I’ve been following the aftermath of the Deepwater BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve all been watching – this is an environmental disaster which will affect us and generations to come. It’s huge.
And finally, some sort of consequence is coming down the line. An internet search of “BP sued” currently reveals that the company is going to be held responsible by Alabama for negligence leading to the spill, sued by Texas for air pollution from a refinery, and held accountable by several environmental groups for the threat posed to endangered species by the spill. This provides a little piece of comfort but doesn’t change the fact that former CEO of the company Tony Hayward seems to have gotten away with murder; nor does it change the fact that the damage is already done and is rippling out across the ocean in a wave of pollution and death. Now it’s our reality and we have to be the people to deal with the results and try to mitigate the damage.
A way forward …
is emerging as a result of the work of renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, whose small mushroom company is currently in dialogue with the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States about how to address the disastrous oil washing up on shore and rolling through the ocean. In a book called Mycelium Running, Stamets has already demonstrated the potential of mushrooms to clean up toxic waste; an experiment was documented where oyster mushrooms were inoculated into soil permeated with petroleum from an old gas station site. In contrast with the control pile, which remained lifeless, the inoculated pile ran through with mushroom mycelium which helped break the toxic molecules into simpler and less toxic forms. A mad flush of mushrooms erupted from the pile, after which earthworms and grasses were able to colonize it. While mushrooms fruiting from toxic waste may or may not be safe to eat (depends – they can break down some toxins, but will concentrate heavy metals and radiation in their flesh), at the least their roots – the mycelium – actually break down and degrade petroleum products into safer, more stable forms.
Let me say a few words of admiration for Paul Stamets. I have two of the books written by this amazing person – gifted to me by a friend who learned that I wanted to grow mushrooms as an organic food crop. Stamets is a rigorous scientist, someone who can work wonders in a laboratory, someone who has dozens of US Patents registered for unique applications of mushroom strains. And yet here is a person who is so wildly, deeply in love with what he studies; the sort of person who truly brings science to life. In Mycelium Running Stamets ponders the complex and unique unicellular structure of mushroom mycelium and uses it as a metaphor for the universe; delves into the complex and co-evolved relationship between humans and mushrooms through the millenia; and illustrates the cover plate with an ancient drawing of a shaman-like hallucination. After all, mushrooms are … magic.
In Mycelium Running, in fact, we learn that mushroom mycelium is the spongy web that holds forest floors together; that feeds nutrients to tree roots; that dissolves and absorbs decaying matter to turn it into soil; that holds the soil against erosion, holds moisture in the soil. Mycelium does nothing less than hold our world together.
Stamets posits that the way forward in our torn earth is through harnessing fungal life forms, whose properties can help us to address and rebalance the terrible damage which has been caused by industrial – well – I want to call it industrial terrorism: the ripping-up of forests, simplification of ecosystems, pollution of waterways, toxic chemical spills and leaching, loss of soil, loss of habitat, loss of quality of life for humans and animals alike. Stamets talks of mycoremediation, the infusion of mushroom mycelium into ruptured and damaged ecosystems. The damage we have done in the last centuries – including oil spills – has been a result of our arrogance, our de-valuation of nature in order to turn it into mere goods for profit. But if we can turn to nature for solutions, and learn to work with natural systems and processes such as mycelium to harmonize and re-balance, then maybe we can survive as a species and make the future less rocky for our fellow species.
Godspeed and good luck to Stamets and co. in their ongoing investigations for oil spill mycoremediation!