Mycophobia and the Lost Knowledge of the Fungi Kingdom
When it comes to wild mushrooms, Europe shows an interesting split in the way different nations and cultures approach them. On one hand, there are the mycophilic - those who love and appreciate them, on the other, there are the mycophobic, who fear them. So why did some cultures learn to fear the once revered wild mushrooms? And how could reconnecting to our landscapes teach us to value them once more?
Mushrooms have almost always been a part of the human diet, with evidence of our consumption dating back to the Upper Paleolithic Period.1 Today however, very few of us have the knowledge to browse the forest floors for mushrooms in order to prepare ourselves a tasty meal for dinner. And with wild mushrooms seldom reaching the shelves of our favourite grocery stores, our connection with them is continually being eroded, only adding to the feeling of unfamiliarity. For those willing to grow their own, many edible wild species are also difficult to cultivate, making them even more scarce and alien to our diets. Over time, our connection between wild mushrooms has become so weak that without the necessary know-how on safely identifying them in nature, we began to fear them.
But how did we lose the ability to tell wild edible mushrooms apart from those that may do us harm or even be lethal upon consumption?
The human and fungi kingdoms
Fungi have been recognised for millenia for their nutritional and medicinal values by various global communities. The oldest evidence of mushroom consumption from Europe goes back roughly 33,000 years, when edible mushrooms were a part of the Red Lady of Paviland’s diet.2
But throughout history, cultures that intensified agricultural production of foods became less dependent on foraging wild foods. As intensive agriculture ‘fed’ urbanisation, the knowledge of wild foods became increasingly redundant. We no longer worried about having to forage for wild foods to survive, stopped learning about and engaging with ‘the wild things’, and with each generation, our relationship to the wild grew weaker. As David Satori, an expert on mycological restoration explains, “the ‘natural systems’ that people grow up learning about are agricultural and very anthropogenic, which have little place for wild fungi”.
When it comes to knowing and foraging for wild foods such as fungi, only a handful of cultures have maintained the intergenerational knowledge of wild landscapes and the foods within them. For instance, cultures within eastern Europe, east Asia or the North American First Nations have seemingly remained better connected to the wild natural landscapes with which they live. With some of these cultures being more accustomed to eating foods - like mushrooms - that their natural landscapes offer, the high value of the knowledge for them means understanding is more likely to be intergenerationally retained. These are the mycophilic nations, unlike Germanic cultures such as the Netherlands, or the UK, who invested in mastering the craft of intensified agriculture.3
People trade in the country's largest market for wild mushrooms in Kunming, China (Feature China/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
With intensifying agriculture however, the wild landscapes, together with the knowledge of their wild foods and fungi started disappearing.3 The allure of improved food security that this new wave of intensified agriculture offered also created economic opportunities. This economic prosperity lured people to cities, and away from the lands that they’ve known for generations. The same lands that offered uninhibited access to untamed landscapes.4
These new agricultural communities lost the traditions tied to the landscapes of their origin.3 Instead, they encountered and tamed new natural landscapes, in which wild foods had little significance, unlike the dwindling cultures that have held onto the traditional gathering methods of acquiring wild foods like mushrooms.5
Conditioning fear of the unknown
Unlike poisonous plants, mushrooms are seasonal, transient and often viewed as something alien. Large and sometimes vibrantly colourful fruiting bodies of fungi appear quickly, often within just a few days after a rainy period in the right season. As we’re not used to their seasonal appearance, “they force themselves into our attention, especially the attention of children, and so the knee-jerk reaction of most adults is to fear them and stay away” , says Satori.
And it can easily be that on a warm sunny day after an extensive September rain, you’ll see children curiously inspecting the novelty of mushrooms. For many children these new and unexplored fungal shapes, structures and colours can be exciting and intriguing to examine. But for many cultures around the world, it’s at this moment that shocked parents or onlookers will briskly intervene and prevent a child from interacting with the unknown ‘poisonous object’. While this is an adequate reaction considering the toxicity of some non-edible mushrooms, scientists estimate that only ~2% of documented mushrooms are in fact toxic.6 Nonetheless, “this leaves a strong memory trace in young children, which is usually the first moment when a mycophobic view of nature creeps into our lives” says Satori.
Foraged mushrooms in Grizedale Forest, England (Tessa Bunney/In Pictures via Getty Images)
Europe is a great example of how agricultural landscapes can create a division of mycophobic and mycophilic cultures. “Mycophobia [appears to be] an indirect measure of how ‘rooted’ a society is to its history and its land” adds Satori. Those who maintain connections to the wild natural landscapes, tend to indulge in the consumption of self-foraged wild mushrooms more and are mycophilic as a result. Those who are heavily reliant on industrialised agriculture and supermarket shelves tend to fear wild-mushrooms - they tend to be mycophobic.
Mycophilia on the rise
Over the past decades, our aim to maximise food production by eliminating any potential competition to our crops seemed like the most sensible thing to do in order to make farming more efficient and manageable. From fields to our gardens, we focus on growing consumable crops and often disregard the ecologically important symbiotic relationships of other flora or funga. By constantly mowing our lawns, or raking fallen leaves from our gardens, we clear off many biodiversity hotspots from our landscapes. And as mushrooms thrive in the shadows and humidity of the wild(-er), untamed ecosystems, we have progressively trained ourselves towards a feeling of unfamiliarity and trepidation in their presence.
Dried mushrooms on display seen in Poland, where wild mushroom picking is a national hobby in the fall. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
But things are changing: even the more mycophobic cultures start showing interest in all things wild, and in restoring not only natural landscapes, but the relationships we have to them.5 Within Europe, agricultural producers are increasingly shifting towards more biodiversity friendly practices that support a wide range of more natural ecological systems. Some farms are adding ‘biodiversity buffer zones’ around fields with other plant species providing habitat for nearby wildlife, while others are focussing on multiple crop farms that support soil health. Even in the urban settings, many are recognising the need to support certain ecologically important species, like wild bees and other pollinators. As a result, we’re seeing “wildflowers returning to people’s gardens, and nature sections of bookshops displaying more titles like ‘the secret life of X’ or ‘the hidden life of Y’’, says Satori. That’s how mushrooms force themselves into our attention again. Along with this renewed appreciation for biodiversity and rewilded landscapes, we’re providing fungi with a new opportunity to thrive, surprise us, intrigue us, to open our minds to the possibilities of nature, and to re-learn about all it can offer us with the right knowledge and approach. It’s this appreciation that is helping us in overcoming our fears of anything wild, and with it, our mycophobia.
Banner illustration by Erica Moriconi