Rabbit Hole Kingdom

Life has happened to me, as it is wont to do. It carried the days into weeks, into months and so on. Tight schedules, new beginnings, old patterns, new passions…they all knitted me into a kind of blissfully hectic enmeshment of preoccupation. I return, nevertheless, to regale you with tidbits.

A significant piece of the material I was immersed in was my study of fungi and lichens. When I say “my study”, it would be more accurately described as my OBSESSION. If you knew how truly amazing the fungal kingdom is, you’d probably be obsessed with it too! Okay–maybe not, but you’d be pretty impressed.

They heal! They steal! They glow in the dark! It’s…FUNGI!

courtesy of National Geographic

Yes, we can use fungi for a great many things–as food, medicine, remediators of soil, decomposers of waste and so much more. Some species are the opposite of useful to us, but I try to love them anyway. We share a common ancestor! Fungi is more closely related to animals than they are plants. They’re not plants–did you know that? They inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like we do.

Let the celebrity expert tell you more: Paul Stamets explains it all. Be prepared to have your mind blown in a rapid-fire succession of brilliance. See if you can adventure along with an open mind.

Ernst Haeckel's Lichenes

Lichens are my true love, when it comes to the fungal kingdom. I am particularly enamored of them because of their mysterious nature; they require an observer to look very closely–with a microscope, even–in order to perceive their awesome complexity. We know so little about them, even now. What we do know is that while they appear to be one organism, they are in fact a partnership of several species living and functioning together. We call this symbiosis. I call it a miniature ecosystem. You are also a mini-ecosystem; you wouldn’t be alive or well without the various species you host–the “good” bacteria that live in your guts and orifices, on your skin, all the way down to the mitochondria in your cells. You might take a moment now to acknowledge the oft-neglected work of your symbiotic partners. Like this: Good job, beneficial bacteria (etcetera)!

In case you didn’t know, lichens are typically made up of a fungus, algae and/or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), and probably bacteria. This is how it works: the alga or cyanobacterium produces food for itself and the fungus through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides it with protection from the sun or grazing animals, physical structure and opportunities to explore new territories. Some people compare such a relationship to farming, in that the fungi is tending to the algae/cyanobacteria, utilizing its nutritive products and controlling its ability to reproduce. Alas, change and fluctuation can occur in any relationship; within the lifetime of an individual lichen, stressors and environmental conditions may change, shifting a once happy partnership into one of parasitism and slavery. One potential story line in this scenario is that the fungus begins to take too much and exhausts the algae or cyanobacteria’s production capacity, even killing it by over-harvesting. Sound familiar? Ringing any relationship bells? There are many parallels to be drawn between lichens and humans. I appreciate the lessons they offer about ecology, co-existence and relationships in general.

My favorite thing that lichens can do for humans is to provide a source of medicine.

Usnea is the genus of a lichen that encompasses many species, all of which contain usnic acid, which is recognized for its powerful antibiotic, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects (among others). It is even being studied for treatment and prevention of HIV and both types of herpes. Woah! The pharmaceutical industry will never let it be said that it works, but now you know that it might. Just sayin’. I can tell you how to harvest it and make your own tincture, should you care to do so.

Plus, they’re exquisitely weird and beautiful! Look at this little “fairy lipstick” below. It produces sexual reproductive cells on those scandalously red tips!

Cladonia bellidiflora

While my fascination and reverence for the fungal kingdom persists, my studies have wrapped up and I am preparing to embark on a whole new kind of escapade. You will certainly hear more about it, but I want it to be a surprise for next time!

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