Mushrooms and Mortality
The 16th century alchemist, Paracelsus, explained,”[Alchemy] is like unto death, which separates the eternal from the mortal, so that it should properly be known as the death of things.” I hadn’t thought much about alchemy and death before reading this quote, but had always thought about mushrooms as the alchemists of nature – assisting in the dying process, breaking down the mortal and transforming the eternal to birth new life – and so with the noticing of the fungi-death connection and mushroom-alchemy connection, it would make sense that “alchemy is like unto death”. I am not talking about turning lead into gold, but a different kind of alchemy. In the alchemy that is of interest to me is assisting in the transformation of plants and mushrooms. This herbal alchemy uncovers secrets in the vegetable and fungi realm through distillations and calcinations, separating the eternal plant soul and spirit, from the mortem or mortal body. There is much to learn from mushrooms about the dying process, and what I have found, through a cocktail of my own experiences and readings about the fungi used in the Chinese Materia Medica, is that mushrooms are strong medicine, physically and spiritually, throughout any process in experiencing loss. I think they can be an important medicine and ally for people during times of grief, pre and post death.
The mushroom-like herb that is most often used throughout the dying process is Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora. Though, this is neither a mushroom nor a a typical photosynthesizing plant. M. uniflora is a saprophyte, benefiting off of an already established relationship between a plant and fungi. This ghostly plant has a history of use not only as an ‘antipsychotic’ but also used throughout bereavement, both for the person who is themselves dying and for those who are grieving their loss. My love and curiosity about this saprophytic plant has had a part in instigating my wanderings into the realm of fungi and mortality.
This mushroom medicine is of a different kind than what I usually write about. This is the kind of medicine that goes deeper than chemical processes, this mushroom medicine reaches your spirit. It is true, that in times of grief your immune system will be down and your adrenals will probably need support, and so the mushrooms will be helpful in keeping your body systems strong, but they will also keep your spirit strong. In Chinese medicine the Reishi mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum, is known to nourish the Shen,or the Spirit, which resides in the heart.
In fact, the spagyric of the Oregon Reishi, G. oregonense is the most immediately uplifting medicine I have yet to try. I talk about the experience on the specific post titled, “Ganoderma oregonense“. The mushroom medicine can lighten the heavy, grieving heart, and be uplifting in times of bereavement. It has been my experience that it is not only the Reishi mushrooms that can be an ally when the spirit is vulnerable, but all polypore mushrooms that I have thus far talked about throughout this blog. The mushroom’s mycelial network reminds us too of the importance of community throughout the dying process, the importance of reaching out, and getting permission to receive nourishment through our connections.