Mushrooms have held an important place in local Indigenous cultures since time immemorial; today’s cultivators hope to blend native knowledge with modern technology.
by Sean McCann, Cooperation Humboldt
There has been an explosion of interest in mushrooms in the past several years. A walk around the Arcata Farmers Market or a glance into the display windows of one of our local bookstores is all it takes to pick up on the fervor. Coming in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors and bearing evocative names like lion’s mane, black trumpet, shiitake, chestnut, blue oyster, and chanterelle, it’s easy to understand why the world of mushrooms captivates the imaginations of so many. It seems that this has always been true, although what people from different cultures have imagined about them has varied widely, ranging from adoration and worship to fear and mistrust. My hope is that this article helps to shed some light on what is happening in the world of mushrooms (and fungi in general – not all fungi produce mushrooms) here on the North Coast.
I spoke with a handful of mushroom farmers, gatherers, and lovers living in the area to find out how they view, relate to, and work with fungi. The conversations covered a staggering variety of topics – everything from forest health to food sovereignty, favorite recipes, family traditions, innovative building materials, and the healing of trauma. If I were to choose a few words to encapsulate what I learned about fungi from the wonderful people with whom I spoke, they would be, “connection,” “community,” and “relationship.”
Stewarding mushrooms for future generations
Kodi Martinez, a Yurok tribal member and lifelong mushroom lover, emphasized this relational piece. For Kodi and her family, gathering mushrooms (particularly tanoaks and chanterelles) each Autumn is a time for sharing, teaching and gratitude. She began gathering mushrooms at a young age and has passed on this tradition to her two-year-old son. Kodi, like many mushroom gatherers, has a secret location where she likes to harvest. This allows her and the others who know of it to tend the plot carefully. While the location is not shared publicly, she and her family will take other families to the spot and teach them how to sustainably harvest its bounty.
Kodi enjoys sauteing tanoak mushrooms with deer meat and potatoes or simply frying them with butter, garlic, and salt.
When asked if she has noticed a change in the abundance or distribution of mushrooms since she was a child, Kodi replies, “I haven’t seen a change in the area where we gather because we care for it and leave some for the future, but there has been a change in the areas where people gather them to sell at the market. They are harder to find in those places now.” She attributes this to greed and people not being part of a tradition that teaches responsible harvesting. The key, she says, is to respect the earth and not be greedy. “Never take all of the mushrooms in an area. Leave the little ones and be careful how you harvest. Then they will be there for future generations.” In addition to sharing the harvest with elders who may not be able to gather for themselves, she explains that it is also important to leave some for the deer and other animals.
It is all too evident, given the intersecting social and environmental crises we are facing, that placing this level of importance on community and ecology must be at the heart of any resource use, mushrooms included. This is also an example of the importance of Indigenous leadership as we attempt to solve climate and biodiversity crises and heal social rifts based on centuries of oppression.
Leading the way in the local mushroom scene
Like so many aspects of building a more equitable and sustainable society, expanding access to and utilization of fungi/mushrooms will require a blending of traditional knowledge and modern technologies. It will also require cooperation. This is where local mushroom cultivators like Mike Egan come in. Mike is the founder of Mycality Mushrooms and has over 20 years of experience cultivating mushrooms. He’s had a lot to do with building interest in mushrooms locally, making them available through direct sales, cultivating expansion of markets, and helping other growers get their starts. Many of the people I talked with either learned some aspect of what they know from Mike or buy mushrooms from him.
Mike grows both edible and medicinal mushrooms, processing the medicinals (reishi, lion’s mane, and turkey tail) into tinctures. He also sells kits so folks can easily grow mushrooms at home. For Mike, a marker of the increased interest in mushrooms is how popular these kits have become recently. He sees this as hugely positive, noting how quickly and in how little space mushrooms can be cultivated. When asked about their role in food security, Mike responds, “[Mushrooms] will be an integral component of a sovereign food [system]…and I think historically they were as well…filling in that protein when food was pretty bleak as far as food production in the forest.”
Mike sees a local fungi co-op as one solution to solving the problems of access, cost, availability and scale (this last piece being particularly important for larger ecological remediation projects). Space and equipment account for most of the cost of production. Mike questions, “Why does everyone need to have their own refrigeration unit? I’ve got two pallets in mine, and I can fit twenty.” He adds, “Maybe we need just one big facility to produce blocks for farmers…I’d be totally interested in doing that with folks.” While he has the space and a lot of the equipment needed to pull this off, it would require someone working to open markets outside of Humboldt County to make the venture financially viable. While everyone interviewed agreed that over-commodification of mushrooms runs counter to their nature, mushroom farmers (like everyone else), need to make a living. Striking a balance between these needs will be an important part of building the way forward in the world of cultivated mushrooms.
Catching the mushroom bug
Caleb Van Lynn, owner of Local Culture Mushrooms, is one of the newer faces in our local mushroom scene. When asked about the idea of a fungi co-op, he responds, “I think [it] would be fantastic. I would love to get involved in that because I think that would open it up to different ideas, like doing some kind of trash decomposition where there is not really any money in it.” This was another common topic amongst the mushroom growers I spoke with: A lot of the important waste reduction and ecological restoration work does not pay well, but there is a lot of interest and desire to engage in this work. A co-op could be the answer.
Caleb caught the mushroom bug about five years ago while doing environmental restoration and wilderness therapy work. He began selling cultivated mushrooms at the farmers’ market about six months ago. “[Growing mushrooms has] got a steep learning curve, but once you get over the hump, it’s really not that hard at all. I think it’s easier than growing plants.” Like many others, the first mushroom he brought regularly to market was a variety of oyster mushroom. Known for their incredible versatility and ability to grow on a number of substrates, it’s a go-to choice. It’s also delicious and easy to cook, making it a market favorite for many mycophiles. His interest extends far beyond this little mushroom, however, and he is excited about medicinal mushrooms and the expansion of research into the effects of psilocybin on PTSD, anxiety, depression, addiction, and more. He is currently developing a line of medicinal tinctures under the business name Mind At Large Mushrooms.
In an effort to create spawn for local environmental remediation projects, Caleb is also working on collecting spores from local mushrooms, including a few varieties of oysters, lion’s mane, and bluits. He grows these spores in petri dishes to create spawn with which to inoculate growing substrates in an effort to find/develop local species that are suitable for cultivation. This would be beneficial for food production and also for remediation projects, particularly when considering that it is ideal to use local species to speed up the regeneration process after catastrophic fires.
More than food and medicine
Levon Durr, owner of Fungaia Farm, has been practicing mycoremediation (using fungi to restore polluted ecosystems) in Humboldt for years. While he also cultivates and sells edible and medicinal mushrooms, including kits for home growing, he is most passionate about exploring the ways fungi can be used to heal the environment. This can be done both through mycoremediation and by reducing environmental impacts of industries by modifying upstream practices through creative uses of fungi. He has spearheaded and participated in multiple projects of this type, ranging from household contaminant cleanups to oil and gas spills. “All of us are spilling hydrocarbons. All of us are discharging contaminated effluent off of our properties and our cities, parks, and farms, so bringing that into the public mind, that these are accessible technologies that are not silver bullets but are pieces of the puzzle of how we reduce our impact [is important].” For more information on his work on mycofiltration, the diesel fuel cleanup he completed in Orleans in 2011, or the motor oil contamination he remedied in Southern Humboldt a few years later, visit www.fungaiafarm.com.
Levon is also looking to partner with Ecovative to shift upstream practices in the building industry. “We are pursuing a temporary license agreement from Ecovative…to look at waste diversion…be it styrofoam, building materials, or agricultural waste, and use mycelium to turn it into insulated wall panels.” This project is getting off the ground after Levon and local contractor Ryan Hayes of Hayes Building Co. won first place at HSU’s Awesome Business Competition and received a $3,000 prize.
Fungi are not the cure for all of our problems. Rather, they are one piece (albeit one with wide-ranging applications) of an overall ecological regeneration and waste reduction strategy, which must also include reducing consumption, reusing materials, recycling and upcycling. Restoring our planet will take a diversified, decentralized and creative approach with each of us doing everything we can. Levon advises us, “Test, test, test [your water and soil], and educate yourself about solutions. [Consider whether you] need to do phytoremediation [the treatment of pollutants or waste by the use of plants] or mycoremediation. Then start addressing your own contamination of the environment using simple, nature-based technologies. We need to learn from the Indigenous communities that have tended these lands for thousands of years, and combine those ways of thinking and living with these modern technologies and strategies.”
Forests and fires
In the wake of the devastating fires of recent years, and with climate change creating conditions that are less than ideal for forest regeneration, many people are thinking creatively about ways we can assist nature in the regeneration process. The USDA Forest Service found that extreme fires damage soil microbiology, killing bacteria and mycelium that are crucial for nutrient cycling and overall soil health. Cultivated fungi could be used to inoculate wood chips that would be spread over scorched forest floors, thereby helping to restore mycelium in the soil and improve water retention. There are, however, a number of logistical issues including transportation, adequate substrate to keep mycelium alive for more than a few weeks, and climatic factors. Increased funding, participation, and cooperation will be needed for such projects to be successful.
Controlled burns are an important part of forest/fire management. One solution to reduce fuel loads is to thin the forests using a wood chipper, inoculating the wood chips with fungi to speed up the decomposition process. While there would be a temporary increase in dead fuel on the forest floor, the fungi would quickly increase the water holding capacity of the wood chips, thereby making them less flammable. The time to decompose the wood chips is decreased, resulting in nutrients returning quickly to the soil to boost forest health.
In addition to requiring cooperation between mushroom growers, local tribes, the timber industry and government agencies, this kind of approach would require a significant number of people on the ground doing the work.
An eco-social perspective
Laura Woods is the manager for the Yurok Title XI Elders Nutrition Programs. She also serves on the Yurok tribal court. A self-proclaimed mushroom lover, she views food as medicine. Mushrooms are an important part of her diet, especially since she went plant-based about a year ago. The “lowly, beautiful, majestic mushrooms,” as she refers to them, are particularly important in helping her (and others) meet protein needs. She uses them fresh, dried, and/or powdered multiple times per week, often adding them to sauces and soups. One of her favorite preparation methods is rehydrating dried shiitake in a bowl of water, and then using that water to cook ramen, later adding the mushrooms themselves back in to cook. Simple and delicious.
Laura, like Kodi Martinez, primarily gathers tanoak and chanterelle mushrooms. She learned to gather mushrooms and other edibles – as well as how to smoke salmon – during trips to visit family in Orick throughout her youth. She was eight years old when she began learning these things. “Those were idyllic times,” she recalls. While her family and ancestors had always lived in and been an integral part of this area, she did not grow up here because her father was sent to the Sherman Indian Boarding School in Riverside as a child. After that, he joined the military and found himself in the middle of World War II. When he got out, the family moved back to Humboldt briefly, but poverty and a lack of work forced them to move to New Mexico. It was always Laura’s goal to move back to Orick, which she did in 2014 after a period of soul-searching that motivated her to make the move and spend the following years learning all about her culture and the living things here.
She notes that tanoak trees, the acorns they produce, and the tanoak mushrooms that grow at their bases are very important in Yurok culture, history, and stories. “It is important to honor the gifts from these living beings,” she says. Further emphasizing the importance of relationships, she shares that mushroom gathering has its proper time, as do all things in nature, “whether it is the gathering of basket materials or berries, or the return of the eels heralded by singing frogs in winter.” All of these are family or community events that facilitate building connections, sharing stories, socializing, and laughing. “This is medicine time – the gathering almost becomes secondary [to these other pieces],” says Laura. “Solutions need to be grassroots, community- and ecology- based, not the profit-based industrial model.”
The fracturing of relationships – both with one another and with our ecosystems – is at the core of many of the problems we face today. From mental illness, to resource use and climate change, food insecurity, and violence, isolation is a primary causative factor. May we find the wisdom to follow Indigenous leadership in prioritizing community over profit, as well as learn from the humble fungi that the ability of each individual to live and thrive is dependent upon a whole world of relationships.
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Sean McCann is a practitioner of Chinese medicine, gardener, mycophile, and revolutionary living in Eureka with his wife and six-year-old daughter.