The Sulfur Gift

In 2007, in the Kandze Prefecture; an area known for conflict between the Chinese government and Buddhists over religious rights, specifically the right to conduct life-long prayer ceremonies for the Dalai Lama; nearly one hundred and ten individuals were injured as neighboring townships battled for access to caterpillar fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) territory (Tibetan Review, 4-5).

Mushroomkin and their intimate ties to ecological and economic systems can drive as much violence and hurt as they do peace and healing — their complexity in this regard rivaling our own. The force behind the conflict that had so many Buddhist neighbors harming each other in territorial warfare is economic. The Chinese (and have for a long time) command a great price for Caterpillar Fungus for the purpose of preparing traditional remedies. In the early nineties Caterpillar Fungus cost around $5 a kilogram and now can command up to $9,000 USD a kilogram (Tibetan Review, 5).

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Similar to the prices fetched by the matsutake trade in the Pacific Northwest of the US, economic drivers there drive mushroomers to ignore or violate laws governing the national parks they illegally harvest from. Mushroomkin seem to enjoy driving subversion of larger societal structures, laws, policies and borders that limit the ebb and flow of humankin across the face of the earth. They are the enemy of property and can drive even the most peaceful among us to conflict. Anna Tsing relates mushrooming as the manifestation of a particular type of freedom (or rather, the freedom is manifested by the mushrooming). In her enthofictional municipality ‘Open Ticket,’ a mushroomer’s camp in the Pacific Northwest, she comments that most of the residents of Open Ticket are fleeing war experiences from he Indochina War and the resulting rebellions and civil warfare that followed. War and its influence never leaves the mind of the residents of Open Ticket. She describes the matsutake forests they traverse as being filled with this haunted freedom that they bring with them (Tsing, 2017, 85). Mushroomkin, in Tsing’s context, call to survivors of human conflicts and war, calling them into the forest with the whisper of a promise of freedom, a scent they follow into the trees that at once haunts them and frees them. This is such a close feeling to re-enchanting ones life. Magic, as is popularly espoused, is very often the last resort of the desperate. When one haunts ones own life, we travel away from that which threatens us into another very threatening and terrifying place. Just as the Tibetans harvesting cordyceps were driven into areas and towards activities that they knew would invite conflict and harm, so does the mycomage when she haunts her own life — when she calls on unknown spirits of indescribable influence and power.

Like the Caterpillar Fungus, matsutake drives different patterns of human behavior depending on where it was found. In the Yunnan Province of China, for example, matsutake does not engender freedom, but instead, it imparts differing layers of oppression. Like the Tibetan conflict over foraging territory for Caterpillar Fungus, we find a similar dynamic in the Yunnan Provice, which has forests that produce wild matsutakes (Yeh, 264). Edible and medicinal mushrooms, but in particular those that are thought of as luxury foods, can drive economic pressures. Matsutake in particular can do this do to its current steadfast resistance at being cultivated. The price, prestige, social relationships and opportunity to engage in the global economy through matsutake trade are all drivers towards conflict in the impoverished rural regions surrounding the matsutake forests of the Yunnan Province (Yeh, 264-265).

We know it is the mushroom and not other forces that are driving these conflict zones because prior to the Japanese market becoming aware (and having a need for) the products of these forests, matsutake was only used for occasional consumption in the household (Yen, 266). The Japanese, as much a modern Imperial entity in the world as England of the US, spreads its imperial influence through the widely varied topography of economic disparity on our planet. It seeks mushrooms and the mushrooms elude them, a game of cat and mouse that leads to the only response empires can muster when not given what they demand, violence. Japan does not directly impart the violence but that has not how imperial entities have engendered hostility for a long time. Strife is born of influence, of nuance, and of symbols of value — in other words, through the vehicles of enchantment.

The tendrils of empire move quickly, indeed, they have to when it comes to the matsutake trade. Fresh mushrooms need to travel from their origin forests to the Japanese market in less than 48 hours through a complex chain of mushroomer, village official, buyers, transporters, wholesale and finally retail merchants. That it happens at all and so regularly is a type of magic in its own right, the dark magic of capitalism. Back at the mushroom forest, bureaucracy surrounding how and what is harvested drives even more strife. The demand and price for these spirit-forms is set so high that the villagers can often over-harvest their forests. The Chinese government has even gone so far as to set a limit of under three centimeters (3/4 of an inch) as being off limits. The villagers adjacent these forests, however, must still tap into Tsing’s matsutake forest freedom as this rule is often ignored, prompting officials and traders in the supply chain to look down on the foragers and question their intelligence — when it is their own dark enchantments that are driving the behavior. In some instances these same businessmen have cried for the army to come in and patrol the forests as they are being foraged (Yeh, 268). The militarization of regulating mushrooming — this is the antithesis of Tsing’s alleged freedom experienced by war veterans in the matsutake forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is the antithesis of the US experience but as prices and regulation increases, is it a glimpse of the future of foraging? As agricultural systems collapse and wild food and human-scale permaculture operations become the only ‘reliable’ source of sustenance, is total freedom the result or will empire creep into these areas as well as profit begins to increase?

When we think about forests the Western concept of property tends to break down. After all, it is difficult to know when and where you cross a border when amongst the Ents — an act that is easier to recognize when you are traveling on official roads and navigating using modern technology. Access is a better method of thinking with trees and forests and property is a subset of access (Yeh, 268). Access is the concept implied by the villages involved in the matsutake forest conflicts, in the caterpillar fungus altercations, and in the ethnofictional mushrooming camps like Tsing’s ‘Open Ticket.’ Property isn’t discussed, but access to areas known and unknown in search of the mushroomkin is a thought on everyone’s mind. If you are, as I am, primarily concerned with wealth and prosperity magic, this is a particularly interesting framing for wealth. I will admit that I subscribe to these same concepts, of property and ownership and tenure, when enchanting for wealth. What would happen if my ‘asks’ of saints and local dead, were framed as petitioning for access? What would be the result if instead of a sigil statement that requests a debt is paid off or a specific amount of money is acquired were shifted to a statement of access to the resources required to achieve the desired goals? Access is, I think, much closer to how we used to navigate a haunted world before the Sumerians, those eldritch mages of old, ‘invented’ writing and commerce. Access is a better model for successful interactions with the kingdom of fungi as well.

Much like in the Pacific Northwest, matsutake harvest in the Yunnan Province is governed by an official season. When the mushroomkin coming out of the forest and into the hands of the traders grow too small, access to the forest is again ‘closed’ for a few days to let the spirit-forms recover and grow into more valuable commodities. It is even reported that one village in the province prohibited the felling of trees from the forest to build new houses sooner than fifteen years apart from one another and even for cutting down wood for the use of fuel (Yeh, 270-271). This is an incredible example of mushroomkin driving the growth of human settlements (and thus, probably birth rates and employment opportunities) and the consumption of primary fuel types). In this instance, when the forests are closed the villagers are then transcript into a type of forest guard to keep themselves and others from gaining access to the bounty between the trees (Yeh, 271).

One infamous altercation in this area was reported in 1996 when the inhabitants of one village barred another village from access to a forest they ostensibly shared, the other village retaliating by burning the bridge that allowed primary access to the matsutake forest. A move that resulted in the original village destroying the water pipes and pumps that fed the second. This tit-for-tat grew into the head of one village took the life of the head of the other (Yeh, 272). One normally associates mushroom-related deaths with toxicity and carelessness. There is another dimension to the ‘dark side’ of the kingdom of fungi, and that is how they can drive us to kill each other. The engaging of mushroomkin with empire can result in changes that reverberate across the world. In this same rural enclave of China, in 1998 when Asia experienced an acute financial crisis and luxury goods like matsutake were no longer affordable, households that had come to be dependent on the matsutake forests found that their women and children could no longer contribute. This engendered a global awareness in these remote villages that didn’t exist prior to their engaging with the mushroomkin living in the woods beyond their borders (Yeh, 277-278). Mushroomkin are spirit-forms that connect the entire world through a net of relationships, just as they connect a forest of trees and plants into one ecosystem, they also connect us in a universal web of dependence. They are educators and drivers of disruption and achieve all of this from their tiny soil thrones at the seat of the world.

Anna Tsing uses living and thinking with mushrooms as the key differentiator from living and thinking with empire. She equates empire with cereal grains and places mushroomkin in direct opposition of these plants-on-a-mission. Cereal production begat plantations and plantations drove the false construct of race and with it, racial discrimination. Mushrooming, she claims, takes us bodily away from these models into a window area, an edge-space where, as she terms it, ’interspecies interdependencies,’ are revealed to us. (Tsing, 2012, Abstract). She differentiates the manicured and geometric rows of the plough with the wander of the mycomage in search of spirit-forms and their enchantments (Tsing, 2012, 141). Mushrooming, through this lens, has the same shape as labyrinth meditation. Unlike cereal grain production, foraging is not labor. Mushrooms gift themselves to us and we can only enhance the probability of this gift through the cultivation of knowledge — knowledge of ecosystems, knowledge of trees, and knowledge of the mushroomkin themselves. Participating in this dance can bring us a profound sense of place, grounding us in our landscape. As Tsing puts it:

“Many times, wandering, I have suddenly remembered every stump and hollow of the spot on which I stood—through the mushrooms I once encountered there. Conscious decision can also take me to a spot of past encounters, for the best way to find mushrooms is always to return to the places you found them before.” (Tsing, 2012, 142)

To me, these are also descriptions of exactly how magic, precognition and other paranormal experiences wash over us and change our consciousness. Getting to know specific Ents because of their association with specific species of mushroomkin, understanding their microseasons, signs of animal disturbances and consumption of your gift (a gift to them too), makes for a deep familiarity with landscape and with that, as Tsing points out, you begin to have a true animist understanding of the universe, recognizing and appreciating ‘multi-species interactions’ (Tsing, 2012, 142). Your trip through reality becomes a series of access events, access to territories (most often not those that you own in an imperial sense, but the gift to you is no less real), access to knowledge engendered by landscape, and access to the concept of a shared and magical universe (Tsing, 2012, 142). This is, also, a type of conflict. Like the physical altercations, murder, and dire scuttling of imperialist infrastructures, mushrooming is an open conflict between animist and imperialist worldviews nested inside the act of access to a mushroom patch. Tsing offers details on what this cosmic disruption can do to us, what thought-forms it can invoke, when she states that:

“The idea of human nature has been given over to social conservatives and sociobiologists, who use assumptions of human constancy and autonomy to endorse the most autocratic and militaristic ideologies. What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence? Human nature is an interspecies relationship. Far from challenging genetics, an interspecies frame for our species opens possibilities for biological as well as cultural research trajectories. We might understand more, for example, about the various webs of domestication in which we humans have entangled ourselves.” (Tsing, 2012, 144)

We have been domesticated by that series of spirit-forms which we classify as cereals. Their mission, their zeal, is the true driving force on this planet, not our own. The entirety of our culture, our religion, our interracial and intertribal disputes, our technology, all of it can be distilled down to our engagement with cereal grains and other monocultural agrarian practices. We are ourselves imprisoned as we imprison those spirit-forms in their plantations, forcing open their fertility when they would prefer to go sterile and stop being driven to produce. Our landscapes, and not just the millions of acres of farmland but our suburban sprawl, our vertical cities, all of it driven by our domestication by wheat, by corn, by rice… Mushrooms resist domestication and plantation culture and in fact, naturally deteriorate into senescence if we try to apply the same anti-logic to them as cereal grains have dictated to us. Mushrooms resist us and our culture but still exist at our edge-areas, calling us back to the unparalleled richness of our ancient heritages of mushroomlore (Tsing, 2012, 144). We know that cereal grain are an animate force in the world because we allowed ourselves to be domesticated and forced into intensive labor by them even though the Golden Crescent, ground zero for our falling under their enchantment, possessed enough wild wheat and barley that we could easily have subsisted and prospered through the foraging of these wild grains — saving us labor and freeing us from the socio-politico-religious constructs that domestication-by-grain requires of us (Tsing, 2012, 145). Cereals equal empire. As Tsing states:

“Intensive cereal agriculture can do one thing better than other forms of subsistence: support elites. States institutionalize the confiscation of a shareof the harvest. Across Eurasia, the rise of states and their specialized civilizations is associatedwith the spread of intensive cereal agriculture. In some places, states followed agriculture; in other places, agriculture followed states. In each case, states promoted agriculture through their symbols and armies. Sometimes they criminalised other forms of subsistence; only outlaws would refuse the gift of state fertility. And for those inside state heartlands, this gift of fertility could maintain itself, at least in good times, through love.” (Tsing, 2012, 145-146)

Cereal Spirits are pathogens, driving us to distinction via the chronic diseases they engender with their high-carbohydrate content. This same fuel allowed us to have more children, made us more fertile, increasing our family size so that there were more individuals available to participate in the agricultural labor required to fulfill their mission. Our rate of reproduction on this planet and the damage that we as a species cause to it at these numbers can be traced back to these cereal spirits. We are the planet’s chronic disease and we are ourselves plagued by chronic disease (feeding the medical-industrial complex, one of Empire’s primary weapons) brought on by our consumption of cereal grains. Who then, preys on these spirits? Who disrupts this cycle? Fungi.

Fungi are the mortal enemy of monocultures the world over, wiping them out and the supply chains that stem from them in one blow and Western science has not found anyway to combat mushroomkin and protect their beloved cereal spirits from devastation (Tsing, 2012, 147). The Myconomicon is a system of magic that taps into this force, dismantling Dark Magic Capitalism at its molecular level and replacing it with the fiery gifts of our true allies, the mushroomkin.

Our spirit-form for this entry is what amounts to an arch-mage residing deep in the woods waiting to bestow powerful enchantments on those that seek him out, Phellinus igniarus, otherwise known as the Willow Bracket.

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Mushrooms actively choose their Ent partners and it is rational to assume that this active choice, this act of free will on the spirit form’s part, imparts some or all of the magic of the host tree to its mushroom sovereign. According to Corinne Boyer in her work ‘Plants of the Devil’:

“Willow was used for curse magic and dark sorcery… In Germany, to kill an enemy from a distance, one could tie knots in the tree. Another cursing rite comes from the Romany tradition, and involved watering a branch of cut weeping willow for nine days, and then pouring this water in front of the victim’s home. From Scandinavian trolldom, comes the use of willow switches to kill an enemy…” (Boyer, 83)

We can expect that Willow Bracket and its intimate relationship and association with its preferred host, will be as good or better at coursework and malefic magic than the tree herself.

Phillips igniarus prefers Willow but is also found on birch, aspen and mulberry and can be found all over the world. He is hard, woody, and shaped like a cloven hoof coming out of the bark of his host tree. He is brown when long and becomes dark-gray or black with age, with a bottom surface that is sulfur yellow to cinnamon brown (Zapora et al, 1043). Willow Bracket is not just associated with the mourning woman by the river, he also has a deep and ancient relationship with one of the most spiritually potent plants on the planet, tobacco.

Willow Bracket is the primary ingredient in ‘iqmik,’ a mixture of the alchemical ash of the polypore and tobacco increases the availability of the alkaloids in the plant. Phellinus igniarus, also known as the False Tinder Polypore, has been and is still used in this way by First Nations tribespeople in the Yukon and Alaska. Some estimates place its use at nearly 50% of the indigenous population in this area. Decoctions of the mushroom are also used for stomache and as a laxative. Willow Bracket is deeply ritualized, being carried in traditionally carved wood, bone, leather and ivory boxes and almost always present on someone’s person for mixing with tobacco (Rogers, 39-40). Iqmik use for ceremony and stimulation is thousands of years old as is evidenced by figurines, pots, pipes and grave gods. The Micmac, Denaina, Athabaskan, Inuit, Blackfoot and Kwakiutl all use Willow Bracket and tobacco to form tiny doulmas or quids to chew (Pleninger and Volk). This mixture is also known as ‘Blackbull’ and in the lab has been shown to allow up to 99.9% of the tobacco alkaloids in the mixture to be immediately available to the individual using it — in essence, a form of tobacco-based yagé (Hearn et al, 4).

In traditional Chinese medicine it is known as (along with its close cousin, Phellinus lentius) as Sanghuang, which can be translated as yellow or sulfur (huang or wang) mulberry or gift (sang) (Srivilai et al, 2885). In China it is more closely associated with the Mulberry Tree (and maybe more so Phellinus lentius, as we enter the labyrinth of mycotaxonomic classifications where nearly identical entities are classified differently based on their preferred symbiots) and used for excessive uterine bleeding, blood circulation, a cure for diarrhea and for alcoholism. With the Mulberry as its patron we can expect the Sulfur Gift to impart immortality, patience, quick results in enchantment and as a vehicle of wisdom. The Greeks dedicated the mulberry to Athena and associated it with the ability to ‘revive life,’ (retrieved from https://www.greensilk.com/about-greensilk-greensilk-formula-1-dietary-supplement/history-mulberry-leaf-history/) which after we review the medicinal properties of this spirit-form, we will fully understand the extent of how a mushroom takes on and synergies with the magical properties of its host.

Phellinus igniarus contains polyphenol based yellow-colored pigment that has the same antioxidant role as flavonoids do in plants, imparting anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-dementia and anti-viral properties to the polypore (Rogers, 40). According to the paper, Phellinus igniarus: Another Medicinal Mushroom Associated With Birch from Fungi magazine, a decoction of Willow Bracket also shows:

“activity against influenza A and B viruses, including 2009 pandemic H1N1, human H3N2, avian H9N2 and oseltamivir-resistant H1N1 viruses. It is suggested the extracts may interfere with early replication cycle, including attachment to the target cell. Water extracts of the fruiting body show considerable anti-herpetic (herpes simplex virus 1) activity… the fruiting bodies of Phellinus igniarius exhibit significant activity against neuraminidase from H3N2 influenza viruses… [the] isolated… the fruiting body were found to inhibit neuramindases from H1N1, H3N2, and H5N1 influenza viruses… Inhibition of gram negative bacteria and Borellia species (associated with Lyme disease), was achieved via anti-quorum sensing activity, inhibiting bacterial communication. Hypholomine B, isolated from the fruiting body, has been found to inhibit aldose reductase, a pathway related to retinopathy in diabetic patients… [and its] polyphenol-rich compounds… improved glucose tolerance, reduced hyperglycemia, and normalized insulin levels… polysaccharides from the mycelium were found to inhibit the growth of colon (SW480) and liver (HepG2) cancer cell lines. The authors suggest this could be developed into a natural carcinoma preventative agent and/or functional food… A tincture of the fruiting body was found, in a recent study, to inhibit hippocampal neuronal brain death following ischemia, suggesting use for ameliorating stroke induced neuron death in a clinical setting” (Rogers, 40)

Making the Sulfur Gift a powerful agent against the looming pandemics and innumerable chronic diseases and their symptoms that threaten to wipe out the humankin monoculture currently plaguing planet earth. He is an arch-mage whose enchantments could save the entire human race from a mass extinction event.

The Sulfur Gift can be cultivated by obtaining a live culture of the mushroom, which can be maintained in yeast-malt agar slants (Hur, 81-82) and colonizing plug spawn with the spirit-form’s mycelia. Mycelia has been reported to grow well on sorghum grains and on sawdust blocks (Mulberry or Willow if available) supplemented with 3% rice bran and 3% molasses (Srivilai et al, 2886). Once colonized the sawdust can be pressed into plugs and pounded into sterilized Mulberry or Willow logs, depending on the strain being used. The logs can then be buried in soil (the depth requires some experimentation as too deep will frustrate fruiting as will not deep enough — one-quarter to one-half of their overall length is a general guideline) and the logs maintained in an environment that allows the logs to hold around 35% to 45% moisture content. It is reported that optimum moisture content for colonization was 42%. Fruiting bodies are reported to begin appearing around the 45 day mark (Hearn et al, 83).

The sigil for the Sulfur Gift is extremely potent. He is a companion of Athena and can be used as a synergistic agent for cursework, malefica or any other type of ‘black’ magic the mycomage gets up to.

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In addition to dark magic disruptions of empire and its agent’s work against your most profitable life, the Sulfur Gift can also be used as a meditative ally for those suffering from chronic illnesses or extreme forms of influenza. The sigil is, of course, best used along with treatments derived from the actual body of the arch-mage himself. The two used together should exhibit a powerful synergy that the bioweapons engendered by the Cereal Spirit’s plantation culture will find difficult to combat.

Sigil courtesy of Ghostly Harmless’ Sigilizer

References

Boyer, C., & Ablewska, M. (2017). Plants of the devil. Place of publication not identified: Three Hands Press.

Hearn B A, Renner C C, Ding Y S, Vaughan-Watson C, Stanfill S B, Zhang L, Polzin G M, Ashley D L and Watson C H (2013) Chemical analysis of Alaskan Iq’mik Smokeless Tobacco. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. pp 1-6

Pleninger D and Volk T (2005) Phellinus igniarius, Iqmik, used by native Americans with tobacco. Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month. Retrieved from http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/nov2005.html

Rogers R D (2018) Phellinus igniarus: Another Medicinal Mushroom Associated With Birch. Fungi (11,4) pp 39-42

Srivilai P, Prommetta A and Prathapa P (2013) Initiation of fruiting body development of the medicinal mushroom Phellinus linteus from Cambodia. African Journal of Microbiology Research (7,23) pp 2885-2891

Tibetan Review (2007) Eight killed in clash over caterpillar fungus turf. Tibetan Review p 4-5

Tsing A L (2012) Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species - for Donna Haraway. Environmental Humanities (1) pp 141-154

Tsing, A L (2017). Mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press.

Yeh E T (2000) Forest claims, conflicts and commodification: The political ecology of Tibetan mushroom-harvesting villages in Yunnan Province, China. The China Quarterly (161) pp 264-278

Zapora E, Wolkowycki M, Bakier S and Zjawiony J K (2016) Phellinus igniarius: A Pharmacologically Active Polypore Mushroom. Natural Product Communications (11,7) pp 1043-1046

Mushroom Images

Ophiocordyceps sinensis from Daniel B. Wheeler

Phellinus igniarius from Regina Johnson

Mushroom Images Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.