AgriCulture: Mushrooming Anxieties

Last night was one of those nights when I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. On such occasions, which thankfully only occur every few weeks, my mind hums with the recollection of tasks undone. Counting sheep? A calming route back to sleep. Counting undone items on your “to do” list? Quite the opposite. With each additional undone task I imagine more and more dire consequences, until I am certain that I face catastrophic failure, homelessness and freezing to death on the street.

Typically daylight casts all these concerns in a new, far less dire light. Usually, by the time I’ve finished my first cup of coffee I realize that I can get back to procrastinating. Those tasks I agonized about just a few hours earlier? Maybe I’ll get to them next month.

Not this morning. As my guests for the past week, friends Eric and Paul and Eric’s dog Lillie, packed up to leave, I checked the forecast and saw predicted temperatures for the coming week dipping down as low as 31 at night. October may have been frost free, but November will not be. Some tasks I can put off no longer.

Paul helped me yesterday by steadying the extension ladder as I installed those upstairs storm windows in the most precarious and highest locations, but I still have 8 upstairs windows and the entire downstairs to get done. In the garden, the pepper plants are still loaded with peppers that will shrivel to worthlessness with a frost. I must also harvest all the beans, the daikon radishes, zucchinis and tromboncino squashes, and must dry bunches of mint, before the frost similarly destroys those. Soon the sheep will have little grass to graze on, and I have to make sure the several hundred bales of hay I ordered to sustain them through the winter get here this week. I must get to work.

Or should I chill out and find a better cure for my anxieties? After seeing the documentary this week, Fantastic Fungi, about the world of mushrooms and those who study and grow them, I wondered.

According to this 2019 film, mushrooms are part of a family of beings which are neither plant nor animal, but which are essential connectors between the two. Fungal networks of very fine mycelium (threads of natural polymers, including proteins) are ubiquitous in the ground beneath us, and serve as not only the “root system” of mushrooms but also as communications networks for trees, and conduits through which trees and other plants may share nutrients. The mushrooms we pick and eat, or see growing above ground, are only the fruits of these networks. They produce spores, akin to seeds, which are carried in the air and establish new fungi.

The fungi grow by transforming decaying plant matter, such as dead trees, into energy. As mushrooms feed on decaying matter, they in turn feed both animals (which eat them) and plants (which take advantage of the underground mycelium network for nutrient transfers). They are presented in this film as an essential linchpin of life, enabling a global system of energy exchange in which each living being serves as food for another. From that perspective, I should be perfectly content with leaving frost shriveled vegetables out in the garden, recognizing that they will not be wasted but will serve as food for something or will return nutrients to the ground. I should be comfortable with my own mortality, too, knowing that I am just a temporary assemblage of bits of the universe’s energy and that when I die those bits of energy will be reabsorbed and reassembled into other life forms.

I was already very comfortable with that view of the cosmos before watching this film, even if I did not understand mushrooms to be such an important part of the system. I appreciate the new perspective the film gave me on that energy system, and it certainly made me wonder about the particular qualities of the odd mushroom I came upon back near the shagbark hickory this week (pictured above).

But I was not entirely convinced that mushrooms have the supreme, almost mystically central role in life that the movie implied. It suggested (through a scientist who said it was a “plausible” theory) that the human brain grew so rapidly as we evolved from other primates because our ancestors ate “magic” (i.e. psychedelic) mushrooms like psilocybin. The synesthesia (melding of sensations like sight and sound) one experiences tripping on a psychedelic drug is suggested to have been how we came to establish the supposedly distinctive human trait of language. Further, by almost mystical coincidence, humans who eat magic mushrooms now can, according to the film, experience the reality of being part of the universal energy system. To do so, we learn, brings peace to people who are anxious because they are dying of terminal illness.

The film also describes the nutritional and medicinal benefits of various varieties of mushroom, including as cures for cancer. It is preceded by a warning that you should only take mushrooms with the guidance of your doctor, but I don’t expect that’s how the general public will respond to this movie. As my friend Steve says: “People put a lot of hope in mushrooms, including me… I’m secretly hoping that micro dosing mushrooms will solve all of my problems and give me peace and happiness and joy. Because therapy seems like a lot of work.”

If I were magically inclined, I’d wonder if it was some supernatural order that caused Eric and me to do a “Champignons” jigsaw puzzle depicting hundreds of mushroom varieties earlier in the week, before even hearing about the movie. But my general approach might be better described as a Cynical Mystery Tour. The anthropologist in me came away from the film with the distinct impression that we are seeing the growth of a mushroom cult that has taken the very real world benefits of mushrooms, be they as energy transfer agents, medicines, or food, and exploded them into a quasi – religion. One with a multi-million dollar business in propagating and selling mushrooms along for the ride.

That said, the farmer in me welcomes having a natural product newly in vogue that one can cultivate and sell. If Steve, who keeps threatening to move to the farm, wants to realize his fantasy of building a structure here that enables growing tons of mushrooms super fast, he is more than welcome to come give it a try.

WHAT’S AVAILABLE THIS WEEK

Daikon Radish, $2/each – large, great for radish salads, kimchee

Humongous and not so large zucchini, 50 cents a lb.

Poblano peppers — great for chiles rellenos $1 each

Long Hot Portugal peppers $.50 each

Jalapeno peppers, $.50 each

Swiss chard $3/bag

Collard greens $3/bag

Rhubarb $4 a lb.

Mint $1 a bunch

Frisee lettuce, $3/bag

Sorrel, $3 a bag

EGGS: $5/doz Production is dropping off dramatically, but there are still a few coming in, so ask

CHICKENS: all sold out

FARM PICKUPS:

Email us your order at farm@turkanafarms.com, and let us know when you’d like to pick up your order. It will be put out for you on the side screened porch of the farmhouse (110 Lasher Ave., Germantown) in a bag. You can leave cash or a check in the now famous pineapple on the porch table. Because I’m now here full time, we’re abandoning regular pick-up times. Let us know when you want your order any day between 10 and 5, and unless there are unusual circumstances we’ll be able to ready it to your convenience. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to call or text at 917-544-6464 or email.



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