Fantastic Fungi: A Praise Review!
If you want to get an introductory insight into the world of fungi and how they shape human and natural existence, then this Netflix documentary (released in 2019) would be worth checking out.
And perhaps, a film that you would want to see over and over again.
The film took us from how fungi came to be billions of years ago to the discovery of their importance in the natural ecosystem and human medicine. Basically, the documentary asks--and answers--the question of how people have become so fascinated with fungi, despite the negating phobias and marginalizing of this complex organism in the past.
It also follows the journey of mycologist and entrepreneur Paul Stamets and how his own life was remarkably shaped by fungi. I won't go too much into detail here, as he has written several books about his studies on fungi and mushrooms, and shares his passion for fungi and their incredible properties.
And believe me, I never thought I would have to grab the Kleenex box in a documentary about mushrooms, but more on that later.
Fungi are older than us by millennia. In fact, we, and other animals in the taxonomic Kingdom Animalia, separated from fungi well over 20 billion years ago. Fungi have their own taxonomic kingdom. Within this kingdom are many types and species which we still have yet to discover.
Fungi are also as ubiquitous as bacteria; we don't notice them until we see food starting to spoil in our fridges or cupboards. Or until "fairy ring" mushrooms emerge from our lawns.
Fungi are one of the organisms that begin the decomposition of food, and of dead plants and animals. Naturally, we would be repulsed by the thought of how dead animals decompose back into the soil, yet despite our own emotive responses, many of us recognize that the role of fungi is crucial in such a process. Fungi help cycle nutrients and bring nutrients retained by the animal back into the ecosystem where plants and other organisms can take up those nutrients for themselves.
The documentary also hit on another important biological aspect of fungi: That mushrooms aren't the fungi themselves. Mushrooms are the tiny, more showy part of a much larger organism that is largely hidden beneath our feet. Mushrooms are to fungi as flowers are to a plant. The mushrooms are the reproductive form of fungi, spreading spores via wind and animals to other places that the long filaments cannot reach.
Much too briefly, though, was the mention of fungi and its partnership with plants. Perhaps because more research needs to be done, however, the short time that was spent on this relationship gave people an idea that fungi and plant life basically exist as a whole, together. Fungi help plants communicate with each other, care for each other, and to gather nutrients and water. Fungi have a great potential for carbon sequestration because of their soil-binding, plant-fungi (mycorrhizal) relationships.
Folks, I must tell you that there's much more to the story than that. I mention that they spent too brief a time on the topic because of the intricacies of just how that plant-fungi bond works, and what it can actually do to help us in things like... growing food.
Maybe sometime I'll write a brief blog about plants + fungi, who knows...
Where people have started to gain an interest in fungi is theoretical at best. The film discussed how primitive peoples may have discovered the first psychedelic properties of fungi, theorizing that such discovery lead to the consequential discovery of immaterial concepts like religion and philosophy. Or, how we were able to start using language or grow into complexly organized civilizations like we have today.
Fast forward to more modern times, from the discovery of penicillin to the use of psilocybins in modern medicine. Before, psilocybins were highly regarded among indigenous cultures for their medicinal and hallucinogenic properties. That all changed in the 1970s when they were abused for the purpose of pleasure. The government quickly stepped in to control its use and to effectively scare people away from using "'shrooms" for any reason, medicinal or otherwise.
It took a period of over two decades for scientists and doctors to resurrect the use of psilocybin fungi in various studies of human medicine. They were interested in seeing how this type of fungi could help cancer victims or those with depression. The results have been nothing short of astounding.
Ah yes, and this is where I needed to have a Kleenex handy.
A couple of people who were a part of these experiments shared their experiences of the effects of psilocybin fungi. My absolute favourite was the experience of a woman who was grappling with the unavoidable aspect of death and reasoning why she was essentially "chosen" to suffer from this awful disease. When she "went under," for lack of better words, she experienced something that I would attribute to being an out-of-body experience. She had been asking this question of why she had to suffer, why she felt like she was being mistreated in some way. And she recounted this heavenly voice that had an omnipresence to it which said to her,
"Would I ever disrespect My creation?"
The researchers mentioned that they never expected to have such powerful, positive, and emotional results as those included in their study. All they were focused on was the cut-and-dry results of how these fungi help the mental state. So far, it's helped immensely with battling depression, and people survive cancer.
Paul Stamet's own mother survived cancer because of fungi. How amazing is that?
The documentary itself was powerful in an emotional and healing sense. I sure liked it for that reason.
However, I really feel that there's more than just the use of psychedelics that fungi have to offer, and felt that Fantastic Fungi didn't dig deep enough--pardon the pun--into that. There is a ton more information that people need to hear about with regards to fungi in how they play an important role in not just nature but in a new way of producing food and healing the soil.
Regardless, I still recommend watching the film if you haven't already. It's nothing short of fascinating, the power of the mycological world we live in!