Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What I'm Reading Now-Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (part II)

and I told you about my shudder-inducing incentive to post a review about a book I didn't finish reading a year ago. By the time I got done with that, the post had already gotten a bit lengthy, and I figured no one would stick around for the review, so I thought I'd give you all a break and put the review in a separate post.

So, back to the book: First of all, fungi, mushrooms, mycelium...what's the difference? Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, and mycelium is the network of filaments that connect fungi (you can see an example at 00:55 in the video above).  Secondly, the book is dense, and it is not all easy reading.  There is a lot of really fascinating stuff in it about all the things that mycelium does, but it's also full of a lot of scientific jargon.  I didn't even get through half of the book, and I have three pages of notes from my reading.  The first page is mostly me just trying to keep my vocabulary straight, and the rest is all interesting facts or things that I want to know more about or questions that I came up with while reading. To me, that's often the sign of a good read.

Stamets talks about mycelium's ability to transfer nutrients between plants to help keep balance in an ecosystem, its water purification abilities and how it can help build good soil in no-till farming situations. Fungi has medicinal properties and potential as a natural pesticide against things like carpenter ants, fire ants, and many crop pests. Along with oil spills, there is good evidence that fungi might also be able to reclaim environments compromised by radiation and heavy metals. (This part left me with a lot of questions. The mushrooms seem to sequester and concentrate the undesireable material (for this reason, it's important to know where your mushrooms are coming from--just outside of Chernobyl or Fukushima? might want to pass), but then what? Are the harmful materials somehow metabolized over several generations, or is the area always just full of toxic mushrooms? Stamets suggests harvesting the mushrooms and disposing of them at toxic waste sites, but then we're still left with the toxic sites.) Questions aside, the possibilities seem almost endless, and I think that Hawaii is a place that could benefit greatly from some of the solutions set forth by Stamets.       

Stamets' book is also a how-to guide for growing and using mushrooms.  This was mostly the part of the book that I didn't get to, so I can't really say much about it, but, just from flipping through it, it seems pretty exhaustive. 

I highly recommend this book. In my notes, I wrote that I thought this would be a good companion read to The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen (which I reviewed in 2008) and The Earth Moved by Amy Stewart (which I read and then didn't review last April). 

I'm a huge fan of all the cool things that nature does. It has figured out solutions to things that we have been struggling with for years.  Fungi is one of those cool solutions, and it's neat to see how entwined it is with the rest of the natural world. If, like me, you think nature is cool, you might also enjoy these TED talks:


What I'm Reading Now-Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (part I)

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets--Okay, so I have to start out with a couple disclaimers: 1) I started this book about a year ago and never finished it, BUT I've been dying to talk about it since I finished had to turn it back in to the library. I even went so far as to buy my own copy since the library only has three copies and the wait list for it was always ridiculous...but I never got around to picking it back up. The point is, don't let the fact that I didn't finish it make you think it's not worth picking up. It totally is! 2) This post is all mostly lead-up to the actual book review which is in a separate post. So if you just want to skip all the interesting weirdness that is this post, be my guest, but I think you'll be missing out.

So, why have I finally decided to talk about this book? Well, mostly because of the pile of ants that were swarming my hair clip on my bathroom counter tonight. "Eh?" you say? Oh, sorry, "Ew," you say? Well, yeah. This has actually happened a few times over the last several years now. The first time was when we owned an ice cream store and I thought perhaps I had accidentally gotten some ice cream on my hair clip while I was hunched up on the top shelf of our walk-in cooler trying to de-ice the back of our condenser unit with a blow torch. (Yeah, that happened...frequently.) Aaaanyway, the ant swarms continue to this day even though we sold the store several years ago, so I have discarded the ice-cream-on-my-hair-clip theory and moved toward the theory that the ants are mining the rubber that makes up the grippy surface on the inside of the hair clips because it's petroleum-based. Obvs.


OK, first, watch this TED talk by the author, Paul Stamets. This is what made me seek out the book in the first place. I know it's 18 minutes, but it's an interesting 18 minutes. Mushrooms can do amazing things! (If you really don't want to sit through all 18 minutes, then skip ahead to 7:32 and watch until 9:40). That was the part that intrigued me the most and made me want to learn more.

OK, so you saw how the mushrooms ate up the oil, right? You may also know that ants are somewhat famous for being fungi farmers.  So, what I'm thinking is that the ants have figured out that there is this petroleum-based product that they can harvest and use to grow some kind of fungus. Makes sense, right? By the way, they don't only go after my hair clips. I've also seen them tear up surgical tubing and various types of seals on containers. It doesn't happen slowly over time either; it's not like I have to shake a pile of ants off my hair clips every time I go to use them. (Ick!) They (my hair clips) will exist on my bathroom counter or my nightstand, in my purse or on the desk next to my keyboard, in and out of my hair, unmolested for months, maybe even years, and then one day, BOOM! Hair-clip-shaped pile of ants! The only thing I can figure is that the rubber breaks down to a certain point where it suddenly becomes the perfect fungus-starter and the ants move in to take advantage. 

So: Ants mining rubber to grow fungus. That wasn't in the book (at least not in the parts that I read), and I think I might be onto something here. Maybe Paul Stamets will do some studies on this and get back to me! 

OK, so feel free to take a break here, or move on to part II, wherein I actually talk a little bit about the book.