I took “The Fungal Kingdom” course at The Evergreen State College with Peter McCoy a couple years ago. I also attended the Radical Mycology Convergence in Washington and the Art and Science of Mycorenewal 10-day community learning intensive near Santa Cruz, California. At both events Peter played the roles of organizer and teacher to eager students of varying knowledge levels. Peter has been a great inspiration for the amateur as well as professional mycological community through the development of creative, sustainable, “low- tech” and “low-cost” cultivation techniques. Today I am interviewing Peter on behalf of Reality Sandwich about the projects and ideas he has found through his study and collaborative efforts toward building “Radical Mycology.”
Several years ago Peter and Maya Elson founded the Radical Mycology project and eventually wrote a booklet entitled Radical Mycology. The booklet focused on all the essential facts and tips for becoming an amateur mycologist. While a relatively short read, the text itself is packed densely with important informative text and illustrated with images for clarity.
The knowledge and energy born from the Radical Mycology booklet shot out like thousands of spores and spawned a great many collaborative projects. Today Peter talked to me about some of his most recent ideas including his forthcoming book, “Radical Mycology.”
Tell me more about the origins of the “Radical Mycology” project.
Radical Mycology started in 2006 when Maya Elson and I met in Olympia, Washington. Maya was the first person I had ever met who had a strong interest in mycology, like myself. Not only that, she also had shared many of the insights I had had in my life on the potential that fungi hold to influence more cooperative and healthy societies in the world. At the time, Maya was involved in a lot of environmental justice work and I was focused on community organizing and social justice issues. On serveral occasions we would talk about the ways that the topic of mycology applied to our respective interests and yet was missing from discussions related to these issues. We knew that this was largely due to the fact that mycology has historically been denounced, ignored, and taught in an overly confusing manner. We felt that a more accessible approach to teaching the benefits of mycology was needed. So we soon decided to write a short zine (booklet or pamphlet) on the relationships between mycology, social organizing, and earth stewardship. We called the zine Radical Mycology. The zine turned out to be quite popular and so a few years later we held the first Radical Mycology Convergence (RMC) to bring people interested in grassroots mycology together. The RMC is a donation-based, multi-day event that teaches the skills of mushroom cultivation and its applications in everyday life. Today, Radical Mycology is focused on maintaining a resource-rich website at radicalmycology.com, planning the 3rd RMC, and working on the Radical Mycology Book.
You are currently writing the Radical Mycology Book and have an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign going to support its production. Can you tell me a bit about the book?
The Radical Mycology Book will be a summary of the best of the collective knowledge of the many people involved in the Radical Mycology project. It will explore the entire fungal kingdom to a great depth while demonstrating numerous ways humans can work with and appreciate the fungi. It will be unlike any book on mycology that is currently available. Its language will be highly accessible, complex concepts will be well demonstrated and illustrated, and it will be abundant in resources to produce a more mycophilic (fungus loving) perspective in the reader. The book will include step-by-step instructions on cultivation projects. There will be games, jokes, and projects for kids. It will also include essays and insights into the benefits of the fungi and why working with them is necessary in today’s challenging global context. One of things I am most excited about is teaching the science of fungal remediation to a depth not yet explored in a non-technical publication. I really want to equip the world with the tools and understanding that it will take to make mycology a more commonly appreciated subject and I think a book will be the best way to make that happen.
You helped found the volunteer-run Radical Mycology Convergence and Olympia Mycelial Network. Are there other mycology related projects you are involved in? What kind of projects have you done recently and do you have any dream projects on the horizon?
Here in Olympia I co-organize the Olympia Mycelial Network (OMN), a volunteer mushroom cultivation group. The OMN provides free workshops on mushroom cultivation and builds edible, medicinal, and remediative mushroom beds around the Olympia area. This last spring we built 7 installations, two of them were designed to filter pollutant run-off from parking lots in town and thus help clean the water that ultimately runs in to the Puget Sound. These were exciting examples of grassroots remediation in action for us. In the San Francisco area, the Bay Area Radical Mycology group has been doing similar work, using the King Stropharia mushroom to filter out bacterial pollutants coming entering local waterways from cattle ranches.
The Radical Mycology Collective that I work with would like to some day start a mushroom cultivation and research teaching space. We feel that this will provide a great way to further develop the skills and techniques that we advocate for on our website and at the RMCs. We want to align with other DIY maker spaces to collaborate on the growing citizen science movements that are happening around the world.
Once the Radical Mycology Book is in publication, a portion of the book’s proceeds will go to a fund for remediation projects and experiments around the world. I am excited to be able to use the book’s funds to help make our dreams of a remediation movement more of a reality.
There is a lot of hopeful discussion and action around the practice of permaculture these days, how do the concepts of “Radical Mycology” fit within a permaculture framework?
From what I have seen, the intentional integration of fungi is often a missing or under-represented component in many permaculture books and designs. While this has been changing in recent years as mycology has become a more familiar topic in the permaculture community, I think there is still a lot of room to explore the potential for mycological applications in permaculture. This applies not only to utilizing species such as mycorrhizal fungi to benefit plants but also to applying fungi to resilient lifestyle strategies. Building on such permaculture principles as produce no waste, fungi can be grown on paper waste, creating food, worm fodder, and compost in the process. Fungi can be incorporated into grey water filtration designs and in combating desertification. In the world of “social permaculture,” the fungi provide valuable lessons and examples for how to work collaboratively. Most fungi are comprised of a dense network of tissue called mycelium. This mycelium channels nutrients among plants in the forest, maintaining the ecosystem’s balance that extends beyond the mushroom’s immediate needs. This kind of symbiotic and integrated relationship exemplifies the kind of networking we as humans need to uphold to reach a more representaive and democratic social structure. These kinds of metaphors are at the heart of the Radical Mycology project. All of the Radical Mycology work seeks to enhance the resiliency of current and future generation through education on lessons the fungi provide. These lessons extend not just to land stewardship but to various forms of community support built on a philosophy of mutual aid.
What would you recommend to folks who want to get involved within their local mycological community but don’t know where to begin?
The first place to check would be the the Radical Mycology website and the North American Mycology Association’s website. The RM site provides a map of groups and organizations that are aligned with the Radical Mycology project around the world. NAMA’s site lists more tradition mycological societies in the United States. Other countries have the own mycolgical associations and networks.
You are also involved with the non-profit Amazon Mycorenewal Project as well as other “myco-remediation” experiments and small scale projects. What can you tell us about remediation and the role it could play in cleaning up toxic waste or otherwise modifying the environment to improve the health of our planet?
One area of mycology that I am most excited about deals with the twin practices of fungal remediation and restoration (aka) mycoremediation/
This science is in a relatively young stage, however there is still much to be explored for the novice. The concepts and techniques of fungal remediation that are currently understood can be used and experimented with by people today. At Radical Mycology, a big goal for us is to educate and equip people to intelligently apply the concepts of fungal remediation to both improve damaged landscapes as well as to advance a grassroots remediation movement. We feel strongly that the solutions to the problems of today (especially those relating to pollution) will only come from the ground up, from people working in affected communities who are addressing their local concerns. To make this citizen science safe and effective, however, will require an accessbile form of education on the challenging sciences of mycology, chemistry, and the like. Again, these are concepts we cover at the Radical Mycology Convergences and will explore in depth in the Radical Mycology Book.
Recently you made a video explaining how easy it is to make your own capsules of medicinal mushrooms for a reasonable cost rather than paying the extreme fees found at the natural food store. Why are these mushrooms so important for health?
Medicinal mushrooms provide a powerful array of immune boosting, cancer fighting, and tonifying compounds. In some parts of the world like China and Japan, these fungi have been used for thousands of years to treat a wide range of ailments and diseases. In the last 50 years, many peer reviewed studies have been confirming this claims of this ancient practice, demonstrating that indeed these fungi provide incredible medicinal benefits to those that consume them. Numerous forms of cancer have been shown to be essentially “killed” by mushroom extracts. Other studies repeatedly show that patients who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation treatments to combat their cancer will frequently live many years longer following these treatments when they have consumed medicinal mushrooms. In the West, the use of medicinal mushrooms is increasingly gaining in popularity, however, the commercial medicinal mushroom products on the market today are incredibly expensive. Again, this is likely due to the fact that most people do not know how these capsules are produced and do not know how to make their own. So Radical Mycology produced a short video demonstrating how simple it is to make your own medicinal mushroom capsules. We believe medicine should be freely available to all people, especially the powerful medicine of the fungi.
Be it cultivation for food, remediation, medicine or something else, what would you say is of most vital importance in terms of mycology today?
The most important thing that is needed today in regards to mycology is the creation of a more mushroom-literate society. We are plagued in the West by an incredible amount of mycophobia, an unjustified fear of fungus. This mycophobia has not only held us back from enjoying the many benefits that the mushroom allies provide but also from advancing the science of mycology in general. I think that the lessons and examples that the fungi demonstrate for stewarding the land and sharing resources with other organisms are the greatest offering of the fungi. From these lessons, I believe humans can come to discover new ways to relate to each other and nature. And once a person begins working with the fungi, one quickly discovers the culinary and medicinal benefits that they provide for humans and the rest of the world’s inhabitants. But before we try to find what we can take from the fungi, we need to learn how to give back. We need to develop a philosophy that respects the fungal kingdom and by extension all of the natural world. I think this kind of respect for nature naturally comes from working with the fungi and learning to work with the fungi can only come throgh accessible forms of mycological education. This is why Maya and I formed the Radical Mycology project over 7 years ago and why we continue to develop this project today.
Image by qwen wan, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.