Cage picking mushrooms. CDNS
John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World focuses on music, art, and mushrooms. The avant-garde composer was passionate and knowledgeable about fungi. [In 1958, he won a mushroom quiz contest on Italian television (and quite a few lira). In the 60s, he helped found the New York Mycological Society, led forest outings with the New School ‘Mushroom Identification’ course he taught, and supplied NY restaurants with edible fungi.] After mistakenly eating a bad one, however, and having his stomach pumped, he said: ‘It is useless to know about mushrooms, they escape your erudition.’ His friend Marcel Duchamp inscribed a chess book for him with ‘Dear John look out: yet another poisonous mushroom.’ Although mushrooms inspired Cage’s fascination, appetite, and music, most people rarely bother to consider the full potential of fungi, which cross cultural, financial, and environmental possibilities.
Mushrooms arouse a variety of reactions: they have sustained, excited, and repelled people throughout history. Fungi were already ancient when the first humans discovered them: they existed long before plants did, colonizing the earth’s surface roughly a billion year’s ago. Later, when our planet was covered in low moss forests populated only by invertebrates, gigantic mushrooms called prototaxites loomed up to 9 meters above the ground, making them the tallest living thing on earth for millions of years.
The mushrooms our ancestors encountered were already smaller in size, but their power inspired awe nonetheless. Few people know, for example, that a poisonous mushroom is reported to have killed the Buddha, as well as a whole host of historical figures. To the ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, the mushroom symbolized immortality—we don’t know what role this misconception might have played in the eventual decline of their civilization. For Cage, mushrooms served as a source of inspiration for his writing, music, and taste buds. The Romans also held the mushroom in high culinary esteem (with Seneca giving them up as an unnecessary luxury) while the ancient Greeks saw them as a famine food.
To this day, mushrooms remain a fixture of our diet—and in doing so, they span the economic spectrum: on the one end, sustaining entire communities that forage for them in times of need, to appearing as a sought-after delicatessen in the gourmet restaurants of the world, on the other. And no wonder: mushrooms not only taste good, they also provide a wide range of immune-boosting health benefits. However, throughout the last centuries researchers have begun to discover qualities of fungi that take them far beyond the realm of foodie treasures. Mycologists like Paul Stamets believe that mushrooms can literally save the world.
What can Mushrooms do?
One of their most fascinating qualities is the ability to cleanse the environment. Already in 1906, Cornell professor Geo F. Atkinson said mushrooms should be given very high rank among the natural agencies that have contributed to the good of the world. Recent developments showcasing mushrooms as a promising alternative for toxic waste clean up, or mycoremediation, attest to this.
As one of the main champions and ambassadors of the mushroom’s miraculous properties, Paul Stamets has been foraging, studying, and tripping on mushrooms for the last three decades. He credits a hallucinogenic mushroom experience for curing his stammer. His inventiveness has led to comparisons to scientists like Thomas Edison, in addition to various awards. And Stamets does not mince words when talking about his favourite subject: his treatise is called Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World and in an interview with Mother Jones, he said ‘What we’re doing could save millions of lives. It’s fun, it’s bizarre, and very much borders on something spiritual.’
Stamets’ Pacific Northwest hippie air is evident in his (five) books on mushrooms, which are slightly unscientific, yet informative. His wealth of knowledge on mushrooms is impressive. In addition to promoting their multiple purposes, Stamets focuses on the mushroom’s role as nature’s most active agents in disposing waste, through their ability to break down toxins and transform polluted ecosystems.
In 1997, Stamets’ research (in collaboration with the US-based Pacific Northwest Laboratories) showed that the oyster mushroom could clean up oil spills. Their experiment consisted of taking mushrooms strains and letting them loose on diesel-contaminated soil. After eight weeks, they discovered that mushrooms removed 97 percent of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), or chemicals within the oil, which had been something like the Holy Grail of oil spill remedies – always searched for, but never achieved. Further tests conducted showed that mushrooms (unlike oil-eating bacteria) actually break down the oil, making the once polluted soil landscapable.
In response to these great results, Eric Rasmussen, a former US Defense Department scientist and disaster expert, collaborated with Stamets to find solutions to decontaminate the area around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactor using mushrooms. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded him a 80,000 USD research grant to explore more mushroom environmental solutions, specifically around finding mushroom-based solutions in cleaning up a 2010 Mexican Gulf-coast oil spill. However, mushrooms have yet to actually be used in these big cleanup projects.
Mushrooms have not only been shown capable of eating up oil. Jack Ward, a scientist from Battelle Laboratories, says that edible mushrooms may someday grow in areas once contaminated with nerve gas, as his studies using the psilocybin mushroom have shown to be effective in breaking it down. Research has also been done to discover saltwater resistant mushroom breeds to address oil spills on sea.
What is it about mushrooms?
Stamets’ much liked TED talk ‘The Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World’ tells us more about the mushrooms he so adores, which spring from mycelium. With his beard and casual dress, he looks like a friendly neighbor from the Pacific Northwest. In his colloquial yet reverent way, he tells us that we are more related to mushrooms than any other animal kingdom, and prone to the same pathogens. Mushrooms also grow quickly and use radiation for energy much like plants use sunlight. They can be used to fight flu viruses and smallpox, in addition to renewing the environment. Thus Stamets proposes that the forest, full of powerful and sometimes extinct strains, should be made a project of national defense. Insect-eating mushrooms not only helped in defending his home from an ant and termite epidemic, but grew from the dead mummified insects. This has been patented and is groundbreaking in the pesticide industry. Stamet’s words sound credible and trustworthy, with an air of urgency, that mushrooms are something everyone should know about.
Stamets told Discover Magazine that ‘They have cellular intelligence. When you walk through the forest, they leap up in search of debris to feel on. They know you’re there.’ In addition to being able to detect human presence, mushrooms can recognize, and help, sick trees in the forest. They can also change their growth patterns and behavior in response to their surrounding environments, from which they absorb nutrients.
Part of the problem that mushrooms are not being used as environmental agents is that people don’t know much about them. ‘When you mention mushrooms, people either think magic mushrooms or portobellos. Their eyes glaze over,’ says Stamets. His observation rings true: although mushrooms might inspire appetite, people rarely bother to think about the full potential of fungi, let alone utilize it. Modern-day mushrooms may not be as gigantic as the protoxites, but are still mysterious. Less than 7 percent of the estimated 1.5 million species in existence have been catalogued, meaning there are numerous fungal varieties and uses left to discover.
Cage and Stamets were both on to the mushrooms’ role in the environment.
A woman once asked Cage, ”Have you an explanation of the symbolism involved in the death of the Buddha by eating a mushroom?” to which Cage thought: ”Mushrooms grow most vigorously in the fall, the period of destruction, and the function of many of them is to bring about the final decay of rotting material. In fact, as I read somewhere, the world would be an impassible heap of old rubbish were it not for mushrooms and their capacity to get rid of it. So he wrote to the lady in Philadephia, saying, ‘The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish. The Buddha died a natural death.’
 The book Duchamp inscribed, Opposition and Sister Squares Are Reconciled, was written by him in 1932. Duchamp was an excellent chess player, making the French national team, and ranked among the top thirty players in the world after he immigrated to the U.S. Cage and Duchamp sometimes played together as often as four nights a week.
One friend posits that ‘Mushroom’s are the Devil’s pimples.’ Stamets calls this mycophobia, or ‘the irrational fear of the unknown when it comes to fungi’.
Cage, for example, knew that a Lactarius Piperatus burns the tongue when raw but is delicious when cooked. In his Diary, he wrote: “After getting the information from a small French manual, I was glad to discover that Lactarius piperatus and L. vellereus, large white mushrooms growing plentifully wherever I hunt, are indeed excellent when grilled. Raw, these have a milk that burns the tongue and throat. Cooked, they’re delicious. Indigestion.”
Andrew Dalby, Food in the Ancient World from A to Z, (Routledge: London, 2003), p. 223.
 At a recent dinner at CFL by Tomer Niv, my first bite of the chanterelle sweet bread dish made my stomach drop, as if I had seen a crush.
 JSTOR article.
After taking mushrooms in a forest, Stamets got stuck in a tree during a storm, where he told himself he would not stutter again if he survived.