Finding Hope In The Dark Power Of Fungus

Fungi can take on the mess and the junk, the waste and the abandoned, break it all down and transform toxin into life.

Taehyoung Jeon

Joanna Steinhardt is an anthropologist, writer and editor.

In the autumn of 2007, a container ship called the Cosco Busan was leaving the port of Oakland, having just refueled, when it sideswiped one of the towers of the Bay Bridge, puncturing the ship’s fuel tank. Inside was bunker fuel, a heavy oil repurposed for marine vessels from the remnants of petroleum production. Bunker fuel is so dense it has the consistency of tar.  

That morning, over 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel spilled into San Francisco Bay. It spread quickly: northeast to Richmond, to the beaches of San Francisco, to the rugged coasts of the Marin Headlands and then out to the Pacific and up and down the coast. In an urban area known for its natural beauty, over 50 public beaches across multiple counties were soon closed. The oil killed thousands of shoreline birds, damaged fish populations and contaminated shellfish. It derailed local fisheries for years. 

In San Francisco, a woman named Lisa Gaultier had been preparing for a disaster like this. Lisa is the founder of a nonprofit called Matter of Trust that promotes sustainable living through recycling, reuse and the repurposing of surplus. Since the early 2000s, she had partnered with a retired hairdresser from Alabama named Phil McCrory who had invented an unusual technique for getting oil out of water using discarded hair. The hair technically adsorbs oil, attracting it to the surface like a magnet. (This is why our hair gets oily if we don’t wash it.) Matter of Trust began collecting discarded hair from salons and dog groomers and felting it by machine into large mats that were stored in a warehouse next to the nonprofit’s headquarters in San Francisco. After the spill, people spontaneously showed up at the beach wanting to help clean up, and Lisa was there with the hair mats.

Paul Stamets, a successful businessman, author and spokesman for the expanding world of do-it-yourself mycology, happened to be in town just a few days after the spill to headline the Green Festival, an expo for “sustainable and green living.” Stamets promoted relatively accessible techniques for cleaning up the environment using mushrooms — including oil spills. Lisa had heard about Stamets’s work and had already been in touch with him “about our hair project.” Lisa called him from the beach where, she recalled, “there were 80 surfers out there using our hair mats, trying to clean up the oil washing up onto the shore.” Stamets told her that if she could find a place to put the oily hair, he would donate $10,000 worth of mycelium.

As the days wore on, a range of government entities moved in, from the Coast Guard to the Department of Homeland Security, in addition to private companies contracted to clean up the spill, all vying for funds. Meanwhile, law enforcement and legal teams began their investigation into the spill’s causes. 

After a flurry of phone calls to city and state officials, Lisa got permission to put what she called a “mountain” of hair and oil next to a composting facility at Presidio Park. But then, the oil-soaked hair mats were impounded by authorities: The oil was evidence in a criminal investigation. (In the end, the shipping company paid $10 million in fines and restitution and the captain was sent to federal prison for 10 months.)

Undeterred, Lisa found a local freighter company that would give her some fresh bunker fuel, which a crew of volunteers mixed with used motor oil and then sopped up into new hair mats. Stamets trucked down the promised blocks of mycelium from Washington; several hundred more were donated by Far West Fungi, a local mushroom farm. About 30 volunteers layered it lasagna-style: straw (a common mushroom substrate), blocks of mycelium, hair mats soaked in oil. Photos of the stack show a mound about 30 feet by 12 feet. 

Some weeks later, mushrooms had sprouted from the top of the pile. A few news sites picked up the story. In one photograph, Lisa holds a clump of soil and straw, mushrooms popping out the side, over a caption that describes: “Mushrooms grown out of toxic oil, themselves now containing no toxins.” 

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly what happened. As Ken Litchfield, a local cultivation teacher who helped organize the installation, explained, “The mushrooms were growing on the top where there’s enough oxygen, but underneath, nothing was growing except anaerobic bacteria.” Lisa told me that months later, when they returned, “literally the smell was so bad when we actually brought the stuff out, I almost vomited.” As for the fungi, it never touched the oil-soaked hair mats. 

About a year after the spill, Lisa found a UC Berkeley graduate student named Thomas Azwell who was looking for a project as part of his dissertation research. Azwell, now the director of the Disaster X-Lab at the UC Berkeley College of Engineering, told me that, initially, he had been “worried we were going to create an even worse mess, and it’s going to turn into this kind of parachuting-cats-into-Borneo story, where it just gets worse and worse.” 

In short order, Thomas found an article that showed that fungi can’t degrade bunker fuel on their own; the molecules in the heavy fuel are too complex. He proposed something simpler: composting. Take the hair mat lasagna, blend in plant waste, aerate regularly. And it worked. The pile began to naturally decompose. After a few months, they brought in earthworms to finish the job. Lab tests showed that the most toxic chemicals had broken down. “It took 18 months and a lot of manual labor, and it was really a mess,” Lisa told me. But in the end, they had usable (“freeway grade”) compost. Matter of Trust even got a grant from Patagonia to sell the final product at Costco.

This adventure was one of the first large-scale, high-profile attempts at mycoremediation — a scientific method that enlists fungus to restore and clean the industrial waste of modern society. Mushrooms famously thrive on all that is dead, decaying and toxic. Myco-remediation evangelists believe they can tackle everything from chemical spills to household trash. 

But the Cosco Busan spill wasn’t exactly a success story. It was, at best, a “feasibility study,” as Lisa put it, or in Thomas’s words: a “poorly designed prototype.” The fungi alone did not biodegrade the bunker fuel, and on the whole, the process had been labor-intensive, bulky, messy, variable and slow. Moreover, it did not fit into existing bureaucratic and legal processes, and whatever money was earned back by selling the compost was not enough to provide a financial incentive. 

In short, mycoremediation was a hard sell in a system that values efficiency and standardization above all else. But the enthusiasm for the technique was undiminished. A movement was growing, one focused on that almost archetypal image of the mushroom fruiting from a clump of oil-soaked earth, transforming toxin into life.  

“Myco-remediation evangelists believe mushrooms can tackle everything from chemical spills to household trash.”

Although the idea of using fungi to break down pollutants has been around for some time, the popularization of mycoremediation as a grassroots, citizen-science initiative owes much to Stamets, arguably the founding figure of DIY mycology. Before the burst of mycophilic media in the last five years and going back some four decades, Stamets was the person who best conveyed the awe-inspiring potential of fungi. His books grounded the fungal enthusiasm of counterculture in actual scientific knowledge and skills — first with two canonical cultivation manuals, and then with “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.”

Equal parts scientific textbook, instructional manual and spiritual manifesto, “Mycelium Running” is focused on relatively low-tech, ecologically beneficial applications for fungi, interwoven with what can only be described as a mycological view of life and the universe. Stamets is gifted at waxing lyrical about mycelium, which he describes as “vast sentient cellular membranes” that we walk on in every “lawn, field or forest floor.” In the opening chapter, he posits that mycelium is “the living network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists.” (“Gaia’s internet,” he calls it.) Even the fabric of the universe looks like mycelium. He writes:

Enlisting fungi as allies, we can offset the environmental damage inflicted by humans. … I believe we can come into balance with nature using mycelium to regulate the flow of nutrients. … Now is the time to ensure the future of our planet and our species by partnering, or running, with mycelium.

Stamets was and still is something of a circus barker for the fungal kingdom, standing outside the big top, inviting passersby to see the wonders within. The new Star Trek named a character after him — an “astromycologist” and expert in the fleet’s “spore drive propulsion system.” His writing and lectures (many of which are online) crystallized the mystical view of mycelium as conscious and beneficent and the idea of fungi as “allies,” all delivered with a beguiling mixture of scientific language and spiritual reverence.

“Mycelium Running,” published in 2005, inspired countless readers with its descriptions of how to use fungi for ecological restoration. In the years after the hair-mat experiment, groups of mushroom enthusiasts began forming to experiment with these methods. An American in Ecuador even founded a shoestring nonprofit, the Amazon MycoRenewal Project, to clean up oil spills left behind by Texaco there. 

In 2014, as a graduate student in anthropology, I joined one of these groups in the Bay Area — an informal organization that I’ll call the Fungal Alliance of the Bay (FAB), a pseudonym — as part of my fieldwork. Almost everyone in FAB had been inspired by Stamets and the promise of mycoremediation. As one FAB member told me, “Mycelium Running” “blew his mind,” especially “the remediative potentials.” Groups like FAB were keen to bring mycological know-how to the masses, for both personal and communal use. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and in the spirit of participant observation, I became one of them.

Over time, a cottage industry of classes on mycoremediation cropped up, taught by people like Tradd Cotter, the author of a book called “Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation,” and Peter McCoy, co-founder of a far-left collective called Radical Mycology, based in the Pacific Northwest, and author of his own book called “Radical Mycology.” The curriculum in these classes was as much about the philosophy and possibilities of DIY mycology as it was about technical instruction. This message of possibility, wonder and hope mixed with hard science felt like a distinct rhetorical form. I began to see these teachers as “myco-vangelists,” preaching the good word about mushrooms. They found sympathetic audiences in a national circuit of mycological festivals, a network of permaculture farms and centers and other like-minded hosts.

For many people in FAB and similar groups, learning how to cultivate mushrooms was just the first step toward learning how to “train” a specific fungus to consume toxins. FAB’s makeshift lab, at a local biohacker space, has been home to a few attempts to get Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), famously voracious, to eat motor oil. I remember one day finding petri dishes of agar half-soaked in motor oil on the shelves — an oil spill in miniature — with a small square of fungal tissue (a clump of the interior of a stem or cap) off to the side, beginning to put out its first tendrils. The lab even had a culture of Pestalotiopsis microspora, the fungus that can break down polyurethane; someone had gotten it in the mail after contributing to a Kickstarter campaign. 

Throughout my fieldwork, mycoremediation was a puzzle to me. In spite of all the books and classes and excitement, there were few cases in which it had been documented as a measurable, consistent and (most importantly) replicable process. And yet, it continued to be celebrated as a potentially game-changing “myco-technology.” Why wasn’t it being applied at all the polluted sites around us? 

In the “hands-on” workshops that I took in that time, the targets for remediation tended to be rather pedestrian, like the motor oil that drips off car engines in parking lots or the cigarette butts collected in an ashtray. These projects felt miniscule relative to the scale of toxic waste on our planet. This is not to say that such small-scale remediation projects were not worthwhile, or not meaningful, but they did not seem to match the enthusiasm that the method aroused in people. 

Nearly a decade later, the idea of mycoremediation has echoed far and wide. It is often mentioned in books and articles about fungi, usually in a catalog of potential applications. Less often mentioned are the difficulties and limitations that have also emerged alongside it. 

In fact, just a few months into my fieldwork, I found to my surprise that some FAB members quietly doubted the technique worked at all. Glen, a retired engineer, told me that he had suspected from the beginning that “using mushrooms for remediation was likely to be a flop.” He noted dryly that even Stamets was not working on mycoremediation and had quietly moved on to other projects. Andy, a widely respected taxonomist, told me that he “used to believe in it” until John, an old-timer in the local amateur mycology scene, told him (as he recounted in a stage whisper), “‘Don’t ever tell anyone this, but it’s a bunch of bullshit!’” 

When it comes to biochemistry, the rift between something that “works” and something that’s “a bunch of bullshit” is usually stark. If not self-evident, the difference between these two categories is usually discernable on some level of material, evidence-based reality. The thing was, mycoremediation did “work” in petri dishes and garden-sized projects; it was at large scales, like oil spills or superfund sites, where it seemed to falter or couldn’t get off the ground at all. 

“My interviews with mushroom enthusiasts were littered with exclamations of awe — many variations on ‘and then I was like, whoa!!’”

Over two years of ethnographic fieldwork, I spent hours peering into the sealed environment of petri dishes and mason jars while exclaiming in wonder at the snow-white threads of mycelium growing within. In its first stages, mycelium radiates outward like a slow-motion starburst, explosions of cellular growth. It has an ambiguous beauty, strikingly symmetrical, organic and otherworldly at the same time. Most enthralling was when the radial growth broke out and sprouted fleshy tendrils (primordia, otherwise known as baby mushrooms), a process called “pinning,” as they often look like tiny pins emerging from a two-dimensional surface — or, in the case of a species like Lion’s Mane, they curl in all directions like some kind of albino sea creature. 

Like all the FAB members, I too became weirdly attached to my jars, in which a fungal culture slowly colonized the substrate (usually a grain mixture), turning dense and white with mycelium. I once brought a “burrito” of corrugated cardboard inoculated with wild Oyster mushrooms that I’d harvested in the Oakland hills on a road trip with me, storing it in a plastic bin in the trunk of my car. I opened the lid to mist it with water twice a day and check its growth. I wanted to see if I could get it to fruit (produce mushrooms), but sadly, I composted it in Colorado.

FAB members and I would stand around each other’s makeshift labs, in kitchens and garages or in the converted utility closet at the local biohacker space, wondering over petri dishes and mason jars and plastic bags filled with myceliated substrate. My interviews with them (about their life stories and ideas about mushrooms, nature, science) were littered with exclamations of awe — many variations on “and then I was like, ‘whoa!!’” These jolts of wonder were embedded in a sustained enthusiasm for fungal lifeforms. The cognitive-affective pleasures of curiosity and fascination carried moral and aesthetic meanings too: Fungi epitomized interconnection, interspecies symbiosis, nonhuman intelligence and the cycles of decomposition and generation that characterize healthy ecosystems. They resonated as models of how to live sustainably on this planet. 

Much of their interest in applied mycology had to do with waste: making less of it and using fungi to break down what had already been produced, both toxic and benign. “Waste streams” was a key term in the vocabulary of DIY mycology. An ideal scenario was to use some kind of waste stream as substrate to grow mushrooms, thereby sending less trash to landfills.

Most of the DIY mycologists that I met during my fieldwork were committed to ecological lifestyles and social and economic justice. Fungi was at the intersection of their political, environmental and personal concerns: It could fortify soil and lower the use of pesticides, provide a model of connection for our increasingly fragmented and lonely society, heal psychological trauma and chronic illness, remediate the toxins of industrial society and much more. Their wonder and excitement were animated by anxieties, hopes and dreams about what was possible for human society as we moved away from fossil fuels, over-consumption and environmental pollution and toward sustainable lifestyles in balance with our surrounding ecosystems. 

Or at least, that was the vision.

“It is precisely their proximity to death and decay that affords fungi their charismatic power today.”

Today, we can see clearly the destruction wrought by industrial modernity: the climate crisis, mass biodiversity and habitat loss, widespread pollution, economic disparities, political instability, ethno-nationalism. The whole system seems to be in crisis. The anthropologist Kim Fortun calls this stage of global capitalism, with its omnipresent disasters, “late industrialism.” 

Fortun notes that one of the defining characteristics of late industrialism is a focus on production, property and boundaries while ignoring the way manmade products “migrate and trespass” — into the air, water, soil and our bodies. The plastic bottle doesn’t remain a plastic bottle; the components of production don’t remain in the factories. Along with the products we produce — the measured, quantifiable, documented commodity — comes the remnants of everything used to create them. As the Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman put it, two trucks leave the factory: One carries the products going to the marketplace, the other carries the trash going to landfill. But we only count the first truck, not the second — and certainly not the smokestack, the chemical flows. The result is a form of “slow violence” (as Rob Nixon describes it), where damage, like the gradual rise in rates of cancer, is not immediately obvious, making it much easier for the perpetrator to avoid accountability.

Something that has fulfilled its intended use and is discarded doesn’t vanish into thin air. It moves out of sight — to a landfill, a garbage patch in the ocean, perhaps burned. These afterlives, distributed across ecosystems and interrelated lifecycles (including our own), are seemingly impossible for the logic of industrial capitalism to grasp. 

Fungi — with their delicate, wisp-like threads of mycelium and their hobbit-home fruit bodies — offer another perspective. They embody an ecological paradigm of objects and phenomena in relationship with their surroundings, as part of feedback loops and lifecycles, in which diversity is critical to a system’s robustness. 

This embodiment is key to understanding the affective experiences of wonder and enthusiasm that fungi generate. The fungal form illustrates the interwovenness of ecosystems and the realization that nothing, nor any process, can be disconnected from and unaffected by the whole. Fungi materialize such complex systems. We see this most clearly in the conceptual and practical relationship between fungi and waste. They stand as a countermodel to the inability of our present system to make sense of (to digest, so to speak) the entirety of its products. 

“The power of fungi — to transform, destroy, deconstruct and resurrect — holds an almost sacred allure as industrial modernity falls apart at the seams and we are left to face its mess.”

It is precisely their proximity to death and decay that affords fungi their charismatic power today. Across cultures, they are often associated with otherworldly forces — gods, stars, witches, fairies, ghosts and other nonhuman spirits. In this association, mushrooms recall the philosophical concept of the pharmakon, something that is dangerous and powerful in its indeterminacy, its latent potential to be destructive or beneficial. 

Today, this ambiguous association is slanted toward hope. As McCoy writes in “Radical Mycology”: “From the mycelium we have come, to its web shall we return to be embraced, dissolved and recomposed.” Fungus’s vast, benevolent, delicate, living web mingles with death and decay and can both destroy and revitalize; in this sense, fungi seem to possess the ultimate transformative power. 

Fungi are inherently involved in what the scholar William Ian Miller called “life soup”: the unavoidably interrelated processes of decomposition and fertility, of death and life. In their phallic form, occasional sliminess and stinkiness (like the species that spread their spores by emitting an odor of carrion to attracts flies), and their sudden appearance and rapid decomposition, mushrooms often inhabit an uncanny valley between obscene, gross and alien, between the natural and the supernatural. As the crucial, mediating link between mortality and fecundity, fungi somehow embody and transcend both. 

It is this positionality that gives fungi their power, be it auspicious or nefarious. Oscar, one of my interlocutors from FAB, described them eloquently as “the pallbearers of nature”: They carry out the dead from the world of the living. They “deal with death,” as he put it, and with those aspects of modern life that are normally shunted aside, separated out, sent away.

In short, the aura of potential surrounding fungi, so closely intertwined with the capacity for transformation, is not solely about psilocybin or biomaterials or remediation. It is a reflection of fungi’s underlying power. Some can kill you in a few days, some can cause debilitating diseases (as Emily Monosson documents in her recent book “Blight”), and some can generate life-changing experiences of divinity.

Thus the power of fungi — to transform, destroy, deconstruct and resurrect — holds an almost sacred allure as industrial modernity falls apart at the seams and we are left to face its mess.

“Fungus’s vast, benevolent, delicate, living web mingles with death and decay and can both destroy and revitalize; in this sense, fungi seem to possess the ultimate transformative power.”

By the end of my fieldwork, mycoremediation’s original sheen of promise had worn off but a patina of wondrousness remained. The Amazon MycoRenewal Project had changed its name and shifted away from a focus on fungi to other means of ecological restoration; similarly, teachers on the DIY mycology circuit began to introduce mycoremediation with careful caveats before diving into its myriad possibilities. 

People were realizing that fungi require other organisms (bacteria, worms, plants) to be able to biodegrade toxins, and that this was done best by professional scientists who had the time, resources and knowledge to hypothesize, calibrate, test and measure. Even then, buy-in from authorities remained difficult — but not impossible. Environmental scientists, bioengineers and remediation specialists continue to experiment with fungi in their arsenal of bioremediative agents, while new start-ups continue to search for ways to make mycoremediation a viable business model. 

Similarly, DIY mycologists have over the years implemented a seemingly endless series of prototypes and simple installations to demonstrate that fungi can, in fact, consume toxins. Undeterred by the difficulties in scale, replication and economic feasibility, many still see the method as promising — a means, as Stamets put it, to use fungi to “offset the environmental damage inflicted by humans.” And their work, despite its limitations, captures the imagination much more than thermophilic composting or those meal worms that eat Styrofoam. 

In 2015, I took Tradd’s mycoremediation workshop at the Telluride Mushroom Festival. Under the placid gaze of three giant elks’ heads hanging on wood-paneled walls in a local lodge, Cotter helped me realize that part of the method’s appeal was its innate ecological drama — it enacts a wondrous, hopeful and empowering process. In these small, clearly delineated, closed environments — so unlike complex, large-scale, real-world scenarios — the petri dish, mason jar or barrel acted like a stage, making us an audience to amazing displays. 

Tradd spent much of the workshop explaining how you can train a fungus to eat chemicals that it would not usually consume, using elaborate metaphors (often involving pizza) and self-effacing jokes to explain what causes fungi to produce enzymes that can break down carbon-rich molecules. He included many photos of mushrooms growing out of odd substrates (like an old bowling ball) that he harvested and cultured for future use, as well as photos of his own in vitro lab experiments, in which he mixed fungal cultures with pesticides, motor oil or bacteria. He said:

My passion is making mixed plates. So I put other organisms on the plates and make little gladiator matches. … That’s more indicative of what’s going on in nature, right? Pure culture mycelium in a lab, it’s not true to remediation. This is fun because then you can set up little gladiator matches and see how that they interact. This is what happens when you don’t have cable. I’ll be honest, I’m desperate for entertainment.

He showed us a slide with a petri dish with a bacterial culture on one side and an Oyster mushroom culture on the other. “Three days later, you have all the bacteria fleeing the scene. You dropped the tiger in the room.” The tiger in this case: the hyphal threads of the Oyster mushroom mycelium radiating outward. In another slide, a puddle of the pesticide Atrazine sat on one side of the agar and on the other side, the fungus. A series of time-lapse photos showed the fungus growing until it stopped in front of the liquid like a line in the sand. 

“All right,” Tradd narrated, “it’s been eating pizza. Now comes the nasty stuff. It gets a whiff of it, it stops. That’s the moment where … it’s saying, ‘If I’m going to stay alive, I need to adapt.’” 

The fungus stayed that way for two days, Tradd said, so he gave up on it. “I said, enough is enough. It’s not going to eat it.” He had plans to try a new plate with less Atrazine to see if it was an issue of ratio. “I left the [old] plate in the incubator and just by chance I came back two days later. Bam.”

There were audible gasps in the lodge. The new photo showed the mycelium expanding into the tiny chemical spill and consuming it. “That gives me goosebumps,” said Tradd. “It just needed time to figure it out.” He had made an animated gif of the fungus devouring the Atrazine in the petri dish. We watched it a few times.

The animated gif was a nice touch, although by that point, I had seen some version of this story multiple times. Each time, it was awesome: It seemed momentous and promising. And each time, it was framed as a prototype, an illustration of a possibility, a suggestion for future experimentation. 

We seemed stuck in a state of latent potential. After Tradd’s workshop, I began to wonder if this seemingly secondary aspect of mycoremediation — how cool it was to look at, how entertaining it is to watch — was not secondary at all. Rather than a realistic method for widescale remediation, it was, in practice, a kind of theater. Not in any trivial sense, but quite the contrary — as a medium of mythic truth. 

Like those terrible spectacles of the ancient world that Tradd referenced, these “gladiator matches” were both entertainment and displays of power. They staged a hyperreal enactment of justice and fate, with an audience looking on through the translucent walls of a petri dish or mason jar, a kind of Persian miniature depicting the heroic ability of fungi to slay the monsters of our time.

It’s no wonder that so much of the art made with mushrooms explores this very capacity. “Fungal Futures,” a 2016 exhibit that was perhaps the first major event to showcase fungal art and design, featured many pieces that were grown on some kind of waste or that incorporated biodegradation into the art itself. Katharina Unger’s artwork “Fungi Mutarium,” a domed incubator with tiny pods made from agar that house fungal cultures, was described as “a prototype that grows edible fungal biomass” on plastic waste. And then there was Jae Rhim Lee’s “mushroom burial suit”: a full-body garment embroidered with undulating white lines resembling mycelium and inoculated with fungi bred to decompose corpses as well as the environmental pollutants that accrue in the human body itself. 

Amateurs and artists are not beholden to the norms of objectivity that characterize science as a social institution. Their awe-inspiring rhetoric and invocations of possibility are a different kind of performance, more akin to a preacher who inspires feelings of wonder, grace and fervor in their audience. As Stamets wrote in “Mycelium Running,” “We felt we had witnessed a mycomiracle: Life was flowering upon a dead, toxic landscape.” 

This “witnessing” is essential to understanding the appeal of mycoremediation. Mycovangelists stage what the philosopher of science Andrew Pickering called, in his book on cybernetics, “ontological theater”: using science and technology to showcase the possibility of another reality, another way of being. Prototypes, then, are not simply technical, but almost incantory in nature. Although mycoremediation may have failed to achieve large-scale applications, it still works as an inspiring display of the power of fungi — its capacity for transformation, its ability to turn death into life.

“Rather than a realistic method for widescale restoration, mycoremediation was a kind of theater. Not in any trivial sense, but quite the contrary — as a medium of mythic truth.”

Only days before Tradd’s workshop, a tailings pond at a decommissioned gold mine just 10 miles from Telluride was accidentally unplugged (by EPA workers, ironically). Three million gallons of mine waste, mostly heavy metals, poured into Cement Creek and then the Animas River, turning the water an opaque yellow for days. Travis, a local DIY mycologist who co-taught the workshop with Tradd, was visibly depressed over the spill. He told me later that he knew the river well and often spent time there with his son. In truth, it was only a matter of time before the mine waste escaped its holding container, either through accident or neglect. This is simply a result of the way the system is designed. 

In most industries today, “remediation” usually means removing industrial waste to somewhere else, pushing it to the margins or dispersing it somehow into air or water — “out of sight and mind,” as Fortun puts it. Another approach is to simply abandon the waste where it is and move on — onto the next mine, the next factory, the next oil field — as was the case with Texaco in Ecuador. Often, the communities that end up dealing with the waste don’t have the political or economic power to fight the commercial interests behind these plans. They, too, are deemed “marginal,” negligible, a rounding error on the corporate budget. 

Fortun and other scholars observe that this form of displacement is not only endemic to our system, it is essential to its functioning — a feature, not a bug. The toxicity of industrial modernity cannot be denied, only ignored. “The strategy,” writes Fortun, “is one of disavowal.” 

“Disavowal” is a term that Fortun borrowed from Freudian psychoanalysis. For Freud, disavowal is the rejection of an aspect of reality whose acknowledgment would be too traumatic or emotionally difficult to face. The disavowed is not unknown nor actively discredited; rather, it is perceived but not acknowledged. It is a willed blindness, something placed outside the frame. In a state of disavowal, “things in reality connected are kept separate. Disavowal operates through disjunction, and refusal to connect.” It is one of the distinguishing characteristics of psychosis as defined by Freudian psychoanalysis. And disavowal, writes Fortun, “is a key corporate tactic of late industrialism.” 

Everyone who takes part in industrial modernity employs some degree of disavowal when it comes to waste. One might even say it is required to navigate our late industrial lives. If we spent every minute thinking about the environmental catastrophe of our society, it would be hard to function. But, of course, it is easier for some than others. The effects of waste and pollution might be everywhere now, but their effects are still unevenly distributed. 

Disavowal, though, is not only about waste. The disavowal of dark truths is arguably a theme of modernity itself. Modern practices around death are revealing in this regard: In many traditional societies, a corpse is kept in the family space until its burial; in most modern societies, the dead body is carted off immediately. Embalming is common to halt (and hide) the process of decay. It is precisely this approach that Lee’s mushroom burial suit is critiquing.

From a fungal vantage point, this system is indeed psychotic. Mycoremediation may not be the systemic intervention that was hoped for, but as an expression of one’s personal concern for our toxified landscape, it is far from insignificant. Rather, it is a tangible way for people without much institutional power to engage in the ongoing fight against environmental damage, to try to contain the disasters seeping around us. As a domestic intervention, mycoremediation is modest but culturally meaningful — a method of repair and reconnection. 

The power of fungi comes from the proximity they have with dark truths: the abject, the mess we need to face, mortality, vitality, kinship. In other contexts, this proximity elicits wariness, but in our current crisis, it holds the possibility of a healing power — a pharmacological power. Fungi can take on the mess and the junk, break it down and transform and incorporate it rather than ignore it. 

True, fungi need a host of other lifeforms to complete their task; they are not the only actors in this drama. But they are emblematic of the process. As one DIY mycologist put it succinctly: “There is no waste in nature, you know. Everything can be reused and everything can be seen as a potential source for someone else.” 

I thought about this often when I spent time with Oscar, a permaculture gardener, and Celeste, an arborist, who were regulars at FAB meetings and events. Their Oakland home was decorated with old posters from punk shows, stencil prints (one of an Amanita phalloides, a beautiful and lethal mushroom) and found art, a Ganoderma shelf mushroom nailed to the wall, a small jungle of plants. In a corner, a series of repurposed window screens hung vertically from the ceiling over a big circular floor fan—a homemade dehydrator. Every time I visited, it was full of mushrooms, plants and flowers: remnants of their wanderings.

One Sunday morning, I showed up to join them on a foray in the local hills. They were still puttering around, thinking about breakfast. Oscar hadn’t slept much — he told me he had been up late reading online mushroom forums. We went out into their backyard where he showed me a gigantic shaggy parasol he had spotted that morning, bigger than his head, its cap so heavy that the weight of it broke the stem. I took a picture of him: goofy face, hair askew, a tattered sweater, gold tooth glinting in the morning sunlight. 

Oscar and Celeste’s backyard was home to many mycological experiments. The shaggy parasol went into a cooler full of ice water, where Oscar broke it up and stirred it in, making an impromptu slurry to reinoculate the garden. A source of awe and delight just a second ago, the mushroom disappeared into a whirl of organic fragments. It was the lifecycle that mattered, not the fruit itself, and Oscar was on to the next thing. 

Among Oscar and Celeste’s projects was a “junk mail digester”: a plastic bin filled with Oyster mushroom spawn, into which they incorporated the constant stream of useless junk mail that arrived at the house — Safeway coupons, catalogs addressed to old roommates, glossy fliers for pizza delivery. Like everyone, they hated junk mail but never knew what to do with it. Before, it would just go in the recycling. Now it sprouted mushrooms.