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The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline

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Abstract

This article explores the science of mycology through a queer theory framework with the intention of situating the state of the field in a historical and social context. With the understanding that everything is in community with fungi, we look to the biology and ecology of these organisms for transformative inspiration and a deep-time sense of belonging. Our scientific understanding of mushrooms and other fungi has been shaped and indeed impeded by mycophobia, a condition of fear and revulsion that we compare here to queerphobia. In this work, we argue that mycology relies upon queer methodologies for knowledge acquisition given both the nonbinary, cryptic, and subversive biological nature of fungi as well as a hegemonic, Western, cultural rendering of fungi as perverse and unworthy of formal investigation. We further argue that the queer methodologies of mycology that developed in response to these conditions have enhanced rather than hindered our knowledge of fungi. Because our ultimate quest as scientists is the pursuit of truth, as best as we can determine, we suggest that scientists would do well to meaningfully reconcile with the inescapable and oftentimes queer reality of bias and subjectivity.
Kaishian, Patricia, & Djoulakian, Hasmik (2020). The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer
Discipline. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience, 6(2), 1 - 26
http://www.catalystjournal.org | ISSN: 2380-3312
© Patricia Kaishian and Hasmik Djoulakian, 2020 | Licensed to the Catalyst Project under a
Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license
The Science Underground:
Mycology as a Queer Discipline
Patricia Kaishian
Purdue University pkaishian@gmail.com
Hasmik Djoulakian
hasmikdjoulakian@gmail.com
Abstract
This article explores the science of mycology through a queer theory framework
with the intention of situating the state of the field in a historical and social
context. With the understanding that everything is in community with fungi, we
look to the biology and ecology of these organisms for transformative inspiration
and a deep-time sense of belonging. Our scientific understanding of mushrooms
and other fungi has been shaped and indeed impeded by mycophobia, a condition
of fear and revulsion that we compare here to queerphobia. In this work, we argue
that mycology relies upon queer methodologies for knowledge acquisition given
both the nonbinary, cryptic, and subversive biological nature of fungi as well as a
hegemonic, Western, cultural rendering of fungi as perverse and unworthy of
formal investigation. We further argue that the queer methodologies of mycology
that developed in response to these conditions have enhanced rather than
hindered our knowledge of fungi. Because our ultimate quest as scientists is the
pursuit of truth, as best as we can determine, we suggest that scientists would do
well to meaningfully reconcile with the inescapable and oftentimes queer reality
of bias and subjectivity.
We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not
human.
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David Abrams, Becoming Animal
Introduction
Clustered in supergroup Opisthokonta, fungi, animals, and amoebae share a more
recent common ancestor than with plants or bacteria. The vegetated
environment that enabled the transition of animals to land and evolution of
amphibians, reptiles, birds, then mammals, was bound to symbiotic fungi known
as mycorrhizae. Over 90 percent of plants form these associations (Smith & Read,
2008), and myceliated landscapes sustain cascades of nested biological systems,
from which every evolutionary layer of our human biology is indistinguishable,
arising and persisting in conviviality with fungi or fungal-bound organisms. As
terraforming bodies, fungal transindividualism is our collective ecological history.
Fungi are engaged in continual processes of renewal, interfacing with death,
creating life through decomposition, nutrient reallocation, and the spectrum of
symbiosis. Fungi can remediate environments by digesting fossil fuels and
converting them into fungal sugars. Fungi can accumulate heavy metals and
radioactive materials, and a fungus has even been found to metabolize ionizing
Cesium-137 in the reactors of Chernobyl. Both single cellular forms and
filamentous, hyphal networks of fungi can be found in almost any conceivable
niche: of, on, within, and for human and nonhuman bodies.
Despite this dynamic profile of fungi complex social histories have influenced
outcomes and trajectories of mycology, rendering it a marginalized science.
Kingdom Fungi has been persistently maligned, feared, and misunderstood, and
these cultural forces have directly sabotaged scientific understanding of this
group for hundreds of years. In Western Europe and in the United States
particularly, children are typically raised to fear all mushrooms, which are
unilaterally viewed as poisonous, diseased, and degenerate. Although science, in
its ideal form, should be an equal-opportunity investigative methodological tool,
we know that the history of modern science has been disproportionately written
by white, often Christian, men from Western Europe, excluding other voices.
Consequently, dominant cultural lensesheteronormativity, racism, sexism,
ableism, and binaries inherent to themhave influenced scientific
understandings.
Tiokasin Ghosthorse, a member of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation of South
Dakota and scholar at Yale Divinity School and the Yale School of Forestry and
Environmental Science, explores relational and egalitarian thinking processes
familiar to the Lakota people, as compared to rational, hierarchical thinking
processes within Western cultures. Ghosthorse says that, for Lakota people,
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language is inherently relational and all things are bound together. Ghosthorse
(2019) writes,
The rational mind is the human living within the hierarchy of a box
that seeks to capture it through its own narcissistic addiction to the
anthropocentrism of a society or a people who hold themselves up as
somehow more grandiose than others in that box of conscience. It
deadens the intuitive or non-dogmatic life. This is where the
separation beginswith a concept and a word that doesn’t exist
within many intuitive languages, such as Lakota. That word is
domination. (paras. 1011)
By invoking rationality over intuition to defend a viewpoint, a person makes the
assertion that the intuitiveoften feminizedlens is neither legitimate nor
legible, with no footing in any discursive cultural space. Often with derision, it is
written out of the conversation. Such disregard for intuition is part of the pathway
toward domination that Ghosthorse describes. Dualistic thinking about life and
non-life, male and female, and other categories Ghosthorse alludes to, permeate
mycophobic discourse.
Western scientific thinking seeks security through objective assessment, but
objectivity is meaningless when it comes to gender and queerness because
attempts to determine the bounds of queerness are already exercises of power.
Donna Haraway (1988) discusses the falsity of objectivity in her essay on situated
knowledges, which describes the partial perspective any one person is able to
have depending on sociopolitical factors influencing their gaze; these partial
perspectives form a patchwork of messy, layered knowledge that inches toward
some measure of shifting objectivity. This encourages rethinking scientific
endeavors not as observations of subjects, but as interactions with
them. Similarly, fungi defy objectivity and standardization. Specifically, sporadic,
ephemeral, and unpredictable appearances of fruiting bodies complicates
mycologists’ ability to obtain thorough population data. The complex biotic and
abiotic forces that lead to a species producing a fruiting body remain unknown in
many cases. While some fungi, like some species of morels, can be reliably found
in the same place on more or less the same calendar day every year, other species,
such as members of genus Ionomidotus, may be seen once in a given location and
then never again. But is its mycelium still present in that spot? We often do not
know. If so, does that count as being present? Then there is the issue of
quantification of an individual. If you find a scattered grouping of mushrooms
growing around a tree, are they one genetic individual? If so, do you quantify
them as one mushroom? Or do you count the number of mushrooms, reporting
them as individuals? There is not a clear and universally applied answer to these
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questions. This lack of conformity to quantifiable boxes has put many fungi at a
greater risk of extinction. Their biological realities are not given necessary
accommodations in our current conservation assessment framework, whose
attempts to standardize data diminish many essential properties of fungi.
Interrogating our dualistic, mycophobic view of fungiand our often
pathologizing attempts to understand themcan help make Science more
accountable.
Mycology is a science that, by its very nature, challenges paradigms and
deconstructs norms. Mycology disrupts our mostly binary conception of plants
versus animals, two-sex mating systems, and discrete organismal structure,
calling upon non-normative, multimodal methodologies for knowledge
acquisition. Mycelium is the web-like network of fungal cells that extends apically
through substrate, performing sex, seeking nutrients, building multispecies and
multikingdom symbioses. This essay seeks to remediate our relationship with
fungi and all organismsthereby queernessby collapsing and myceliating the
emotional space between human and nonhuman. In order to do this, we explore
dogma of institutional (capital S) Science, as well as the biology, history, and
methodologies of mycology through a queer theory framework, as seen by a
queer mycologist and a feminist educator.
History of Queer
Historically, queer was used pejoratively to describe non-heteronormative
behaviors. People now self-identify as queer, to describe their existence outside
heteronormativity. In the United States, queer was reclaimed and gained
popular usage during AIDS political activism of the 1980s and 1990s. “We’re Here!
We’re Queer! Get Used to It!” was the rallying cry of Queer Nation and ACT UP,
which sought to unify subgroups not quite captured by the terms “gay” and
lesbian. The word nation suggested a coalition of queer people, bound
together in their non-heteronormativity, redefining what it meant and what it
looked like to have a sense of belonging rooted in shared identity and struggle
(Chen, 2012, pp. 6163). Whether people identify as queer to describe their
homosexuality, gender noncomformity, or transgender identity, queer is fluid,
invoking a spirit of community and a history of defiance (Butler, 1990; Sedgwick,
1990/2008; Clare; 2015).
Queer theory explores the constructed dichotomy of normative and deviant
sexuality and systems and frameworks that interact with sexuality, including race,
nationality, dis/ability. This field grew from feminist and gay and lesbian studies,
which focus on challenging “essential” qualities of women and femininity, as well
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as the normativity of heterosexuality, which becomes posited as the unspoken,
unnamed standard and expectation for romantic and sexual relationships. While
this essay interrogates the relationship between mycology and queerness by
defining queer as non-heteronormative identities and expressions, there is value
in thinking more broadly of queer as referring to identities, bodies, and
behaviors pushed to the margins of Western, hegemonic, heternormative life.
Queer theory has drawn from a number of philosophers and theorists, including
poststructuralists and postmodernists such as Jacques Derrida. One of Derrida s
contributions to semiotics is the concept of deconstruction, which seeks to
deconstruct” logocentrism, the idea that there are inherent, stable truths, calling
attention to the importance of language in the formation of our framework of
truths. Derrida (1981) writes,
by means of this double play, marked in certain decisive places by an
erasure which allows what it obliterates to be read, violently inscribing
within the text that which attempted to govern it from without, I try to
respect as rigorously as possible the internal, regulated play of
philosophemes or epistimemes by making them slidewithout
mistreating themto the point of their nonpertinence, their
exhaustion, their closure. (p. 6)
Probing the limits of socially ingrained concepts is an exercise of deconstruction
and reshapes systems of power. A project of queer theory is deconstruction of
heteronormative concepts, such as a family as a procreative unit, which exposes
contingencies, obsolescence, and fallacies in these norms, reinforcing the viability
of alternative structures and spaces. By challenging protected social groups and
their associated dogmas, queer theory seeks to make plastic seemingly stable
notions of fact, knowledge, knowledge acquisition, and Science, whose otherwise
reified, institutionalized standing maintains commonly held assumptions. Queer
ecology is an intervention specifically targeted against institutionalization of
heteronormative modes of scientific thought, unraveling abounding queerness.
History of Science
People all over the world have systematically documented their surroundings and
interactions with nonhuman organisms, abiotic factors, and ecologies for
millennia. By way of reproducible knowledge acquisition, mass observational
patterns and longitudinal documentation, many systems of knowing have long
existed. Despite this, some forms of knowing and conceptions of truth have been
given priority over others. In Western Europe, women had historically been
keepers of ecological knowledge, but their voices were excluded from formal
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participation in Science, their knowledge often dismissed as folk tales,”
“witchcraft,” or old wives’ tales,” meant to indicate that their knowledge was
irrationalsometimes, unnatural, evil, otherworldlywith no basis in reality,
because women’s knowledge was fundamentally threatening to hegemonic
institutions of knowledge-creation (Barstow, 1994). Val Plumwood (1993) writes,
Feminine ‘closeness to nature’ has hardly been a compliment” (p. 19), and
instead an assertion that women did not possess rational, intellectual, and
positively human capacities of liberal, modern, Western men, who channeled
untamed nature into reputable, reified Scientific Knowledge. The culture of
institutional Science has been disproportionately shaped by a small subset of
people, and the consequences can be limiting to research and dangerous for
posterity.
With the spread of institutional Science, Christianity continued to spread, in part
through colonialism. It is well known and documented that Christianity strongly
influenced scientists. Scientists, such as Descartes, Euler, and Newton, often were
loyal to the Church in their supposedly objective pursuits of knowledge. Large-
scale agriculture also interacted with Science and Christianity, with scientific
discoveries enabling new manipulations of land and crops, and with Christian
domestic and marital structure organized in connection with agriculture in what
can be termed agro-heterosexuality. Rachel Stein (2010) states,
Christian thinkers compared human sexual actions to planting a field
and only those activities that corresponded to “seeding,” or
procreation, were accepted as natural; other activities impeding or
ignoring reproduction, whether performed with members of the same
or opposite sex were forbidden as against nature (Bullough &
Bullough, 1977, p. 28). (p. 286)
Bodies that perform forbidden actions become forbidden themselves, marked as
unnatural, offensive, defiant. This is also where queer sexuality meets queer
ecology, including the effect of fungi on agriculture and agricultural metaphors.
Anna Tsing (2012) explores the relationship between emergence of intensive
agriculture as the standard of modernity and progress, and solidification of fungi
as the enemy of those ideas of modernity and progress. The relationship is tinged
with irony: when agriculture disrupts and strips bare natural ecologies, the
resulting monocultures are increasingly vulnerable to pests and pathogens, some
of which are fungal. Tsing (2012) writes, The emergence of vast fields of grain
offered fungal plant parasites a field dayand a reputation as the enemy of
civilisation and, later, progress” (p. 147). This notion of progress implies forward
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movement, productivity, growth, and improvement, concepts which queerphobic
discourse suggests become hindered through a lack of heterosexual procreation.
Science is not inherently a capitalistic endeavor, but discourse of progress can
strap capitalistic notions of productivity to scientific spaces and pursuits. Tsing
(2015) explores this idea with the word “scalability”: the capitalistic drive of
perpetually scaling up, making research questions apply to greater and greater
scales without changing the research question, which is apparent with industrial
agriculture. Tsing (2015) even refers to mushroom forests, sites of boundless
indeterminate encounters” with no prescribed measures of productivity or
success, as anti-plantations (p. 51). It is through interplay of these factors
dominant heteronormative structure and capitalist drivethat disdain for fungi
crystalized within Western Europe, and later within postcolonial US.
Tsing (2012) writes, Biological and social diversity huddle defensively in
neglected margins…Most everywhere, a negative correlation exists between
diversity and intensity of capital investment and state control!” (p. 151). As cereal
farming under capitalism intensified throughout Eurasia, families were expected
to give a portion of their yields to elites. Mushrooms grew wild on untended
margins of these farms, and were incorporated into people s diets under the
table,” providing a form of nourishment beyond the reach of the state. Under
large-scale agriculture, crops are organized through capitalist logics of
commodification,” within which things are torn from their lifeworlds to become
objects of exchange” (Tsing, 2012, p. 158). These wild-growing mushrooms
demonstrate non-extractive, non-capitalist entanglements with surrounding
ecosystem lifeworlds. One type of truth is that humans are different from fungi
due to our evolutionary history and genetics. Another type of truth is that we are
similar because we both respond to the intensity of capital investment and state
control in a similar way. We die.
In science, a tool can look tantalizingly like a truth, until the tool is deconstructed
into its foundational elements. As scientists, we use tools and methods to access
knowledge, and we standardize our work to create a common language. This is of
tremendous power and value, as it allows for a language for globalized
participation in knowledge formation. With all potential knowledge being infinite,
science is collective incrementalism, each finding leading to infinity minus one.
Replication and standardization are hallmarks of science for good reason. The
difference between pseudoscience and alternative ways of knowing should be
clarified: purporting to be science and failing to abide by the scientific method is
fundamentally different from openly and explicitly operating outside the confines
of the scientific method, and it is essential that they be regarded differently.
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Pseudoscience can be destructive and dishonest, and is rightfully criticized.
Trouble arises, however, when replication and standardization are conflated with
knowledge itself. Some will argue knowledge cannot exist absent these
structures, and while science requires these structures, it is critical to emphasize
the difference between tools and truth. The strength of science can also be its
weakness: linear, logical atomization of information excavates clean and
standardized data, but in our infinitely complicated universe, such expectations
for cleanliness seem improbable; to choose, at times, messiness is to see more
fully.
Taxonomy, the naming, describing, and classifying of organisms, is a vital and
often undervalued tool for communication in organismal science. Taxonomy is
often undervalued because it is considered simple, observational, basic
research.” Within our system of categorization, species concepts for fungi can be
ambiguous, shifting depending on the objective of the investigator. While a
phylogenetic or biological species concept might be true in the context of
phylogenetics and evolution, the ability to strictly define a species is not a
requisite for accessing the truth of all organismal relationships. For example, a
yeast (a single-celled fungus) could hardly be more morphologically and
genetically distinct from a human body, and yet, there is a suite of yeasts found
within human bodies (the mycobiome) upon which we depend for basic bodily
functions (Seed, 2015). These species are critically interdependent but this
understanding cannot be derived from species concepts. Scientists have found
that common morphologies are not always an indicator of relatedness; that
populations within a species are sometimes on the verge of speciation; that data
organization by way of DNA is data organization for the sake of data continuity.
Things are fluid, scientific inquiry happens in a snapshot of deep-time, and this is
also a truth.
The construction and imposition of units in taxonomy and biological surveys
mimics individualized concepts of self, specifically the reified notion of self
coveted historically through Western standards of white, masculine, self-
sufficient personhood. Discrete units of self diminish the relational and
interdependent nature of humanity and deny the labor of others in accounting of
one’s success and viability. Declaring units of fungi feels forced and coercive
because their fluid, indeterminant biology clashes radically with such abrupt and
linear constructions. Clean taxonomic and population units deny the messiness of
fungal biologyalmost always embedded, connected, and dynamicforcing
scientists to question our own objectives in this pursuit. Failure to reassess
objectives in science can leave one clinging to tools at the expense of better
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answers.
From some perspectives, science during the Age of Enlightenment stressed
difference over similarity. Carl Linnaeus’s work on taxonomy specifically was
organized around the pursuit of an inherent quality that differentiated, rather
than bound, organisms into their own discrete taxonomic units (Wilchins, 2004).
But queer differences in fungi went misread by Linnaeus, and many mycologists
agree that Linneaus’s treatment of fungi did more of a disservice to the group
than good. Linnaeus called lichens rustici pauperrimi'' or poorest peasants” of
vegetation (Plitt,1919). Fungi were given the mycophobic title of lower plants,”
which directly references perception of fungi as inferior and, hinting at
teleological notions held at that time, less evolved. Based largely on nutritional
modes, with fungi being heterotrophic and plants autotrophic, fungi were
properly established as their own kingdom within the five-kingdom system
proposed by Robert Whittaker in 1969. Even after this, however, mycology was
placed under the purview of plant and/or forest pathology. Currently, if an
institution has a mycology dedicated lab at all, and few do, it will most likely be
placed in a department or sub-department titled plant or forest pathology.
Scientific understanding of fungi has therefore been constrained by confirmation
bias and social forces; fungi are approached through a pathologizing framework
as something to be fought, controlled, and eliminated. No one should doubt the
importance of these perspectivesafter all, many fungi are pathogens, parasites,
and disease agents of agriculturally and economically important cropsbut the
vast majority of fungi are not limited to those roles, if they fill them at all.
Mycophobia
Fungi are not plants, nor are they animals, and this binary conception is how many
people today are inclined to interface with the natural world. Fungi are seen as
poisonous, agents of disease, degenerate, deadly, freaky, gross, and weird
language historically leveled against both queer and disabled peopleand as
having no positive interrelationships with their environment(s). Mycology is rarely
taught to undergraduate students, never mind sufficiently addressed in primary
and secondary schools. Examples of dramatic and disdainful characterizations of
mushrooms are abundant in many facets of Western European culture. In Magical
Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, George Hudler (1998, p. 73) explores socially
important fungi throughout history and presents examples of these
characterizations, such as the following poem by Emily Dickinson (1896):
Had nature any outcast face
Could she a son condemn
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Had nature an Iscariot
That mushroom it is him.
Emily Dickinson, The Mushroom”
Dickinson compares mushrooms in her poem to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who
betrayed Jesus Christ to the chief priests, leading to his crucifixion. She suggests
there is a sanctity to nature that is defiled and betrayed by mushrooms, as if they
were not only an aberration of nature, but also an active, malicious threat to a
holy place. A later section of the poem refers to mushrooms as the Elf of Plants,”
echoing the Linnaean title of lower plants.”
The following is an excerpt from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle s Sir Nigel (1906):
A sickly autumn shone upon the land. Wet and rotten leaves reeked
and festered under a foul haze. The fields were spotted with
monstrous fungi of a size and colour never matched beforescarlet
and mauve and liver and blackit was as though the sick earth had
burst into foul pustules. Mildew and lichen mottled the walls and with
that filthy crop, death sprang also from watersoaked earth.
Doyle intentionally uses language grounded in ableist and queerphobic sentiment
to create a picture in which, instead of being integral to forest health, mushrooms
are seen as dirty, foreign, and frightening markers of death. For instance, his
ignoranceand resulting insecurity and hostilityabout the critical ability of fungi
to decompose organic matter and help maintain the nutrient cycle necessary for
life leads him to depict fungi as foul pustules,” suggesting illness and a visceral
sense of wrong.
Mycophobia and Queerphobia
Mycology is queer at the organismal level. Fungi are nonbinary: they are neither
plants nor animals, but possess a mixture of qualities common to both groups,
upending the prevailing binary concept of nature. It is rare for a fungus to have
only two biological sexes, and some fungi, such as Schizophyllum commune, have
as many as 23,000 mating types. When two compatible fungi meet, their mycelia
will fuse into one body, sexually recombine, then remain somatically as one as
they” continue to live, grow, and explore in their environment. Members of
phylum Glomeromycota are only known to be asexual. Fungi in order
Laboulbeniales sometimes have distinct bodies for male and female reproductive
structures (dioecious), or both may be found in the same body (monoecious), and
sometimes monoecious and dioecious bodies co-occur. Mycology has queer
investigators. Of respondents to the Mycological Society of America 2018 survey,
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12 percent of mycologists identified as LGBTQ, which is three to four times the
national reported average (Haelewaters, personal communication, 2019). One will
quickly notice that mycological spaces have dispensed with certain expectations
of formality, and even academic mycological conferences have a comforting,
casual air of an odd family reunion. Mycology is queer methodologically.
Mycologists use sensing, intuition, experience, and storytelling, with experts
operating outside of institutional affiliation more often than with other
organismal fields. For many mycologists, our relationships with fungi stir powerful
emotions tied deeply to our core. We sometimes cry or burst into song when we
find these special and beautiful beings.
Organisms, bodies, and behaviors that are difficult to neatly categorize stir
insecurity and a lack of control within the viewer, who responds with fear,
revulsion, and hatred. What becomes difficult to discern or dominate through
heteropatriarchal systems of oppression and dogmatic scientific understandings
becomes a threat to institutions that codify bodies of knowledge. Queer bodies
are seen as less fit” and functional,” which calls on ableist language in similar
ways as mycophobic language does. This includes the relegation of mycology to
subfields of pathology” within ecosystem sciences, coloring institutionalized
understanding of the many lives of fungi.
Whatever poisonous and destructive qualities exist among a small subset of fungi
have become mapped onto the character of fungi as a whole. This is indicative of
the devaluation of fungi, as the same could not be said of kingdom Plantae, even
though there exist subsets of poisonous and destructive plants. Plants and other
organisms classified as belonging to “higher” kingdoms are recognized as
possessing a greater degree of social capital (Bourdieu, 1986)for example, they
are more likely seen as helpful, valuable, and capable of performing some
servicethat allows them to encompass an abundance of attributes in people’s
imaginations. In contrast, fungi and other “lower” kingdoms, such as Archaea and
bacteria, do not occupy this elevated space in people’s imaginations. In general,
people who belong to marginalized groups experience a flattening of their person
into a static state that suggests behaviors by individual members of a group can
be generalized onto the supposedly singularly definable quality of the group as a
whole; this is one of the ways mycophobia and queerphobia operate using similar
logics. It is worthwhile to wrestle with the apparent tensions when
marginalization is referred to as “dehumanization,” because while language that
compares humans to nonhuman animals and other life forms is meant to strip
those humans of empathizable qualities, leaving them vulnerable to justifiable
violence and harm, it is crucial to resist human/nonhuman binaries and hierarchies
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that are part and parcel of violent, oppressive systems. Plumwood (1993) writes
about this tension: Thus, for example, behind the view that there is something
insulting or degrading about linking women and nature stands an unstated set of
assumptions about the inferior status of the non-human world” (p. 26).
Well-intentioned scientists have utilized queerphobic rhetoric in depictions of
environmental hazards. Whether or not this usage is unwitting, it stems from
deep-seated, subconscious knowledge that sensationalizing and heteronormative
language spurs public condemnation. Giovanna Di Chiro (2010) writes about the
concept of eco(hetero)normativity in regards to ableist, queerphobic, and
heterosexist languagesuch as sexual abnormalities,” including male-to-female
gender shifts and intersex conditions” among fish and other animals
environmentalists and popular media may use to rouse concern about
environmental pollution and toxicity (pp. 201202). Such language moves beyond
the need conduct science, inform readers, and demand a healthy environmentit
sensationalizes depictions of queer and disabled bodies as tragic aberrations from
a supposedly (hetero)normative order to life that must be upheld and protected.
Analysis around the harmfulness of this language must be extended to discourse
around fungi. Mycophobic language paints fungi almost as unnatural toxins
themselvesa force whose specter of invasiveness is constructed through a
similar mobilization of queer-fear. This depiction of fungi sustains legitimized and
respectable” bodies of scientific thought and methodologies of research.
Even when researchers are not actively queerphobic it is impossible to act fully
outside hegemonic discursive norms. It is only once this tension is named and a
person recognizes that their perceptions of reality are culturally mediated that
they can perform methodologically thoughtful research. Articulating the way this
cultural entrapment functions, Monique Wittig (1992) writes, There is nothing
abstract about the power that sciences and theories have to act materially and
actually upon our bodies and our minds, even if the discourse that produces it is
abstract. It is one of the forms of domination, its very expression, as Marx said. I
would say, rather, one of its exercises” (pp. 5354). In a general sense, people
struggle to imagine the enormous breadth of fungal life because fungal bodies
exist well outside gender binaries, heterosexuality, and other exercises of power
that create, as Wittig says, false absolute meaning[s]” of gender, sexuality,
nature, and health.
In her writings on feminism, Sara Ahmed (2017) discusses the idea that being a
lesbian/queer means inhabiting a body that feels constantly questioned. Ahmed
(2017) states, Sometimes, whether or not you are asked a question, you feel
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questionable…You feel like a question mark; you feel marked by questions” (pp.
120121). Mycology is marked by questions by those on the outside: Why would
you possibly study those things? Will you get sick or poisoned? What kind of job can
you get with that degree? This further evokes parallels to coming out.” Queer
people are often met with confusion, fear, and even disgust and abuse if they
reveal their orientation or identity. Even in more mycophillic countries where
foraging for mushrooms is more likely a shared cultural pastime, scientific passion
and research focused on this kingdom of life is often seen as whimsical, confusing,
or even disturbing.
A slippery space often exists between revulsion and commodification. Simon
Estok (2009) introduces the term queer ecocritcism on the pretext that the
commodification of nature and sexual minorities are similar, each depending on a
large consumer base that seeks a vicarious experience, rather than the thing
itself” (pp. 213216). People may desire a superficial, extractive experience while
maintaining distance from the queer subject. Within mycology, there are
examples of how people engage with fungi opportunistically, but fail to regard
them as the essential, deeply ecological beings they are. Many people have had
their lives saved by penicillin, without realizing that the medicine is derived from a
fungus, Penicillium. Only a small handful of mushrooms that can be cultivated for
culinary purposes, such as the portobello (Agaricus bisporus), have made their way
into the realm of acceptability. They are accepted for two reasons: (1) They can be
controlled and they exhibit predictable behaviors that can fall neatly under the
domination of a cultivator; and (2) they serve a direct purpose to humans, in this
case as a food source. Fungi that fit into only one of those categories, such as wild
“choice” edible mushrooms, are sometimes deemed acceptable. There is an
increasing popularity in dining on wild mushrooms, but in the US, these gourmet
mushrooms are often sold at a high price, tying them to wealthy and often white
clientele, who are often gatekeepers of acceptability within dominant culture.
The consumer of expensive wild mushrooms may feel adventurous, daring,
knowledgeable, and perhaps even superior to those who cannot afford those
mushrooms. The excitement felt from exclusive access to a queer(ed) other is a
hallmark of commodity culture. bell hooks (1992) writes about commodification
and objectification of Black bodies through an analysis of white (often male)
fascination with and desire for sexual contact with dark Others—“the
consumption of the dark Other,” as hooks puts it (p. 30). hooks explains that this
fetishization of the body of the Other helps white people to feel like transgressive
and bold Subjects, while Black people remain in the position of “primitive”
Objects. While hooks’s argument is about white cultural imperialism and not
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queerness, her argument about the thrill white people feel when they come into
close contacta type of consumptionwith an “unknowable” Other can be
extended to queerness as well. Consumers of expensive wild and rare
mushrooms also assert their power over mushrooms, queer symbols and
representations of death, and the seemingly mysterious origins they sprang from.
Among people who forage for mushrooms they will later sell, however, exist more
complicated social, cultural, and economic relationships with mushrooms. Tsing
(2015) describes these as pericapitalist spaces, or sites of salvage
accumulation, in that they take advantage of value produced without capitalist
control” and both are, and are not, capitalist interactions with mushrooms (in
Tsing’s research, specifically matsutake, a highly coveted and costly mushroom)
(p. 83). Pericapitalist spaces allow enactment of people’s own sense of freedom,
often tied up in their cultural legacies, that connect them with mushrooms. Even
when mushrooms are not so costly as to fall along these economic pathways, they
are still sites of social convergence, bringing together academic and nonacademic
scientists and an assortment of people who feel their freedom is theirs to reclaim.
Mushrooms offer witness to human vulnerability.
Stacy Alaimo (2008) identifies nature as a critical ideological junction in feminist
thought: the contradictory, ubiquitous, and historically varied meanings of
nature have made it a crucial site for various feminist social struggles, including
feminist anarchism, socialism, birth control, racial equality, and lesbianism” (p.
229). Alaimo asserts that, although the wedge driven between nature and body is
understandable as a reaction to the intentionally demeaning historical association
of women and nature, this flight from nature” is one of the most unfortunate
legacies of poststructuralist and postmodern feminism” (2008, p. 229). Calling for
inhabitation of trans-corporeality,” Alaimo seeks to reestablish a feminist
intimacy between bodies and nature by emphasizing material engagements of
space and time. In this trans-corporeal, space-time partnership of beings, human
and nonhuman bodies exert their own intermingled agency and life-making
power, leading Alaimo to ask, How is it possible to understand agency without a
subject, actions without actors? How can we rethink matter as activity rather than
passive substance?” (2008, p. 245). These questions strike at the heart of feminist
efforts to de-naturalize the pervasive grip of dualistic thinking. Fungi, with their
ability to decompose and transform matter across space-time, enabling
reconstitution of bodies into new materialities, are crucial agents of non-
capitalist, anti-dualistic interchange.
Plumwood (1993) writes that mutually reinforcing dualisms, such as culture vs.
nature; male vs. female; reason vs. emotion (nature); subject vs. object; and self
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vs. other, result from a certain kind of denied dependency on a subordinated
other” (p. 41). Plumwood goes on to argue that virtually the whole set of
dualisms can be mobilised for this purpose of inferiorising the sphere of nature
and those human-beings who may be counted as part of nature” (1993, p. 47).
Human experience of the world becomes categorized, understood, and curtailed
by the alienation and domination these dualisms naturalize and sustain. Queer
people are simultaneously compared to animals, but also characterized as
unnatural, which itself utilizes the false divide between nature and culture.
Similarly, fungi are regarded as wild and unruly elements of nature with no
connection to humans, and simultaneously unevolved or somehow
representatives of another, more evil realm.
Haraway (2007) offers an intervention into binaristic discourse that alienates
humans from the natural world; we assert that such discourse also ensnares our
fungal kin. Haraway communicates the inextricable dynamicism and co-
constitutive relationship between nature and culture through her term
naturecultures, which says that any invocation of nature has a cultural context,
and similarly, cultures do not exist apart from nature (2007, p. 25). Haraway
argues that companion speciesorganisms whose communal and corporeal
existence and identity demand interdependencearise from naturecultures. She
writes, I am not a posthumanist; I am who I become with companion species,
who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind.
Queer messmates in mortal play, indeed” (2007, p. 19). Messmates occupy space
together; they witness one another’s intimate moments, and their day-to-day
lives depend on synchronous interplay with one another. This includes humans
and the fungi we coexist with on a daily basis, from yeast cells mingling in our guts
and nutrifying our foods, to symbiotic fungi whose role in forests sustains our
global environment.
When language is limited to a binary conception of gender, those who do not fit
squarely in those constructs are often thought to not exist, and explicitly written
out of existence through their exclusion. Fungi are often unnamedonly about
120,000 of an estimated 2.2 to 3.8 million fungi have been named and described
(Hawksworth & Lücking, 2017). While the call to name all currently undescribed
fungi will be a step in the right direction, and is in fact the pursuit of one of the
authors of this paper, taxonomy alone cannot cure this problem, because it does
not break from the need to delineate the bounds between fungi and humans
which, to borrow from Derrida, is a hierarchical regime. Derrida (1981) argues,
To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy
at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget
the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition. Therefore
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one might proceed too quickly to a neutralization that in practice
would leave the previous field untouched, leaving one no hold on the
previous opposition, thereby preventing any means of intervening in
the field effectively…The necessity of this phase is structural; it is the
necessity of an interminable analysis: the hierarchy of dual
oppositions always reestablishes itself...That being saidand on the
other handto remain in this phase is still to operate on the terrain of
and from within the deconstructed system. By means of this double,
and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must
also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was
high, and the irruptive emergence of a new "concept," a concept that
can no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime.
(p. 42)
Extending this linguistic idea to the material, fungal realm, we argue that naming
all fungi would be an oppositional act, but such an engagement would leave us
wrought in the same oppositional tension of our current framework. Rather, we
must phase shift into a newly imagined, but simultaneously ancient, non-
hierarchical space in which humannonhuman (fungal) oppositions are
deconstructed.
Robin Wall Kimmerer (2007) reflects on Western scientific discourse s need to
mark the bounds of existing knowledge. She explains that the term Puhpowee in
Potawatomi means the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth
overnight. A member of the Potawatomi Nation and an academically trained
scientist, she writes,
As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed. In all its
technical vocabulary, Western science has no such term, no words to
hold this mystery. You’d think that biologists, of all people, would
have words for life. But in scientific language our terminology is used
to define the boundaries of our knowing. What lies beyond our grasp
remains unnamed...The makers of this word understood a world of
being, full of unseen energies that animate everything. (Kimmerer,
2007, p. 49)
This inabilityor refusalto engage with language that reveals the limitations of
our perception curtails our engagement with fungal life (and as a parallel, with
queerness). But as Kimmerer points out, this disconnect is inherent to the English
language and its naturalized assumptions of animacy or lack thereof; Science then
institutionalizes these assumptions. It is not impossible, however, for English-
language speakers to recognize flaws and fissures in language, even if words to
meaningfully bridge them do not exist.
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Religious ideology and discourse influences understandings of animacy and
relations between beings. Some biblical scholars believe that dominion was a
mistranslation, and the original text used a word more closely synonymous with
stewardship.” It is through this translation that some Christians felt empowered
to dominate and exploit Earth (Weldon, 2016). Riki Anne Wilchins (2004) writes
about this drive for dominion: We want to have, as the Bible says, the Word
made flesh, something we can have dominion over” (p. 46). The remarkable
ability of fungi to subvert human domination and defy expectations has bound
fungi with other supernatural forces often feared by Christians, including witches,
devils, and the demonically possessed. Whether the context has to do with
religion or any other institution, culture and language cyclically reinforce
discourse. Wilchins writes,
Discourse is a set of rules for producing knowledge that determines
what kinds of intelligible statements can be circulated within a given
economy of thought. For example, in the discourse on gender, you can
only say meaningful things about two kinds of bodies that will make
sense. References to third genders will always sound fanciful,
nonsensical, or just ridiculous. Discourse is the "cookie cutter"…The
social truths we have about gender have to do not with the body, but
with the cutter. (2004, p. 73)
In this analogy, science and methodology are the cutter, and the dough is all that
can be learned. The cutter is shaped to accommodate biological and
methodological realities of non-fungal organisms. This cleaves off entire sections
of what we can know about fungi so that they keep shape with other organisms.
Biological discourse has limited our framework of possibility for fungal biology
because this discourse was formed in the context of mycophobia. Mycology is on
the margins, where biological discourse has been abruptly cut by the cookie
cutter; on the boundaries of discourse that prioritizes and enforces normalcy of
other organisms.
Psilocybin within psychedelic mushrooms was posited to have evolved to defend
mushroom bodies against mycophagous insects (Reynolds et al., 2018). However,
a subsequent study disputed this, finding evidence for a mutualistic role of
psilocybin between insects and fungi (Awan et al., 2018). This same compound
facilitates the birth of alternative epistemologies in human minds by connecting
and energizing regions of the brain that have atrophied in our sterile,
individualized, and isolated position atop the self-declared hierarchy of Western
philosophy. Much like a mycorrhizal network, neurotransmitters flow like carbon,
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nitrogen, and phosphorus, connecting and reconnecting regions of our brains,
reminding us of our deep-time home, the sentience of Earth, and interlocking
biotic systems of We. Psychedelic mushrooms take people to a vulnerable site of
deconstruction, where what was once considered to have social or cultural
significance suddenly feels obsolete and what was once seen as static and inert is
suddenly pulsing and humming with animacy. It is not a coincidence that the
relational discipline of ecology (from Greek oikos “house”) gained public traction
in the 1970s, in concert with psychedelic, anti-war, civil rights, and environmental
movementsa greater recognition of the interdependence of all beings was
taking shape.
The experience of marginalization lends a critical vantage point and potential for
subversive examination. Patricia Hill Collins (2000) discusses using alternative
epistemologies, which are entirely new frameworks of thought, as fundamentally
subversive challenges to dominant knowledge claims” (pp. 253, 256).
Mycological history is replete with numerous alternative epistemologies, such as
the concept of mutualisma humbling concept often seen as an insult to the
primacy of humanswhich has historically gained and lost traction, mirroring
trends in the zeitgeist. Original hypotheses on mutualisms of mycorrhizal
networks put forward by A. B. Frank in the late nineteenth century were
considered revolutionary when introduced and were therefore highly contested.
Around the same time, the biology of lichens was being fiercely debated, with
mycologists such as DeBary and Swchendener first probing into notions of
symbiosis between fungi and algae (Plitt,1919). A century and a half later, these
ideas are only just becoming well-integrated into scientific literature and lexicon,
and remain poorly understood and underrecognized outside of mycology (Trappe,
2005). Scientists are typically quite conservative when treating alternative
epistemologies; there is extreme pressure to just follow the data.” And yet,
according to philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1970), this is what scientific
revolution looks like: embracing what was marginal and elucidating new
epistemologies.
Queer Pedagogy and Methodology
As Amy E. Winans (2006) states, queer pedagogy entails decentering dominant
cultural assumptions, exploring facets of the geography of normalization, and
interrogating the self and the implications of affiliation” (p. 6). In an attempt to
challenge dominant logics and cultural assumptions, queer pedagogy asks, what
has been normalized, why, and how can knowledge be produced differently by
taking into account the function of power?
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For most mycologists, mycological education was fostered outside the traditional
classroom. There is often a reliance on individuals who were/are autodidactic,
pursuing knowledge of this subject apart from dominant education systems.
Many mycologists remember their first mycological experience very clearly;
usually, it was by way of a charismatic teacher who brought to focus this queer
world. Upon realizing that there was actually this other world, where the rules did
not quite apply, many mycologists felt at once safe and awakened. Mycology
speaks to the personal, sexual, and/or political lives of its often-marginalized
investigators.
Mycological societies are also an example of alternative sites of knowledge. They
de-center institutions as the sole source of knowledge, and challenge hierarchies
through a structure that is member-supported, low-cost, and often provides free,
public educational experiences. This type of structure is central to feminist
methodology, which insists that learning and thinking are never confined to the
classroom, and in fact are richer when experienced in community with others, out
in the world. Anarchist organizers, designers, architects, and others look to
nature, including fungi, for inspiration through a process called biomimicry, a term
popularized by Janine Beynus’s 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by
Nature. Examples of this include an architecture group based in Brooklyn, NY
called Terreform Open Network Ecology, which looks to nature to design
sustainable architecture, and a group called Fungi for the People, which brings
people together for educational workshops. Artists are even increasingly looking
to fungi for inspiration. Whatever the group, those who learn and borrow from
fungal biology are compelled by its dynamic, mutualistic, and transformative
possibilities.
Despite this burgeoning, eclectic appreciation for fungi, funding is typically hard
to come by for mycologists because the field is still largely in the phase of basic
research.” In an academic environment mired in capitalistic notions of progress,
application, patents, and “impact,” funding basic research is difficult because it
lacks a certain thrill. Curiosity for curiosity’s sake is a hard sell to a person who
compulsively asks the claustrophobic, capitalistic question, but what's the point?
Mycological societies have flourished because they allow people to explore in
peace, for the sake of exploration. The simple state of curiosity is the only
requisite for joining such societies.
While many classical American naturalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Aldo
Leopold, and Rachel Carson were not tuned into mycology, many of today s
mycologists drew early inspiration from their patient, holistic, and arguably sacred
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and dutiful art of observation. This art, this deep, daily, ritualistic communion with
patterns, phenology, and nonhuman beings gives many of us a sense of purpose.
Naturalism is beautiful because it is not inherently directed, there are no required
hypotheses, practitioners need not have an academic affiliation. In fields such as
mycology, as well as facets of organismal biology and ecology, lineages of
classical naturalism have persisted, holding the practice of simple observation
close to our hearts. These naturalists are the observers, the ones whose
indeterminate encounters,” as Tsing (2015, p. 50) says, without a script or fixed
set of goals, create mutually transformative relationships. By forging messy,
shifting, anarchist human and nonhuman kinships, these encounters demonstrate
the creative and productive energy possible outside capitalist bounds. Such non-
extractive, transformative mingling of beings requires communication that
listens, not demands, and research that seeks to observe and understand, not
suture any sites of ambiguity.
In the age of climate change, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the tiny pin
pricks of data recorded by observers have incrementally built enormous bodies of
knowledge. Museums containing vast collections of organisms that most would
call too insignificant to know, have been diligently preserved, catalogued, and
curated by observers. We can use these treasure troves to understand how life
once was, before such destruction, and to reimagine our future. The project now
is to help break the obsession with progress by de-emphasizing scalability,
challenging research frameworks, and supporting the world’s observers. Science
prioritizes quantitative data, but disciplines adjacent to or entirely outside of
Science understand that qualitative data are also informative and sometimes
carry greater explanatory power in certain contexts. Jack Halberstam (1998)
posits that queer methodology is a multimodal scavenger methodology,” which
points to a process of searching and excavating that does not come easily at first
glance. Mycologists might prefer the term forager methodology,” as mycology is
similarly built on a mix of quantitative and qualitative data that includes sensing,
intuition, oral histories, and literally foraging. Stacey Waite (2015) encourages
embracing messiness as necessary and fruitful.
[Waite] invites readers to think about and experience logics that
contradict, tenses that shift, genres that mix, futures that are messier
than what the present moment seems to allow…[and] asks scholars of
composition and teachers of writing to become scavengers and to
make seemingly disconnected worlds collide. (Waite, 2015, p. 52)
Mycological surveys are difficult to do with the quantified, restricted methods
that botanists use. Mycologists use and publish methods such as timed wander”
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to survey a site (Victoroff, 2020). Extremely standardized transects and plot-
based work of botany often feel unnecessarily limiting to mycologists, who are
often guided to find fungi by a combination of intuition, sensing, and an intimate
knowledge of the landscape and macro/micro habitats that foster mushroom
growth.
Smell and taste are important methodological tools in identifying fungi; the
communal, instinctual, cultural, and emotional reverberations of these senses
potentiate more personal, nuanced research. People working in groups to identify
fungi may often ask one another, What does this smell (or taste) like to you?” and
form inexact, but deeply provocative, systems of organization based on these
senses. Even this invitation to smell carries a queer intimacy. The affective
attachment mycologists have with fungi is apparent at mycological summits and
conferences when someone asks, for example, what Inocybe smells like, and
people respond with descriptors such as spermatic or swimming pools!” There
is indeed a queer and joyous sense of community when a group of people
collectively comes up with a verbal smellscape of increasingly silly descriptions of
ejaculate smell to describe a fungus. For those who have smelled Inocybe, the
descriptions spark memories of those embodied and ephemeral moments,
layered with dimensions of others descriptions; for those who have not smelled
Inocybe, listening to others share their impressions can sketch a full, patchwork,
and memorable picture.
Initiating newcomers into tasting mushrooms for experiential identification is a
vulnerable and exciting moment. Some mushrooms, such as members of genus
Russula, are difficult to identify to species level without incorporating taste
because they are morphologically similar. However, some species are edible and
taste mildly “mushroomy,” and others will cause gastronomic distress, such as
Russula emetica (from Greek emetikos meaning emetic or vomit-inducing), and
will have a spicy or acrid taste. Few people know that all mushrooms are safe to
touch (unlike plants) and fewer know and viscerally believe that all mushrooms are
also safe to put in your mouth, so long as you spit them out! In our classrooms, we
sometimes ask a brave volunteer to come forward and take a small nibble of two
similar-looking Russula mushrooms and taste for difference. An intimate space is
created as students gather around to witness their classmate’s reaction as curious
tastes roll over their tongue.
With some of these methodologies, there is risk of losing the ability to cleanly
replicate, but the benefit is that there is a richer understanding of the lifeworlds of
mycoflora in a given area. Forgoing straightforwardly replicable methodologies
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opens a multitude of pathways, perspectives, and points of entry for mycologists
who appreciate that notions of objectivity constrict ability to understand fungi.
This creates friction with some of the foundational tenets of traditional Science,
but mycology stretches and redefines the idea of replicability, because fungal
growth does not lend itself to clean replicability. Mycological methodologies rely
on a greater sense of intimacy between mycologists and both fungal organisms
and the landscape, which speaks to Ahmed s (2017) reflections about intuition: A
gut has its own intelligence. A feminist gut might sense something is amiss” (p.
27). A mycologist s feminist gut demands that intuition, a feminized mode of
knowing, be trusted. Fungi, in turn, demand the same of mycologists, and all
those who seek to make kin with fungi. Maybe not coincidentally, human guts are
home to an assemblage of microbes, fungi and bacteria, that communicate with
and impact our brains.
Conservation
The hologenome concept asks, what is the relevance of an isolated human
genome? Bodies are, in fact, communities, and there are more fungal and
bacterial cells in the human body than there are human cells. As Haraway (2007)
puts it, To be one is always to become with many” (p. 4). We become with,
because there is no us without others; even words such as us” and others” are
misleading, as our bodies are mutually constitutive entanglements. Recently,
scientific investigations have begun to attach quantitative data to
interdependencies that have been recognized outside of Western culture for
millennia. The notion that humans exist and function independent of other beings
stems from a fear of our vulnerable dependencies and often indecipherable, queer
entanglements, and that, as Myra Hird (2004) says, the penultimate embodiment
of queer may be bodies themselves” (p. 87). By embracing this queerness, we chip
away at fallacious, capitalist myths of the neoliberal, individually agential Western
subject.
Belief in human exceptionalism has devastating consequences for humans and all
life. Impacts of mycophobia are immediately, materially apparent. According to
State of the World’s Fungi, only 56 species of fungi have been evaluated for
placement on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, with 43
species ending up listed (Ainsworth et al., 2018). Comparatively, 25,452 species of
plants and 68,054 species of animals have been evaluated (Ainsworth et al., 2018).
This list aims to be the world’s most comprehensive inventory of species and their
risks of extinction, and yet a kingdom with over one million species has only 43
species listed. This poor representation is not due to some miraculous ability of
fungi to move unscathed through the Anthropocene and the world’s sixth great
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mass extinction event. Rather, it is because there is a failure to achieve
quantification-based standards proving a species is endangered. This is largely
because the ephemeral nature of many mushrooms and fungi makes their
documentation patchy. The relative lack of mycologists compared to botanists
and zoologists also means there is less data available to argue for protected
status. This lack of protected status means there is less funding available for their
protection, therefore fewer studies are conducted, and fewer mycologists are paid
to do necessary work to generate more data. Holding fungi to biological
determinations of more normative groupssay trees or birdsis to deny their
basic biology, which puts them at risk for extinction. The solution is not to find out
how to force fungi into the normative box. The capitalistic drum that beats
towards extinction will not slow its tempo for the painstaking assessment of fungi,
no matter how diligently mycologists work. The solution is to recognize that
fungal data should not have to match that of trees or birds. Mycologists’
experience, intuition, and sensing should be given priority in establishing whether
or not a fungus is threatened or endangered. Conservationists should also be
deferential to modes and practices of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which
has a rich history of profound, intimate knowledge of Earth. Radical
circumstances such as mass extinctions demand radical solutions, and fungi
demand to be seen in their messy totality. We must disentangle science from
capitalism and Western hegemony. We must trust and support observers, turning
to our deep-time microbial gut to draw strength in our advocacy for our
interdependent communities. To deny the value of these systems of knowing is to
shore up colonialist and queerphobic mindsets.
Conclusion
Mycology is queer insofar as it is marginal, subordinate, contested, ridiculed, but
more critically, mycology is queer insofar as it is disruptive, collective,
transformative, revolutionary. Fungi show us cooperative, alternative,
promiscuous, entangled, interdependent, more-than-individuated, and more-
than-human modes of living worth studying, imitating, learning from, and which
queerness in humans has often shared. Just as fungi are capable of reclaiming
land, bodies, and nutrients, so too can humans reclaim our relationship with fungi
as siblings. Much like mycorrhizae, humans can forge mutually beneficial
relationships with fungi. We can steward their land, and care for their bodies,
much like how they have persistently continued to steward our land and care for
our bodies. We can remediate poisoned relationships by challenging the paradigm
in which they have been demonized and dispossessed, much like how they can
remediate waters and lands poisoned by capitalist greed. Moreover, we can apply
lessons learned from fungal biology to our human organization and forge stronger
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networks of interdependence and mutual aid. Science can be and has been
instrumental in challenging dangerous, exploitative notions of hierarchy, but it
has also been employed at the service of those hierarchies. Through a thorough
and honest recognition of the limits of human investigative reasoning and
methods we can become better and more ethical scientists. Through challenging
assertions of objectivity and purity, we push ourselves into the unknown, both
with optimism and a critical outlook. It is past time that humans turn to the fungi
to which we are bound, step into our mutual totality, and create space and futures
for our wild ways of being.
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Author Bios
Patricia Kaishian received her PhD in mycology from SUNY College of
Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, NY, in 2020. She is currently a
postdoctoral researcher at Purdue University, where she serves as curator of the
Arthur Fungarium and Kriebel Herbarium. Patricia is a fungal taxonomist who
classifies, names, describes, and cherishes fungi.
Hasmik Djoulakian is a writer and educator who currently lives in Syracuse, NY,
where she works in the field of sexual and domestic violence prevention. She received
her BA in women’s and gender studies and civic engagement from Syracuse
University in 2017, and shortly afterwards completed a Fulbright English Teaching
Assistantship in Armenia, where she deepened her commitment to transnational
feminist activism.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Preprint
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Psilocybin is a psychoactive compound with clinical applications produced by dozens of mushroom species. There has been a longstanding interest in psilocybin research with regard to treatment for addiction, depression, and end-of-life suffering. However, until recently very little was known about psilocybin biosynthesis and its ecological role. Here we confirm and refine recent findings about the genes underpinning psilocybin biosynthesis, discover that there is more than one psilocybin biosynthesis cluster in mushrooms, and we provide the first data directly addressing psilocybin's ecological role. By analysing independent genome assemblies for the hallucinogenic mushrooms Psilocybe cyanescens and Pluteus salicinus we recapture the recently discovered psilocybin biosynthesis cluster and show that a transcription factor previously implicated in its regulation is actually not part of the cluster. Further, we show that the mushroom Inocybe corydalina produces psilocybin but does not contain the established biosynthetic cluster, and we present an alternative cluster. Finally, a meta-transcriptome analysis of wild-collected mushrooms provides evidence for intra-mushroom insect gene expression of flies whose larvae grow inside Psilocybe cyanescens. These larvae were successfully reared into adults. Our results show that psilocybin does not confer complete protection against insect mycophagy, and the hypothesis that it is produced as an adaptive defense compound may need to be reconsidered.
Article
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Secondary metabolites are a heterogeneous class of chemicals that often mediate interactions between species. The tryptophan-derived secondary metabolite, psilocin, is a serotonin receptor agonist that induces altered states of consciousness. A phylogenetically disjunct group of mushroom-forming fungi in the Agaricales produce the psilocin prodrug, psilocybin. Spotty phylogenetic distributions of fungal compounds are sometimes explained by horizontal transfer of metabolic gene clusters among unrelated fungi with overlapping niches. We report the discovery of a psilocybin gene cluster in three hallucinogenic mushroom genomes, and evidence for its horizontal transfer between fungal lineages. Patterns of gene distribution and transmission suggest that synthesis of psilocybin may have provided a fitness advantage in the dung and late wood-decay fungal niches, which may serve as reservoirs of fungal indole-based metabolites that alter behavior of mycophagous and wood-eating invertebrates. These hallucinogenic mushroom genomes will serve as models in neurochemical ecology, advancing the (bio)prospecting and synthetic biology of novel neuropharmaceuticals.
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