The Revolutionary Power of Shrooms: Talking Radical Mycology with Peter McCoy
Ever wanted to know how to train mushrooms to digest cigarette butts?
Peter McCoy at a Radical Mycology mushroom cultivation workshop (Image: Jorie Kennedy)
Back in 2006, Peter McCoy and Maya Elson started Radical Mycology, a collaborative network of mushroom and fungal enthusiasts. Now, you might be thinking that it was simply a way of sharing information about psychedelic mushrooms. Wrong. McCoy and Elson's aim was much more all-encompassing. The mushroom, the fungus was to be a way of life. Eat, sleep, and dream mushrooms, then rinse and repeat.
McCoy and Elson originally met at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, and immediately bonded over activism. McCoy was involved in social justice and community organizing, while Elson worked in environmental protection. As it turns out, they were both interested in mycology as well. Over time, the two realized that the science of mycology had a bunch of personal, social, and ecological implications that they now explore with other mushroom cultivators in Radical Mycology. And the whole thing is connected through the mycelial network that is the internet.
The goal is to use fungi to adress a range of issues, integrating them into human life. As McCoy puts it, he was very much interested in how the mushroom could be mirrored in social organizing, community sharing, cooperative living, and creating non-heirarchical democratic structures. Mushrooms create dense systems of interconnectedness in forests, McCoy thought, so why not in human social structures as well?
"The decomposing fungi use the very same digestive enzymes that break down a tree to also break down petroleum products."
Eventually, McCoy put all of his thoughts down on paper in a zine called Radical Mycology. "The picture I had of mycologists in general was mostly personal, whether it was psychedelics or for food, so I didn't really think anyone would be interested in anything we were talking about," said McCoy. "But, I wanted to do it anyway, and was then surprised by its popularity, especially in different underground scenes."
This led to the Radical Mycology Convergences; donation-based, volunteer-run events that focus on the skills of low-tech mushroom cultivation and other techniques that aren't really published in scientific journals. The culture would be DIY, with information drifting spore-like through workshops and the digital ether. The next step in the Radical Mycology project is a book, which McCoy and company are crowfunding on Indiegogo.
When we spoke over the phone, I learned more about mushrooms in one hour than in years of schooling and occasional auto-didactic study. And for no extra charge, McCoy sent over a video of him tricking mushrooms into digesting cigarette butts, which can be viewed below. Who knew that mushrooms were so trainable? Dig it.
MOTHERBOARD: Let's talk about the Radical Mycology crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo, which will help fund a book on radical uses of mushrooms.
McCoy: We've talked about making the Radical Mycology book for quite a few years. Since we've been doing the project and convergences, we've built up a pretty good network of people who share our beliefs, interests, and knowledge. The book can now be as collaborative and multi-authored as we long envisioned. We realized we are at the point that we can collaborate with as many people that have a wide range of backgrounds to make the book as in depth and informed as we want.
We went the crowdfunding route not only because it's a great means to fund a project, but because it exemplifies the community resource and networking shown through the Radical Mycology network to be metaphorical or philosophic. The network of supporters, community members, fellow mycologists, permaculturalists, herbalists, psychedelics enthusiasts, and people who are into mushrooms for whatever reason are our extended network of people. Through the mycelial network that is the internet, we can come together and share the resources of money to pay for this book, which will spread this information.
The mushroom as a metaphor is a really flexible one, whether you're using it to describe the internet or mutually beneficial social arrangements. It reminds me of the rhizome model of intelligence and organization laid out in Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, but more practical.
Right. One of the first things that Maya and I talked about with the Radical Mycology thing is that we had the whole "life cycle of the mushroom" metaphor. If a person has an idea to do something, whether it's produce a book or defend a forest, alone it is hard to do. But, if you find others with whom you can collaborate, you band together, you form a network and pool information and resources. You reach out and find out what your capacity is. And when you've reached a critical mass, you can break through the surface and barriers and produce this mushroom, this fruiting body of change that will drop its spores of insight and inspiration, and hopefully be replicated.
You break Radical Mycology into the personal, societal, and ecological. Can you elaborate on these subsets?
A lot of this stuff goes back and forth on each level. For the personal, the literal use for the fungi in improving quality of life is that they're a highly nutritious, nutrient-rich, low fat, and low cholesterol food source that can be grown off a lot of conventionally-made agricultural and urban waste products, especially paper and compost. It's an abundant food source for people who like to grow them. At the same time, these fungi are highly medicinal. They can be used to address a lot of diseases, but especially various forms of cancer. They're good at boosting the immune system to keep you healthy preventively, but also to boost your system after coming back from chemotherapy.
Psychedelic fungi provide psycho-spiritual healing and insights for those who are capable and prepared to take the experience in the appropriate manner. There are plenty of studies that have shown these mushrooms to be highly effective for those who have done it. Fermenting fungi can grow things like miso, tempeh, beers, breads, and all of these things that are good food sources. These fermenting foods are highly nutritious, and they pre-digest our foods. These fungi can also be implemented into your garden to enhance your plant growth, and reduce you waste stream. Those are some of the most immediate personal, tangible uses.
I read that mushrooms can help in the fight against diabetes. Of course, if you're eating mushrooms, you're not eating junk food. Nevertheless, they don't contain cholesterol, are virtually fat free, and rich in antioxidants.
I'm not exactly sure which ones are good at fighting diabetes, but oyster mushrooms are well-studied for their effects in addressing cholesterol levels. They produce Lovastatin, which is analagous to synthesized, prescribed Statin drugs that are prescribed for cholesterol.
Are oyster mushrooms easily grown in both urban and rural environments?
Yeah, this is kind of the poster child for a lot of the things I've been talking about. It's the beginner's mushroom for cultivation. It's incredibly easy to grow. It grows on all kinds of urban and rural waste products. It's a delicious, high-protein food, incredibly medicinal, and also a powerful remediator, well known to treat a lot of chemicals, especially petroleum products.
Community mushroom bed installation (Image: Ava Arvest)
What other mushrooms are well-known in these areas?
The elm oyster. It's similar to the oyster mushroom but in a different genus. It has different properties and isn't as well-studied medicinally, but shows a ton of promise. It exemplifies one of the many ways that mycology as a science is so new, especially in the study of remediation. That is why we encourage the grassroots, amateur mycological experimentation, because so many fungi perhaps have roles or uses that we're just not familiar with yet.
Another good mushroom is the shitake. They are delicious, incredibly popular, and the most cultivated around the world. They're highly medicinal, and very, very well-studied for their cancer-fighting and tumor-inhibiting effects.
What about the social and ecological benefits?
With fungi, you see how things are connected. Mushrooms connect plants and organisms in very real, tangible, and sustainable ways. That's pretty incredible. On a societal level, the same concept of interconnectedness, interdependence, and deep symbiotic relationships fungi form with plants, bacteria, and other organisms on multiple levels can be used as a model for a truly democratic society. One that is horizontally structured, not heirarchical; where information and resources are disseminated and networked amongst all of those involved, and theoretically done in a way that is collaborative and supportive.
Is there a fungi that you think particularly exemplifies this social model?
An example of where that metaphor comes from is Mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi, found in healthy forests, help plants literally connect their root systems together and share nutrients. In the bigger picture, this fungi is going beyond itself to keep the larger forest healthy. This can teach us something about social organizing; thinking long-term about how we live, how we work with our resources, how we use them efficiently, and how we take care of each other, supporting not only each other but the other things on this planet.
On top of that, you can deal with resource management using fungi to feed people on a large scale to deal with world hunger. They can be used to restore damaged environments that people live in. You can cultivate native Mycorrhizal fungi for this purpose. Decomposing fungi can break down wood, so they're integral to carbon and nitrogen cycles, and in creating top soil.
You've written about how mushrooms can pull heavy metals out of the ground, but also deal with toxins and pollutants. Have you seen this in action, or heard any interesting stories in this area?
Several groups have grown out of this Radical Mycology movement, rippling out of the convergences, especially in Olympia, Washington. These groups take the theory of grassroots remediation and put it into practice. In Olympia, we've done a few installations of different mushroom filters. One of them was at the food co-op in town where all of the water that runs off the parking lot asphalt, before going into a concrete channel, down into the sewer, and then out into the Puget Sound, which is very polluted. These mushroom filters will capture that runoff, trap a lot of the petroleum products and chemicals that are dripping off the cars, and filter that off the water to some degree before it reaches the Puget Sound.
"A lot of these fungi are decomposers of nature, breaking down organic matter. But, apparently they're also breaking down our bullshit barrier... and giving us a way to heal."
Down in the Bay Area, they've teamed up with the East Bay Municipal Utility District, where they've done some pretty large scale projects with similar concepts. Instead of dealing with chemical pollutants, they're remediating biological pollutants. They've installed mushroom filters in the path of water that is downstream from farms and ranches, where the manure runoff produces a high-level of fecal coliforms like E. Coli and other pathogenic bacteria. The mushrooms eat that bacteria, cleaning the water to a pretty significant degree before it passes the mushroom filter.
Any other projects?
One that I'm involved in is the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, which is based out of multiple areas, but one of its leading research areas is in California. Every year for the past six years this group has gone down to Ecuador to work with the local fungi and bacteria clients to develop protocols that will become nationwide to address the cleanup of the 1,000+ oil pits that have been leftover after 40 years of oil extraction in the jungle. The oils and chemicals that came along with that extraction are seeping into the groundwater and causing a lot of serious illness and crop loss to the surrounding indigenous communities.
This project is going down there to figure out how to use fungi to clean this up in a way that is doable in a jungle environment. They're also teaching the locals how to do this themselves, and also show them how to grow food and medicine, using the techniques of mushroom cultivation. I'm going to be going down there in February to help them design the next protocol in that project.
Which mushrooms, aside from decomposing fungi, are useful remediators?
Shiitake is known to break down PAHs, PCBs, and PCPs. Spent Shiitake blocks, which are left over after cultivating the mushroom, can be stuffed in burlap coffee sacks and placed in the path of flowing water that is polluted with these types of compounds to help remediate the system. Some psychoactive Psilocybe species are also good remediators. What's really interesting about that to me is that they may be able to break down toxins such as VX, sarin, soman, and decompose munitions such as TNT. Some sort of irony going on there.
What happens to these pollutants after the mushrooms filter them out of the water and soil?
The decomposing fungi use the very same digestive enzymes that break down a tree to also break down petroleum products. On a chemical level, the bonds that make up the chemical chain can be snipped apart by the enzymes that the mushroom produces. It essentially breaks this long hydrocarbon into carbohydrates, turning them into simple little sugars, which the mushroom then sucks up and eats. Theoretically, the chemicals are broken down and do not persist in the mushroom tissues, so you could eat these mushrooms. The risk there is that if there are heavy metals that come along with it, the mushroom may or may not have also taken up the metal into its tissue, which it cannot break down. You could be consuming something like mercury, for instance.
Once these mushrooms uptake the heavy metals, what do you do with them?
That is a question I get all of the time. The theory goes that in nature there are such small amounts in the soil, that the mushroom would clean the soil as one of its roles, and bugs and insects would eat the mushrooms and disperse it back out into the soil in trace amounts. But, when we're dealing with large concentrations, then as humans we'd potentially collect the mushrooms. One route is to incinerate them in a controlled way and collect the metal residue that is leftover and treat it as whatever hazard it might be. This could work for radioative metals and isotopes as well.
Sex Life of Fungi Dub Music at the Radical Mycology Convergence talent show (Image: Radical Mycology)
Another route is to potentially feed the mushrooms to worms. This is a more natural, grassroots approach because a controlled incineration is sort of difficult to do in your backyard. The worm will eat the mushroom tissue, not uptake the metals into its own tissue, but pass the metals into the worm casting, which is the form of fertilizer for the garden. Then you use the worm castings as a fertilizer for something like a black walnut tree, which may take the metals up into its tissue but not into its walnut fruits. So, you could still harvest the walnuts off the tree. Theoretically, they are safe and the metals are trapped in the tree. Now, in hundreds of years when the tree comes down, those metals will be there in the soil, so we'll have to hold and trap that for some amount of time.
Has the Radical Mycology network noticed that cultivating mushrooms has seriously cut down on living expenses?
Yeah, definitely. One of my friends hasn't thrown a piece of paper away in three years. It all goes to producing mushrooms. It's not his sole food source, but he reduces his impact and gets a lot of food out of it. He also creates abundant compost for his garden in the process. He's also currently working with a city in Colorado. It's a mountain town that has to ship out all of its waste, so he's trying to get them to turn all of their paper waste into a mushroom producing facility.
Once you learn how to cultivate mushrooms, it's very cheap. As a good example, I have a thing for producing medicinal mushroom capsules, which is essentially the mushroom mycelium grown on brown rice, then dried, pulverized, and put into little capsules. I've heard the markup on that is over 95%. It's just an incredible profit margin because it's this technical skill, but it's actually very easy to do and a potent medicine. So, beyond just saving money on food, you can save a lot on natural medicines or alternatives to traditional western medicines.
More research papers are being published on the psychological benefits of psychedelic drugs, including the psilocybin mushrooms. What is interesting about these mushrooms, or LSD, is that when you have these darker trips, they force you to deal with your bullshit. They aren't simply these dark, frightening experiences, but a time for learning and dealing with personal problems. What is your perspective on this as a radical mycologist?
The intentional use of sacred, entheogenic, or psychedelic fungi is definitely an aspect of mycology that will be addressed in the book. I don't like to use the word "hallucinogenic" because I don't believe it gives the right information. The book will go into the intentional use of these mushrooms, and how to do them in a respectful way, and in a way that will best prepare people for the most useful experience. There could be many reasons why you do it, but hopefully you get something out of it beyond just the cool visuals.
"When you know how to grow one mushrooms species, you can essentially grow them all."
As far as psychedelic mushrooms addressing depression, anxiety, and other disorders, it's pretty intriguing to me. The best research is coming out of Johns Hopkins and the University of Baltimore. In these studies, researchers use relatively small doses of pure psilocybin with psychedelic naive patients. They have one five-hour session and their symptoms can either go into complete remission or be incredibly reduced. Follow-up studies after six, twelve, and eighteen months show that a good percentage if not a majority of the subjects are doing great. They say the experience is one of the most important experiences of their entire life, and their relationships with themselves and everyone around them has taken a 180, and life couldn't be better and everything is beautiful. That is a pretty incredible statement.
My friend likes to call it "decomposing the shadows." A lot of these fungi are decomposers of nature, breaking down organic matter. But, apparently they're also breaking down our bullshit barrier, or forcing our shadow selves and things we like to ignore and hide, and bringing that to the surface and giving us a way to heal. Some of the most powerful medicine they provide is in confronting our programming, and the lies we tell ourselves to keep us in this dark place, so that hopefully we will grow and have better relationships with those around us and the wider world.
I feel pretty strongly about that, and it's one of the messages I get when I go on the experience myself. I don't do it to frequently, but when I do, it's in an intentional way, and then I follow up with some processing and digestion of what I got from the experience. I don't want to just take it as a passing phase but as something I was meant to learn.
The "breaking down the bullshit barrier" is a perfect description of psilocybin's effect. Will you be including a tutorial on growing or finding these ethneogenic mushrooms?
There will be field guides to common mushrooms found largely in North America, but also around the world. It will show you how to identify them in the wild. I will also definitely include psychedelic fungi; how to identify them and how to cultivate them using very cheap, low-tech methods. I will show you how to grow them in your very own patch in your backyard. When you know how to grow one mushrooms species, you can essentially grow them all.