The Mushrooms Will Save Us


Ordinarily, I’d be writing about my tulips now. But there are so many noteworthy news stories at the moment for gardeners that a series of links seemed more pressing.

Good news for the plastic life! Yale students have found a fungi from the Amazon that can break down polyurethane–even without oxygen, as at the bottom of a landfill. Of course, this probably wouldn’t surprise mycoloist Paul Stamets, whose super-fun book Mycelium Running enumerates many things mushrooms can clean up, including oil spills and the residues of chemical warfare.

Another less friendly fungus, thought to be from Europe, seems to beresponsible for the white-nosed syndrome that is killing so many bats.

One faint sign that the federal government does actually work to protect the interests of ordinary citizens: The F.D.A. just ruled that antibiotics can no longer be fed to livestock without a prescription from a vet. And one sign that it doesn’t: The E.P.A has refused to ban pesticide 2,4-D.

I really don’t understand why anybody still uses pesticides, when the science increasingly suggests that they are less effective at controlling pests than organic management,  which allows for “evenness,” or a balance of populations of different creatures that keeps any one problem from getting out of hand.

But what I understand and don’t is apropos of nothing.  Just to leave you agog over your coffee, I’ve included this link to an International Herald Tribune blog post about a tribe on North Sentinel Island that still has had almost no contact with the modern world.  The island belongs to India, which now guards its isolation.

Reporter Mark MacDonald ends the post with a series of questions:

What’s your view? Would the Sentinelese relinquishing their way of life be outweighed by the benefits they’d gain from antibiotics, air conditioning, heart surgery, chainsaws, motorboats? Would their lives be elevated by an exposure to Shakespeare, Chartres and Messi, Caravaggio, coq au vin and “Casablanca”? Or should they be left entirely alone, unobserved and unstudied — to prosper, or to die out, or merely to live on their island as they always have?

Those are the questions. I suspect that gardeners might answer them slightly differently than air-conditioning-addicted shut-ins, who emerge only to take out the motorboat and chainsaw on the weekend and disturb the peace.

What’s your vote?  Are the Sentinelese happy?  Are they miserable?  Are the islanders predisposed to happiness happy and the ones predisposed to misery miserable? Are they any different from us at all?


  1. On my “Earth’s Internet” I specifically delve into the undeground mycorrhizal grid or network and how it can be used to our adavantage as a gardener, landscaper or habitat restorer.

    When I was a landscape supervisor over in San Diego area before moving here to Sweden, I eventually weeded out the use of most fertilizers by inoculating the plants with beneficial mycorrhizae. As a result of all the wonderful things mycorrhizae do for plants, pests were rarely a problem after that.

    Paul Stamets has a 18 minute TED Talk video where he talks about six things Mushrooms can do for the world, one of which stands out the most to me. There was one mushrooms that attracted ants into his house and he knew this one muc´shroom was somehow attractive to the ants and they would eat it and become paracitized by it with their own tiny mushroom sprouting out of the backs of their heads. (kinda reminds me of that one X-Files episode)

    Here’s the link if you’re interested.

    Thanks for this post Michelle


  2. They have no need for heart surgery–heart attacks were unknown anywhere until the turn of the last century. And if antibiotics save them from a few infections, it wouldn’t begin to compensate them for all the diseases of civilization that we would bring to them. Motorboats, chainsaws? Where do they get the fuel to run them–what do they have to trade? And the noise! And why do we think our stories are better than theirs? Our’s speak to us; their’s speak to them. For God’s sake–leave them alone.

  3. James B, you’re right. It is a weed killer, so the Nature study of evenness may not be an apt comparison. However, as Jeff Gillman has taught me, the term pesticide includes herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, patricides, etc.

    And here’s a study that found that applications of this weed killer increased insect problems:

  4. I thought this article was about mushrooms saving us… There were a couple of tiny blurbs about mushrooms and then it goes off on some political tirade…

  5. @KF

    “I thought this article was about mushrooms saving us… There were a couple of tiny blurbs about mushrooms and then it goes off on some political tirade… ”

    That’s what I thought too.

    Thanks, I thought I was the one out of touch. Though I did see the last part of the post and read the link in the article. As a personal reference though, there are other people around the globe that are still somewhat tribal and live in other remote areas like the Amazon, Papua New Guinea, maybe even Aussie Aborigines who do seem to be looked upon by the scientific elists as some sort of wild indigenous endemic species that should be protected as it is without advancement and kept as they are.
    (Almost like some kind science fictional Star-Treky Non-Interfrence Article created by the Fderation of Planets constitution)

    In many ways I disagree. First and foremost they are human beings, not some evolutionary species of subhuman animal to be viewed in text books for promoting an ideology. These are still modern times and they are effected by the same human idiocy that the rest of the planet experiences. In that sense they still need a measure of education.

    Okay – back to Mushrooms saving the world!!!

  6. Anne

    I notice it had links and references to people of the Andaman Island and the Jarawa tribe.

    I’m not sure what kind of world news you folks in North America view, but I’m certain you get the same CNN & BBC reports we do in Europe.

    These people of the Andaman Islands who are called the Jarawa Tribe were in the world news back in January 7, 2012. Tourist Companies get these people to dance naked for the tourists in order to receive food. It was sick, but I remember that was making world headlines. Well here in all of Europe anyways. They were calling this Island a Zoo for Caveman type people.

    Take a look at this video:


    North Sentinel Island is one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

  7. Timeless, the article talked a bit about the Jarawa and the Andaman Islands in general, as a context for the history of encounters with the Sentinelese (who are on their own island within the Andamans, and not part of the Jarawa people). I found it a personal and fascinating summary of that history, and very revealing–the Sentinelese have obviously had contact with outsiders over the years, though limited. The author makes the point that many so-called “lost” peoples are well aware of outsiders, and have made great efforts to be left alone.

  8. Greta Garbo once said, “I want to be alone”.
    Best of luck to the Sentinelese; “civilization’ is a mutant virus that has long ago overrun the planet, and they too, will catch it, bye and bye!

  9. Leave the Sentinelese the hell alone. What a beautiful people and even more, they are FREE. Their type of freedom is something we can now only dream about.

    As far as being better off with “education”–what does that even mean? Is it necessary for happiness and a life fulfilled? I think not.

    Finally, the question is moot. They are speaking for themselves already, loud and clear, with a special “F You” message on the pig-gift and the drunken men who happened by.

    Stamets is brilliant and the TED talk is a must-see.

  10. Wow, this is fascinating about the mushrooms. I had no idea they could break down polyurethane in a landfill. But it makes sense. This whole post is thought-provoking and interesting, think I’ll like it or share it on Facebook.

  11. Love the mycelium but I object to the commenters who suggest that our own civilization is diseased and wretched but that this tribe’s is “beautiful.” Come on!

  12. All herbicides are pesticides, but not all pesticides are herbicides. No matter what you want to call it, I hope we can all agree that any chemical should be limited and only used responsibly when absolutely necessary (preferably by a licensed applicator or someone with extensive knowledge in this area).

    In terms the Sentinelese – they should be allowed to do as they wish.

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