The following article first appeared in The Daily Beast in August of 2022.
My Instagram feed is currently riddled with mushroom advertisements. A mushroom beverage exceeds coffee for focus and health benefits! Mushroom face serums provide youthful, plump-celled, and small-pored complexions! Another mushroom supplement rivals Xanax! To say nothing of the anti-dementia mushrooms, cancer-fighting mushrooms, gut-health mushrooms, and luxury magic mushroom retreats! In 2022, The New York Times named mushrooms the “ingredient of the year” and the U.S. food broker Presence hailed “mushroom everything” alongside carbonated sodas, relaxation supplements, and sleep supplements.
But how did mushrooms—a largely marginalized category of beings—develop such prominence in popular imagination?
Sure, additional research reinforces mushrooms’ transformative potential. In 2008, for instance, Ekaterina Dadachova, chair in Radiopharmacy and a professor at the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan for Nuclear Innovation, showed how mushrooms in the cooling reactors of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant could absorb and convert radioactive energy. More recent studies show how fungus breaks down plastic. Mushrooms also shape environments, facilitating plant communication, for instance. Mushrooms are appearing in literature like The Over Story and Tears of the Trufflepig, as well as more robust naturalist volumes with philosophical intent, such as Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. Mushrooms have entered artistic dialogues via art exhibits and artist practices where fungi are used to reflect upon death, transformation, and alternative energy. These artworks are generative, opening new channels of awareness—for instance, how TJ Yuen’s Microbial Speculation of our Gut Feeling externalizes the microbes inside of us to connect with diasporic and immigrant experience. But why now?
One point of origin for mushroom celebrity is The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton University Press, 2015), by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Well-loved by academics, environmental activists, artists, and others, the book remains relevant. It acknowledges not only the tremendous systemic upheavals we face because of climate change and profit-driven interest, but also—and perhaps more importantly—embraces a pragmatic optimism. “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others,” Tsing writes. “Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves.” Focused on the highly sought wild matsutake mushroom, Tsing’s research reveals cooperative multispecies networks that support fruiting matsutakes—networks that additionally reveal historic and political events around global supply chains. These mushrooms can only be harvested in the wild despite relying on human disturbance in forests to flourish. For Tsing, the matsutake captures a specific history of global production, amplifying stress points in that system, while pointing out a means to adapt after capitalism’s collapse.
But if fungus was once intended to exemplify the adaptation needed for a collective and cooperative future, it has since been commissioned to attend to our most individualistic needs—providing boutique balms, expensively packaged in disposable boxes—for all the physical, psychological, and existential anxieties brought on by our age.