Exploring an elusive, ancient kingdom

Fungi Fest is Saturday at Paul Smith’s College VIC

Upon reading my Indiana Jones-esque title, you may have pictured a tan-hatted man wielding a machete through thick vines hanging from the crumbling walls of some archaic ruins, perhaps in search of ancient treasure or forgotten wisdom seared upon an old scroll. Sounds fun, but I can assure you this will be MUCH more exciting. Welcome to the kingdom of fungi.

OK, that doesn’t sound so adventurous at first, but let me tell you — here in the Adirondacks alone, we can find fungal treasures beyond any chest of gold or gem-studded skull, and as much woodsy wisdom as the longest scroll could bear.

A world as mysterious as it is expansive, the lonely kingdom of fungi is often left in the dark. Luckily fungi don’t photosynthesize. Ba-dum-tss! All jokes aside, I have been enlightened to the field of mycology (the scientific study of fungi) here at Paul Smith’s College by enrolling in the “ADK Fungi and Radical Mycology” course this semester, and my interest has sprouted seemingly overnight. That was the last joke, I promise. Honestly, even though I am just beginning as an amateur mycologist, the few things that I have learned so far are interesting and worth sharing.

In North America, the Adirondacks are only second to the Pacific Northwest in unique fungal diversity, and so we have a veritable “spore-gasbord” of opportunity to learn and celebrate the role of fungi in our forests, ecosystems and lives.

It is an interesting world-place that fungi hold on our planet: neither fruit nor vegetable, leafless and flowerless, borne of wetness and dark, uplifting life out of death. Many people have never been informed that without fungi, a forest would simply not be possible. They foster the growth of trees by attaching to the roots and boosting nutrient absorption; they break down wood and decaying debris, and so are instrumental in the cycling of nature.

It may surprise you to learn that fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to the plant kingdom — yes, mushrooms are more human than plant! (No wonder I spend so much time alone in the dark. … I’m fine, really.) Our evolutionary histories are as intertwined as a strand of DNA, and we have been comrades in our long and storied struggle to survive on this planet. And we must not forget our history as partners as we look toward the many, many problems that plague our present and future.

It is a funny thing that in popular culture, we so often see mushrooms as either:

A. Dangerous and to be avoided (mycophobia)

or B. As a way for hippies to make the Grateful Dead actually sound good while they get in touch with Mother Gaia. (mycophilia).

But too often we forget that scientifically, mushrooms are powerful healers in many ways. There are countless medicinal uses for many different fungi. Some have anti-cancerous properties, some are immune system boosters, blood pressure regulators, cholesterol lowering, anti-inflammatory, and the list goes on.

Not only can they heal physically, but there is a lot of new research in the psychological and spiritual healing of fungi. I know this sounds like I’m about to try to sell you a half-eighth from my poncho pocket, but if you want that atmosphere, you can look up the Telluride Festival. There is real scientific research. There were recent studies at John Hopkins that tested the positive effects of psilocybin in treating those who were anxious or depressed over receiving cancer diagnoses. Gary Lincoff, a prominent mycologist who authored the “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms,” is a leading figure in studying the healing properties of psychoactive mushrooms. We are also lucky and honored to have him speaking at the ADK Fungi Fest this Saturday (Sept. 23) at the VIC at Paul Smiths! (Visit www.paulsmiths.edu/fungifest for more information.)

Beyond the healing of individuals, fungi might just hold the answers to many of the environmental problems we are now scrambling to find answers for. They are great absorbers of pollutants for cleaning environments, they can make non-toxic pesticides, they are possibly the most powerful agents in re-greening degraded and polluted ecosystems of the Earth, they could be used to create fuel sources — the list goes on and is teeming with possibilities. Mycologist Paul Stamets has a great TED talk about the “six ways mushrooms can save the world.” I highly recommend giving it a view.

I should also note that Stamets has also tapped into a fast-growing market for myco-medicine and fungi products, and his W-2 might put a few doctors and lawyers to shame — just sayin’. There is a growing market out there, and in the Adirondacks we have a huge opportunity for economic growth. Tupper Lake native Garrett Kopp has opened his own business, Birch Boys Chaga, which specializes in harvesting chaga — a fungus with many reputed health benefits. He will also be speaking at this Saturday at the Fungi Fest!

Though I am still very green in the mycology world, I can say this: The kingdom of fungi is vast and complex. It interweaves the other kingdoms together, from small to large, from life to death. It holds answers for healing from an individual to a global scale, from pharmaceutical remedies to the psychological and spiritual. It is a kingdom full of hope and mystery.

I am excited to foray into the world of mycology, and I hope you are intrigued to learn a bit more, too. I encourage you to join us at Paul Smith’s College VIC for the ADK Fungi Fest, it is going to be a brilliant and beautiful Saturday! It runs from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. There will be expert-led forays, presentations, book signings, cultivation workshops, delicious mushroom soup, educational displays, a kids corner and wonderful art! If you’re interested in becoming a mushroom farmer or simply a friend of fungi, then this festival is for you!

Tim Sweeney is a student at Paul Smith’s College.