Mushroom Lecturer and Researcher Paul Stamets Visits Lillooet, BC

By Toby Mueller –

On February 27, renowned mycologist Paul Stamets gave a presentation to a full hall at the P’egp’íg’lha Center, in the T’ít’q’et Community, Lillooet. Over 160 people came from all over St’át’imc Territory and beyond. Amlec, T’ít’q’et ‘s food security project, and Lillooet Food Matters, a local grass roots group, co-organized the event.

Right: Paul Stamets presenting Tribal Chief of T’ít’q’et, Shelley Leech, and Candice Jack with Amadou hats from birch polypore fungus. Photo by Mischa Chandler.

As the crowd gathered, feelings of curiosity and excitement were building. St’át’imc drummers and singers brought our attention into focus and welcomed Paul to the Territory. T’ít’q’et Tribal Chief Shelly Leech offered a prayer and spoke about the importance of understanding the land and our shared responsibility to protect this place. Organizer Candice Jack made a brief introduction and Paul got up on stage.

He presented our hosts with three unique hats. Artists in Transylvania make these amazing hats from birch polypore fungus. The process is a dying art practised by only a few families now. They are a beautiful example of the amazing versatility of mushrooms. Paul offered thanks for being invited to share his knowledge, and then he launched into a fascinating presentation.

He began by describing some basic facts about mushrooms. Fungi are a huge family of organisms. The mushrooms we see are a tiny part of the whole thing. Mushrooms are only the reproductive organs of the fungi. A whole fungus is made up of huge networks of mycelia. We tend to think of them as roots, but in fact, fungi are more related to animals than to plants. Even more amazing is that animals evolved from fungi. Like us, fungi also use oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Being “related” is part of why fungi make such effective medicines for animals.

Paul is passionate about mycelia. These amazing networks connect the fungus to its environment. They transmit all sorts of chemicals, and thus move energy and information throughout the organism. Mycelia are beautiful. Paul had a vivid visual show to go along with his talk. He showed us pictures of mycelial networks, the pattern of our brain cells, how dark matter is spread through the universe, and, finally, the geometry of the Internet. They all look the same—nodes connected by strings in dense clusters stretching onward. One couldn’t help feeling wonder at these reoccurring patterns.

At this point Paul took us on a fun tangent. First, he tried to give us a basic science lesson and explain the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. A theory is an idea that someone thinks is true. A hypothesis is a theory that someone tested and made proof that it is true. He then told us that one theory is that Homo sapiens evolved and grew such giant brains because our ancient ancestors ate magic mushrooms. The crowd had a big chuckle as Paul joked; “It’s a theory, not proved, yet!’

Paul then introduced us to some of his favorite species of fungus. Many of these were familiar to people in the audience. As he spoke he told us about the properties he and his colleagues have discovered about them. Turkey tails are bracket fungus, which grow all over the world. They empower our immune system. The beautiful and delicious Lion’s Mane is calming and helps our brain and nerve cells repair and regenerate. The ugly and rare Chaga is a potent anti-oxidant. The extremely rare Agarikon can only survive in old growth forests. It has anti-cancer and anti-viral properties.

Paul Stamets holding an Agarikon mushroom over his head, showing the crowd!
Photo by Mischa Chandler.

Anti-viral compounds are obviously very valuable. Consider the many viruses that cause cancer, or the human toll from the flu. At this point Paul took us on a very sobering, but fascinating sidetrack about bees. He assured us, “this is way more serious than climate change”. In all parts of the world honeybees are dying. This matters because our food crops depend on them. Viral diseases are a big part of the problem. Paul has pondered this situation, and one day a random memory lead to an experiment. Paul remembered seeing honey bees come and gobble up some edible mushroom mycelia that was in his garden. Then years and years later, he thought, “If bees like mushrooms, maybe they will try the anti-viral ones”. Preliminary studies conducted with scientists at Washington State University show great promise. The bees did eat them, and some of the fungal combinations they tried have been very effective. Paul said there is more work to do, but he is very hopeful.

Paul Stamets believes mushrooms will help heal the world. His excitement and positive outlook were inspiring. He said so much more than can be related here. He has produced a lot of books, articles, and spoken material: if you are curious it is easy to find out more at your local library or on the Internet.

After Paul concluded his talk, organizer Candice Jack got up to thank him. She spoke eloquently about the importance of working together, thanking her fellow organizers and the hosts. She urged us to keep caring for the land and the ancient forests that are the home of the fungus.

Door prizes were drawn; people enjoyed the sxúsum juice and snacks and chatted. As we all went home full of new information, it was easy to envision these strange, amazing, and miraculous ideas spreading throughout the BC Interior, just like a mycelia.

Toby Mueller is a community librarian, naturalist, gardener, and writer from Lillooet.

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