As we continue to live through times of great turmoil and instability, we are blessed with rich stores of timeless wisdom to help us heal and continue moving forward. The fungi teach us about interdependence, rebirth through decomposition, and evolving into resilience. While helping to heal and inspire harmony amongst the various systems of our own bodies, could mushrooms also facilitate a ripple effect from a sense of internal to collective homeostasis?
“Fungi are the grand healers of the world. Theirs is a medicine of uniting, drawing in, and deep cleansing that tonifies whole ecosystems and raises the vitality of all those with whom they synergize… The history of health is a history of the fungi.” – Peter McCoy, Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Seeing and Working with Fungi
Although civilizations the world over have ancient connections to mushrooms as food, medicine, and spiritual allies, written records detailing the origins of these relationships are limited. One of the first accounts of their use is found in the original materia medica of China, the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, from the 28th century BCE. Included in its hundreds of entries are various mushroom species, including: Reishi, Chaga, Poria, and Tremella. An invaluable resource that helped pave the way for herbal medicine, both in China and neighboring regions, this materia medica was crucial in the establishment of TCM. It has been significantly expanded upon, and quite notably, it is TCM practitioners who have documented most of our insights about medicinal mushrooms over the past 2,000 years.
While it’s challenging to trace the history of the transfer of knowledge and the trading of actual medicines, it’s clear that mushrooms model the inherent symbiosis of the natural world. In northern Asia, it is Chaga that’s the precious cornerstone of the Siberian Shaman’s medicine chest, with a centuries-old history of use in Eastern folk medicine. There are also records of Chaga’s use in healing practices by some First Nations peoples of North America, and it was even found in the pouch of a caveman called Otzi believed to have lived over 5,000 years ago in central Europe. Like the underground mycelial networks that help the many parts of an ecosystem communicate, the mushrooms mirror our inherent interconnectedness back to us.
We can further presume that mushrooms have also inspired points of connection and the building of healing bridges between peoples and cultures. Amazingly, there is the recurring view of mushrooms as agents of immortality, from ancient Egypt to ancient China. We know that this descriptor was used by Shennong specifically to describe the benefits of Reishi – a mushroom with one of the richest histories of use, including in China, Japan, and Korea. It now grows on hardwood trees throughout the world, believed to have been introduced anthropogenically and naturalized, indicating not only the time-tested benefits experienced by diverse peoples, but that mushrooms have been shared so that their healing benefits could spread. Thankfully, the medicine of mushrooms continues to bring us together today!
Looking forward, it’s clear that fungi are extremely well-suited to facilitate the healing we need, both on the micro and macro levels. Many medicinal mushrooms are classified in TCM as superior tonic herbs, a very special category that supports our capacity to adapt and evolve –essential to sustaining vibrant health. Tonic herbs have the power to facilitate a cascade of healing by supporting homeostasis, vitality, and longevity through a diverse range of actions, including: balancing excess, relieving stagnation, supporting immune function, and nourishing intracellularly with bioavailable nutrient density. On a planetary level, mushrooms exhibit incredible prospects for cleaning up contaminated soil, water, and ecosystems – a process called mycoremediation. By capturing methane, transforming dirt into rich soil, and working wonders in post-wildfire rehabilitation, mushrooms offer so much of the precise medicine that’s needed to continue healing on all levels.