Fungi could perhaps be considered immortal because of the way they absorb nutrients from the living flora and fauna around them. Yet, we know so little about these organisms living among us.
In a quest to be more attuned to these natural phenomena, comparative literature instructor Laura Hunt ventures deep into mycology, literature and environmental science with her interdisciplinary class, “Thinking with Fungi: Literature and Ecomedia in Conversation (CPLT 202W).”
The class integrates science with literature, hoping to explore fungi and its uniqueness as a fully co-dependent species. It’s less about learning how to identify various mushrooms or forage for fungi and more about shifting perspectives and to actually “think and observe the natural world,” Hunt said.
“I hope this class will help inspire a worldview that would privilege the care for other beings, other life than just ourselves,” she said.
Specifically, the impending and ongoing environmental crisis forces humans to challenge the narrowmindedness of the human worldview. Hunt uses fungi to question what it means to be an individual, or how an individual is defined. Mushrooms operate in a mycelial network, dependent on trees and plants that all communicate together to grow.
People often overlook fungi as part of the ecosystem, not understanding or even “seeing” the role they play, Hunt said. Much of our anthropocentric understanding of the world is based on power structures and dynamics, with a strong notion of independence and individualism, whereas fungi enter a symbiotic relationship with forests.
Aliyah Cook (23C) took Hunt’s inaugural class last year. Cook said her obsession with mushrooms — from painting, drawing, photographing and collecting them — was magnified after this course.
“Life is so much more connected to itself than we understand,” Cook said. “Posthumanism makes us consider that we are not as special as we think; other beings exist in this world as well.”
Posthumanism is complicated, but the general idea is that human agency goes beyond the individual, and many aspects of the world are not necessarily under human control.
Anna Bayuk (24C), another avid fungi enthusiast who took the class, asked that if humans’ survival is dependent on other species, like gut bacteria, “are we really individuals?”
Something fungi enthusiasts call the “wood-wide web,” a play on “world-wide web,” aptly describes the intertwined life of mushrooms and the environment around them. Understanding mycelial networks and the collaborative, facilitatory nature in which they flourish is crucial to reevaluating our social structures and determination to reach the top.
Not viewing natural resources as commodities requires a lot more focus and intentional observation. Thus, when the pandemic put a pause on our lives, Hunt decided to learn to forage and fuel her passion for fungi.
“Mycelia infected my brain, and I was roped into the web,” Hunt said. “It’s magical.”
For her, discovering fungal networks and picking mushrooms to cook and eat was a re-enchantment of the world, and she said that she learned to be amazed by so many things she had previously taken for granted.
Unlike industrialized agriculture that allows us to eat whatever we want whenever we want, mushrooms can’t be purposefully grown in a greenhouse or in our backyard like tomatoes or oranges.
“If I want strawberries in December, they are in the store,” Hunt said. “But, with the mushrooms, they don’t work that way.”
Fungi are codependent on trees, the weather, the seasons and the functioning of the ecosystems around them.
Unfortunately, failing to see the natural world as consisting of reciprocal relationships, we manipulate nature to best aid our survival rather than accepting our lack of knowledge to recognize the way nature has survived and thrived without us for hundreds of years.
Fungi are completely the opposite of our go big and grow fast mentality; instead, they are small, slow and patient. Instead of racing through life as fast as we can, accumulating as much as we can, Hunt said, we should know who we are as something small, one of the many beings in the universe. To understand and be willing to embrace how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things is a frightening feeling, but perhaps necessary.
Hunt referenced the story of matsutake mushrooms in author Anna Tsing’s book, “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins” to explain the intertwining of mushrooms with nature. After the bombing of Hiroshima, forests were desecrated and destroyed. In an effort to repair the forest, people replanted a species of lodgepole pine that allowed matsutake mushrooms to flourish. Today, they are a highly sought after ingredient in Japan, further emphasizing the persistence and beauty of unity within the environment.
Kate Stevens (24B), who took Hunt’s class last year, said the course changed her world outlook.
“After learning about how networks of underground fungi called mycelium provide channels between every plant for miles, you really will believe everything is connected,” Stevens said.
Bayuk used mushrooms as a segue into a broader conversation about interdependence and the lack of empathy for difference. She gave the example of women’s rights to illustrate her point.
“The suffragette movement was accomplished through proving women could be like men,” Bayuk said. “Empathy came from proving similarity and not through embracing difference.”
Bayuk also mentioned the South River Forest in Atlanta, which is being destroyed to create Cop City, a police compound for training officers.
“We don’t place enough value on the natural world, and we don’t see the woods as having something valuable in them,” Bayuk said. “We’re just running around looking for meaning and disconnected from all of it.”
Hunt hopes her students will come away with more curiosity, questions and ideas and a greater sensory awareness of the world.
“I never used to notice mushrooms very much, but since taking the class, I see them everywhere,” Stevens said.
She also mentions @mushroomsofemory, an Instagram account dedicated to discovering mushrooms on campus grounds. While the owner has elected to remain anonymous, the account has drawn a large fanbase across the University. Many people share mushrooms from their hometown or places they’ve visited, which also get posted regularly.
In a post-globalized world, we tend to forget about everything not immediately in our reach. But, the implications of our actions stretch beyond what we know, and the consequences ripple further than we can see or understand.
When asked why we should ultimately care about mushrooms, Hunt said “we have to.”
“We should care in a way that doesn’t involve terror and dread, but the celebration of life that makes you want to do better for the earth,” Hunt said.