The Forest is Listening

Donna Haraway states that the interspecies and interkingdom folding together inside of a given assemblage can produce new multi-individual entities that bind to one another, communicate and whose development is then tied to one another (Haraway, 65).

Humankind and mushroomkin have such a relationship.

My argument is more esoteric than Haraway’s, of course, as I contend that mushroomkin are an intelligent spirit-form capable of significant agency (and indeed, having a history of agency that stretches back into antiquity). We are drawn to the simplest of mushrooms when walking in the woods or mowing our lawns. They pull our eye and our attention and we stare at them. Most of us not knowing their identity other than ‘mushroom,’ but we are nonetheless entranced. This entity is not dead matter, it is matter inspired and in possession of animacy and our own agency recognizes the mushroom’s ‘game.’ (Schaechter, 41) We all have an inkling of how a mushroom ‘works’ and we are impressed by its mechanisms. Take its efforts to propagate its own species. Elio Schaechter informs us that:

“A middle-sized mushroom with a four-inch cap may produce on the order of 20 billion spores over a period of four to six days, at a rate of some 100 million per hour.” (Schaechter, 43)

For the magic-user, this is a lesson in probability enhancement. We notice its geotropism, a trick it employs even after it has been plucked (Schaechter, 43) and we recognize its agency on an intuitive level. The mushroom keeps its cap upright so that its spore-sigils have a better chance to find their way to an ideal geo-temporal moment. Schaechter describes it as such:

“Spore dispersal is an example of conspicuous production. In this case, lavishness is necessary… There is lavishness also in the variety of forms in which mushrooms serve as dispersers.” (Schaechter, 47-48)

This concept of lavishness has potential for magical tech, lavishness of production and lavishness of technique — this is a very chaos magic approach to probability enhancement. Mushrooms are one of our oldest teachers, and it is a relationship we should not forsake, especially in the face of any colonized-mind mycophobia we might hold with us. Phil Hine describes one of the byproducts of a magic-user’s innate confidence as ‘neophilia’ or the love of new ideas and concepts (Hine, 52). Living and thinking with mushroomkin and letting them inform our practice is a possible manifestation of this neophilic approach to the universe. Schaechter relates a small story that illustrates a bite-sized portion of our longitudinal relationship with mushroomkin:

“‘Bolé, bolé!’ the children called out whenever they found a mushroom… When the children yelled ‘bolé!’ they were using an ancient term for a mushroom derived from Latin, which suggests both the independence of the Catalan language and the uninterrupted connection of the Catalans with ancient Rome. Bolé comes from boletus, the name the Romans used for any mushroom with lamellae or gills on the underside of the cap. Linnaeus adopted a completely different meaning of the word nearly two hundred years ago. Outside of Catalonia and a few other places, bolete now means a mushroom with tubes instead of gills underneath the cap. In Roman times, mushrooms with tubes had the quaint name of suilli, ‘little pigs,’ hence the Italian porcini. The children’s cries made me think of how long these words had been uttered in [this] part of the world… the species Lactarius deliciosus, or, in Catalan, rovelló [has] been prized since antiquity, as witnessed by the fact that it or one of its close allies is depicted in a fresco unearthed in Pompeii. The painting shows a group of eight fresh-looking mushrooms with a duck ready for the oven. This 1,900-year-old fresco may be the oldest depiction of mushrooms known, at least in the Western world.” (Schaechter, 58-59)

We all know that knowing the oldest name of a thing gives us a degree of power over the thing, or a type of connection. Consider using the term bolé when addressing the mushroomkin in your assemblage, either invoked (cultivated) or encountered. Consider the children hunting mushrooms in their forests — consider how their senses are different from your own. They are tuned into the lifeways of the bolé and can, to some extent, sense the world as the fungi does. If they didn’t, they would not be successful in their hunt. Referencing Phil Hine again, he states in Condensed Chaos that:

“Situations are more complex and subtle than most people are willing to recognize. It pays to be attentive to what is happening around you. Beware of being over-confident or too tense. Beware of anything that dulls your attentiveness to others… You must be able to distinguish between the world as it is…” (Hine, 54)

This is the world of the mushroom forager. The forest is more complex than we can possibly imagine, and adding in the layer of the microbiome, the mycelial network, adds that much more complexity. Mushroom hunters have to detune from the wider forest and tune themselves in to physical manifestations of the mycelial network — the more subtle the manifestation the forager can detect, the more successful they are. The magician needs to detune from a macroperception of the world and tune into the subtle manifestations of their own work around them. In a very real sense, the twenty-first century magic-user needs to channel the lifeways of our likely spiritual ancestors, the Neanderthal. This is a lesson that is at once embedded in engaging with mushroomkin and one that is occluded and frustrated by our current understanding of our interkingdom relationship.

In many ways, the father of ethnomycology, R. Gordon Wasson (who was also the Vice President of PR for JP Morgan — talk about a man with a foot in two worlds) is responsible for many a magician walking down, not a false path, but perhaps walking a path that does not lead to the ultimate destination of the garden but to a vista that overlooks the table set with fine china, laden with sweets and hot tea. Wasson was the first to set our Western minds towards the notion that mushrooms could (and indeed had been) used to force the human mind into the spirit realm. Take this quote from the anthology ‘The Sacred Mushroom Seeker’:

“After his wife Valentine died in ’58, Gordon, then 60 years old, continued seeking evidence of sacred mushroom use his culture. He had no formal education past the level of a bachelors degree in literature, yet during the last three decades of his life he wrote many scholarly books and articles on hallucinogenic mushrooms that are in the respective professional site in these publications Gordon argued, for example, that soma, a previously unidentified secret substance often mentioned in the writings, was the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, and that the ancient Greek mystery rights of Eluesis were secretly based on a sacramental drink prepared with Claviceps purpurea, a fungus containing what might be described as a primitive form of LSD.” (Riedlinger et al, 7)

Claviceps purpea

Claviceps purpea

So really, the notion that Psilocybe, Fly Agaric and other mushrooms were used exclusively in magico-spiritual rites, is only 60 years old. While Gordon was very respected in his field, he is still one of the single strongest voices in the field of ethnomycology and, as such, more research and thinking needs to be done independent of Wasson’s findings. To belabor the point, take this passage from Wasson’s book, ‘The Road to Eluesis’, quoted in ‘The Sacred Mushroom Seeker’:

“As man emerged from his brutish past, thousands of years ago, there was a stage in the evolution of his awareness when the discovery of a mushroom… with miraculous properties was a revelation to him… arousing in him sentiments of awe and reverence…” (Reidlinger et al, 9)

Wasson here is making the assumption that knowledge of fungi only dawned on man at say, the time of the Greek and Romans or perhaps a bit earlier. It is now known that Neanderthals had mushrooms prevelant in their diet — knowledge of mushrooms has been carried with us since the dawn of humanity and her cousins. Before we move on to a view of that research, I’d like to offer one last quote from ‘The Sacred Mushroom Seeker’:

“Gordon’s last book… ‘Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion… summarized his theme… that the mysterious, unworldly, psychic effects of hallucinogens were responsible for the beginnings of man’s beliefs in the supernatural in the infancy of the human race.” (Reidlinger et al, 15)

This is a myopic view of the power of the mushroom kingdom in its interactions with humankind. Who’s to say that the healing substances in the shiitake or rush of protein and new nutrients from bolete did not have a psychotropic-like effect on the hominids that first ate them. Assuming that it would take the powerful mind-altering substances of entheogens to trigger the opening of the doorway of perception into the spirit-realm is folly. Contact with the spirit-world existed then and today without any assistance from entheogens, the twenty-first century magic-user knows this to be true. This alone disproves Wasson’s primary thesis. It does not, however, eclipse his entire body of work in ethnomycology, which is predigious and prevailing. Further, take notice that the actual term ‘entheogen’ was, by and large, coined by Wasson and although he used it in his circles since the mid 1960’s, the publication of Persephone’s Quest in 1986 really marked the birth of the term entheogen in popular consciousness. That makes the word/concept effectively a mere thirty-three years old. I bring this up to shine light on the fact that the research in this area is very very new, as is the popular understanding of mushrooms as a vehicle for humankin to the spirit kingdom.

Let’s take that promised look into current research into the Neanderthal and their enfolding with the kingdom of mushroomkin. According to the 2017 paper, ‘Neanderthal behavior, diet and disease inferred form ancient DNA in dental calculus’ Neanderthals found to be living in the El Sidrón cave, a location known for its Paleolithic rock art and high density for well persevered fossils, had a diet that consisted primarily of mushrooms, pine nuts and moss. This is in stark contrast to the Neanderthal’s at Spy Cave in Belgium whose diet was found to be based on woolly rhinoceros and wild sheep. (Weyrich et al, 2-3)

Paleolithic Cave Art from El Sidrón

Paleolithic Cave Art from El Sidrón

The paper states that:

“The dietary profile in El Sidrón Neanderthals was markedly different from Spy, and contained no sequences matching large herbivores or suggesting high meat consumption. However, reads mapping to edible mushrooms [Coprinopsis cinerea and Schizophyllum commune], pine nuts (Pinus koraiensis), forest moss (Physcomitrella patens), and poplar (Populus trichocarpa) were identified (Table 1). Sequences mapping to plant fungal pathogens were also observed (Zymoseptoria tritici, Phaeosphaeria nodorum, Penicillium rubens, and Myceliophthora thermophila), suggesting that the El Sidrón Neanderthals may have consumed moulded herbaceous material.” (Weyrich et al, 3)

Coprinopsis cinerea

Coprinopsis cinerea

Schizophyllum commune

Schizophyllum commune

The authors go on to state:

“Our findings support previous suggestions that El Sidrón may have been self-medicating a dental abscess. This was the only individual whose calculus included sequences corresponding to poplar, which contains the natural pain-killer salicylic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin), and also notably contained sequences of the natural antibiotic producing Penicillium from the moulded herbaceous material. The sample from this individual also included sequences matching the intracellular eukaryotic pathogen microsporidia (Enterocytozoon bieneusi), which causes acute diarrhea in humans, indicating another health issue that potentially required self-medication.” (Weyrich et al, 4)

Through my wizard eyes, the implications of these statements are immense. If there was, as the authors describe it — self-medication, going on among the Neanderthals, you can bet that there was magic to go along with it. Medicine and healing is tethered to magic and magicians in every extant indigenous culture known today. There is no reason for us to think that neanderthals were practicing healing with the help of fungus and wild-crafted herbal constituents without there being a healer among them to prepare (see the moulded herbaceous material cultivated for penicillin) and administer these substances. Couple this with the evidence of consumption of the Gray Shag and Pasi Mushrooms (which are still the highest rated edible for the Mizo People in North-East India, Burma and Bangladesh [who, incidentally, claim that the origin of the collective unique tribes all come from ‘Chhinlung,’ which means ‘cave’]) and you have a social group that is likely held together and kept healthy with the knowledge of a shaman or healer, an individual in the group that knows which mushrooms are edible and delicious, which trees heal, and how to allow wild wheat to moulder so that the resulting mold can be used to cure a tooth abscess.

Our Spirit Form for this week is the imminently necromantic Tree Ear, or Auricularia auricle. The Tree Ear is a common mushroom with a distribution across North America and Europe. It is typically tan, gelatinous, and eerily resembles a human ear, hence its name.

Auricularia auricula-judae

Auricularia auricula-judae

Auricularia auricle is also and likely more popularly known as Auricularia auricula-judae, or the ‘Judas’ Ear’. It is called this because of the mushroomkin’s proclivity (but not exclusivity) to grow on Elder Trees. Christian mythology maintains that the cross that Christ was crucified on was made of elder and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, hung himself from an elder following his role in the crucifixion. This is evidenced in Matthew 27:5

“1 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed.

2 So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.

4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.”

The folk legend connecting the elder tree to Judas is first mentioned in the 14th century by the poet William Langland in his work Piers Plowman:

“Judas he japed

with Jewen silver

and sit hen on an eller

hanged hymselve” (Rose, 4)

The Ghost Ear of Judas Iscariot is very distinctive and can also be found in the 16th century, particularly in the work of the Flemish botanist Matthias de L’Obel, the namesake for the ever popular and uber-witchy Lobelia (Rose, 4).

The mushroom is also referenced by the less than appropriate name ‘Jew’s Ear’ by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome in their play ‘The Late Lancashire Witches’. The Tree Ear’s witchy properties are enhanced by its association with elder trees, which are so strongly associated with the devil that it is thought that burning elder logs will bring him straight into your home through your hearth. (Rose, 4-7)

The Tree Ear’s medicinal properties are widely known. Researchers in 2007 found that components in the mushroom were found to significantly lower elevated serum cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. Other studies have found compounds with anti-tumor, hypoglycemic and anticoagulant properties (Jeong et al, 16) In Western Kenya, the cousin to the Auricularia auricula-judae, the Auricularia delicata is in such high demand for its medicinal and nutritional properties that it is being examined for possible conservation efforts in the area of the Kakamega Forest (Onyango et al, 51). It has been recorded as being purposely cultivated in China since at least 600 AD. The Chinese Materia Medica records cultivation methods dating to the Tang dynasty. China is a huge consumer of the Tree Ear for medicinal purposes and as a popular addition to food, hot and sour soup in particular. They consume so much that Australia exports large volumes to the country to fill demand. It is known that Tree Ear composes fully 6% of edible mushrooms cultivated, worldwide.  (Prima et al, 10253). 

Cultivation of the Tree Ear is quite straight-forward. Live cultures of Auricularia auricula-judae are easily obtained. I will offer the cultivation methods detailed in the article ‘Biology and cultivation of Black Ear Mushroom — Auricular spp.’ directly from the paper, as their directions are clear and concise:

“SPAWN PRODUCTION:

Mycelia obtained from tissue culture were used to develop grain spawns. The grains were soaked in water for four hours to soften before being utilized for spawn production… Grain combinations were put in 500 ml heat resistant glass bottles or Polypropelene covers and autoclaved for 1 hour at 121oC. Bottles were allowed to cool. The agar pieces were carefully transferred to upper surfaces of prepared grains. Inoculated grain bottles were tightly secured using moist cotton wool and covered with sterile aluminum foil and bottle lids. They were kept in dark sterile cabinets at ambient room temperatures for 7- 20 days until they were fully colonized to get mother spawn, then they are used to produce commercial spawns along with Paddy grains, Maize grain and Rubber saw dust were best substrate for spawn run with a minimum of 16 and 18 days

respectively required for fluffy growth of mycelium in the grains… Supplementation with rice and wheat bran provides a protein rich medium which can increase rate of mycelia growth two-fold.

FRUITING BODY PRODUCTION:

a. Log method of cultivation

Logs were inoculated by spawn of Auricularia after boring the holes of 1 cm with a hand drill. The inoculated logs were covered with bark then smeared with wax in order to avoid the decay by letting water inside. The cultured logs were piled up, it takes longer time to produce the fruiting bodies.

b. Artificial log method:

i. Cultivation in Sawdust: Sawdust -78%, Rice bran- 28%, White sugar -1% and Calcium carbonate-1%. Saw dust has to be soaked in water for a day, excess water should be drained out, the material was sun dried and mixed with all the ingredients mentioned above and filled in polypropylene cover. The mixture has to be sterilized in an autoclave. After autoclaving, the beds has to be inoculated with spawn and incubated for complete mycelia run. The beds are cut open for inducing fruiting bodies.

ii. Cultivation in Compost

Raw materials: Sawdust -78%, Rice bran- 28%, White sugar -1% and Calcium carbonate-1%

Composting of sawdust for Auricularia cultivation usually takes five days to produce the type of compost required. Mix thoroughly the weighed raw materials indicated above and maintain moisture level at 65-70%. Pile the material in pyramid shape, turnings should give at 2 days interval then supplements are added. After completing compost preparation, sterilized and allowed to inoculation and fruiting body formation of Auricularia…

c. Poly bag method:

Take good quality of wheat straw. Soak for 16-18 hours then drain out excess water. Mix 5% wheat bran (w/

w). Fill 2kg substrate in each polypropylene bag and autoclave at 22 lbs pressure for 1-1.5hr. On cooling spawn the substrate at 2% and incubate at 25-26oC for spawn run for 20-25 days. On completion of spawn run give cross cut to give slits and hang the bags for fruiting at 25-26oC. Spray water twice on bags and maintain high relative humidity (85-90%) by spraying water in the room. Give 1-2 hrs. diffused light and aeration also. Fruit bodies will emerge in 10-12 days will mature for harvesting in the next 4-5 days. One can harvest 1.0-1.4 kg fresh mushroom per kg dry straw

in 3-4 flushes.” (Prima et al, 2016)

The use of the Tree Ear spirit-form in magical practice should be very intuitive. It can easily be used as a materia stand-in for any of those super-shady grimoire spells that require ‘such-and-such body part of a dead man’ and in particular those that require the magician to obtain a piece of a criminal or otherwise evil deceased human being. It is a direct magical conduit back to the crucifixion and certainly way more potent than those ‘Piece of the True Cross’ souvenirs that are sold to tourists in the Holy Land. Similarly, any spells that require materia from a graveyard or any other space strongly affiliated with the dead can use the Tree Ear as a suitable stand-in.

The Tree Ear’s sigil is useful for those battling with high cholesterol or otherwise using magical methods to complement modern and traditional methods of protecting oneself from coronary heart disease.

Screen Shot 2019-05-05 at 4.25.53 PM.png

As mentioned above, this sigil can also serve as a connection to the ancient or recent dead, especially those associated with Christianity such as saints or other very special dead. It is connected to the blood and to opening our ears to the sounds of both the spirit world and all denizens of the forest, be they animal, vegetable, mineral or mushroom.

Sigil courtesy of Ghostly Harmless’ Sigilizer

References

Haraway, D J (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press

Hine, P., & Carroll, P. J. (2010). Condensed chaos: An introduction to chaos magic. Original Falcon Press

Jeong H, Yang B K, Jeong Y T, Kim G N, Jeong Y S, Kim S M, Mehta P and Song C H (2007) Hypolipidemic effects of biopolymers extracted from culture broth, mycelia, and fruiting bodies of Auricularia auricula-judae in dietary-induced hyperlipidemic rats. Mycobiology (35, 1). pp 16-20

Onyango B O, Mbaluto C M, Mutuku C S and Otieno D O (2016) Molecular characterization of wood ear mushrooms [Auricularia sp.] from Kakamega forest in Western Kenya. Current Research in Environmental and Applied Mycology (6, 1) pp 51-60.

Prima R U, Geetha D and Darshan S (2016) Biology and cultivation of Black Ear Mushroom — Auricular spp. Advances in Life Sciences (5,22) pp 10252-10254

Riedlinger, TJ and Wasson, R G (1990) The sacred mushroom seeker: Essays for R. Gordon Wasson. Portland, Or: Dioscorides Pr.

Rose D (2005) The tree ear: Auricularia auricle and Anti-Semitism. L.I. Spore print. (13, 2) pp 1-8

Schaechter, E (2014). In the Company of Mushrooms. Harvard University Press.

Weyrich L S, Duchene S, Sourer J, Arreola L, Llamas B, Breen J, Morris A G, Alt K W, Carameli D, Dressily V, Farrell M, Farrer A G, Francken M, Gully N, Haak W, Hardy K, Haarvat K, Held P, Holmes E C, Kaidonis J, Lalueza-Fox C, Rasilla M, Rosas A, Semal P, Sotysiak A, Townsend G, Usai D, Wahl J, Houston D H, Downey K and Cooper A (2017) Neanderthal behavior, diet and disease inferred from ancient DNA in dental calculus. Nature. pp 1-17

Claviceps Purpea image from Tim Sage

Coprinopsis cinerea image from Johnathan R Nutall

Schizophyllum commune image from Judi T.

Auricularia Auricula-Judae image from Gihan Soliman

All are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.