2020—A Good Year for Fungi

Originally I was going to post this blog on January 6. But on that day the President of the United States, whose job is to protect our government, incited rioters and looters to attack the U.S. Capitol. My father, a lifelong Republican who risked his life for democracy by fighting in World War II, would be furious. My mother, who lived her life as a model citizen of democracy, would be appalled and profoundly saddened. I carry both their emotions.

 I wrote this blog to insert knowledge and hopefulness about good things that happened in the challenging year of 2020. It still does that and maybe more than ever this moment needs the story of two women scientists—one a friend and mentor, another living a short distance away—who have changed how we view the natural world, specifically the potential for fungi to be of help during this profound time in history.

When I was an undergraduate Botany major at Iowa State University (1967-71), my major professor was Dr. Lois H. Tiffany—a mycologist, an Iowa farmer’s wife, a mother, and a woman science professor in an era when women scientists were rare. She was known as “Iowa’s Mushroom Lady” because she taught and led field trips all over the state. She was a remarkable role model and teacher to me. Lately I have been thinking about her because even in a year overwhelmed by politics and pandemic, fungi, or more specifically their mycelium, have been making the news. If she were still alive, I think “Dr. T” would be gratified to see her long-held beliefs and research about soil, and mycelium in particular, validated as crucial to the health of plants.

Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, courtesy of Iowa State University special collections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fungi are a “hot topic” right now

In the complex year of 2020, the emergence of ground-breaking understanding about the role of fungi in sustaining planetary life may contribute to our lives as much as vaccines and restorative political leadership. (The terms mushrooms and fungi are often used interchangeably, but technically mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain species of fungi.)

Early in 2020 the documentary, Fantastic Fungi https://fantasticfungi.com/  opened in independent movie theaters. (It was the last movie we saw in a real theater before COVID-19.) An LA Times review summarized the documentary this way, “Mushrooms are the new superheroes… a documentary of epic proportions.” The cinematography was superb—imagine subterranean, invisible to the naked eye, networks coming to life as we see them in action doing their work of sustaining plants and decomposing things that humans cannot figure out how to get rid of.

In December,  the New York Times magazine published an article entitled, “The Social Life of Forests” by Ferris Jabr: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html?referringSource=articleShare . The article enables us to see the very real progress being made on understanding the underground world of the soil and fungi. And it opens our minds to thinking about defining “communication” in new ways—i.e. something other than human words.

At the end of the year, I finished reading Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020 Random House/New York). This brilliant book by a young scientist with its 50 pages of notes and its 44 pages of bibliography details everything from the revolutionary work around lichens(extremophiles) to the mind-altering capabilities of mushrooms to the industrial potential for these organisms to decompose everything from plastics to nuclear waste. This young scientist has synthesized profound amounts of information to further help us understand the potential of this life form.

Cover of Merlin Sheldrake’s new book on fungi, photo by Ann Linnea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conviction/persistence by a young woman scientist

All three of these 2020 works feature the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She grew up in the old growth forests of British Columbia across the border from where I live. When she decided to pursue a career in forestry in the 1990s to study what she loved, she entered a discipline that thought of trees as commodities that would produce faster profit if grown in monocultures so the desirable species had no competition. This did not make sense to a woman who knew the aliveness of an old growth forest with its variety of trees, plants, and animals.

Dr. Suzanne Simard, courtesy of Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite dismissal by many colleagues, she persisted in her conviction that there is a scientific way to “prove” the interrelatedness of trees in a forest. Her 1997 PhD thesis was the first study showing that carbon passed between plants in a natural setting (not in a greenhouse). Using radioisotopes and tracking the movement of activated molecules between trees, she showed that trees are not separate entities, they are connected via mycelium. Or as Jabr writes in his article, “Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi.”

The tiny fungi strands (mycelium) surround tree roots forming a partnership called mycorrhiza that enables the trees to get water and nutrients from the soil while fungi utilize the sugars the tree makes through photosynthesis. The forest and all habitats are a study of cooperation and linkage.

Dr. Simard will be coming out with a new book on May 4, 2021, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The advertising for this book claims, “From the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest.” I can hardly wait to read this new book!

Changing our perceptions

Dr. Tiffany published over 100 scientific papers and looked extensively at the relationship of fungi to Iowa’s prairie soils. Dr. Simard brings a similar impeccability of scientific research on the subject of forest soils and trees. Fungi are crucial to the web of life in all habitats. It is good to see them getting some “popular press”.

Every week, my little dog and I walk our local state park with its old growth and mid-growth forest. It is winter in the Pacific Northwest. The rains have made visible a lot of mushrooms. I am keenly aware that I am seeing only the most miniscule manifestation of the mycelium beneath my feet and scattered everywhere in the rotting and downed logs. So much has been learned about fungi in my lifetime! A bow to scientists who continue to pursue the true curiosity of real scientific inquiry to open our understanding of the world around.

A jelly fungus with the common name Witch’s Butter, photo by Ann Linnea at nearby state park

 

30 replies
  1. Deb Lund
    Deb Lund says:

    This is so fascinating! It’s like reading a science fiction story, mystery, and set of biographies all at once. We think of space and the ocean as our worlds of unknowns, and yet we’re still newbies when it comes to understanding what’s happening at and under our feet as we walk through our world. Thank you for this post!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Deb. It IS a mystery and therein lies the absolute magic of pursuing the wonders of the natural world.

      Reply
  2. Jennifer Getsinger
    Jennifer Getsinger says:

    Hi Ann,
    Good to hear from you! That was an interesting and informative piece bringing together your own experience with the latest research. For years on end many scientists (including many women) have toiled away quietly on their important work and never become famous. I’m thinking also of the botany professor i had at University of Washington in the late 1970s (Dr. Melinda Denton). I keep in touch with nature via Nature Vancouver (formerly The Vancouver Natural History Society). Our Thursday evening programs have gone to Zoom, which works pretty well. Field trips are on hold, but many people still get out into nature. I have seen a lot of photos of that witches’ butter on Facebook lately. Another photo of Lake Superior from above reminded me of you and your kayaking quest. The one thing I did outside of Vancouver this year was to go on a canoe trip to Chilko Lake with Chris Cooper in his big canoe (37 feet long, 10 paddlers) in September. Hanging in there. Hope to see Christina at the 65Alive on Saturday. Love from my family to yours. Jenny Getsinger

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you. Absolutely true that most scientists toil away in quiet and slowly add important work to the body of knowledge that moves our understanding forward. So glad to hear from you and get a bit of Canadian news.

      Reply
  3. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    Thank you for this. Between Braiding Sweetgrass, a new blogger I now follow and your thoughtful posts on the natural world I have a renewed interest in the world around me like never before. A walk is never just a walk. Thanks for sharing what you know. The world is still a beautiful, thriving place.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      You are most welcome, Bonnie. So true that a walk is never just a walk. Indeed, the world is a most beautiful, thriving place.

      Reply
  4. Judy Todd
    Judy Todd says:

    Love love love this piece! I too have been ‘captured’ by fungi, and reading and learning more all the time. I also recommend a couple of books I have found fascinating:
    ‘How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence’, a 2018 book by Michael Pollan; and any and everything by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a very wise and learned elder hailing from Canada (like Suzanne Simard, they grow ’em good there!). I started with her books, beyond my limited knowledge, and still captivating: “The Global Forest”, “Arboretum Borealis”, and “Arboretum America”. There is a recent film of her work, ‘Call of the Forest’ at http://calloftheforest.ca/. I highly recommend her to all your readers. https://dianaberesford-kroeger.com/. She is a [s]hero to me.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you for your recommendations, Judy. Diana Beresford-Kroeger is indeed a very wise and learned Canadian elder. Be well in your own fine teaching.

      Reply
  5. Rose Hood
    Rose Hood says:

    This is remarkable! Thank you for sharing about this remarkable work by brilliant scientists! Absolutely incredible to imagine the interrelatedness of trees and the activity of fungi in the earth’s soil. Mother Nature never ceases to amaze!!!!!

    Reply
  6. Julie Glover
    Julie Glover says:

    Hi dear friend, thank you for sharing this. I wonder if you have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book The Signature of All Things? (A tale of the early days of botanical research which is truly fascinating — I think you would love it if you haven’t read it already.) Is Suzanne Simard the botanist canonized in the book Overstory? XO!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you for the recommendation, I have not read it. And, yes, it is generally believed that Suzanne Simard is the botanist canonized in the book Overstory. She was, of course, my favorite character in that monumental book.

      Reply
  7. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    1. Adrian (4) in one of this week’s good moments, begged to go on a “mushroom hunt” in the woods. He didn’t have to ask me twice.
    2. My father was the father of said high-yield forestry, growing trees faster for the future, partners for profit (that last a phrase silver-embossed on his Weyerhaeuser folder that turned my stomach as a self-righteous teenager). He was incensed that I took the anti-clearcut stand in a debate class.
    3. My mother knew Margaret McKenny, a mycologist in Olympia. I thought of her immediately when I saw the subject of your post. She lived in a magical, hidden house behind the capitol, and near our dentist’s office. I remember visiting her after a dental appointment at least once in my childhood, and thinking maybe she was a witch. (A very nice one.) https://afieldwithmargaretmckenny.home.blog/who-was-margaret-mckenny/

    Thank you for all these memory joggers. Fungi and their role in the forest fascinate me. I’d heard of that movie; I need to find it.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      How interesting that you and your father had this very conversation about clear cuts! I really appreciated reading about Margaret McKenny, about whom I knew nothing. You are lucky you got a chance to meet her. Keep having those mushroom hunts!

      Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Leckey, for an important word in the entire field of fungi and their influence on plants. When Dr. Simard’s piece was accepted into the highly prestigious journal of Nature, she was credited with coining a new word the Wood Wide Web.

      Reply
  8. Suzanne
    Suzanne says:

    Merlin Sheldrake has indeed written an amazing book. Glad you mentioned him. Thanks for this romp among the fungi – just what I needed!

    Reply
  9. Patricia Houston
    Patricia Houston says:

    Me too! Love Diana and her “To Speak for the Trees”. Now there is fungi to add to the wonder! Thank you so much.

    Reply
  10. Sharon Faulds
    Sharon Faulds says:

    Oh Ann thank you for this treasure trove of opportunities to learn more about fungi with all your connections the story too build connection around the world. Again thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Sharon—and also for your wonderful holiday note catching us up on your life. No mushrooms in snow country, but those mycelium are still at work!

      Reply
  11. Jeanne Guy
    Jeanne Guy says:

    I second Deb’s comment about how fascinating this is. This topic wasn’t at the top of my reading list but, because of your well written piece, my curiosity is piqued and I want to know more. How wondrous and exciting. Thank you so much, Ann.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      You are most welcome, Jeanne. At the very least, read the New Yorker piece and you will get much of the jest of this fast-changing topic.

      Reply
  12. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    Dear Ann,
    Your writing evokes in me images of the gifts and wisdom always found beneath the surface of things. By going deeper, this time into the rich darkness of Mother Earth, life making connections and healing feminine energies abide. I would extrapolate this to be so for us, too.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      “The gifts and wisdom always found beneath the surface of things.” That is your writing and I thank you for the extrapolation!

      Reply
      • Ann Linnea
        Ann Linnea says:

        One of the beauties of this blog is the wisdom found in responses to my post. Katharine, I have been thinking about yours some more. You have pointed out the metaphor in my original piece which I did not even see! “By going deeper, this time into the rich darkness of Mother Earth, life making connections and healing feminine energies abide. I would extrapolate this to be so for us, too.” Thank you so very much!

        Reply

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