Last Friday was a typical evening in the downtown Los Angeles warehouse district housing the Farmlab crew. As I looked around, the orange hues of the setting sun reflected off the barren cement landscape in a strangely beautiful way and the sounds of cars in the distance were muffled by a train barreling by and helicopters whizzing overhead. Gathered under a bridge amongst these typical urban stimuli, a group of anxious Angelinos awaited a lecture curiously titled "How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World."
Paul Stamets, visionary mycologist from Washington state, stepped to the microphone wearing a robin-hoodish hat made from mushrooms.
"This" he said looking around, "is not my natural habitat." The crowd laughed and was immediately engaged in Stamets' world of mycological wisdom and knowledge as he talked about the evolution of mushrooms in ecosystems and the mushroom's essential role in healing the environment.
As the author of six mushroom-related books and more than 20 patents, Stamets is paving the way for the education and growth of mushroom-based science. Among many benefits of mushrooms, Stamets explained, is how mycelium can replace harmful chemical pesticides, break down toxic wastes, and combat global warming. Stamets' extracts have also been identified by the U.S. Departments’ Bioshield BioDefense as the first natural products tested as potential inhibitors of pox and other viruses.
I was amazed by how Stamets used oyster mushrooms to break down soil contaminated with petroleum-based products into non-toxic forms. He was left with soil which was then approved for highway landscaping use and mushrooms with no trace of the digested petroleum products -- essentially edible!
Stamets also expressed his passion for the great Northwest and other old growth forests of the world. He went on to explain why it is absolutely essential to our ecological health on this planet to preserve these diminishing ecosystems:
The rainforests of the Pacific Northwest may harbor mushroom species with profound medicinal properties. At the current rates of extinctions, this last refuge of the mushroom genome should be at the top of the list of priorities for mycologists, environmentalists and government. The loss of these keystone organisms should be an ecological call-to-arms for all concerned about our children's future and the future of this planet.
By the end of the lecture, I, along with the crowd of people around me giving Stamets a standing ovation, was a huge fan of his work and believers of how mushrooms can help save the world.... and maybe even the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.
I was lucky enough to attend Stamets' hands-on workshop the next morning in which I learned even more about the amazing culture of fungi and how to grow my own oyster mushrooms at home. We inoculated corn cobs and husks left over from the Not A Cornfield project which I now have growing in my basement. While I wait for them to sprout, I have been reading Stamets' latest book Mycelium Running, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World which covers all of the information in his lecture and workshop including how to grow your own edible and medicinal mushrooms!
Farmlab, which organized Stamets' talk, is team behind last year's Not A Cornfield project -- a 32 acre industrial brownfield in the center of LA that was turned into a cornfield for one agricultural cycle. Farmlab's involved in many interesting greening projects around LA, including weekly public salons.
[Mushroom photo by Rober Calmes; Paul Stamets photo by his wife, Dusty Wu Yao]