Tarun Nayar is a Vancouver-based artist who makes music under the name Modern Biology.
It seems like they’re everywhere. This past year, mushrooms moved from forest paths and compost heaps into mainstream culture. Red-and-white spotted “mushroom” hats on Halloween. The menus of my favourite restaurants. The mushroom kingdom of The Super Mario Bros. Movie coming in 2023. I was at a birthday party recently and the wrapping paper was mushroom-themed. Throughout the holidays, I saw mushroom tree ornaments, lights, sculptures, grow kits, cards. From bestseller lists to fashion brands, mushrooms are having a moment. The question is: Why now? And why mushrooms?
I’m particularly well-positioned to notice this phenomenon. I’m a biology grad and a working musician (the latter under the name Modern Biology), and over the course of the pandemic, my experiments with plants, mushrooms and synthesizers went viral on TikTok. In August of 2021, I was happily and relatively anonymously posting videos of “music” from thimbleberry bushes, apple trees and sword ferns – using very basic technology to convert electrical changes in these organisms into note and rhythm changes on a synthesizer. (I didn’t invent these techniques; the idea has been around for a couple of decades.)
Then I posted a video using the same approach on mushrooms – common ink cap mushrooms to be precise, a little cluster of which had just fruited outside my studio. That video was viewed millions of times overnight. So, I found some more mushrooms – conifer tufts this time – with the same result. Millions of views. And then amanitas. Desert shaggy manes. Red-belted conks. Each one went viral, propelling me to hundreds of millions of views, an unthinkable amount of media attention and almost a million followers on social media.
I’m now working on collaborations with several major design and fashion brands, writing academic papers, and recently played “mushroom music” live at Art Basel in Miami and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
This fungi-fuelled virality is not an isolated phenomenon. I just happened to stumble into the zeitgeist. Fashion brands Stella McCartney, Balenciaga and Hermès are introducing whole lines made from mycelial leather – created from the root-like structures of fungi. Netflix is investing in content such as 2019′s Fantastic Fungi (narrated by Brie Larson) and this year’s How to Change Your Mind (with Michael Pollan), both of which champion the powers of fungi. Mycologist Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 book Entangled Life has influenced icons such as musician David Byrne and designer Iris Van Herpen. Citizen-scientist Paul Stamets is a folk hero with more than a million followers on social media and an empire of fungal-based products.
I believe there are several reasons why this is happening right now.
Just contemplating our environment and climate for even a few minutes can plunge me into depression. What are we to do? Where do we start? Over the past several years, the fungal kingdom has offered some near-miraculous solutions to some of our most pressing problems. Fungi produce enzymes that can digest almost everything – including toxins found in landfills and oil spills. They may even be able to absorb radiation after nuclear disasters. They can be used as building materials. To filter water. To feed livestock. Instead of plastic, Ikea is now using MycoComposite packaging, which breaks down in several weeks after use. There are subtleties of course, and fungi may not save the world – but it’s increasingly looking like they might help.
Mushrooms are proving just as important to our inner space as they are to our outer space. In my hometown of Vancouver, it’s difficult to find a telephone pole without at least one ad for a psychedelic delivery service offering microdoses of LSD and magic mushrooms. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t avail of this convenience.
I’m not alone. Used for years by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as a “productivity hack,” microdosing has moved to the mainstream. A recent paper in the journal Scientific Reports concluded that microdosing psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) resulted in significant improvements in mental health and mood. And larger doses can be life-changing. Mr. Pollan’s recent book How to Change Your Mind does a brilliant job of chronicling the resurgence of psychedelic research these past years. The studies have shown that psilocybin therapy is beneficial in relieving symptoms of treatment-resistant depression, addiction and other mental-health disorders such as anorexia nervosa and OCD.
Consciousness and communication
A comment I often get on my TikTok videos is that the “music” being played by mushrooms might just be them saying “ow” in response to being probed by electrodes! Although this interpretation may be the result of playing too much Super Mario, there’s a grain of truth therein. Biologist and philosopher Paco Calvo’s recent book Planta Sapiens explores the growing body of evidence that not only plants, but all of life, is conscious. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that fungi can feel, behave and learn. And communicate.
We now know that massive, underground fungal networks form an integral part of the “wood wide web” – a dizzyingly complex interspecies exchange of resources and information. Think of it as nature’s “social network,” in the words of Mr. Sheldrake, the mycologist. The decentralized nature of these 400-million-year-old networks – and in fact the decentralized nature of fungi themselves (lacking central nervous and vascular systems) demonstrate principles that humans would do well to remember from our distant evolutionary past.
Perhaps there is something to be learned from this ancient non-animal, non-plant intelligence. Fungi seem to suggest that mutualism, connection and communication may be far more sustainable than our current obsession with individual wealth and infinite growth.
After years of relative obscurity, mushrooms are having a well-deserved moment. They’re useful in so many ways and they can help shape our goals and ideals for the future. But I think there’s something more than just the convergence of scientific research that has created this cultural moment. There’s what mushrooms symbolize to our collective consciousness. Mushrooms make life from death.
Those of us fortunate enough to make it through the pandemic have all gone through a kind of death over the past several years. Mushrooms represent a second chance. As we near a desperate juncture in our human story, mushrooms offer hope. They offer a window into how we could be – connected, decentralized, sustainable. I’ve spent more than a few hours trying to understand why my mushroom music videos have gone viral. They’re cute, they’re funny. They’re short and shareable. But more importantly, I think they offer a window into a different way of seeing the world – a world which is alive and full of wonder.
Looking for mushrooms in the forest, there’s a moment when you leave your city eyes behind – a transition from the concentrated focus of modern life to a much broader, softer gaze. My fiancée, who taught me how to forage, calls the phenomenon seeing with “mushroom eyes.” That’s when the mushrooms move from the background to the foreground. All of a sudden they’re everywhere. And it’s not just the mushrooms – there’s this heightened awareness of everything. A feeling of smallness sets in as the magic of the forest takes centre stage.
In 2022, we experienced this together – this year we found our mushroom eyes. And maybe, just maybe, these newfound mushroom eyes can help us navigate new relationships with our environment, ourselves and each other.