Shroomfest keynote speaker Paul Stamets on mycelium and Merry Pranksters
The author of six books on mushroom identification, cultivation and their many incredible uses, renowned mycologist Paul Stamets has studied fungi for over thirty years. We caught up with Stamets, who is the keynote speaker at this year's Telluride Mushroom Festival (known informally as Shroomfest), recently via phone to talk about the event, his favorite mushroom species and how he thinks mushrooms can help save the world.
Westword: What inspired you to study fungi?
Paul Stamets: They were mysterious, poorly understood forbidden fruits. My parents, like many parents, were very afraid of their children picking wild mushrooms. It's not surprising that plants, or mushrooms, or anything that's so powerful that it can heal you, or kill you, invokes fear. That's just one of our survival techniques. It's a natural response.
We now know that human survival has actually been dependent on mushrooms. Because of mycophobia, or the irrational fear of mushrooms, much of this ancestral knowledge has been lost. My core philosophy is that humans and habitats share the same immune system. Mushroom mycelium is a cellular bridge between the two.
Mycelium is a fine, cobweb-like structure that grows literally under every footstep you take. Mycelium structures are the grand de-assemblers of nature. They create soil. Loss of soil is one of the core reasons for famine, loss of biodiversity and climate change. When you deforest a planet, you lose that ability for soil to be regenerated. These habitats have evolved over millions of years. As soil is destroyed, we lose biodiversity and mycodiversity, and we are unraveling the very ecosystem that gives us life.
The good news is that we have many fungal allies that we can engage to help us recover ecosystems. Fungi are essential for sustainability. We have thousands of species in our ecosystem. Each one of those has its own skill set and a unique aptitude to help us. The cool thing about mycelium is that it holds water in the soil, and so when you have mycelium in the soil, the water bank is greatly enhanced. The absence of mycelium in the soil reduces the capacity of the soil to hold water.