Amy Ross, 'Shrooms in Space,' 2020
Amy Ross, ‘Shrooms in Space,’ 2020

Thanksgiving

What if mushrooms could change the world?

by
Elizabeth Bear
November 24, 2021
Amy Ross, 'Shrooms in Space,' 2020
Amy Ross, 'Shrooms in Space,' 2020

13 July, 2071

I looked up from my book this afternoon and thought, “Wow, the light is beautiful.”

Once upon a time, I didn’t find myself thinking such things until September, when the angle of insolation changed and the evening sun glazed hillsides and filtered through leaves like thick, golden honey. Until the mushrooms started to pop from under fallen leaves and among the bark mulch, and I roamed the hillsides in search of morels and chanterelles, the fruiting bodies of vast underground organisms. Fruiting bodies designed by eons of evolution to attract creatures like me, so we would carry them off and eat them and spread their spores.

Joni Mitchell played softly on my system as I wriggled myself off the couch—it takes longer than it used to—and stumped to the window to stare up at the sky. I am old, even by the standards of today’s expected lifespans, and the music of my childhood is a comfort to me.

The mellow squares of light on my carpet fell from an infected-looking orange sun, set high in a sky as white as frosted glass.

The new normal.

Climate devastation is beautiful from a distance.

I could have looked up what fire it was. Knowing wouldn’t change anything, so what was the point in finding out?

I used to be a person who camped on social media during a crisis, hitting refresh to try to stay abreast of the riptide. I had to force myself to stop, because it was consuming my existence.

I’m 99 years old, and there is always another crisis. You cannot spend your whole life staring into the void.

Well, you can. But you’ll never get anything else done, and I was more interested in fungi. Their growth patterns, their symbiotic relationships, their psychoactive and medicinal properties. Their vast underground networks, their folklore, their delicate beauty.

It turns out to be true that entropy requires no maintenance. It turns out to be true that rust never sleeps.

As a species, we’re great at helping both along while kidding ourselves that we’re working in the other direction.

The air purifier behind the couch switched itself on.

The desire to know things seems bred into us, as if we were giraffes staring at a pride of lions. They looked, if you have ever seen footage, exactly like human drivers and passengers staring at an accident. If we understand the danger, we can avoid it. Right?

Well, the parts of our brains that handle threat assessment seem to think so. But these days, you can stare endlessly at the problem—and there’s nothing you can do to avoid it. Rubbernecking doesn’t make you any safer.

Trees form communities, their roots bound together by mycelia. They protect and nurture each other. When the saplings are sheltered by adult trees, they grow slowly through adolescent, creating dense, resilient heartwood that will support them throughout their lives. Fungal communities embrace their roots, and the trees and the fungi share nutrients. Everybody benefits.

I was a mycologist and a forestry specialist. And I was also a poet. One thing I learned from 60 years in the field is that we—humans—are terrible at managing natural systems. They’re far too complex and interlinked for us to understand, with our brains optimized for cutting a narrative clear of its surroundings and ignoring all the severed bits where it was meant to connect to a larger thing.

I watched the West burn; the Gulf Coast drown; Europe freeze by turns, then swelter; the Amazon collapse; the coral reefs bleach. I lived through Vanuatu vanishing like Atlantis beneath the waves.

I know I’m going to mess this up, that in trying to fix things I will just break them differently.

My name is Dr. Karen Kincaid.

I am 99 years old.

I thought I had made as many sacrifices to the gods of climate change as I intended to make. Old as I am, the things I am still willing to give up do not include even 30 seconds of my precious, limited time.

I feel like Faust watching the candle burn to midnight, hearing the plink, plink of the water clock.

Not that we get to choose what we sacrifice, because the gods take what they will and don’t consult us. Among my own unwilling offerings were two children and my best friend. Two died in pandemics, one in a hurricane.

I’m not unique. This far into the apocalypse, everybody is missing pieces.

But I have not grown old alone. I’ve cultivated a robust community: nieces and nephews, colleagues, and friends. My wife died when we were in our 80s—a decent run—but I still have our adopted daughter, Emily, only child of that dear dead friend.

And perhaps it’s for the best that I have outlived my closest genetic relatives and have no grandchildren. Emily’s 60 herself. The world has been sliding into the oven for as long as I’ve been alive. How could I feel sanguine about inflicting this future on someone I love?

How can I be sanguine about inflicting a different future on anyone? On everyone?

What about informed consent? What about people and their right to choose, even if they are choosing failure?

It doesn’t matter if we all die. The world won’t care. The fungi will keep fruiting. They’re ready to compost our bodies, to turn us back into nitrogen and phosphorous and calcium and carbon. They built themselves into structures as big as houses before the first vertebrate left the ocean. They grew under the feet of dinosaurs. They inhabit your gut and your ginger kombucha and the nuclear core of Chernobyl.

They’ll be here long after we’re gone.

The world won’t care if we all die. It just picks up the scattered blocks and starts over. And so it will, over and over again, until the sun reaches out and the seas boil. I know it is my own hubris that tells me I can fix this. That I can fix humanity. I know it doesn’t matter if I do or I don’t.

If I don’t try to fix it, I’ll be remembered for a while, in specialized circles, as the person who isolated a symbiotic strain of fungus from the intestines of bonobos. Who named and identified 17 other novel species. And two new genera.

Then I will be a footnote, and then I will be forgotten.

If I do try to fix it, I will be remembered forever as a monster. And I’ll deserve it.

A lot of our narratives are facile and self-justifying. We like them because they are simple, categorical, and general. They allow us to assign events and people to folders, to tag them and move on.

But the truth is individual. The truth is complicated. The truth cannot be snipped neatly around, plugged into the Discourse, categorized and posted. 

The truth is not your valid feelings. The truth is not a point of view.

We can’t even understand the dimensions the world works at. The time frames. The scope.

Just as scientific notation allows us to change the scale of numbers too big or too small to comprehend, narrative lets us change the scale of truth. We do this so we can manipulate and understand the real world. But we’re still seeing it through filters, still trying to grasp it by edges it just does not have.

The truth is a mycelium. It touches everything. It runs through everything. It’s too big and too small to make any sense of. It runs into other truths and they infiltrate and change each other.

The truth has no edges. It goes all the way around.

It’s a fungal world. We all just live in it.

Can mushrooms change the world?

Silly question. They are already changing it.

Can mushrooms change us?

I stared out the window at the smoke haze. I listened to the air purifier hum.

Kids These Days can’t imagine how we lived without reality filters, without ambient power transmission, without biosphere impact laws. They get along fine without frogs, however, which is something I can’t manage.

Most of them never really missed a frog. They never had the opportunity. They have never really missed Vanuatu, or Cape Cod, or a sequoia. Just as I never missed a dodo, an ivory-billed woodpecker, the American chestnut. If I had grandkids—let’s say, my abstract, intellectual grandkids—they would not miss rhinos or sugar maples or coffee. Except in that same abstract, intellectual fashion. They would not give a damn about vanilla, sequoias, or ash trees except as historical curiosities similar to the aurochs, the cave bear, and dinosaurs.

I sure miss the hell out of vanilla, though. And coffee. The funny thing is that I can’t remember the last time I tasted either. They were so ubiquitous, so unspecial. So part of the background noise of the world. And then they were expensive ... and then you just couldn’t get them anymore. There’s artificial vanilla, of course. It doesn’t taste the same.

I remember learning as a kid that the reason that banana candy didn’t taste like real bananas was that it was modeled after the flavor of the Gros Michel variety that had been wiped out by a blight caused by a Fusarium fungus.

I thought this was an amusing anecdote, that there were people still alive in the world that could still remember a different flavor profile for bananas.

Now I’m that person. The one who remembers when vanilla was considered boring. The one who remembers what Cavendish bananas tasted like, instead of the ones you get now. Cavendish bananas were also wiped out by a strain of Fusarium. Like potato blight or tomato blight (also fungal) it can persist in the soil for an indeterminate amount of time, and destroy any new crop planted there.

Fusarium xyrophilum infects Xyris grasses, hijacks its system, and creates fake flowers that lure in bees who carry the spores to other hosts. Fusarium species also exist on your skin right now, where they are usually commensal organisms. Unless you become too immunosuppressed.

Then, of course, they will try to eat you.

We’ve created a hotter, wetter world. I suppose it’s possible that the mycelia have hijacked us, too, and are using us as vectors to build a planet that’s friendlier to fungus.

I kind of miss Cavendish bananas. I definitely miss vanilla. I never had much of a personal relationship with rhinos, though. Or, despite what my students think, dinosaurs.

The hyphae of relationships stretch between us. Between all of us—from me to you to you, around the world.

There are no edges. The truth goes all the way around.

Amy Ross

Young people nowadays imagine my own youth one of two ways: either as a time of nostalgic innocence or a period of unalloyed barbarity. And it’s true, I grew up in a world where I was free of the constant babble of information, where it was possible to be bored. Where you didn’t have to ward yourself constantly from distractions and information obsessions. It was also a world full of random misogyny and baked-in homophobia, where racism and bigotry were more overt and commonplace than I find them now. Where they were no more shocking to most people than the antisemitism in an Agatha Christie novel was to her characters.

The barbarity of what passed for the American medical system in my childhood seems as distant now as stories of battlefield amputations during the Civil War.

And that’s all true, of course. But the world today has its own blind spots and bigotries. And we had The Electric Company.

When you love somebody you want to see them safe. And there is no safety in the world.

What if everybody enslaved and exploited by others through history could be compensated for the crimes against them? Paid for their labor, and given back their lost loved ones and time? What if we remembered that the purpose of work is to benefit communities?

History cannot be healed, but we can acknowledge the parts that make us uncomfortable. The things for which we need to be accountable. There are no clean hands in the world. Everyone comes from harm, and everyone comes from those who have been harmed.

What if we all knew the harm we did? What if we could see it? Feel it, as if it were done to ourselves? What if we all knew the harm that others had suffered?

What if we couldn’t cut around the edges of ourselves and call ourselves individuals? What if we couldn’t pretend that there is nothing more? If we couldn’t pretend we weren’t connected?

In stories, there is a solution. In stories, there is an answer. So perhaps what I am telling you isn’t a story, because an answer ... that, I have not got.

Stories have beginnings and they have a clearly defined problem and that problem has a correct answer, dammit. Stories have a protagonist who knows what the solution is, or who can find it, and who is right. The protagonist also knows they are right. They can prove their rightness, and they will see it validated.

Often, the only difference between the protagonist and the antagonist in a story is that, while they both know they are right and fiercely defend their point of view, the story is constructed in such a fashion as to demonstrate that the antagonist is wrong.

Stories like that encourage us to think that we, too, know the answers. That we, too, are right. Because we’re obviously each and severally the protagonist.

How that works when we disagree? Well, that’s one of those problems with stories.

Some stories, those which pretend to be more sophisticated, tell us instead that there is no solution to the problem. That struggle is futile and the status quo can never be changed. That attempts to do so will be punished. So you might as well discard morality and go for whatever you can get.

Reality and my 99 years have shown me that there is no completion. There is no one right answer that must triumph over all, and be validated by the narrative as if given a rubber stamp by God.

Stories tell us that there are solutions that only take one person—one man, usually—pushing against the social contract and taking the rules into his own hands to Bust Some Heads and Get Things Done. When I was younger, people used to say “move fast and break things” as a kind of mantra, the idea being that whatever already existed was probably no good and needed to go.

Some of those people improved things. Some did a lot of damage. The things that get broken include people’s lives and futures.

Social contracts also protect people in addition to restricting them.

And here I am, and I know this. And still I contemplate taking the fate of the world into my own hands. In my experience, that person who is unshakably convinced of their own rectitude is more likely to be the actual villain than the one who is uncertain and trying to find out.

And yet I am convinced that maybe just maybe I know better. Maybe just maybe, I can be the Protagonist. Fiction gives us the idea that problems have the kind of solutions that one person can implement to fix everything, and that the goal is to Be Right.

Humans care if we exist. The world doesn’t. No one is looking out for us. No higher power. No director, author, or interventionist God is going to figure out how to make it come out right and seem fair. As if anyone could decide what is entailed in fairness.

No game designer ensures that there is a narrow but playable path to victory.

We have nothing but ourselves. No assurances, no guarantees. Life isn’t fair. In fact there’s no such thing as fair. That’s why we invented fiction.

We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

We have met the enemy, as Pogo Possum said, and he is us.

She is me.

Can art change minds? Can science?

I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I might have changed one. That some of my research, or one of my paintings might have made a difference in the world. I had a name for a while, when I was younger. I painted enormous murals, the fruiting bodies of fungi erupting from decayed cityscapes.

There was a fad for them about 20 years ago. I always thought I was a better poet than a painter, but all that ever came of my poetry was a collection of notebooks.

Maybe what I did accomplish, though, was to offer somebody a little comfort. A little validation.

I used to grow my poems in mushrooms. I’d seed the spores in special paper, along the lines I wrote. The words would bear fruit, quite literally. Then they would consume the paper, and when they ran out of water or nutrients, they would die.

You should see my basement. My house is old, and the foundations are fieldstone. It’s damp and cool down there, and when the rains are heavy water runs through it. Pools in the corners. Makes the sump pump hum.

I’m retired now but I still have so many of my little fungal friends down there, growing in aquariums full of earth or wood chips, in sterilized manure, in logs, and on the very stones themselves, sending their mycelium through the foundations and into the soil beyond.

I was the lead author once, on a paper about the environmental conditions that cause that bonobo fungus to become aggressive, pathogenic. To accelerate through an immunosuppressed ape, erupt through the skin into a fruiting body, and spore.

The bonobos are gone now, extinct through hunting and habitat destruction. But a little bit of them lives on in my basement. I keep their Fusilarium there.

I used to be bad at embracing the concept of wabi-sabi. Of the beauty in damage, the gorgeousness of imperfection.

The golden light falling from the smoke-hazed sun.

My sagging breasts mattered to me until I got age spots. The age spots made me self-conscious until my skin lost its elasticity. The wrinkles made me self-conscious until I got high blood pressure. The high blood pressure bothered me until I got cancer. (It was, according to my oncologist, “A very good cancer.” Although he admitted, “Well, not having cancer is the best cancer. But most people I meet aren’t here because of that.”)

The cancer bothered me until it was cured, and by then I realized that my body was like the poems I fed to the mushrooms. Ephemeral. A vessel. A word spoken, heard, and gone.

Just a spore on the wind.

The news tells me there’s another novel pandemic starting. This one has arisen in Texas. Vector-borne.

I remember from the last time how it works. The life-in-suspension of the pandemic. The way it’s hard to do anything that feels like it matters.

This is a terrifying time, but no more so than many other times our species has endured. Usually its own hands. Because somebody has to be Right.

The world doesn’t care who’s Right. It doesn’t care about our narratives, or if they’re satisfying, or if there’s somebody to blame.

Or even if there’s anybody left alive to tell the story at the end.

We’re bad at facing existential crises. Nobody is coming to save us.

No hero.

Nobody ever finds out the ending. Nobody ever finds out if they were right. Nobody ever finds out what happens next. Nobody learns the truth.

All we ever have is guesses.

And what if I guess wrong?

I am 45 years old and reading The Time Traveler’s Wife for the first time.

I am 52 years old and reading My Real Children.

I am 8 years old and reading A Wrinkle in Time.

I am 63 years old and reading Time to Reap.

I am 24 years old and reading Slaughterhouse-Five.

I am 99 years old and staring out my window at the stark white sky, my reader abandoned on the sofa.

I am the very opposite of somebody who has come unstuck in time. I am trapped here as concretely as a spider in amber. As a nematode being consumed in a hungry mycelium.

Fungi hunt, did you know that? Some of them trap and consume animals.

We were afraid of an ice age when I was a kid. We worried about a magnetic polar reversal. Or the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting.

When I was a child growing up in Vermont, we built to withstand blizzards and nor’easters. We had pitched metal roofs to slide the snow away, and doors raised 3 feet above ground level with steps and a stoop so we could open them when the snow piled waist-deep, pushing the drifts aside. We didn’t expect tornadoes, hurricanes, or the Polar Vortex. The jet stream was a reliable neighbor, a friendly northern boundary like the one with Canada that we crossed a few times a week for various purposes. Our Canadian neighbors came down to buy gas, which was cheaper in the U.S. We went north to go to restaurants, because the exchange rate meant prices were lower in Canadian dollars.

The house I live in now is one of those houses. It has witch windows under the eaves and a blue metal roof and a balcony you can climb out to from the east gable. No widow’s walk on this house. No need for one: The Connecticut River this far upstream never has been navigable.

What if we couldn’t cut around the edges of ourselves and call ourselves individuals?

Perhaps it’s the human condition to fret and pine about things we directly experience and about the deeply unlikely, while all the while the unavoidable bears down. We still, after all, worry more about getting on airplanes than driving somewhere in the car.

Wisconsin is burning. Those mosquitoes in Texas are probably immune to every pesticide we can throw at them by now. It doesn’t get cold enough here in Vermont anymore to kill them in the winter.

In a world like this, what’s one more pathogen?

It’s a fungal world. We all just live in it.

Fifty years ago when I started going through menopause, the worst part was the insomnia. I comforted myself that it had some kind of an adaptive purpose. That the tribe was served by badass grandmas staying up to keep the wolves awake.

I guess that’s another joke you’re too young for.

The wolves these days are different. You can’t ward them off by staying up all night, tending a campfire. The wolves are among us. The wolves are part of our species. Like the fungi in our microbiomes. But unlike those fungi, when we’re healthy, the wolves are still a problem.

Or maybe they’re only a problem because our whole society is unhealthy.

But maybe there’s still something an old lady can do about them.

Actually, I’m being unfair again. What I just said was a vile calumny against wolves.

So call the predators among us what they are. Cuckoos. Parasites. They lay their eggs beside ours—they’re even capable of interbreeding, though their families discourage it—and their young look enough like ours that we collaborate to raise their next generation as if they were our own.

But they prey upon us throughout our lives, and lure us on with the promise that we can be like them if we only work ourselves to death. They have strategies to make us think this is the natural order of things. The prosperity gospel, the myth of capitalism as a secular religion, the aspirational lifestyle influencer, the Big Neoliberal Lie.

But we aren’t like them. Not really. And they don’t think we are. And all the observations about the rich—the very rich—that F. Scott Fitzgerald lifted from his wife’s diary are true.

Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that we can become like them. Maybe it’s an epigenetic shift, like when dominant female wrasses change sex and become male. (Clownfishes go the other way.)

But if I can stop them, don’t I have an obligation to?

We’ve known since the last millennium that fungi can mind-control insects in order to reproduce themselves. They can make an infected ant or a caterpillar climb to a high place and grip tightly to a stem. Then when the fruiting body erupts through the animal’s skin, it has clear skies and strong breezes to carry it along to the next unsuspecting host.

I devoted my life to researching those fungi. I named a few new ones, I think I mentioned. I found some that could affect mammal behavior, too. The one that infected bonobos? Behaved kind of like toxoplasmosis in rats. It didn’t kill or weaken them. It just made them friendlier, so they spread the spores to one another through grooming and sex.

It didn’t affect humans. It didn’t even infect chimpanzees, who were very genetically close to bonobos.

But I wondered ... was the fungus what made bonobos bonobos?

I also miss bonobos.

Sometimes when children are too young to make a good choice for themselves, because of brain development, you have to make it for them. It’s not a moral failing on the part of those children. It’s a matter of experience and anatomy.

Me? I’ve been doing this for a long time. You’d be surprised what you can get away with.

I’d like to make it to a hundred. There’s something satisfying about round numbers. But I’m not sure what I have to do can wait until my birthday. My birthday is in December, and with the way the jet stream is now, who knows what the global air currents will be like then.

But right now the jet stream is right over my house, ripping along at a hundred miles or so an hour, bearing its burden of smoke haze across North America, out to sea, and off to Europe. And from there, the air currents of the whole world.

We’re wired to imagine ourselves as the designated survivors. The ones who will get through the apocalypse and repeople the world on the other side of it. The technical term for this is a population bottleneck, and it’s happened before. We write a lot of aspirational untrue stories about it.

And of course most of us are not that designated survivor. Not individually and not as a species.

I mentioned that we cannot internalize that we’re never going to get to find out what happens. Ghosts, ancestors, afterlives: That’s all our brains pretending they get to keep existing, because we’re solipsists and despite having witnessed it happening over and over again, we can’t imagine the world going on without us.

The permanence of objects when we’re not looking at them is never quite ingrained in our understanding of the universe. Which is why there are so many stories about living in a simulation. It’s easier to imagine the world ceasing to exist when we’re not paying attention to them than it is to imagine a world in which we don’t exist.

Amy Ross

Adulthood begins when we start to dimly comprehend that a world without us is not a hypothetical but an inevitable.

All our popular narratives, all of our epics as a culture, are built to reinforce that notion that we, individually, are the protagonists. That we have plot immunity, that death is avoidable if only you are tricky and clever enough.

No one is tricky or clever enough when the tsunami comes, or the hurricane, or the heart disease or the cancer. Deserving or undeserving, clever or dull, prepared or just standing on the corner scratching your ass—all that matters in the end is luck.

People will tell you that the disease is your fault, because it makes them feel as if they are safe. Surely they are doing things much better than you. Surely they will be spared.

We covet that control. But that narrative, like all the narratives, is an illusion. A self-deception. We have hard edges.

We want to live forever. But of all the things on Earth, only a fungus gets close to that. Some of them have been alive for millennia.

And me?

I have planted trees and written poems and painted murals, taught students and saved the lives of a couple of a good dogs. I’m 99 years old and I still get around OK, though I don’t climb the stairs anymore unless I absolutely have to. I can still get down to the basement, though, if I cling to the railing and am careful.

When I was 50, I thought, I did OK in 50 years. I spent a lot of that time patching up the damage done by my upbringing, which wasn’t the healthiest. I got very sick—that cancer—and thought, maybe I won’t make it.

I made all the plans for not being here anymore, and it clarified my mind precipitously. I realized felt a little cheated, that so much of my life had been spent on repairs for problems I didn’t cause.

I came from such very broken places.

But I also thought, maybe I’ll get through this. Maybe I’ll get 50 more years, and get to use them for something better than patching up the broken places.

Well, it’s 50 more years later and here is what I have learned: It’s all broken places. The ones I came from, and the ones you come from, and the ones we leave behind. You can’t fix it all. You can only do the work that is before your hand to do.

When you are done fixing your own damage that wasn’t your fault, you can move on to fixing all the other damage that wasn’t your fault, but got left behind by other people. We’re not responsible for having been harmed, or for living in a world that is built of harm.

But we’re responsible for not passing that harm along to others. For mitigating our own behavior and the horrors of the world as best we can.

Nobody is perfect. And nobody can weep for the whole world. You have to do the work that’s in front of you, and trust everybody else will do their share as well.

I don’t want to die. I might be 99, but I want to enjoy my life and the beautiful things in it for as long as possible. I want to enjoy this golden and terrible light. I want to enjoy the green leaves turning in the breeze. I want to enjoy the windchimes.

My friendliness fungus is in the basement. I could go down cellar, dig my fingers into the fruiting bodies, pull up the mycelium, take a big bite. Rub it in my hair and on my skin, breathe its musty spores in like perfume. I could go climb out the angled witch window under the eave on the East Gable and sit in my chair and smell the wood smoke coming all the way from Wisconsin.

Five hundred twenty dead, the news alert tells me. Thousands missing.

I could take a hard grip on the arms of the chair, wait for the sun to set, wait for the stars to rise hidden by smoke. Wait for the fruiting bodies to rise from my skin, from my hair. Wait for them to send their white spores up in plumes to get lost in the white smoke. In the ash and the haze.

Or I can sit back down on my couch, sip my tea, and watch the world burn.

Mushrooms can push up paving stones with their tumescence. They can crumble rock walls and crack apart trees.

Maybe I’m already infected. Maybe that’s what makes me think this way. Feel this grief. Or maybe I just wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if we were another way. Without the cuckoos among us, without the ones who exploit and harvest and consume.

What if we all cared for one another? What if we all worked together?

What would happen?

Elizabeth Bear is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Astounding Award winning author of dozens of novels; over a hundred short stories; and a number of essays, nonfiction, and opinion pieces for markets as diverse as Popular Mechanics and The Washington Post.

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