Evil Spirits? Try Fungi

Ethnomycologist Larry Millman examining a fungus at East Farm in Kingston.

What do you do when you’re being haunted by a recently deceased relative who doesn’t realize they’re dead? Or your camp is being invaded by a six-legged polar bear with a taste for human flesh? Or there’s a human-ish creature pulling a wagon load of disease headed your way? The answer to all is simple: fungi. And ethnomycologist Larry Millman, who spent years in the northern parts of the world studying the uses and stories of fungi use, can tell you just which ones will work best.

In Siberia, the native people say that if any of those events happen, they must call the shaman to beat a drum and burn the polypore, a type of mushroom. In that part of the world, the polypore would have been obtained through trade of whale meat and other goods, Millman said. Millman recently led a fungus hunting walk and spoke at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (www.rinhs.org) in Kingston.

Fungus growing on a fallen piece of wood.

The snow that stubbornly clung to the grounds of East Farm did not deter Millman from locating dozens of varieties of fungi on the walk.  “Winter is my favorite season for looking for fungi,” he said. “It’s the adventurous aspect of the hunt. They’re not so obvious; you have to be willing to go hunting for them.”

Millman said that fungi use an assortment of adaptations to survive in the harshest winter. “They’ll often dehydrate when it’s cold and dry,” he said, pointing to lines of flaky looking turkey tail. “They’ll rehydrate when the temperatures and humidity levels rise.” One group member found a puffball mushroom. At this time of year, puffballs are hard and dry, but come spring and wetter, warmer weather, it may only take a good shower or hail to release its spores.

Turkey Tails, dehydrated for winter.

Later, another person brought Millman a stick with numerous small, gelatinous growths on it. “This is Witch’s Butter. In what used to be Czechoslovakia, there was a belief that seeing this near your door meant that you had been visited during the night by a witch.” The golden yellow of the fungi contrasted sharply with the dully gray of the stick. “Everybody feel this, because the spores will get on your fingers and the fungi will appreciate it (when you disperse the spores).”

Millman is the author of some 16 books, including Fascinating Fungi of New England, a well written and illustrated guide to these local growths. (See www.lawrencemillman.com for a full list)

That evening, Millman discussed his work in Arctic regions. “When I told people that I was going to the Arctic to do ethnographic work, many said that there were no mushrooms in the Arctic. That was definitely not true.”

Millman recalled what an Inuit woman had told him about one species of mushroom. “This is a little plant we find in damp, mossy places. In the summer and fall we gather all of this we can find. They have a dry powder in them that stops bleeding and heals a wound. We often use fluid from a seal’s gall bladder to make the powder stick, or maybe a bunch of spider webs. We also use the plants to get rid of warts and even treat diaper rash.” The mushroom she was speaking of turned out to be a puffball, like the one found earlier in the woods. “The spores can be a hemostatic agent,” Millman said. “I’ve used this myself and it does work. It also has antibiotic qualities and can prevent a wound from getting infected.”

While mushrooms are part of the culture of the northern peoples, they are not often found on their dinner menu. “The central Canadian Inuit regard mushrooms as “anaq” of shooting stars and will not eat them.” (Anaq means… excrement.) “In late summer, there are shooting stars going across the skies. The next day, there are these mushrooms growing on the tundra. Where did these come from? They are the anaq of the shooting stars!” And therefore, the people will not eat them.

Witch’s Butter.

Almost all Alaska Inuit have negative names for mushrooms, according to Millman. “I think the reason for this is that mushrooms are very low in fat. You need lots of fat to survive in the extreme cold, especially if you’re on the move as a hunter-gatherer, and mushrooms don’t provide that. If you’re starving in the Arctic and you eat food with no fat, i.e. mushrooms, your hunger is accelerated, and you will become even more hungry, because your body begins consuming its own fat, and eating something that is high in protein will cause that process to speed up. In the Arctic, they call that rabbit starvation. That’s because rabbits are very, very lean meat. We could change that to mushroom starvation.”

Millman illustrated another native use of fungi, discovered when Otzi, the 5,000-year-old mummified man, was found in 1922. “Otzi had two polypores on him: one was a tinder polypore; we assume that he was using it as a fire starter. The natives will take the polypore, dry it and pound it into a powder. They will use two pieces of quartzite to make a spark, the sparks fall on the powder, and it burns.” It can also be used as an insect smudge: the smoke produced by the smoldering fungi are an effective deterrent against biting insects.

RINHS’s Kira Stillwell (in blue) shows a fungus to walk attendees.

Millman speculated on the world of ethnomycology as it lay ahead. “Most of what I’ve described today is either gone or disappearing because of globalization. Once they (the fungi and the native peoples cultures) disappear, we will lose a whole world of beliefs. Yet ethnomycology in the broad sense is not dying, not by a long shot.” Millman illustrated his point with a fungus called Chaga, currently making waves in the medicinal mushroom market. “Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. What I’m interested in is that it’s a window on modern ethnomycology.” He says that if in a hundred years someone is giving a talk and says no one uses Chaga anymore, he guarantees that something else will have taken its place. “The use of fungi for non-culinary purposes is as deep in our bones as it was in Otzi’s.”

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