HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ brings fear of mushrooms to the fore

It’s grim, but in every post-apocalyptic story, I wait for the moment when the characters launch their theories about how the world came crashing down, hoping to glean something useful.

In HBO’s “The Last of Us,” survivors of a global pandemic live in government-controlled quarantine zones to escape a parasitic fungus that turns them into zombies. Joel, a smuggler in what remains of Boston, believes the ophiocordyceps mutation was transmitted through the food system – contaminated batches of flour or sugar shipped around the world are spreading the disease too quickly and efficiently for any kind of reminder. Over the course of a long weekend, humanity was destroyed.

The setup seems fairly conventional for the zombie-thriller genre, but since the series premiered in January, the response has been a bit sweaty – panicked, even. Mycologists, fungal biologists and other experts in the fungal world have been called upon time and time again to assure us that if cordyceps species that zombify insects are real, a cordyceps mutation that develops in humans is a pure fiction.

Paul Stamets, one of the nation’s best-known mycologists, enjoyed the first two episodes of the show, but then posted on Facebook to point out that no, cordyceps really aren’t capable of all that. “It’s natural for humans to be afraid of the powerful, yet mysterious and misunderstood,” he wrote, wondering if the show was playing on our deep-seated fear of mushrooms.

There are approximately 1.5 million species of mushrooms, a kingdom that is neither plant nor animal, and they are some of the weirdest and most wonderful life forms on the planet, both feared and revered. But our relationship with mushrooms, especially in the West, can be strained – and not just because misidentification can be dangerous.

In nature, mushrooms appear happily in the grossest and most restless of circumstances, when nothing else will. They can signal death, thriving in dark, damp rot, thriving in decay and rapidly decaying organic matter. No matter how vital and regenerative this process is (and, seen in a time frame, eerily beautiful), it truly scares us.

When artist Jae Rhim Lee wondered if it was possible for us to effect a collective cultural change, to approach death and its rituals differently, and to have less environmental impacts when we die, she designed a funerary costume strewn with mushrooms. Nothing could be more natural – or more horribly taboo – than, instead of eating mushrooms, inviting mushrooms to eat us.

Mushrooms have a knack for making us think about the things we’d rather avoid. Although it hasn’t stopped We to eat them — Mushrooms are an ancient food source.

The “stoned ape theory,” which imagines that fungi are central to our evolution, was animated in Louie Schwartzberg’s terrifyingly mushroom-friendly documentary, “Fantastic Fungi.” Scene shows how early humans could have eaten mushrooms, including psychedelics, animal feces as they stalked prey across the savannah, then collectively headed for language, weapons, music and more Again.

The little round knobs are the most comfortable, familiar and recognizable of our edible mushrooms, but there are hundreds of varieties we can eat (without tripping). In the pockets of wilderness around my house in Los Angeles, you might find orange-brown candy capsules; wild, yellowish ruffles of chanterelles; and clusters of long-gilled oyster mushrooms. After the rain, in the shaded corners of my own garden, I see shaggy parasols appear from time to time, as if by magic.

In “The Last of Us”, a warming climate arms the fungi against humans – a global catastrophe of our own making. But in reality, if you scratch just below the surface of our fear, you’ll discover just the opposite: an almost unreasonable expectation that fungi will save us, clean up our mess, do our dirty work, and undo all the damage we’re doing. To the earth. It’s true that there are species that can break down oils in salt water, absorb radiation, and clean toxins from the ground, but it’s also true that they could do better.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium, root-like threads that connect underground in a vast mycorrhizal matrix so complex, intelligent and essential that Dr. Stamets has called it “nature’s neurological network.”

This material, which also stores large amounts of carbon underground and can help plant life survive drought and other stresses, is being used to develop alternatives to leathers, plastics, packaging and building materials. . (Adidas created a concept shoe last year using a mycelium-based material, leading the company to discuss its “journey to create a more sustainable world.”)

Lately, we expect mushrooms to save us too. Zealous interest in adaptogenic mushrooms – species of mushrooms used medicinally for centuries in China and other parts of Asia – has created an international market for lion’s mane, reishi, chaga and cordyceps. . We turn to mushrooms to ease our anxiety, to help us focus, to make us happier and more open-minded, to make us energized, to make our skin glow, to improve our memory, to fall asleep.

Mushrooms are wonderful. But perhaps the anxiety over a fictional mushroom reflects a wavering realization that we’re actually asking a bit too much of them.


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