“It’s completely silly to search the galaxy with radio telescopes for a radio civilization. In my mind, it’s as chuckleheaded as deciding you’re going to search the galaxy for a decent Italian restaurant.” –Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna believed that mushrooms were not just from outer space but in fact extraterrestrials designed to “travel across the gulf between the stars.” If it had been up to him, McKenna wouldn’t have built satellites or mechanisms to search the expanse of the universe for extraterrestrials. He would have rummaged around Earth to find them first. Given the complex and mysterious nature of fungi, McKenna thought they were a likely candidate.
The Gulf Between the Stars
We’ve only been studying DNA since the 1950s so we are just at the beginning of understanding the structures of life and how they function. Extend those few years over hundreds, even thousands. Would it be that far-fetched to consider that a more advanced civilization could have chosen to evolve into a mushroom? They are highly intelligent, resourceful, practically immortal, and can survive the harsh conditions of space. What a perfect way to travel across the universe. Fungi, according to McKenna, “looks sort of manufactured.”
Taking McKenna’s theory seriously, mushrooms seem to be a bio-high-tech design. Their spores are so electron-dense that they’re actually closer to being metal, which shields them from the vacuum of space and from radiation. The outer layer of their spores has a purple hue, which naturally allows them to deflect ultraviolet light.
Their cell walls contain chitin which is the same material that makes up the hard shell of insects and the same chemicals found in butterfly wings and the plumage of colorful birds such as peacocks. And if you were to take a microscope and penetrate the deeper layers you could see, butterfly wings would look like a series of plates that layer on top of each other, like the tiles on a roof of a house, that glow the colors of the rainbow.
No matter what lens you’re using, you could see the contents of the universe in all its colors. Regardless of whether we use telescopes that project us into space or microscopes that show us the most inner innards of life itself–everything is connected. We’re all doing the same thing. So, let’s take a trip across the universe through the perspective of a mushroom.
The Imaginary Line Between Earth and Outer Space
The atmosphere we’re currently destroying protects our terrestrial life from the hostile environment of outer space. Earth’s cozy, protective blanket of gases absorbs ultra-violet light and keeps temperatures relatively balanced. But there’s no definitive boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. It just gradually gets thinner and fades away. This “imaginary boundary” is called the Kármán line.
Studies of the biology of the upper atmosphere date back to the late 1800s. They were done by releasing balloons, a rather whimsical image ripe for an imagination like Fornasetti’s considering who they floated amongst. The organisms that the balloons gathered included fungi and spore-forming bacteria.
Using meteorological rockets instead of fanciful balloons, later studies found basic life forms as high as 77km, the highest altitude from which we have isolated microbes. Which means, fungi spores are hanging out in the atmosphere. Researchers have analyzed the distances that airborne microorganisms travel. This somehow reveals why more fungi are found in the West and Southwest portions of the United States (alien territory) than the Northeast. But the Earth’s atmosphere just above the surface even contains airborne microorganisms. Fungi are literally everywhere.
The Hidden Kingdom
Hidden kingdoms unto themselves, Paul Stamets claims that there are an estimated two million species of fungi and only 150,000 of them form mushrooms. That means the majority of them live underground. However, on a regular google search, the number of identified species of mushrooms range from 10,000 to 50,000. In other words, there are a lot. And, in simply examining their structure and function, they do seem otherworldly yet closer to us, humans, than to plants. They breathe oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
Spores of Seed Dust
The mushrooms that we see above ground are the reproductive bodies of a larger network underground. They shed about three million spores a minute for two weeks. The spores of the mushrooms are essentially their seeds–or as someone described it–“filled with seed dust.” That description lines up with one of the reasons they were able to travel across the universe–cosmic dust. Then again, we’ve all got cosmic dust in our systems.
Nonetheless, mushroom caps are the fruit of an organism made up of connected filaments called mycelium. Mushrooms transmit information across the underground mycelium network using the same neurotransmitters that our brains do: the chemicals that produce our ability to think. “They’re sentient, aware, and highly evolved,” says Paul Stamets. This web could be the foundation for all life.
The largest mycelium network, which scientists refer to as one entity called “a mat,” is in Oregon. It covers 2,200 acres and is more than 2,000 years old.
Amazingly, the intricate filaments in the mycelium network absorb nutrients from the soil and trade them with plants in exchange for the energy they produce from photosynthesis. Paul Stamets calls this network the earth’s internet. He even theorizes that we evolved from mushrooms. Taking into account Terence McKenna’s Stoned Ape Hypothesis; that fungi more or less triggered the cognitive revolution in human beings, it seems that our relationship with fungi is fundamental.
Technically speaking, the cognitive revolution happened 70,000 to 30,000 years ago. No one has ever linked this theory to a specific date but given that we’ve probably eating mushrooms since we discovered they were edible, who knows?
What Came First, The Mushroom or The Mushroom?
In one of Terence McKenna’s talks, he poetically strung together theories of cosmic life–fungi being one of its most fascinating and puzzling forms. He saw mushrooms as an example of intelligent design–a little too intelligent to be a random feature of Mother Gaia. Fungi are the only organisms that have glucans and chitin in the molecular structure of their cell walls. More mindblowing than its make-up, however, was the experience of eating mushrooms itself. It felt extraterrestrial to McKenna: the visual hallucinations, the exchange of information, and the fact that the mushrooms seemed to address him directly.
We Evolved from Mushrooms
According to Paul Stamets, humans evolved from fungi. One of the big differences between animals and fungi is that we have stomachs inside our bodies. Apparently, about 600 million years ago, the “branch of fungi leading to animals evolved to capture nutrients by surrounding their food with cellular sacs–essentially primitive stomachs.” As our little organism ancestors evolved, they developed outer layers of cells–skins!–to keep in moisture and protect the organism.
Without fungi, life would not have persisted on earth. Stamets draws his conclusion from fossil records. The planet, spinning on its axis, “an island” as McKenna called it, largely evolved from two asteroid impacts, one that occurred 250,000 years ago.
The earth was shrouded in dust. The sunlight could not penetrate this layer, and huge numbers of plant communities died. The fungi, however, were chilling.
Now, all of nature knows that relationships are inherent to its survival. Those life forms that implemented the buddy system with fungi flourished. Stamets says these other organisms were “rewarded” which makes it sound that the fungi said, “pair with us or die.” But, maybe that was just a fact. Then 64 million years ago the Earth got whacked by another asteroid that supposedly cleared out the entire kingdom of dinosaurs. Fungi were still chilling. “Whatevs…”
Again, the network of relationships that plants, microorganisms, and animals forged with fungi helped to restore life on the planet. In other words, these two cataclysmic events naturally made all of life more or less team up with fungi for their survival–the world’s first superhero.
Oldest Mushrooms to Date
But with all these millions of years orbiting inside our tiny mind, we had a simple question: what is the oldest mushroom found to date?
In 2017, scientists found the oldest discovered mushroom in Brazil. 115 million years ago a little ‘shroom dove into a river and fossilized. The fact that the ‘shroom even survived that and left a trace is unbelievable in itself. In any case, the scientists also found that “The Little Shroom That Could” had gills under its cap, not spores. Andrew Miller, the mycologist who co-authored this report, said that “Fungi evolved before land plants and are responsible for the transition of plants from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment.”
Thus, if we were to take it even further back, though we have few fossils to choose from, the earliest ones that resemble fungi date back to the Paleoproterozoic era–which is quite a mouthful to say–some 2,400 million years ago. The first fungi purportedly evolved around 600 million years ago. The oldest fossil to date, however, is “The Little ‘Shroom that Could.”
We Are All Made of Stars
People they come together
People they fall apart
No one can stop us now
‘Cause we are all made of stars
But are mushrooms from space? Well, it depends on how you view space.
The Earth is an island spinning in a solar system inside this thing called the universe. A common saying, full of poetry, is that the atoms in our bodies come from distant stars. There are many ideas as to how life got here, one of them being that asteroids collided with our earth and deposited amino acids–the building blocks of life. In McKenna’s wild imagination, which is not to discredit his theories but rather to pay tribute to his brilliant creativity, he then found it plausible that we are made of distant planets, stars, and even extraterrestrial life.
An astrophysicist named Karel Schrijver and Iris Schrijver, a professor of pathology teamed up and wrote a book, Living With the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars. The basic thesis is that we, along with everything in the universe, originated from stardust. It still is in us today and has been rebuilding our bodies over and over again over our lifetimes.
“I look at the code of life. He’s an astrophysicist who explores the secrets of the stars. But the more we followed up on our questions to each other, the more we discovered our fields have a lot more connections than we thought possible.” –Iris Schrijver, National Geographic.
Are mushrooms extraterrestrial? Are we entirely sure that there is a big difference between extra and terrestrial?
Interstellar All Seed
Conditions in outer space are no picnic.
Experiments with microbes in space have been performed since 1965. Like it or not, they will inevitably accompany any mission with humans on a spacecraft. They’re definitely all over the space station, that we know. Some of the factors that may impede their survival are space vacuum, radiation, microgravity, etc. In studies done, the factors are somewhat complex, but the gist is that it is possible. However, on their own, they may not be able to withstand all the obstacles. But did the studies consider that these microbes had a spacecraft?
We understand there to be seven microbes (microorganisms), fungi being one of them, that might have crashed to Earth on safe containers. The idea that life originated due to asteroids, stardust, planetary fragments, etc., is not new. But let’s suspend our disbelief and imagine that life crashed to Earth from outer space at a time when planets and stars were in closer proximity than today.
Coming from the Greek words for “all” and “seed,” panspermia is a hypothesis that life exists throughout the universe and distributes itself on space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and even on spacecraft. There are a few different subcategories of theories stemming from panspermia, but lithopanspermia proposes that organisms traveled to other planets on rocks through interplanetary or interstellar space.
Why build a spaceship when you already have flying objects everywhere?
Research from Princeton University published in 2012 confirms a high probability that life might have spread during our solar system’s infancy at a time when all of the planetary and star bodies lived more or less in the same condominium. Meaning, it was a moment when we were all close enough to exchange material. The evidence put forth by the study is the strongest support of lithopanspermia to date which would mean basic life forms like fungi could have traveled across the universe on material like planetary fragments.
One could even call these fragments “vessels.”
The logistics aside, which concern velocity, researchers reported that our solar system and its neighbor could have swapped material 100 trillion times over. Furthermore, basic life forms could actually date back to the sun’s birth cluster and be sturdy and ambitious enough to survive the interstellar voyage and impact. However, microorganisms had to be able to withstand the challenges–radiation being one of them–which fungi spores apparently can with their metallic-like structures and purple hue that deflects ultraviolet light. Also, cosmic dust, which is everywhere out there as much as it is in our homes, could have given them an extra shield.
A paper in 2009 determined that microorganisms could survive in space on solid matter depending on its size. They could endure approximately 12 to 500 million years.
Now, we suppose that life on Earth happened after surface water miraculously also came into existence. If that is the case, “…there were possibly about 400 million years when life could have journeyed from the Earth to another habitable world, and vice versa…If life had an early start in other planetary systems and developed before the sun’s birth cluster dispersed, life on Earth may have originated beyond our solar system.”
We may not even be the origins of life as we know it.
Across the Universe
Somewhere in the universe of 1967, in the wee hours of the morning, John Lennon was in bed and irritated. After having an argument with his wife, she had drifted to sleep. Lennon, however, could not. In-between wakefulness and sleep, words flooded into his consciousness “like an endless stream.” They wouldn’t stop, drove him out of bed, down the stairs–“Words are flying out like endless rain into a paper cup, They slither while they pass”–to put them down on paper before they slipped away “…across the universe.”
An ordinary argument turns into cosmic stuff.
“It’s like being possessed; like a psychic or a medium. The thing has to go down. It won’t let you sleep, so you have to get up, make it into something, and then you’re allowed to sleep. That’s always in the middle of the bloody night when you’re half-awake or tired and your critical facilities are switched off.” –John Lennon, 1980, All We Are Saying, David Sheff
We’re all moving through space. As mushrooms fly on planetary bodies underneath their colorful shields covered in cosmic dust, so do all forms of life make their way across the universe.
“Before I was a twinkle in my father’s eye…”
Perhaps some intelligent species decided to put itself into a biological vessel that could withstand the harshest conditions and defy all obstacles. But everything and everyone begins as an idea. A light miraculously appears out of the vast, dark unknown that sparkles–”I am here.” And no matter where you look; into the furthest reaches of the universe or deepest depths of the sea, we find brilliant lights moving through a vast, dark unknown.
Who knows how ideas travel, how we become who we are or where the information comes from? There are spaces within us too that open–between waking and dreaming, when we are out of our minds, in our hearts, reaching for each other –and we can hear the songs of the universe. Traveling across infinite time and space, or across the house, ideas find their way to move through it until they find a place to land, spread across the page like ink into networks of feelings, words, chemicals. We’re all made of stars.
“Hey guys, we are the vehicle, get it? We call it consciousness–the ultimate technology.” –Love, The ‘Shrooms
Walt, Could You Show Us The Way?
“When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”