The Listening Cure

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

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:

The brakes of a wholesale grocer truck. French pop music from a
sidewalk restaurant. The jangle of a dog’s leash. Crows cawing.
Horns honking. Flip-flops. Bicycle spokes. Singing. The voices of
taxi drivers passionately discussing politics. The quiet footsteps
of a man with a rabbit riding on his shoulder. Basketballs
bouncing. Waves crashing. Plastic bags crinkling in the wind. The
clicks and whirring motors of video cameras. A plane. A helicopter.
Gulls screeching. Soles of shoes on concrete, then on asphalt. Keys
jangling. Skateboard wheels. A cell phone, then another.

The closer I listened, the more vibrant and full and alive the
world seemed. I laughed when a bald woman with a heart tattoo on
the back of her head, eating an ice cream cone, walked by and said
to her companion, ‘This place is really lively at night.’

We hope this issue of the magazine will help you listen to the
music of the world with a renewed sense of wonder.

WE’RE WISHING a fond farewell to two members of our art staff.
Art director Kristi Anderson has been with Utne on and off since
1990 and is leaving to pursue her own business. Assistant art
director Jennifer Kenix is moving to Christchurch, New Zealand.
We’re sorry we won’t get to spend our days with them anymore, but
we’re pleased to know that others will get to experience the beauty
and joy and insight they both bring to the world.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.