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Deep Entanglements: Children and Fungi

Mushroom Girl - Illustration by Ellen Dubreuil

By John Hornstein

Illustration by Ellen Dubreuil

My mother was happiest when foraging for mushrooms. Being an immigrant from Germany, she had difficulty adjusting to life in rural Maine. Foraging became a way for her to stay connected to her childhood. It also connected her to something more primal, the natural world. As a child tagging along on her foraging adventures, I sensed the importance of those connections, and I needed to see her happy. She has been gone a number of years, and now I am the one foraging for mushrooms, moreso as I age – a way of remaining connected to her, but also a way to connect to nature – so much so that my fascination with mushrooms has become an entanglement – one raising basic questions about who we are as humans and what we need to do for children’s development, questions such as, “What is it about fungi that fascinates and inspires?” and “How can mushrooms help us teach children how nature works?” and  “What can fungi tell us about the precarious world we now live in?”

Answers to these and related questions can bring us to see parallels between children’s development and fungi’s role in nature. A child in a family and culture is nested in relationships that support development and define what is good and important. As a child grows, she begins to reflect the world in which she is raised. And along the way, the parenting she receives is more like gardening than carpentry.[1] From her entire set of relationships and her experience in interaction with her unique neurobiology, she emerges as the  person she becomes later on. These necessary relationships in children’s development mirror relationships in nature, relationships that are equally as dynamic, complex, and always changing. And just as a set of developmental milestones doesn’t tell us about the relationships that define who a child really is, so too pictures of mushrooms don’t tell us about their underground fungal networks and relationships that define who they really are.

A mushroom, the above-ground manifestation of many fungi, is a developmental milestone of a fungus. Furthermore, and with guidance, children can see a mushroom as  an entry into the complexity of the natural world, a world where fungi connect trees with each other, help our bodily systems stay balanced, and, on a larger scale, support the health of the planet. The study of fungi, particularly in their relationship to trees, is changing how scientists view the connections between species, and the seeming intelligent behavior of these remarkable organisms.[2] A recent study demonstrated that the mycorrhizal networks of fungi offer the mechanism through which different species of flora communicate and share resources. This is a very different narrative than the old narrative about  nature being a world defined by competition, self-interest, and dominance. “Nature… seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single glowing peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama we deplore or ignore from a distance – but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily a part.”[3](McFarlane, p. 103)

The fantastic and essential role fungi play in sustaining nature is explained in many children’s books, so many that it is difficult to catalogue the number. But a common theme running throughout is how mushrooms appear, often mysteriously in the background. Indeed, it is this mystery which is part of the appeal. Scientifically, we know it is the invisible networks underneath the mushroom blooms that support life.  (See: Therefore, the  young child can be helped to bring imagination to the observation of mushrooms. We can help children wonder about that secret world together. The[1]  mushroom we notice in the yard or in the woods can then become an entry into the wood-wide web.[4]

To help children come to understand and appreciate fungi, we can rely on children’s natural inclination to attribute human characteristics to the natural world, just as do leading scientists and certain cultures, albeit in a self-conscious sort of way. For example, Robin Wall Kimmerer, an ethnobotanist and enrolled member of the Potowatomie nation, describes the “intelligence” of the natural world; how organisms “solve problems” and “communicate” with each other.[5] She also points out that many indigenous societies describe features of nature as if they were human, alive and often “generous”. These are wise and adult ways of speaking about nature. Sadly, all too often teachers and parents dismiss children’s anthropomorphizing observations of nature as immature, when, instead, they are an opportunities to explore with children how nature actually works, and to discover that trees and animals live in relationships with each other, that older trees “mother” saplings[6], that they are all connected and seemingly act with intelligence. We are part of them, and we can care for them as if they are a part of us, because they are!

Furthermore, fungi teach children and all of us about death and rebirth.  Recently, I found my first Matusake. This revered species was one of the first organisms to emerge after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima. It is treasured in Japan, not only because it is delicious but also because it symbolizes survival and rebirth. The bomb marked the beginning of the Anthropocene, the geological age in which human activity has led to  children experiencing hurricanes, floods, and fires in numbers and intensity not experienced before. And to add to today’s uncertainty, there is the pandemic. All have felt the effects of the pandemic which forces us to experience life as precarious and not guaranteed. In one writer’s words, “I find myself without the handrails of stories that tell where everyone is going, and also, why. Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all of our lives are precarious – even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined.”[7] (Tsing, 2015) Given this experience of the precarious nature of life itself, what stories can we tell our children about nature and the future? And how can understanding the ways the natural world works give them and all of us hope? Fungi provide answers.

In a precarious world, fungi give hope for survival. They are the ultimate recyclers, breaking down nutrients from plants to provide food to the next generation of plants. They are exquisite communicators, connecting trees with each other, helping the stronger support the weaker, both among species and between species. They tell us about a world that makes sense. When we walk with children on the ground from which mushrooms sprout, we can tell them this hopeful story about fungi, and help them understand that nature is our partner, even, at times, a mother and friend.

For further reading,

[1] Gopnik, A. (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

[2] Sheldrake, M. (2020). The Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape our Future. NY: Random House.

[3] Macfarlane, R. (2019). Underland: A Deep Time Story. NY: Norton.

[4] Simmard, S. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[5] Kimmerer, R. W. (2014) Braiding Sweetgrass

Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions.

[6] Simmard, S. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[7] Tsing, A. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

For further reading, check out the following article on fungi and the climate crisis: