‘Fantastic Fungi’ Review: The Magic of Mushrooms

Louie Schwartzberg, the filmmaker behind “Fantastic Fungi,” challenges you to examine both the external world and your inner self more closely.

Imagine this: with every step you take, they’re beneath you. They float in the air, live within you, and even make it onto your dinner plate. These organisms are omnipresent, enveloping you every moment.

Among them, some pose threats, yet others boast healing abilities and nutritional values unparalleled by most other life forms.

Their existence stretches from the dawn of time to its inevitable conclusion. Some even speculate that our own existence hinges on theirs, suggesting they might also flourish on distant celestial bodies.

These organisms are none other than fungi, Earth’s most prevalent species. Through his 2019 documentary, Schwartzberg aims to unveil the enchantment they hold.

Most people can easily acknowledge the allure of flowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Fungi, however, often don’t get the same appreciation.

Schwartzberg once mentioned in an interview with Healthline, “The beauty isn’t inherently there. I’m the one who brings it to the table.” He believes beauty is a strategic tool of nature—it’s meant to ensure our survival by making us cherish and thus preserve what we find beautiful. It’s a manipulative force, one that orchestrates the dance of life.

As a seasoned director, producer, speaker, and cinematography innovator, especially known for his pioneering work in time-lapse photography, Schwartzberg has a knack for capturing nature’s splendor.

He employs various techniques, including time-lapse, slow motion, microphotography, and even CGI to unravel nature’s mysteries and craft compelling narratives.

Schwartzberg isn’t just capturing reality as we see it every day; he’s on a mission to delve deeper and transport viewers through a transformative journey across time and scale.

In “Fantastic Fungi,” he does precisely that—zooming in, slowing down, and allowing mushrooms and their fungal kin to narrate their story. Through this lens, Schwartzberg exposes a hidden world, often right under our feet, revealing its profound lessons.

The Magic of Mushrooms

Neither animal nor plant, fungi occupy a unique niche in our ecosystem. Although people often conflate fungi and mushrooms, they’re not exactly synonymous.

Out of approximately 1.5 million identified species of fungi, about 20,000 are known to produce mushrooms, as highlighted in “Fantastic Fungi.” These mushrooms function as the reproductive apparatus, releasing spores into the breeze—similar to seeds—to propagate the species.

Fungi are intricately linked below ground through a complex root system called mycelium. Imagine mycelium as the internet of the natural world, a subterranean network where fungi exchange both nutrients and information.

This extensive network allows fungi to interact in sophisticated ways that surpass the capabilities of most plants, helping them manage threats such as competitors, predators, and resource shortages.

Plants, too, can utilize this mycelial network to transmit information and nutrients, according to “Fantastic Fungi.” Notably, plants are capable of kin recognition through mycelium, interpreting a mix of chemical and visual signals in a process akin to behaviors observed in animals.

Plant communication expert Suzanne Simard, featured in the documentary, discusses how plants—much like animals—exhibit kin recognition. Research has demonstrated that mother trees recognize their offspring and communicate with them through the mycelium network. This connection facilitates the transfer of carbon and supports weaker plants within the community.

Moreover, if a mother tree detects nearby pests or faces danger, it may enhance its competitive stance toward its own offspring, prompting them to regenerate at a greater distance for better chances of survival.

Fungi, too, may employ mycelial networks for kin recognition, using this intricate system to determine whether to collaborate, protect, or compete with each other.

Fungi May Help Fight the Climate Crisis

Fungi’s significance extends beyond their role as nature’s recyclers. Some experts in mycology propose that the mycelial networks could be crucial in addressing climate change.

Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, storing approximately 70% of this carbon in the soil and a significant portion in wood. However, when these plants die and fungi decompose them, this stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide—the primary greenhouse gas damaging our climate. Much of this carbon originates from human emissions.

Studies indicate that certain fungi, particularly ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal fungi, release this stored carbon more slowly, thus potentially reducing the amount of carbon that escapes into the atmosphere.

The hope among scientists is to utilize these fungi’s carbon-storing abilities to enhance forest carbon retention, rather than allowing it to be released and contribute further to atmospheric pollution.

Mushrooms Are Nutritional Powerhouses

The verdict is in: edible mushrooms are not just a food item but a nutritional essential. Consumed by humans for millennia, common edible varieties include the white (or “button”) mushroom, portobello, shiitake, cremini, and oyster mushrooms. There are also gourmet varieties like morels, “chicken of the woods,” and lion’s mane, the latter being a favorite of filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg.

Nutritionally, mushrooms are low in calories, carbohydrates, and fat but rich in vital nutrients. A 100-gram serving of white mushrooms contains just 22 calories, 3 grams of carbs, and less than 1 gram of fat, but offers 3 grams of protein, which is higher than most vegetables.

Their substantial protein content also makes mushrooms a viable, sustainable substitute for meat. Additionally, they are one of the best non-animal sources of vitamin D, especially when exposed to ultraviolet light. In fact, mushrooms can provide the full daily value of vitamin D in just one serving, a rare feat for a non-animal, non-fortified food source.

Beyond these basics, mushrooms are rich in anti-inflammatory agents like polysaccharides, fatty acids, carotenoids, and vitamins, along with antioxidants such as vitamin E, flavonoids, and polyphenols.

While there is evidence from test-tube and animal studies suggesting mushrooms might benefit brain health and possess anti-cancer properties, more research involving human subjects is needed to confirm these potential health benefits.

Psilocybin (‘Magic’) Mushrooms May Support Mental Health and Wellness

The health advantages of mushrooms aren’t just about nutrition; they also potentially offer profound mental and spiritual benefits. Renowned mycologist Paul Stamets, featured in the documentary “Fantastic Fungi,” shares a transformative experience with psilocybin mushrooms that he claims eradicated his severe, lifelong stutter.

As a young man, Stamets procured psilocybin mushrooms without guidance on how to use them. Unaware of the appropriate dosage, he consumed his entire stash, which was about ten times the recommended amount. This led to a profound and intense hallucinatory experience where his perception of reality was dramatically altered. During this trip, he climbed a tree to get a better view of the sky just as a violent thunderstorm struck, heightening his fear and altering his mental state. In a moment of terror, he focused intensely on his stutter, mentally urging himself to stop stuttering. After the storm and the effects of the mushrooms subsided, he discovered that his stutter had vanished. The next day, he confidently spoke to a woman he liked, marking the beginning of his new life without a stutter.

Stamets’ story is among many shared in “Fantastic Fungi,” where others describe their experiences with psilocybin in various settings, highlighting its impactful effects. According to a national survey, around 10% of American adults have tried psilocybin mushrooms, though the actual figure might be higher due to underreporting due to legal and social stigma.

Research indicates that psilocybin can enhance feelings of connection with nature and spirituality, alleviate symptoms of several mental health issues, and foster emotional resilience during stressful periods. It’s also shown promise in treating conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, alcohol dependency, and tobacco addiction.

In cancer patients, psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy has facilitated profound spiritual reflections and helped patients come to terms with their mortality. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey found that individuals who used psychedelics reported lower levels of distress and higher social support compared to those who didn’t use these substances.

Despite these benefits, psilocybin mushrooms remain illegal under federal law, a remnant of the Nixon-era “War on Drugs” that disproportionately affected People of Color. However, as the body of research supporting the therapeutic potential of psychedelics grows, some regions are beginning to reconsider their legal status.

The topic of psilocybin mushroom decriminalization is slated for discussion at the upcoming Fantastic Fungi Global Summit, reflecting growing interest and shifts in public and scientific opinion.

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