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Freya Stuart-Hopkins: The Force of Fungi

A close up picture of a number of mushrooms with thin stems and wide tops, growing in brown earth.

I don’t know what you were doing during September’s unprecedented heatwave in the UK, but I was on the hunt for mushrooms. No not the kind you’re thinking of; but perhaps even more magical.

Whilst the Met Office was warning that human-created climate change will make hot spells more frequent and severe, I was seeing how fungi are being used by communities for climate action. Having before only recognised mushrooms as a recipe staple, a valuable reward whilst playing Mario and the source of Alice in Wonderland’s adventures, I was fascinated to unearth the force of fungi.

If, like me, you’re a rookie to the realm of fungi, then there’s some explaining to do first. Although the word fungi can make us instantly think of mushrooms or toadstools; mushrooms are merely the fruiting body of fungi, much akin to apples on an apple tree. However, unlike the apple tree, which is largely visible to humans, ‘mycelium’, fungi’s underground network connecting to more mycelium and plants, is often hidden to the human eye at first glance. Fungus is an entire complex, vast and diverse kingdom of its own; much like the kingdoms of plant and animal; which is the reason why campaigners are calling for the new term “funga” to be focused on within conservation issues, alongside other forms of life: ‘flora’ (plants) and ‘fauna’ (animals).

While mushrooms grow from a block of earth filled with thin white threads, almost like silk, which knot through the earth and hold it together.
Mushrooms and mycelium growing. Image: Arch Daily.

Perhaps unbeknownst to most of us, the majority of life on Earth is dependent on fungi – including humans. Fungi have always been key to human activity. As leading mycologists (scientists studying fungi) put it:

“Accounts of the living world that do not include fungi are accounts of a world that doesn’t exist.”

We can even trace back to around 450 BCE when ancient Greek physician Hippocrates recognised the amadou mushroom for its powerful anti-inflammatory uses.

Fast forward over 2,400 years to today, and perhaps the rapid growth of the global mushroom movement utilising fungi for the manufacture of medicines, cheese, alcohol and meat substitutes (to name but a few) isn’t as surprising.

And it’s a minuscule moment of this mushroom movement that I witnessed during September’s heatwave. On Markfield Road in Tottenham, Fat Fox Mushrooms’ mycelium workshop was proving how fungi’s powers can be harnessed for environmental protection. Workshop participants were able to learn about the magic of mycelium within architecture, design and art, whilst starting the process of growing their own mycelium at home with the help of Fat Fox’s kits. And magic mycelium is. Myco-materials (fungi-made materials) can be used to replace often-polluting human creations, from the creation of bio-bricks and compostable packaging to disposable healthcare products, and sustainable clothing to replace leather and synthetic textiles. Even more impressive, fungi have been used to help break down plastic, used cigarette buts, oil spills and radioactive material. In other words, they are nature’s great recycler.

A white and brown brick.
‘Bio-Brick’. Image: Redhouse Architecture.  
A pale pink/beige item of packaging.
Compostable mycelium packaging. Image: Moeko

Clearly, fungi have the potential to play a significant role within nature-based solutions to the climate crisis and environmental protection; especially within the development of circular economies and protection of biodiversity.

And yet… mycologists argue that fungi remain an under-appreciated ally in the climate crisis; a seemingly untapped partner. Merlin Sheldrake, biologist and author of recently published best-selling book Entangled Life’ about the ways fungi make our world, change our minds and shape our futures, shows us that we have a lot more to learn from our fungi friends. Especially in terms of how we live our lives and connect to others. Just like LinkedIn users, fungi are incredible networkers; with fungal mycelium underground networks being dubbed the ‘wood-wide-web’ providing communication between fungi and plants. Fungi’s role as natural connectors and collaborators with themselves and other organisms can teach us how our own human lives are intrinsically entangled with other humans and non-humans. In order to take effective climate action and achieve climate justice, we must be able to recognise these interconnections of life. We, like fungi, must become less individualistic and more community-driven…

…which is exactly what local community collaboration ‘The Mushroom Lab’ had in mind for their fungi project. Their 3-day fungi art installation was a collaboration between five different individuals and organisations* hosted at café and bar Unit 3 N15 in Tottenham. Inspired by Wild City Studio’s ‘Mental-Health Balance Garden’ at the Chelsea Flower Show, The Mushroom Lab certainly fulfilled its aim of getting people educated and talking about fungi. And how could it not when mushroom-made music was front and centre on the line-up? Mushrooms, which were grown with Fat Fox Mushrooms’ kits and Unit 3 N15’s used coffee grounds were connected to synthesisers, to convert fungi’s natural energy to music. And better still, Unit 3 N15 are also using these mushrooms for another use: their delicious toasties.

As Unit 3 N15’s co-founder Simon Leventis puts it:

“We’re aware of the wonders of the fungi kingdom, and others should certainly be. They’re incredible to see, to understand and to eat!”

As we have only scratched the surface of knowing fungi’s powers – with an estimated 93% of fungal species yet to be discovered/ described – I am sure that more incredible local community fungi projects will only grow.

Whether we recognise it, or not, we are all connected to fungi; without fungi there wouldn’t even be a circle of life. So, with autumn underway, fungi spotting season has begun, and I for one have already arranged to join my local fungus group, to start exploring and conserving fungi alongside a community of seasoned mycologists.

* Fat Fox Mushrooms, Wild City Studios, Brian d’Souza (Auntie Flo), Fungi.Fot and Unit 3 N15.

To find out more about all things fungi, click here: https://www.kew.org/search?textsearch=fungi

To find your local fungus group, click here: https://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/field_mycology/recording-network/groups

For tips on protecting fungi whilst foraging, click here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/discover/nature/trees-plants/facts-about-fungi

To meet different mushrooms, click here: Meet the Mushrooms – Different Types of Fungi | Mushroom Mountain

Main image source: Unsplash

Freya Stuart-Hopkins originally from Leeds, recently graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Birmingham in Political Science and International Relations. Following a year of studying abroad and researching the way urban agriculture is an act of everyday resistance in Hong Kong, she recently undertook an internship with Carbon Copy, helping to find more inspiring local climate action stories.

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