One day in recent decades, this particular Agarikon mushroom near a cliff on Queen Elizabeth Island, \British Columbia, decided to leave its perch atop an ancient sea-gazing douglas fir. Individual Agarikon mushrooms like this can live on an old-growth tree for more than a century– the mycelium inside the tree for much longer.
When you make your way down the cliff, a Sasquatch’s stonethrow from the tree you will find whom Paul Stamets calls the “Mushroom Man” painted onto the rock face by the Haida Gwaii people. Logic would suggest that this Agarikon, or an earlier incarnation, was present before the pictographs. If that’s the case, I can’t help but wonder if, when the mushroom left its post for its current resting place, it didn’t hop down for a better view of what the people had drawn… or rather (to really go out on a limb) perhaps it leapt down that morning to make itself visible to a team of researchers accompanying flesh-and-blood mushroom man Paul Stamets as they binoculared for Agarikon from a boat.
Mycelia configure into mushrooms in order to disperse their genes. After they’ve released spores, most mushrooms lower their immune defenses and break down hastily. Chanterelles can remain above ground for a couple weeks, a long time for a soft mushroom. Some rigid polypores are perennial. Agarikon takes the persistent polypore idea to new heights… or rather lower heights if we assume gravity and not bipedalism was the means of transit.
In his mind-altering talk at Wagner Institute Friday night, Paul explained that 70% of current pharmaceuticals have their origins in natural compounds. Forest ecosystems build these molecules, then humans alter them in laboratories to form novel chemicals. As we know, the only reason pharmaceutical companies can risk the often billions of dollars required to bring a new drug to market is that legal patents secure them exclusive access to a marketplace of eager, sick customers. Are these new compounds better than their natural progenitors? In some cases yes, but we can’t escape the reality that nature isn’t allowed behind your pharmacist’s counter unless it’s been altered.
The medicinal knowledge of indigenous people, accumulated over generations of curious exploration within the pharmacopoeia of the forest, is a technology we must take as seriously as modern marvels such as those found in nanotechnology and genetics. Agarikon is significantly more effective against various strains of the flu and is an order of magnitude more active against smallpox than existing antivirals when studied in the lab. Pharmaceutical antivirals are notoriously harsh on the body. Agarikon like most mushroom medicine is gentle. The worse you feel, the more you take without risking overdose (of course anything to excess can be problematic, even water). Industrialized animal farms, antibiotic-filled hospitals, and guerrilla laboratories are breeding grounds for new pathogens, each of which has a chance of infecting a human and instigating a global pandemic. Only 750 years ago, before the Black Death, human population was less than half a billion. Today it’s over 7 billion. We teeter precariously.
Agarikon, which once grew in forests across the planet and has only been rediscovered in uncut woodlands in the pacific northwest and small patches of old growth in Eastern Europe. It is exceedingly rare. Paul’s mentor searched for 40 years and found one specimen. As species become extinct at an estimated 200 per day, we must not only protect remaining intact ecosystems, but preserve and build from indigenous medicinal wisdom. Our survival may very well depend on it.
Lucky for us, at the moment we enjoy a free internet All rediscovered and reaimagined knowledge of the natural world that surfaces at the fringe of civilization channels back to the “hive” and is propogated instantly around the world. By the same process, we’re able to bear witness to a planetary shift in biological diversity that rivals mass extinctions caused by asteroids. We’re changing the world in ways we can’t see yet, but with the internet we are able to see much more and therefore anticipate and remedy challenges.
Let’s all be better stewards of our planet, if only for our own sake. And let’s be sure to keep the internet as free as it was mycelially intended. For me, mushrooms were the tool that began lifting the veil. Beyond the mushrooms themselves, the work of people like Paul Stamets has pulled that veil back even further. It was an honor to spend time with Paul and Dusty, and Brian and I felt the veil lift a bit more after our dinner with the Stamets’ and fellow local mushroom farmers.
Lots of things in life lift the veil, but if you’re in search of one I recommend a book: Mycelium Running. Best read perched on a branch, though you need only skim the pages for pictures of the mushroom man.
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