Tuesday, January 4, 2011

John Cage and the Mycelium Man

Besides having one of the coolest names of the twentieth century John Cage was a major figure of the 20th century musical avante-garde, perhaps best known as the ‘man who played no notes’ and as the collaborator and partner of the late, great Merce Cunningham

[“Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it.  And no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound”- oh so very Foucault]

Cage's curiosity led him down the strange and twisted path to the fungal kingdom, which inspired him to compose a series of performances pieces under the title “Indeterminancy”; clever little experiments with form, structure and content, often performed while Cunningham's dancers performed- architecture of a kind.  The crossovers and references to Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” theories are evident (botanists, please forgive the mixing of metaphors for the moment).  While Deleuze was definitely not a botanist, his effect on contemporary architectural theory is obvious, and comparing the two metaphors would make for an interesting Sunday morning.  We digress; more pertinent is the little known fact that John Cage also co-founded the New York Mycological Society.  Why?

Here at FASLANYC we’ve stated our affinity for the concept of mycorhizal infrastructures and landscape interventions as a methodology for future landscapes.  But we are not interested in mycelium only for their metaphorical implications, but also for their pragmatic applications.  To that end we’ve been perusing Mycelium Running recently.

[mushrooms are awesome.  seriously.  let me tell you how awesome in only 339 short pages]

Now let’s be clear about a few things- the author Paul Stamets is not a very good writer, he isn’t a renowned scientist, he has a company that sells fungal spores in various forms and so has an agenda, and he is a middle-aged hippie living in the Pacific Northwest (conjure stereotypes now).  What is more, the book has neither the utility of a manual or field guide, the authority of an academic or intellectual text, nor the compelling prose of a work of fiction.  That said, we recommend you borrow or buy it.  It’s a great introduction to both the metaphorical and practical applications of fungi, full of anecdotes, citations of scientific studies, suggestions, charts, photographs, half-baked theories (our favorite kind), and well-considered theses.

The book is broken down into three main parts:
Part 1:  The Mycelial Mind- This is where the author spouts some bad, whimsical prose and fills your mind with all sorts of curiosities, fun facts, feel good stories and intellectual drivel.  It’s not bad bathroom reading; right on par with your average architecture publication.
Part 2:  Mycorestoration- more on this in a second
Part 3:  Growing Mycelia and Mushrooms- Here the author rehashes and elaborates on a lot of his earlier work in his book Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms.  This part is useful as a manual.  However, it should stand alone and cost $9; right now it is part of a book that is too heavy to conveniently carry to the field or the shop, and it bumps up the price of the rest of the book.

[mycelial mats digest petroleum, bind heavy metals, and help regulate nutrient and sugar flows between plants of different species.  With all of our emphasis on "thickened surfaces" and "folded planes", perhaps we should consider mycelium]

For our purposes, this is the juicy part.  Stamets defines mycorestoration as “the use of fungi to repair or restore the weakened immune systems of environments.”  This section is broken down perfectly into four chapters:  1) mycofiltrations, 2) Mycoforestry, 3) Mycoremediation, 4) Mycopesticides.  Each of these is an ebullient amalgamation of anecdotal and empirical evidence suggesting myriad new ways to use specific fungi towards specific ends, and each one of these is begging for someone to try it out.  In fact, a lot of the content here is the author doing just that, and then telling you about it whether you’re interested or not.

But there is all manner of interesting information here, told in a way that is accessible.  For instance, the chart on page 92 that lists "Mushrooms with Activity against Chemical Toxins" indicates fungal species that can be used to break down or bind nasty toxins such as benzopyrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH's), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's).  These chemicals are, of course, pervasive in the post-industrial landscapes we fetishize these days.  Useful charts, diagrams, images, and graphs are found all over the place in this section, including a delightful piece on page 102- "mushrooms versus heavy metals- a fight to the death!"

[oyster mushrooms can devour petroleum and other toxins]

We don’t necessarily admire the method for conveying the content.  Nonetheless, Stamets does have a ton of content- data, citations, ideas, questions, concerns- most of it good and interesting.  All of this he raises in an imminently understandable way.  Moreover, the author makes a compelling case that it clear that there is potential here, and the primary limitation thus far is only our lack of interest and understanding (except on the part of the hippies, of course).  The biggest plus- it is immediately evident, right from the outset, that the rat bastard is a huge fan of what he is sharing with you.  And it is interesting.  Perhaps he doesn’t put a lot of time in to becoming a good writer, or figuring out the layout of the book, but that is because there is so much to explore.

In this, and in their love of mushroom, Stamets and Cage are the same.  If we’re comparing, and the other option is an intellectually brilliant, cynical piece whose primary aim is to display the author’s intellectual prowess and ultimately lead to their deification into the nerdy landscape pantheon?  We’ll we take Stamets.


  1. happy 2011 sir!

    Sounds like a fascinating if slightly "odd" book and I have added it to my reading list.

    I thought you were on vacation through Feb?

  2. hey did you just change themes? Or is it just my new browser?

  3. errr, yes. I updated the template. While i like the idea of using the most basic option, the fonts were just so bad that I could no longer abide and took 5 minutes to try out some new ones...

    i'm not promising it won't change again, but will try to keep it to a minimum.

  4. I saw today that there is a tab providing information about Stamets on biologicalarchitecture.net. Not sure yet what biological architecture is all about.

    Both Armory Lovins and John Todd highly recommend the book on the Amazon.com webpage.