In recent years, timidly, progress has been made in the construction of a new sensitivity towards nature. This contemplates from a greater care of animals, to the discovery of phenomena such as plant intelligence disclosed by researchers such as Stefano Mancuso. Although perhaps the most innovative is being the recent approach to the world of fungi and mushrooms, recognizing their importance in the functioning of the plot that sustains the living.
A boom to which books such as The hidden web of life by Sheldrake Merlin , edited by Planeta, which shows us how fungi allow 90% of plants to take nourishment from the soil and protect themselves. In addition, this symbiotic relationship explains the way in which the roots of plants and trees are connected, giving rise to the complex functioning of forests and their underground solidarity mechanisms.
Fungi are much more sophisticated beings than we thought. One of the largest and most complex organisms in the world, they can live for thousands of years and measure up to several square kilometers. We see the mushroom but the enormous mycelium that invisibly makes it grow is imperceptible to us. There are fungi that survive in the Chernobyl reactor using radioactivity as an energy source, others serve to decompose contaminating substances through mycoremediation, and still others make up 15% of vaccines or are key in the production of food such as bread, beer or wine.
Fungi are vital for maintaining biodiversity and soil fertility, but many of these processes were unknown until recently. Now the mycological iceberg that lives underground begins to become visible. In the words of nature conservation expert Mark Tercek, “Fungal networks support life on Earth. If the trees are the ‘lungs’ of the planet, the fungal networks are the ‘circulatory systems’”.
Research on fungi is helping to consolidate the passage from biology to ecology, a transition where studying individuals is less relevant than trying to understand complex relationships between living beings. By incorporating the way in which human beings relate to mushrooms, we open a meeting space between ecology and anthropology, like the one proposed by another fabulous book: The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhauptedited by Captain Swing.
This tells us about the potential of rebuilding other social and environmental relations among the ruins of capitalism, starting from the communities dedicated in Oregon to the collection and marketing of the matsutake mushroom, the most precious and valued in Japan. A mushroom that has a predilection for growing in forests that have regenerated after being devastated by industrial forestry decades ago, and which in turn is harvested by communities of survivors who live on the margins of society: from groups of Japanese Americans to Asian refugees who arrived after the wars in Korea or Vietnam, through self-exiled white groups, who make autonomy and freedom their main values. Communities that flee from salaried discipline and that forge fragile mechanisms of solidarity, while experiencing a new sensitivity towards the nature on which they depend.
A puzzle where the pieces are the different human and environmental interactions that occur with the mushroom. The synchronization of the ephemeral rural worlds reconstructed in the temporary camps of the collectors and the design of efficient global trade chains that operate in real time. A mushroom that resists being cultivated, due to its complex symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees, but once harvested it becomes a coveted commodity that is mainly intended to be given away. And it is that the text explores the non-capitalist elements on which capitalism depends and the way in which alternatives to capitalism exist in its margins.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the great importer of matsutake, caring for the environments in which this mushroom grows has allowed the development of complex and advanced mechanisms to rationalize ownership, inspired by the logic of the commons. In those non-communal forests, the ownership of the land does not grant exclusive harvesting rights, since it is assumed that the subsoil that houses the mycelium cannot be privatized, since it can exceed the boundaries of the property. So the usual thing is that there is an auction of the collection rights of three fifths of the surface, while the rest is reserved for the mycological excursions of the local cooperatives. In these weekly days of collective collection, the members get together to harvest, later they equally distribute the mushrooms that have been found or they are reserved for a common meal.
The commons would be that inseparable confluence of a resource, a community and rules that regulate its use in such a way that its reproduction or accessibility in the future is not compromised. The worlds of matsutake show us ingenious ways of combining individual and collective rights, use and market rights, exploitation and sustainability. The operation of these social artifices requires an ethic and a culture that could transcend the harvesting of mushrooms, to point out features that any society that wants to take charge of the ecosocial crisis should contain.
Reading this beautiful book, I remembered the joke about the two Basques who were going through the mountains looking for mushrooms, and suddenly one of them finds a gold Rolex on the ground and happily comments on it to his companion. And he replies angrily: “Patxi, let’s see if we focus, are we mushrooms or Rolex?”
And it is that the joke conceals a true eco-social dilemma, such as deciding what we give importance to. One of the main disputes is to define what we consciously give our attention to. Imagine any transition to sustainability leads us to focus, as Paxti was asked. Differentiate the satisfaction of needs and superfluous consumption, the use value and the market price.
We need to create societies where we spend less time producing Rolexes and where wearing them ostentatiously does not have positive social recognition. Or what is the same where we spend more time walking with our friends through the woods, getting to know them in their complexity and being able to pick mushrooms for self-consumption.
Probably the alternatives that can lead us to that scenario are growing like mushrooms, literally. Invisibly, underground, forming cooperative ecosystems and mobilizing communities capable of surviving in territories devastated by capitalism.