Mycology.
It's almost Halloween, which means it's a perfect time to talk about what scares us. Most of us here love mushrooms, so I doubt any of you reading this are scared of them; but if you do love mushrooms, I'm sure you're aware of the fact that it is quite a niche interest. Most people in our culture remain ignorant or indifferent to, and some even fearfully avoid the world of our fungal companions, but why?
Mycophobia is defined as the irrational fear of fungus and mold. Essentially it is based on the idea that any fungus, and its environment, is toxic. It’s easy to understand why someone would suffer from mycophobia in our society, as we've left mushrooms in the dark corners of our culture. Sure, some are toxic, but fearing ALL mushrooms, and then remaining uneducated about their values as well as their risks, is a tragedy. Furthermore, this societal rejection may be worth aggressive questioning. Fellow Mainer and ecological expert Arther Haines brings up a good point in a similar blog post:
"We've been told [mushrooms] can kill us if we ingest the wrong species (which is true). So, we avoid culinary interaction with all wild species because some are poisonous. How is this different from plants, or wild animals, or people (aren't some of those dangerous as well)? How is this different from farmed foods (people die every year from eating cultivated produce). Recognize that over 300,000 people are hospitalized each year in the US eating 'safe food'. Knowing this, are you going to avoid store-purchased food? Probably not. We all know some car accident horror story. Does that mean you will avoid riding in cars?"
Clearly, some other mental gymnastics (and bias) are going on in the cultural hive mind. As Peter McCoy postulates in Radical Mycology: “...I find the degree to which certain societies fear fungi not only intriguing but, upon deeper analysis, reflective of that culture’s relationship with the world--a more cryptic and darker expression of human-fungal relations.”
Mushrooms are complex, multifaceted organisms. Opinions about them vary and can be extreme. Judgments are passed on them for the risks of misidentifying them, their tastes, their psychoactive effects… and rather than educating ourselves, as we do many other natural things, for the most part it seems we’ve labeled mushrooms with an everlasting skull-and-crossbones. But just like anything else carrying the weight of hundreds of years of stigma and misunderstanding, in a time of accumulating knowledge, I'm happy to see it seems we've begun to re-evaluate.
Mushrooms have physical and symbolic connections with death, rebirth, natural health, and natural decay. These relationships, particularly in cultures that fear the uncertainty of nature and death, make room for avoidance and even disdain. But mushrooms are actually not only fantastic for the body and mind, they are also good for the environment.
So as we move into an era of environmental concern, why would we not contemplate our confused relationship with fungi? With our new concern about how we treat the earth come others desiring balance: how we treat animals, and how we treat one another. Just as we humans do, mushrooms live in realms of multiple truths. Can we as a culture accept intrinsic malleability, dual identity? We are beginning to explore the gray areas of relationships: with ourselves and with the world around us.
Education, communication, and support will bring us into a fruitful future. What do you think?
For further study, check out North Spore's book store.
Want to get your foot in the mycological door? Read our blog post about mushrooms you're sure to grow at home.