Mushrooms, Health and Self-Care

paul stamets with a giant mushroom

Before I dive too far into this post, I want to point out that plucking up random mushrooms from your backyard and eating them is a really dumb idea. There are a growing number of known health benefits associated with our fungal friends, but there are plenty of reasons to exercise caution, the most obvious of which being death.

This evening I attended a talk given by Paul Stamets, a world renowned mushroom expert (and famed astromycologist in the upcoming Star Trek movie), at the Moore Theater in Seattle. The program was entitled “Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness,” and it did indeed blow my mind.

I’ve been fascinated recently by research pointing to mushrooms being a significant source of vitamin D. Like humans, mushrooms use sunlight to manufacture the fat-soluble vitamin, and since there are few natural food sources for this essential nutrient, it’s quite intriguing.

But while this particular talk didn’t cover that aspect of mushrooms, the fact that it didn’t simply points to the enormous impact fungi has on human health, and we’re only just beginning to understand its synergistic roles.

Before Paul took the stage wearing a hat made of Amadou mushroom fiber, it was hard not to notice the small table next to the podium, on top of which was a bulging mass hidden beneath a dark cloth.

We all knew what it was, though.

It was a giant Agarikon mushroom, a variety that has fascinated Stamets for decades, and one that he often poses with in photos.

“How can you not spend your entire life studying this?” he said of it as he held it high above his head.

But it isn’t the largest by a long shot.

To date, the biggest known mushroom spans roughly 2,200 acres atop the Blue Mountains in Oregon. The Honey mushroom’s expansive mycelial network lives mostly below ground (there’s approximately one mile of mycelium per cubic inch…say what?), and Paul hypothesizes that its role is one of a “meadow maker,” since the ground above the network contains almost no trees. To get an aerial photograph, Stamets chartered a plane, which had to climb to 14,000 feet (roughly the elevation of Mt. Rainier) in order to capture the entire site.

It’s jaw-dropping when you consider the fact that this is a single organism.

The amount of information that was covered in just a couple of hours could have easily consumed two full days, and I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of gratitude for Stamets, who has devoted his entire life to this subject so that we may have a deeper understanding of the world around us.

So, what does a mushroom expert’s personal collection look like? His culture library includes no less than 700 strains. (I had no idea until today so many even existed.)

From eyebrow-raising topics such as LSD microdosing to stimulate creativity, to mushrooms playing a role in treating cancer, it was hard not to look at fungi in a new way. (And I certainly had no idea that mycelium could break down rocks!)

The real focus of the evenings’s discussion, though, was around the relationship between fungi and bees. And if you’re not concerned about the disturbing reality that we’re losing significant populations of bees (and, incidentally, the cause is pointing directly to our irresponsible use of pesticides), then you should be:

No bees = no food.

As it turns out, the powerful immune boosting properties of mushrooms play a significant role in bee health, and it’s clear we’ll be hearing a lot more about this as time goes on.

But I left the talk feeling a mixture of hope and concern–not just for the plight of the bees, but also for what will likely follow these new research findings: an upturn in the manufacture of single-substance products.

This ongoing obsession with the distillation of nature into single ingredients and compounds is alarming to me. It’s clear that our relationship with the natural world isn’t linear. There aren’t single cause-and-effect outcomes that can be fully understood, yet we continue to extract and distill and reduce our food into substances that later get itemized in food journals. We dissect food and then reassemble it into a nutrient slurry that we deem more suitable.

And we’ve been seeing more and more of this kind of thinking within the supplement industry, which, in my opinion, has become as problematic as big pharma…but that’s a topic for another time.

Our interconnectedness with nature is complex, to say the least. But what if we were meant to nourish our bodies with foods as they exist in the natural world? In all of its complexity? With its thousands of phytochemicals and nutrients (some known, some still unknown)? And with all of its synergistic properties?

Nature is our greatest teacher when it comes to self-care.

But as the clock ticks toward midnight, I’ll have to contemplate all of this later. For now, I think it’s time for a slightly different state of consciousness…sleep.

A Permaculture Oasis: Visiting the Bullock’s Family Homestead

root cellar with wooden door

There’s something very special about the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and it’s no accident that it’s also where the Bullock family has chosen to call home. The Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead on Orcas Island is evidence that human beings are capable of great things.

My husband and I love new experiences, so we chose to spend our 5-year anniversary on their farm. Doug and Sam Bullock, along with a gaggle of their interns welcomed us into their vibrant community. We worked alongside them. We shared meals with them. And we learned with and from them. There was an unspoken mutual understanding that each of us is on a personal journey, and that we are all simply learning and experimenting with this life. There was also a general acceptance that none of us has all the answers, and that we must look to each other for support, guidance and inspiration in order to make the greatest possible contribution.

For more than 30 years, the Bullocks’ have been conscious stewards of the earth, making deliberate decisions about how they interact with their surroundings. Each year, they and their resident interns engage in the seasonal dance of planning, planting, harvesting, and preserving the yields.

The homestead doesn’t look like any traditional garden you’ve ever seen. The entire property is a giant garden. Everywhere you turn, there is a purpose intertwined with a lesson in placement, function and design. In fact, there are multiple reasons behind every element.

One of the most impressive features of the property is an adjacent water inlet that has become an oasis for birds, frogs, insects, fish, sea otters, ducks and other wildlife. Permaculture regards nature as a teacher and seeks to emulate its processes to achieve the greatest good. Using nature as a guide, this area that once supported just a few species is now a thriving ecosystem. And it’s nothing short of rejuvinating to the human spirit. Its beauty was breathtaking.

Throughout our visit, we were jolted out of our thoughts and tasks by the powerful force of flapping wings as flocks of birds took air. Chickens and ducks sang contently and frogs chimed in with background acoustics occasionally while we worked carefully to prepare areas of the garden for the next stage in the cycle. Our task for the day was to winterize the nursery stock and protect it from dipping temperatures and wintry winds.

Another of my favorite features was the root cellar. Not only was it extraordinarily beautiful, but it also serves the essential function of preserving food after the plentiful yields of summer have come to an end. Boxes of apples and canned vegetables filled the shelves of the well-sealed structure.

Craftsmanship is clearly an important value for the Bullocks. From the carefully engineered wood-fired shower and sauna to the numerous life-sustaining back-up systems, it was a reminder that design and function are inseparable.

While we mostly interacted with the food-producing areas of the farm, Doug also provided us with a tour of his personal homestead and garden. This is by no means a hobby farm; it’s a true style of living and a reflection of the family’s values. Doug’s woodworking and blacksmithing skills were stunning, to say the least.

Careful thought has been given to every aspect of this property.

Along with the abundance of biodiversity, sattire and humor were ubiquitous as well. It was both surprising and refreshing to be able to laugh and learn at the same time. The Bullocks turned every task and interaction into a learning opportunity. Questions filled the air, “Does anyone know why we’re mulching around the potted plants?” And answers followed spontaneously, filling in the blanks.

Even after decades of caring for this homestead, enthusiasm and passion have not waned. At one point as we were nestling nursery plants into their new cozy winter home, Sam asked the group, “Has anyone found a plant that they just want to wrap their arms around and hug?!?” He was serious. Several times, we took breaks to listen to Sam’s stories or enjoy a snack – or simply take pride in the job we had just finished. There was a definite sense of balance in our work, both physically and emotionally. Frequently, I felt my cheeks bulge into a smile when someone cracked a permaculture infused joke or made a clever observation.

Observation is a core skill for permaculture design, and fortunately, one that can be learned. Working as part of a group reminded me that we often learn the most by simply watching and listening to one another. Several times, I altered the way I was using my shovel or rake just by watching someone else’s often much more effective technique.

Real food is king at the Bullock’s homestead. Every task and decision revolves around supporting the growth and sustainability of every life there. There is abundance to be shared. My biggest lesson? While each life depends on the resiliency of a system for survival, each life is also responsible for they system’s stability.

Permaculture is a design tool that was developed by Bill Mollison and his student, David Holmgren in the 70’s. Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison is a great primer text if you want to learn more.

Lessons From the Farmhouse

Black and white photo of an old farmhouse

Growing up, I spent most of my summers with my dad on our family’s 145-acre farm in Kimbolton, OH. He and my uncle somehow managed to maintain it while also holding down full-time jobs as letter carriers for the U.S. Postal Service. I still to this day don’t know how they did both of those things.

From what I can tell so far in life, farming is the hardest job there is. It’s tough, both physically and mentally. Animals and crops rely on you, and they don’t care if you’re sick or tired or want to go on vacation. They don’t care if the weather is bad or if you have to work overtime. They need you, and you must be there to care for them.

I learned a lot about life during those summers, and I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to apply all of those lessons in my adult life.

Here are the ones that stand out:

Don’t burn daylight. Start your day before the sun rises. There’s a lot to do and there’s only so much time to do it. Use your time wisely and don’t put things off.

Work your ass off. Don’t just work hard; work your ass off. If you set out to complete a task, do it to the best of your abilities. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” I would hear my dad say with frequency. Hard work promotes good physical health, and being physically tired generally means better sleep.

Seek efficiency. Finding more efficient ways to complete projects not only saves time, but often minimizes physical strain. Repetitive tasks quickly teach you to find faster and easier ways to get the job done. Being unconventional is highly encouraged, in fact. Farmers are innovators and they are great teachers of simplicity. Sometimes I think we make things more complicated than they have to be.

There is much gratitude in the circle of life. Our family raised hogs and cattle. Most of the time we sent them off for processing, but we did a bit of salt-curing ourselves. While I was thankfully not around for the actual butchering process as a child, I knew that it happened. And I was grateful to the animals for what they provided us. Because of that, I have always had a deep appreciation for farmers who raise livestock. Real farmers are humane and care for their animals. Those beautiful creatures were blessings while they were living just as they are blessings after their time has passed.

Use what you have. Sometimes you just have to make do with what you have. If you don’t have the exact tool you need, you have to find another way to do it. You quickly learn to be creative and appreciate what you have–creativity and gratitude are essential farm tools.

Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Getting dirty is a lost art. In our culture being dirty is synonymous with all sorts of negative labels, but in some ways dirt reminds us of our deep connection with the earth. Going barefoot is their way of staying connected to the world. No matter what your beliefs are on footwear, getting a little dirt under your fingernails could even be healthy. As expected, the CDC encourages proper nail hygiene practices, but some believe that a little dirt doesn’t hurt. An article in Scientific American notes that “…a great deal of research has shown that exposure to diverse bacteria or even parasitic worms helps to train and regulate the immune system, preventing it from becoming over-active.” We still have a lot to learn about the symbiotic relationships that exist in our environment, but a little dirt is just fine with me.

Take time to reflect on your accomplishments. The sense of satisfaction I see on my father’s face after he completes a project never ceases to amaze me. A cut field, a trimmed fence line, a painted building…those works of art provide him with a sense of accomplishment and pride. It is a reward in itself to see a job done well, a task crossed off the list. I understand now that reflection is a form of self-motivation. It helps us build confidence and momentum to take on bigger, more complex projects. We feed our inner strength by saying, “I can do it…because I just did!”

Take care of your tools. In line with the “use what you have” mentality, farmers understand that you must take care of your equipment. Cleaning, maintaining, repairing and storing tools out of the weather are the most basic principles of sustaining a farm. As consumers, I suspect we would consume less if we took better care of what we have.

Neighbors are family. In the country, neighbors aren’t just people you wave to from your car window. They are your extended family. They would drop what they are doing to help you, and you would do the same for them. They offer their time and equipment without being asked. They are people that you confide it, laugh with and grieve with. A community doesn’t have to consist of hundreds or thousands or people; it can exist in your own backyard.

These experiences and observations have made me who I am today. In fact, I’ve probably learned even more than I realize. Nature has a way of teaching great lessons when we stop long enough to pay attention. But farmers figured that out a long time ago.