Who’s Been Pissing in my Mushoom Utopia?

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“No one gets any respect . . . this is an industry that has traditionally preyed on minorities,” she added. “Once it was poor whites from Appalachia, then immigrant Italians and Irish, Puerto Ricans. Now it’s Mexicans.” -Linda Cromer, Director of Organizing for the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1993

Last week a thoughtful friend sent me an article from the New York Times about the fairly low-impact subject of mushroom grow-kits.  

Perhaps you’ve seen one, or purchased one. They’re basically little plastic bags that the consumer cuts a hole in. Mushrooms fruit through the hole. With no exceptions of which I’m aware these are oyster mushrooms, and there are good reasons for this. Oysters are aggressive, they ‘run’ quickly, and they fruit rapidly in less-than-ideal conditions. 

Understandably, the author of this article was very excited. And it is exciting. Most of us have a fair bit of fungus in our living spaces and underwear, but they’re not the kind that anyone would want to eat.

I think I’m expecting way too much from the style section of the New York Times. The author did some research. She called around to a couple of mushroom growing operations and they told her that mushrooms are amazing and wholesome. Fair. In some senses I agree.

People talk about mushrooms as a free gift of nature, even when they spend $20 on something that they’ll emerge from. It’s easy to think this. They’re just this thing that grows out of the ground. They’re like the trees lining the roadway. Nobody thinks much about them until they’ve fallen down on a power line and then most of us feel pissed at the utility company for failing to cut them down. 

It’s harder to wrap our heads around the fact that those trees aren’t just trees. They’re leading a double life. They’re trees, no doubt. They emit pollen and oxygen. Birds live in them. A big-ass hornets nest is hanging over the road. Maybe they’re climbable and your kid can break their arm for the first time when they fall. But they’re a link in a commodity chain. Those guys up in the bucket of a cherry picker have sold their labor which moves down the line into the cost of a unit of electricity. 

Nature doesn’t bend to our whims without a lot of punishment and finessing. 

For people who love mushrooms there’s a weird disconnect between what we know the organism to be and what we want it to be. Those little bags are amazing, but they’re haunted. Not by spirits of the dead, but by shift after shift after shift of human effort. 

For better or worse, Paul Stamets is the public face of mycology. Perhaps you’ve seen his TED Talk. I’d say he does everything but promise the viewer that mushrooms will save the world, but he even does that. It’s possible that he’s a great guy, but experience leads me to believe that most people who are very charismatic are engaged in close-up magic. They want you to look at one thing while they do another. 

It’s not like he’s committing some kind war crime (yet). It’s just that he benefits from making us believe that somehow these organisms make it to a grocery store or a mail order company without anyone getting hurt along the way. His company, Fungi Perfecti, manufactures nutritional supplements, grows mushroom spawn for small scale production, and serves as a middle-man for growing supplies. 

And they do another, weirder thing, which is patenting. Stamets figures out something novel to do with fungi and makes it his intellectual property. The most notable instance of this is the one he discusses in his TED Talk: He discusses an economic arrangement between his company and the Department of Defense, in which he submitted a potential antiviral compound as a candidate for deployment in the event of an act of biological terrorism that releases smallpox.  

I have a hard time with this. It’s not that I’m into smallpox (though I’ve never tried it), it’s more that I’m uncomfortable with the model in which private capital cashes in on discoveries (in national forests) that might be lifesaving. And while the particular appendage of the DOD that he’s dealing with is mostly inoffensive, working with the war machine can take anyone down a dark path. Watch that slope. 

If something appears on a shelf with a price tag, it’s not a free gift of nature. As much as we’d like to believe that just one thing that we consume isn’t contaminated with grief, it’s still not true. Mushroom production is fucking ugly.

The growing process (or at least the industrial growing process) goes like this: Spore – Strain – Inoculum – Grain – Bulk substrate – Fruiting – Harvest. 

While most of us are told that mushrooms reproduce by spore, and this is true, industrial agriculture hates variables. Sexual reproduction is generally out of control and in mushrooms as with plants, growers don’t want some misfit child getting into the system. To deal with this, mushroom growers utilize strains, which are living samples of a mushroom with desirable characteristics. Strains can survive for very long periods of time if refrigerated, and get ‘grown out’ to be used in the growing process. Mushrooms grow vegetatively, and can be cloned and subdivided, though they do get tired over time. 

There’s an interesting question here: If a strain gets divided for growth 1000 times, what is that like for the organism? While the subdivisions might encounter conditions that result in different trait expressions, if you were to reintroduce the ‘master’ strain to it’s various subdivisions it would happily reunite. What’s this like as an experience? Does it hurt? Or would it be an opportunity for information transfer? I’m not going to be able to answer this question. I’m not a mycological researcher. I’m just a loser who types fast. 

It’s very easy for a casual lover of fungi to think of cultivation as something idyllic, but it’s not. Mushroom production is highly capitalized. To their credit, the mushrooms resist- those that haven’t been bred incessantly for traits that keep them from spoiling on their way to market will very happily rot. You’re basically their enemy. It’s in their best interest to deposit spore, and they get picked before that occurs. For most mushrooms insects are a very important avenue for spore dispersal, and an almost pathological concern with insects is necessary for any producer. 

Mushroom production is industrial. While there are small producers out in the world who bring a few tills of shiitake to market, they generally don’t realize any profit. Big producers combine massive pieces of machinery with line work. 

This is the production process, abbreviated and grossly simplified: A team of laborers prepares substrate  in an industrial cooker. A team of laborers bags the substrate. A team of laborers loads the substrate into a massive industrial autoclave. In go the petrochemicals, transformed into heat. Every organism in the substrate dies. A team of laborers unload the bags. A team of laborers in tyvek suits inoculate the bags with living mycelium in a cleanroom. Then the bags sit, consuming space in a warehouse. After the substrate is fully consumed by the mycelium they are moved to a fruiting room where fans remove CO2 and introduce O2, and a computerized system monitors humidity levels. Once fruiting occurs another team of laborers picks, packs and ships. It is worth noting that for pickers and packers, they often get paid piece wages, a soundless kind of discipline. 

Nobody’s whistling while they work. It might introduce bacteria into the process. The history of mushroom farming is full of labor strife, and for good reason. The work is grueling. The work is mindless. It requires skill, but it is line skill. Workers master an economy of motion, acting as a graceful biological robot between two other instances of the same. If they’re in the clean room they can’t go to the bathroom, and so they deliberately dehydrate. A manager of some sort is always checking their watch- it’s absolutely necessary to adhere to the production schedule, and the only real way they have to accomplish it is through bullying. Some people are better bullies than others, but they’re still bullies. 

And as mentioned above, for pickers and packers piece work is the norm. The employer will definitely fire someone who falls below a certain productivity, but within the average, workers are incentivized and punished through wages tied to the pace at which they work.

Conditions can become hazardous. They work fast in an environment of sharp edges and hot metal. The floors are always wet. They use caustic solvents for cleaning. Pesticides are inevitable. For an operation that fruits mushrooms in-house, grow rooms can induce illness. When a mushroom sporulates it releases an incredible volume of spore. For pickers, this can induce an immune response called Mushroom Worker’s Lung. It is remarkably common. Basic safety equipment can do a great deal to limit its frequency, but it’s easier for the grower to just make people sick. 

As much as growers are obsessed with sterility, mushroom production is a filthy business. 

It’s common for neophytes to get excited about the fact that mushrooms can eat things in the waste stream. They’re amazed. Paper! Cotton! Coffee grounds! Cigarette butts! Plastic! And admittedly, it is pretty fucking cool. But everybody wants to see just one thing in this world lay a golden egg and mushrooms aren’t the goose to do it. 

It’s true that many mushrooms are very happy to eat garbage. I’ve fed them t-shirts and newsprint and it’s cool that they’ll do that, but waste streams are only waste streams until people work on them, and then they’re not. For mushrooms to eat garbage on a large scale and end up as food, all of the conditions described earlier are necessary. Yes, mushrooms eat wood, but they don’t eat it indiscriminately. They have particular appetites and a mixed pile of woodchips is relatively useless commercially. Thermodynamic laws are still in effect. Fungus will eat literally anything made of cellulose and lignin, but most of the time they’re not edible.

The above applies to mushrooms that eat dead and dying plants. To varying extents they can be domesticated- the mycological term for the way they live is “saprophytic”. But this isn’t the way that all mushrooms live. A good portion of them are symbiotes, and this applies to all of the more expensive gourmet mushrooms. They’re unwilling to be tamed. They have interesting polyamorous relationships with the other plants and fungi that surround them, and if they can be cultivated no one’s figured out how to do it yet.  

Mushrooms that live this way and that are also desirable to people command very high prices: Matsutake, perigord truffles, king boletes, chantrelles. These species coat the roots of trees, effectively expanding the surface area of the root system, and they assist with the uptake of minerals in exchange for sugars. Research shows that they also allow for communication between trees in a forest, carrying information about local conditions through the woods.

It’s one of many delights I get out of human efforts to cultivate fungus- so many people have tried so many times to domestic so many of these symbiotic fungi and it never works. All that failure has been inevitable, and plenty of excitable investors have been deeply disappointed at significant cost. People have gone so far as to transplant living trees from Europe to the U.S. and haven’t gotten a single truffle out of it. 

This doesn’t mean these organisms don’t get commodified, it’s just that the labor is different. 

In The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing describes the odd labor regime that lies beneath the global market in wild harvested mushrooms. On public lands throughout the Pacific Northwest a small army of the dispossessed gathers in the forest to hunt for Matsutake and other high dollar edibles. It’s a weird truth that the ranks of people who work as pickers are composed of those who have endured counter-insurgent violence, both as victims and perpetrators. Historically this has been the occupation of Hmong people from the high places of Vietnam or Cambodian refugees, and more recently there has been an influx of Central Americans, also highlanders, cast out of their homelands by several shades of violence. As well, American veterans whose capacity for sociality got shredded in whatever hellscape they occupied work as gatherers in the woods. It is those who have been damaged by war that tend to do this labor. 

Like the pickers who work in the labyrinthine growing facilities that cultivate mushrooms, these people work for piece wages, but these wages are never fixed. The cost of the mushrooms rise and fall with the vagaries of the world market. If it’s a good year for marriages in Japan and the weather has been dry then the prices can climb, breaking as much as $1000 a pound for Matsutake, and then plummet the following year (or even the following day). Their wages are fixed when they gather around a buyer’s tent on the side of the road, and from there it’s out of their hands. 

They confront different dangers and take different risks than people who work for growers. An injury could ruin their year and leave them destitute. They navigate strange boundaries of the forest and risk legal trouble and the rifles of property owners. And, unfortunately, sometimes they hate each other and have extremely heated territorial disputes. It makes sense. They’re always in competition, and this opens them up to strange iterations of racism and distrust. They do this in a soaking forest while people in some place they’ll never visit eat haut cuisine, oblivious to the generations of misery that flavor their meal. 

At the risk of a gross misreading, Dr. Tsing asserts that this economy isn’t fully integrated into capitalist production, calling it a ‘salvage economy’. While I like the poetic turn, and I think salvage might be appropriate – these are people who’ve attempted to escape the formal economy, but you can only accomplish this (and then only partially) by clinging to the rim- no one gets to escape this system of misery unless they’re dead, and even then we’re subject to some weird recycling into the market. Even if we die in the forest we’re going to end up on some forensic pathologist’s table. 

If You’re Gonna Scream, Scream With Me…

This is a fucking mess. Sorry. There’s some jokes somewhere in here. Also, fuck Glenn Danzig. And Jerry Only. And the Misfits. And a bunch of other people too. 

I loved horror fiction growing up. I would buy all the “Year’s Best” collections and read them in a day. I’m not so thrilled with the genre in the present, or maybe it’s simply that I don’t keep up on it enough. I read Nightmare Magazine once a month and that’s pretty much it. I’m sure that devotees know the landscape of personalities writing in the field and could direct me to up and coming authors doing cool stuff that subvert the tropes. I think that’s why I got bored with it- the tropes have broken down. 

It bears stating that genre is a troubled term. Literary conventions don’t work anymore, and for horror particularly. What was once scary is now a comforting, familiar filling in of types- nerd, tough guy, smart girl, kind girl, little brother or sister all set out to navigate a problem that somehow touches on the monstrous. Some of them die, they all change, and the end of the story is ambiguous. That’s it, right? 

And ‘genre-bending’, a stupid term that can be applied to almost any fiction, is the norm. Love story + vampire story + apocalypse story + action adventure = Buffy the fucking Vampire Slayer. Twilight. True Blood. Underworld. I’m sure there are many, many others. And it makes sense. Vampires have been kicking around forever. Somebody has to fuck them. So it’s pointless to call something horror, just as it’s pointless to call something romance. 

I’ve written about horror as a genre in the past, and specifically about H.P. Lovecraft, who is an easy target. Posthumous critiques of nebbish racists are cool, and I’m happy to fire them off while I’m prehumous, but as much as I’ve lost much of my love for this particular literary form, I guess I still care about it. Like an elderly dog? 

I got pretty stoked the other day about the fact that you can still write short stories and get paid for it, and they don’t even have to be printed on paper. So I tried to think about what I find horrifying. Or what I find horrifying that can be translated to a supernatural template. 

The answer I’ve arrived at is that there’s plenty I find horrifying. Myself, for one, and the things I’ve done wrong or failed to do right. That’s definitely top of the list. I’d wear a hairshirt (and I deserve it) but it wouldn’t make a difference to anyone, even me. 

Violence, or at least inappropriately directed violence is horrifying. And most aspects of our society are casually violent. People get all sorts of mutilated all the time, and it’s just a thing that happens. It’s not even hidden. 

Maybe this is key. Things that are horrifying are secret. A hellfire missile vaporizing a family in a minivan overseas  isn’t scary because 1) people in America die in minivans because of text messaging, not from ordnance and 2) I can watch it on Youtube and it’s not even considered a snuff film. 

A for instance: Serial killers are scary in a way that a mass shooter is not, and a mass shooter is scary in a way that a private military contractor is not. 

Serial killers make an effort to conceal their identities and, in most cases, the fact that a crime was committed at all. We think of them working in basements, carving people up with a knife. It’s not so much that they enjoy what they’re doing but rather that they don’t let anyone know that they’re enjoying it. In our society you’re most terrifying when you hide the fact that you enjoy the suffering of others, and I’m subject to this failure of logic as much as anyone else. But as a literary device, it sucks. I don’t go in for torture porn, and it’s another thing that our government just does. Guantanamo Bay  and CIA black-sites are their own genre of horror. 

Mass shooters, they’re definitely frightening, and I by no means want to diminish the trauma that survivors of these events experience. But I don’t think it’s horrifying in the genre sense. I’ve read pieces of horror fiction that have used mass shooters as material, but often there’s some other thing beneath the act itself- a haunting, a mimetic infection, a possession, etc. So, speaking for myself, I find these things to be horrible, but I don’t know if I find them horrifying. It’s clinical. Generally, the person responsible dies, and frequently it’s by their own hands. The whole thing is a news event, after which we listen to people talk about gun control, and then we watch a commercial about Chile’s new Bacon Butter Burger, which will very probably kill more people than a mass shooting. Just slower. 

In the case of private military contractors, they fit into the previously mentioned paradigm. Even if they’re murdering people extra-judicially, they’re doing it in a place that most of us deliberately avoid thinking about, and there’s nothing secret about their actions. They’ll do it in public and unlike a mass shooter (which I’m differentiating based on the legal sanctioning of the act) they have absolutely no expectation that they will die at the end of the slaughter, or even be prosecuted. And, as we’ve seen, they can apparently rest easy knowing that, were they prosecuted, they’d be pardoned. Again, ethically horrifying, categorically disgusting, but not something I’m expecting Stephen King to write about.

Apocalypse stories are a thing, and apparently a very popular thing. You can watch a million varieties of the genre on Netflix. They’re supposed to be horror, but it’s difficult to distinguish them from action movies. In many ways they are better than an action movie. Jason Bourne doesn’t get to mow down living humans- that would make him a villain. He karates some deserving bad guys and that’s about it. Who wants to watch that when we can indulge our own barely concealed desire for retribution on the rest of the species through the convenient foil of dead people who walk around? 

Out of fairness, there have been some damn fine zombie films. Night of the Living Dead is classic (the other Romero zombie movies not so much). I thought 28 Days Later was compelling too. I saw it in the theater and a guy behind me made fun of Cillian Murphy’s dick size, so that might have contributed to the sense of dread, but it had metaphoric appeal. When most people who surround you are rage-fueled monsters, that’s… oh wait, that’s life in America. 

On the whole, I don’t feel threatened by the idea of an apocalypse. I’ve grown up with them. To paraphrase Midnight Notes Collective, everyone dies. What does it matter if we all go at the same time? Being the last person alive sounds kind of nice. Free access to drugs and a chance for some quiet? Sign me up. 

And what’s up with the assumption that we’re all so terrible that we’d act like murderous assholes? I’d pray for some sort of levelling effect in such a situation. As long as whatever virus/nuclear detonation/ecological catastrophe took out the world’s states, the survivors might have a good time. To summon another Midnite Notes Collective contributor Silvia Federici, the aftermath of the black death left the European peasantry in a much better position vis a vis the landed classes.

Some sort of scarcity is always posited in these situations. Who cares? We’re already living with scarcity, it’s just enforced with the barrel of a gun and a lack of other options. The water is toxic, the food is shit, all the fish are dead and there are few viable places to live. And zombies had nothing to do with it. Jeff Bezos and Walmart are to blame. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell makes this point- people tend to be better in disasters. They help each other. They share resources. They instinctively cope with trauma as a collective.  It’s cops and right-wingers who pose a threat to the kindness that can emerge in a catastrophe (and I’m thinking of you, Hurricane Katrina). 

On this note, another Lovecraft note at that, I was never very clear on what exactly was going to happen if the Great Old Ones came around. It was categorically unspecified. They’re fictional scare-mongering. Maybe white genocide? There aren’t that many people who would complain, and they’d all be dead anyway. 

Stephen King is considered the master of the genre. I really liked his early stuff (and failed to notice the repetitive appearance of magical black people). The Shining is pretty amazing, but overwhelmingly (for me) Cujo was his best piece of writing. And there is nothing supernatural going on. It is a prosaic horror. It speaks to an embodied dread- not being able to save your child in a situation that shouldn’t be occurring. Someone should write a horror story about family separation at the border (and perhaps they have- I plead ignorance). Lots of terrifying monsters there. 

I don’t like his later work, even a little bit. At a certain point he veered into garbage and never found his way out. It might have to do with sobriety. Writers seem to be on top of their game when they’re actively self-destructing. Or it might be the fact that upon establishing himself as a commercially viable writer he was able to basically shit on a piece of paper, have his editors deal with the mess, and be absolutely certain that it would not only be published but be available at Walgreens next to books with Fabio on the cover. I’m glad for him that he’s not doing a ton of coke anymore, and kudos (I guess) on being filthy rich, but it’s an unfortunate place for a genre to be.

Also, fuck you Dean Koontz. Fuck you, F. Paul Wilson. Your books suck, your characters are stupid, and anti-choice propaganda dressed up as scary stories should go on the burn pile. 

I consider ghosts. Not scary much of the time. Sometimes the events they summon definitely are- misogynist and racist violence are horrid, and the things hidden in the past have a habit of haunting us, but all things considered, the thing I find frightening about ghosts is the fact that they seem to be tied to the same places and doing the same things, endlessly. That’s life. I don’t want it to be death. 

Monsters? Not scary either, and a genre trope is that the overwhelming majority of these stories reveal the reactionary fear and total lack of imagination of people who attempt to capture, kill or monetize them. This is why adult monster tales are framed as conflicts with the unknown and kid monster tales are conflicts with authority. 

My complaints regarding ‘folk horror’ are many. It’s an inevitable outcome of this genre that a rational (or seemingly rational) contemporary person comes into contact with some retrograde cabal of people celebrating their indigenous past. This past is decadent and decaying and it sucks modern technology out of the protagonist. Smartphones don’t work. Cars break down. Reason follows soon after, until the hero plunges through the woods to either end up right back where they didn’t want to be or under the safe fluorescent lights of a Tesco. It’s generally stupid. Cartesian rationality has stacked up untold bodies without a moment of hesitation, while a ritual sacrifice a year meant to set the world to rights is painted as a screaming, gibbering horror. 

Having said all this, I think that the BI-POC initiatives of horror, dark fantasy and science fiction are awesome. The perspective shift is profound and the writing is less lazy. The past isn’t a horror to be forgotten (though it might make a lot of sense for European descended people to desire amnesia… our forebears don’t look too good). There is instead a strength and a grounding in historical context in these contributions. I was lucky enough to get lost in Cherie Dimaline’s The Empire of Wild and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians.  

Cherie Dimaline’s book is about a werewolf (kind of), which I think is a figure that is rarely given the strength of representation that it deserves. But it is not the werewolf that is the villain, rather it is the social forces that lead one to break taboos. These rules of spiritual etiquette exist for the good of a community and are violated by individuals who are tempted by the spirits on the exterior. It’s not a story about the monsters, but instead about the forces that create them and then deploy them. And the heroine is wonderful- she’s tough, funny, tragically sad, deeply in love and embedded in a web of social relationships that provide her with the knowledge she needs to confront an evil man. Despite all of her power, I felt scared, horribly, for the people that surround her- the young, the old, and her contemporaries. Dimaline spits hot fire. I can’t wait to read The Marrow Thieves

Stephen Grahm Jones’ The Only Good Indians is fucking terrifying. Without ruining the plot for the two people that read this blog, it also deals with the breaking of taboos, but from a much different angle. I think the underlying themes are the ways in which masculinity gets tortured, distorted and turned against the community; our desperation to escape from the things that we’ve done wrong and the ways in which they haunt us and turn back upon the ones we love; and finally the setting to right of transgressions that fall upon the youth of a community. It’s heartbreaking, beautiful, and indisputably a work of horror. 

Departures from the ‘master narrative’ in film are also providing something that has been missing in film for a great long time, and of course I’m going to point to Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us. They’re visually arresting, paced wonderfully, and summon two different regimes of horror. 

Last case for horror- when well-executed, I’ve become very smitten with science fiction/horror crossovers, and I think it does work that is necessary, painful, and true, and since we all watch TV and few of us read books, I’ll use Black Mirror as my referrent. I’ve made my way through the entirety of the series during my pitiful winter exercise on the treadmill. It’s sharp, incisive, and brings us to a threshold of total despair that a vampire can’t cross. It’s in conversation with itself all the time, and it cuts to the heart of the horrifying will to power of systems of control. In a world where we could all have sweet exoskeletons and seamless cognitive integration with the whole of reality, it’s almost certain that capital and the state would ignore that possibility and figure out new ways to make things surreally terrible. 

A top pick from this program is 15 Million Merits, in which a society based on body shaming and the consumption of images presents a totalizing system of power that is utterly inescapable. And, much like our current society, people in this fictional one consume narratives that make critiques and calls for societal change that don’t make a dent in the system of power they oppose. There’s no way out. Level a successful argument against capitalism and they’ll just buy it from you. 

Finally, after all of this, I’m scared of the following: Cops, homelessness, myself, losing control of my body, the possibility of reincarnation or persistence as a ghost, prison, people seeing me with my shirt off, parasites (but just on my skin, nowhere else- I’d love to have a tapeworm), isolation, the opposite of isolation, cleaning, suburbs, cities, rural America, working, getting killed by a lion, my desire to smoke more DMT, cutting my toenails, and… I don’t know. I’m sure there’s more. 

Have a spooktacular day.