Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom

Tsing, Anna
Australian Humanities Review

Next time you walk through a forest, look down. A city lies under your feet. If you were somehow to descend into the earth, you would find yourself surrounded by the city’s architecture of webs and filaments. Fungi make those webs as they interact with the roots of trees, forming joint structures of fungus and root called mycorrhiza. Mycorrhizal webs connect not just root and fungus, but also—by way of fungal filaments—tree and tree, in forest entanglements. This city is a lively scene of action and interaction. There are many ways here to eat and to share food. There are recognizable forms of hunting. For example, some fungi lasso little soil worms called nematodes for dinner. But this is one of the crudest ways to enjoy a meal. Experts in refinement, the mycorrhizal fungi siphon energy-giving sugars from trees. Some of those sugars are redistributed through the fungal network from tree to tree. Others support dependent plants, such as mushroom-loving mycophiles that tap the network to send out pale or colorful stems of flowers (e.g., Indian pipes, coral-root orchids). Meanwhile, like an inside-out stomach, fungi secrete enzymes into the soil around them, digesting organic material—and even rocks—and absorbing nutrients that are released in the process. These nutrients are also available for trees and other plants, which use them to produce more sugar for themselves—and for the network.