Paul Stamets, in Mycelium Running, How Mushrooms Can Help Us Save the World, talks about the Gaia hypothesis, which suggests “that the planet’s biosphere intelligently piloted its course to sustain and breed new life.” He goes on to say:
I see mycelium as the living network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists. The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature.
In other words, he proposes that there is a vast intelligent aware network in the ground beneath our feet.
It makes me wonder, what is intelligence? Human beings consider ourselves to be the most intelligent species on earth. Our intelligence has given us the power to build nuclear weapons that can destroy life on earth. But we haven’t yet been able to figure out how to avoid war and oppression.
Stamets believes that the mycelium operates at a level of complexity that exceeds the computational powers of our most advanced supercomputers. He sees the mycelium as the earth’s natural Internet.
Traditional Mexican shamans and curanderas use certain mushrooms that create visions and healing. Stamets says that psychoactive mushrooms can cause such affects on the human mind because of the chemicals that we share in common.
On a very practical level, it has been discovered that mycelial mats have the capacity to break down petroleum products into harmless components; they can also clean up nerve gas agents, dioxin, plastics, and radioactive cesium. Paul Stamets believes that mycelia not only have “the ability to protect the environment but the intelligence to do it on purpose.”
In my faith community we speak about respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Mycelial networks are a visceral manifestation of that web, and we can see and measure their beneficial support for plant life, and for our lives. Scientists like Stamets imagine that if we partner with mycelia, we would be able to greatly accelerate our work to repair the damage we have done to our environment. And that gives me hope for our future.
With these mysterious mycelial allies just beneath my feet, I had the courage to write that sermon about nuclear weapons, and their haunting mushroom clouds of death. And each time I remember this old and vast elemental wisdom, I feel less fear. I feel more clearly that I am part of a larger network of beings who are contributing to the health and wholeness of the planet. As we reach out to the beautiful web of all beings, those beings are also reaching out to us.