I was at a summer arts camp on Lake Ontario when I got the good news the night of July 20, 1969. Word had travelled from the counsellors to the kids that Apollo 11 had reached the moon. NASA had shepherded three astronauts through millions of miles in space, allowing Neil Armstrong to make his “…one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I remember lying on my bunk bed that night, looking through a window at the night sky, marvelling that there were people on the lunar surface. For a kid hooked on comic books about superheroes and space creatures, it was a Marvel fantasy come true. As I drifted off to sleep, it seemed there were no limits to what adults could do.
And it seemed that, at the time, a lot of adults thought the same thing. According to writer Loren Eiseley, within a week of NASA’s triumph, a US senator crowed, “We are masters of the universe. We can go anywhere we choose.” In the jubilee year of American technological triumph, it seemed more a statement of fact than outright hubris. But scientists, if not senators, knew that travelling to the moon was like visiting a next-door neighbour, astronomically speaking. Mars would be a cross-country road trip and the closest star would be a slow boat to China – that is, if the boat were a shoebox and the pilot a mouse.
Ah, the masters of the universe. Nearly two decades after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left their footprints in the Sea of Tranquility, the cartoon series Masters of the Universe debuted, based on a line of toys bearing the same name. Writer Tom Wolfe subsequently reworked the expression to describe Wall Street’s best and brightest in his 1988 novel Bonfire of the Vanities. The cartoons and toys are distant memories now, but “masters of the universe” lives on, as jokey shorthand for briefcase-carrying barbarians in the financial market, who wreak havoc on everything from pension funds to national economies at the touch of a keypad. Computers, the most significant spawn of the space age, allow us to do things that much faster than ever before, MOTU’s included.
As a kid, I was caught up in the frenzy of technological optimism of the Apollo missions. My faith in American know-how, can-do and tally-ho got mixed up in my young head with a lot of other pop culture baggage, including Marvel’s Manhattan-based superheroes. Vietnam, Watergate and other manned missions to nowhere finished off that faith. The stretching superpower of the Fantastic Four’s scientist leader, Reed Richards, was nothing compared to the rubbery congressional testimony of Iran-Contra conspirator Oliver North and other Reagan administration super villains.
There’s no denying the incredible triumph of the Apollo missions. But with the perspective of time, it’s ironic that even while we were proudly sending our insect-like lunar modules to the moon, we remained ignorant of tens of thousands of species on our own planet – the real alien life close by. Creatures like sea floor tubeworms and sulfur-metabolizing shrimp were still years away from being discovered, as was Oregon’s “humongous fungus.”
I learned of the latter just recently over lunch with a friend who described the discovery, in 2000, of a gigantic fungus in Eastern Oregon, growing three feet underground and covering 2,200 acres, or 1,600 football fields. “They knew it was the same organism because the examined the DNA at both ends. Can you imagine being a creature seven miles in size?” my friend asked.
Sure, I said, responding with a lame remark about the late Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.
As I later discovered, Armillaria ostoyae is commonly known as a Honey mushroom and sometimes called Shoestring Rot. The threadlike mycelium attacks the sapwood and is capable of travelling great distances under the bark or between trees in the form of black rhizomorphs, or “shoestrings.” The 2,200-acre organism in Malheur National Forest in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon isn’t just the largest fungal colony in the world. As far as we know, it’s the biggest organism on the planet. This whopper has a total mass estimated as much as 605 tons, although its mycelial net is only one-cell thick. It’s estimated to be 2,400 years old, though it could be up to three times that age. Its nearest competitor in size is another Armillaria ostoyae found infecting Ponderosa pine in eastern Washington State in 1992. It covered 1,500 acres.
The humongous fungus of the Pacific Northwest is so odd, you might even call it a kind of ultra terrestrial life. Who needs to go into space to look for alien beings?
Of course, when we think of fungi at all, it’s usually with a mix of aversion and revulsion. Mushrooms, mold, yeast and mildew are all forms of fungi. The occasional encounter with the brightly coloured mystery at the back of the fridge is quite enough for most of us. We would prefer that fungi didn’t exist at all, Portobello mushrooms notwithstanding.
The truth is fungi are much more interesting than we give them credit for. The fruiting bodies of common forest-floor fungi, or mushroom caps, are the delivery system for the spores. When the mushroom dies, it sporulates. A mycelial network, the vegetative part of the fungus, appears under the ground. Mycelium infuses all landscapes, holding soil together with their cobwebbed network of filaments, allowing microbial communities to grow in the interstices.
In a single cubic inch of soil there can be eight miles of mycelium. Take a walk through the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and some of the places where your foot falls may cover hundreds of miles of mycelia. They don’t just literally keep things together underground. They transfer nutrients from alder and birch trees to cedars, hemlocks and Douglas firs, mediating a kind of soil-based socialism among coniferous trees.
“The world is a vast, living, interconnected being,” my friend pronounced during lunch, using the humongous fungus as an example. British chemist James Lovelock’s theory, that planet Earth is self-regulating system, probably isn’t the half of it. What new discovery about nature is just around the corner, highlighting how limited our knowledge has been – and likely always will be?
Wherever we travel in the universe, hightailing it away from Mother Earth, we can be sure our native ignorance will follow, along with Murphy’s law.
From “alien species” that decimate local sea life when they are dumped from ships’ ballasts, to the Frankenstein-like problems of cloning and recombinant technologies, to the radioactive legacy of depleted uranium, it seems we’re never quite smart enough to foresee the long-term side effects of our grand schemes and brilliant inventions. Ronald Wright, author of the A Short History of Progress, calls it “the revenge of the tools.”
All things considered, I think I have a bit more faith in the humongous fungus’ age-old biotech.
In 2005, President Bush called to land humans on the moon by 2020. NASA hopes to spend $100 billion on the “Constellation program,” putting four astronauts on the lunar surface within 12 years, as a stepping stone to a manned mission to Mars. A new lunar orbiter set to launch in late 2008 will study the moon for a planned human-staffed outpost.
Of course, unmanned probes can accomplish as much or more for a bare fraction of the cost – look at NASA’s Spirit rover, still rolling around like R2D2 on the Martian surface and sending back data to Earth, 10 times longer than its best-before date. So the latest lunar lunacy isn’t so much about science. It’s about corporate welfare for the aerospace industry, patriotic whoopee, and the PNAC-inspired domination of space.
Daft as it is (especially considering the Sisyphean US federal debt of $44 trillion), the mooted moon/Mars missions trade on some heavy-duty narratives – specifically the story about God booting Adam and Eve from Eden. In its updated, secular version, the exit from the garden is voluntary, as we leave the overpopulated, toxic Earth behind for distant worlds.
I’m reminded of the bumper-sticker, “Earth First: We’ll destroy the other planets later.”
There is skepticism that NASA will be given enough funds to pull off an actual manned moon mission. But with the urgent priorities at home, such Space Age ballyhoo seems rather dated, and dangerous. It makes us Homo sap seem little more than a mindlessly replicating virus, threatening its planetary host, as Agent Smith contemptuously remarked to Morpheus in The Matrix.
Or how about a fungus? A contributor from the 2005 blog called The Broad View offered a mycelial metaphor for Republicans: “Today, American democracy is stunted and dying, eaten by a vast, hidden fungus that is attacking the roots of our liberties. It could be called Armillaria ostoyae Republicanus and its fruiting bodies are Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Armitage, Gonzales, Libby, DeLay, Abramoff and many more clumps of poisonous deathcaps in Congress and the state houses. Their trail of spores leads to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, black sites, NSA listening posts, paid journalist shills, dubious election practices, crony corruption, gerrymandered districts and institutionalized lying and intimidation.”
Dick Cheney may seem more fungi than fun guy, but I think the Republican comparison is unfair – unfair to fungus, that is. We’ve certainly got problems with warmongering fabulists, but we should leave the mycelial networks out of it. Besides, the “fruiting caps” of Gonzalez, Libby, Delay and Abramoff have all either resigned or been indicted. Barring any surprises, the rest of the crew has only nine months to go, though their legacy of inflated executive power, domestic surveillance and hi-tech lobbying will likely outlast them.
Republicans and mushrooms, like Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect. But an American author and mycologist based in Washington State is working on changing people’s perceptions about fungi. It’s an uphill battle, Paul Stamets told an audience at a March 2008 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Long Beach, California. “Frankly, I face a big problem when I mention mushrooms to somebody. People think I mean either Portobello or magic mushrooms; their eyes glaze over and they think I’m a little crazy.” Stamets, who is on the editorial board of The International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms and an advisor to the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School, has become the world’s biggest cheerleader for mycelial networks.
Dressed in jeans and a vest, the bearded scholar told his audience the planet is now in its sixth major extinction period. “If there were a United Nations of organisms, would we be voted on the planet or off the planet? I think that vote is occurring right now.” Yet Stamets isn’t interested in prophesying human extinction. He believes civilization’s late-stage salvation is literally under our feet, out in the rainforests.
Stamets believes mycelia are an under-utilized component of permaculture. He calls them “the grand molecular disassemblers of nature” and “the soil magicians,” that generate the humus soils across the landmasses of earth. They can hold 30,000 times their own mass. “The spongy soil not only resists erosion but sets up a microbial universe that gives rise to a plurality of other organisms.”
In his talk, Stamets drew attention to an overhead slide of a mycelium’s microfiltration membranes, resembling a network of neurons. We exhale carbon dioxide; so does mycelium. We inhale oxygen; so does mycelium. Animalia – the kingdom we share with cats, dogs, insects and lobsters – is closer to fungi than any other kingdom. We share the same pathogens, which explains why fungi produce strong antibiotics.
Stamets went on to show pictures of an experiment he coordinated with Battelle laboratories on soil reclamation, using our piles of garbage, saturated with diesel and other petroleum wastes. One was a control pile; one pile was treated with enzymes; another pile was treated with bacteria; and the last pile was inoculated with mushroom mycelium. Six weeks later, the tarps were removed. All were dark, rank piles of waste, with the exception of Stamets’ pile, a tan-coloured heap covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms.
The mycelium had absorbed the oil, producing enzymes that break carbon bonds. “The enzymes remanufactured the hydrocarbons into carbohydrates – fungal sugars.” It was one of the epiphanies in Stamets’ life, he says. The mushrooms sporulated; “Spores attract insects, insects lay eggs, eggs became larvae, birds then came, brining in seeds, and our pile became an oasis of life. The mycelia are gateway species, vanguard species, that open the door for other biological communities.
“Preserving the genome of these fungi in the old growth forest is absolutely critical for human health,” Stamets told his TED audience.
Stamets is a great proponent of the medicinal properties of mushrooms, and according to an entry in Wikipedia, is involved in two NIH-funded clinical studies on cancer and HIV treatments using mushrooms as adjunct therapies. At the TED conference, he unveiled the findings that fungal antibiotics aggressively combat both the common flu and virus smallpox. He has numerous patents on the antiviral, pesticidal, and remedial properties of mushroom mycelia, including a method of protecting people’s houses from Carpenter ants using mycelium.
He also insists that mycelium offers a way around our corn-based biofuel impasse, one of the factors in the global rise of food prices. The economic distortions stem from the inefficient conversion of cellulose into ethanol. Mycelium, which can turn biowaste into carbohydrates, offers a far better option for biofuel than ethanol, he says.
In the early 1990s, Stamets proposed that mycelium is our planet’s natural Internet. He argues that nodes and branching and redundant pathways are common to both. “I believe the invention of the computer Internet is the inevitable consequence of a previously proven, biologically successful node,” the author told his TED audience.
Is Stamets reading a bit too much into his mycelial networks – like the proverbial guy with a hammer who sees every problem as a nail? Yet there’s no denying he’s talking about some very old, and very hardy, biotech, with some amazing properties. And we are the newcomers, after all. If the history of life were compressed into a month, with one day equal to 150 million years, modern human beings appeared only in the last 10 minutes of day 30. All of human history is found in the final three seconds. All of our science is a third of a second long. The fungi, which arrived on the scene weeks prior to us, even before the plants – which could not exist until fungi could crumble rock down into soil with their powerful acids – have had plenty of time to figure out their silent, stealthy form of bioregionalism.
As a species, we pride ourselves on our technical feats. Yet billions of years before our ancestors scratched out the phases of the moon on pieces of ivory, lowly, one-celled creatures were experiencing their own triumph of the nerds. “Informationally linked microorganisms possessed a skill exceeding the capacities of any supercomputer from Cray Research or Fujitsu,” notes polymath scholar Howard Bloom in his book The Global Brain. “The microbrial global brain - gifted with long range transport, data trading, genetic variants from which to pluck fresh secrets and the ability to reinvent genomes – began its operations some 91 trillion bacterial generations before the birth of the Internet,” Bloom writes.
Beginning in the eighties, a small number of brave thinkers, like James Lovelock and cell biologist Lynn Margulis, began to think of Earth’s biosphere in a new way: as a supremely intelligent meta-system of interdependent organisms. The theory was radical then, but is almost respectable now and is starting to find its way into practical applications. Across the world, urban planners, policy analysts and materials scientists are studying biological systems for clues on how to make things work, with minimal environmental impact. We’re starting to see the first results, in our streets, our building and our homes. And why not? Plants were the original solar power providers, fungi the masters of filtration, nutrient transport, and bioremediation, and bacteria the gurus of open-source biotech. We could do a lot worse than take our cue from the planet’s hardiest survivors. All we have to do is avoid hare-brained schemes like using agricultural land for growing biofuels.
For Stamets, it’s all about symbiosis: “Being ecologically intelligent about our fuel system, and building up the carbon bands for the planet, to renew the soils for the species we need to join with. I think engaging mycelium can help save the world.” The TED audience gave the mycologist a standing ovation.
Science fiction writer H. G. Wells once observed that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. The educator, as ever, is that harsh matron, Mother Earth. By now, it’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be said, but until we fix the mess at home, escape to other worlds is not a realistic option.
It’s time to stop crying for the moon and get back to work in the garden.