The Listening Cure

Would we see the world differently if we opened our ears?

| July / August 2005

We're surrounded by fungi. They are on our faces, our fingers, our toes. Every time we put our feet on soil, we're stepping on a network of fungal threads known as mycelium. But what do we really know about fungi, these emissaries from a fourth kingdom that can't be classified as animal, mineral, or vegetable? What do we know about the biological roles they play, the remedies they might contain, the knowledge that one of the oldest living things on this planet could hold?

If you've been reading this magazine over the years, you've learned about the work of visionary mycologist Paul Stamets. We've covered his research into medicinal mushrooms and his use of mushroom spores to clean up toxic waste sites and restore mountainsides damaged by logging roads. Recently Stamets was awarded a patent for a pesticide that can be used against social insects like termites. Derived from mushrooms, and costing a mere 25 cents per application to produce, this invention, he says, could put the petrochemical pesticide industry out of business.

Stamets has also announced that he's identified a mushroom extract from Fomitopsis officinalis, a wood conk mushroom, that shows promising activity against smallpox. This research is part of a biodefense antiviral screening program -- looking for agents to counteract viruses that could be used as weapons -- being conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases.

F. officinalis, long called agarikon, is extinct or nearly so in Europe and Asia. But it still grows on trees in the dense old-growth Douglas fir and hemlock forests of the American Pacific Northwest, an area that's home to untold numbers of fungi that have yet to be tested for their healing properties. 'It is going to the highest levels of our government,' says Stamets, 'that old growth forests are a national treasure.'



How did Stamets learn what he knows? He gives credit to the mushrooms themselves. Stamets says he is just a good listener.

When we open our ears, we find that we live in surround sound, suspended in a layered web of the world's music. The wind in the trees. The clinking of cutlery on a plate. A roaring fire. A voice in song. Sound touches our deepest emotions. It can take us to ecstatic highs and warn us when something is wrong. While my sister has the most acute sense of hearing of anyone I know, I tend to be visually oriented to the world. So to train my ears I decided to undertake what R. Murray Schafer, the father of acoustic ecology who is interviewed in our cover section, calls a soundwalk. On a visit to Los Angeles, where I heard Paul Stamets speak, I spent a May afternoon simply walking and listening. It was a delicious, sensuous orientation:

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