DURING THE OPENING CREDITS of the hit HBO series The Last of Us, a river of slime mold wends its way through darkness, through bushy foliate jelly mushrooms, arboreal earth tongues, and xylaroids, until a skyline of candlesnuff fungus grows up ahead of it. We pull back to watch the slime mold radiating like city lights, forming an impressionistic map of the United States, seen as if from space. Ever moving, the protist stretches past dead man’s fingers, which morph into tendrils of coral fungus, which weave themselves into a half-digested human face. That coral goes arterial, quickly spiraling upward so that we seem to be peering through brush—our cities have morphed, been rewilded, overtaken by a fungal jungle. Just like the buildings in the previous skyline, our unlikely candlesnuff heroes, Ellie and Joel, grow up from this amoebic morass like something inevitable, the grit that survives in a natural apocalypse. With beauty that bites back, these credits reward close looking. More precisely, they reward what I’ll call fungal looking.
Fungi are everywhere these days, which means we don’t lack for opportunities to practice this kind of looking. And I don’t just mean the fact of their fruiting bodies (the bright yellow buttons in your planters, the pale fairy ring on your lawn, the honey-colored clusters in the woodlands where you walk your dog). In recent years they’ve muscled their chitinous way onto Netflix home screens in documentaries like Fantastic Fungi, down supermarket aisles as meat replacements, into your dietary supplements and coffees, into packaging where Styrofoam used to be, in local news stories about people poisoning themselves with foraged mushrooms, and in fervent discourses about saving the world via mycoremediation. If we’d filmed every time someone said “mushrooms are having a moment” in the past five years, and you laid the film out frame by frame, the reel would reach the moon and lasso it—just as oyster mushrooms lasso nematodes.
Although fungi have been reemerging from underground to create this cultural moment, it’s unclear if we’re actually getting to know them any better, on their own terms. If we were taking the opportunity to really look at the diversity and roles of fungi in our ecosystems, there might have been fewer clickbait responses to The Last of Us insisting that no, you shouldn’t fear Cordyceps, they infect insects, silly—what you should fear is some other fungus, Candida or Cryptococcus or whatever, the fungal pathogen that can really mess us up.
I get it. Fungi are uncanny. We don’t learn much about them in school, evidence that they exist can be fleeting, and then when someone does mention them, it’s to say they’ve ended civilization.
A scene from The Last of Us (Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO, Warner Bros.)
In The Last of Us, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which in the real world turns ants to zombies, has ravaged the planet in a matter of days by making the leap to humans. Human hosts for the fictionalized parasite turn into fast-moving, single-minded vectors for O. unilateralis mycelium, spread via the classic zombie bite. In those first deadly and chaotic days, Joel violently loses his teenage daughter at the hands of soldiers who suspect she is infected. Meanwhile, as we learn in a flashback, Ellie’s mother is bitten while giving birth to her, an explanation for her eventual immunity to the infection. In their postapocalypse, harrowed from all sides by constant threats, Joel and Ellie meet and make their way across the country in hopes of arriving at the hospital where Ellie will lend her anomalous tissue to science. This bleak situation at the end of the world brings mycophobia, or fear of fungi, to its natural conclusion. Ironically, the fungus inside Ellie, the way it has met its match in her, also gives humanity hope of a future.
Though we may be underequipped to battle fungal infection on a large scale here in the real world (our recent global pandemic made it clear that, administratively, we’re not ready for viral infection on a large scale, either), using this show’s popularity to stoke mycophobia, as some outlets chose to do, seems misguided. I dream of a future when the headlines might read: HELP HUMANITY LEARN TO BATTLE THE RISING THREAT OF FUNGAL INFECTIONS: BECOME A MYCOLOGIST (and to the wealthy: BE A HERO! FUND ONGOING MYCOLOGICAL RESEARCH!) rather than THE LAST OF US APOCALYPSE NOT REALISTIC, BUT THE RISING THREAT OF FUNGAL PATHOGEN IS. Instead of leading with questions, as mycologists do, in the hopes of finding even better questions and eventual answers, these headlines lead with helplessness and fear. And exactly what are readers supposed to do about that rising threat?
An excellent corrective to the mycophobia the show scared up was a piece mycologists Giuliana Furci and Merlin Sheldrake penned called “No, You shouldn’t Be Afraid of Fungi” in Time magazine. In it, the authors address our tendency to run wild with a fungal premise the second we get our hands on it: “It’s no surprise that they animate our imaginations: thinking about fungi makes the world look different. Fungi comprise one of life’s kingdoms—as broad a category as ‘animals’ or ‘plants’—and are key to understanding the planet on which we live.”
It seems to me that Furci and Sheldrake are calling for a way of seeing the real world that will last long after the show’s run is over. After all, this world is one fungi are, in large part, responsible for sculpting. Fungi made it possible for plants, and eventually animals and humans, to live on land. If fungi are having a moment, then that moment started hundreds of millions of years ago. It will likely persist until long after the real last of us is gone.
Our current ecological crisis is exactly what makes fungal looking so necessary. I mean “looking” not just in the sense of “seeing” but also “looking for,” to seek without the certainty of finding. It is a kind of humble attention to the world, using all your senses to open yourself to life and the land. And though such looking may aid in our ultimate survival, it is quite unlike Joel and Ellie’s vigilance. It’s not looking at the world through a rifle sight, nor from above, like a god. It’s motivated more by awe than fear.
Fungal looking exemplifies sankofa, the West African principle of considering the past to map the future. It learns from our ancestors, and it often goes beyond what can be seen. This Twi word is from an Akan proverb that roughly translates to “it is not taboo to go back for what you forgot (or left behind).” Ellie learns little snatches of “the before time” through tight-lipped Joel’s accounts. She also sees rewilded animals grazing where cities once were—the preindustrial past and a possible future mingled right there before her eyes.
Photos by Maria Pinto
So much of what we’ve left behind is natural literacy. I am grateful that I first came to this way of looking at the land through botanical Latin, seeing fungi’s ancestral relationships with one another via Linnaean classification and its constant, restless overhauls. But fungal looking humbles itself before the many ways of knowing the natural world; it does not bow to Western science alone, which can be limited by its quest for the quantifiable, by its fetish for the organism’s behavior in isolation. So much is lost when we try to study fungi by vivisection—one must observe their enmeshments, the ways they become a part of the others around them. Western science now understands more about fungal relationships to trees in the form of mycorrhizae, and it’s exciting to watch scientists fungally looking at entire ecosystems and being comfortable dwelling in the mysteries we find there without rushing toward tidy conclusions. The “measurables” only get you so far in this kingdom—certain aspects of the relationships between morels and the trees with which they associate, for instance, remain opaque when considered merely as a breaking down of wood or the transfer of resources.
Indigenous ways of knowing are an important counterbalance to bought-and-paid-for science that too often serves to justify extraction with no plan for renewal. So much knowledge from people who have lived for generations where their dead are buried is bound up in stories about how and why we interact with our ecosystems and what we must do as stewards. Chido Govera, a farmer, educator, and activist from Zimbabwe, tells of a practice her grandmother instilled when she taught Govera how to cook gilled mushrooms. “You have to cook them in a pot which is open. And then you keep the door of the house open.” Why? “So that the gods of the forest will give you more mushrooms next year.” This opening up of the pot and home to the forest tells the story of regeneration, of clouds of spores in steam, of thinking about the future of the organisms that feed us and giving back to the land whenever we take from it. Fungal looking acknowledges how so-called “folk” epistemologies have guided, and still guide, human behavior away from self-obliteration.
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Fungi made me look, really look, for perhaps the first time since I was a kid. My fascination with fungi opened the top of my head to awe. It has had me on my hands and knees on the forest floor with a macro lens, turning over logs and looking at the undersides of twigs and leaves for the insect pathogen Gibellula, which enrobes spider corpses in the most stunning woolen body suit. It has made me look up a hardwood trunk and laugh at how very out of reach a pom-pom-like lion’s mane mushroom decided to grow—that trickster. I have listened to the busy, crunching, curled bodies of fly larvae burrowing their way through woody reishi mushrooms I brought in from the woods as mantle decorations and felt chastened, amused, and disturbed in equal measure.
Fungal looking has brought me my fellow creatures. I have racked up more time with hawks, bears, coyotes, foxes, turkeys, moose, and, yes, ticks and mosquitoes and green-headed biting flies and poison ivy than I ever would have without the need to look. It has also thrust me into community with other human creatures who live seasonally, who hunt game, create herbal medicines, and, like me, scrabble on their hands and knees for bumps in the forest floor.
Fungal looking has made me a more regional being. It’s made me belong to the land again, me, an immigrant who traversed colonial borders to eventually be at home here in Massachusetts.
Fungal looking has shifted time for me, making me care deeply and crow loudly, with my full chest, about spring’s changing soil temperatures, guessing when the year’s first morels will arrive. Going to the same spot multiple times a week synchronizes you with what’s blooming (spring onions or goldenrod?), with changes in weather, with a vernal pool and its salamanders, and with the unmistakable freshness of truly seasonal foods like fiddleheads and matsutake.
Fungal looking has made me a more regional being. It’s made me belong to the land again, me, an immigrant who traversed colonial borders to eventually be at home here in Massachusetts. In The Last of Us, Ellie and Joel experience the landscape as either threat or distance to cover, but for me, local patches of land have become old friends: the fallen log that proffers orange chicken of the woods, the puddingstone boulder beyond which I’m likely to find dryad’s saddle. I’m learning New England’s trees, our soils, stones, and waterways—the ones that seem pristine and the ones that have gone Superfund, brown with toxic mud.
The awe makes me more open to sadness, to the most fundamental kind of grief. Because a funny thing happened when I wasn’t paying attention—I found that fungal looking had helped me to see beyond the fungal, and beyond the world’s utility to humans. Yes, it’s our home we’re burning, but what of spiders, aphids, frogs, hornets, snakes? I used to be a child with endless questions. This looking gave me questions that didn’t have human answers. Or if they do, they will have to be translated from nonhuman languages. This ecological moment seems like the most important threshold of my lifetime. What will be lost in translation? How many lives?
Fungi terraformed the earth, inviting plants on land, digesting what no other being could eat, making soil, making you and I possible. In the process of looking out for their own interests, they gave other life on land a foothold. They’ve formed partnerships and antagonisms with all manner of living and inert matter, making themselves everywhere indispensable. I count them as kin. I see myself in their night moves, their quicksilver fruiting, their suspicion of categories. Fungal looking can help us reinhabit our humanity, even as it urges us to go beyond the anthropomorphic, past nature as mere mirror for ourselves.
Joel and Ellie. Photo: Liane Hentscher/HBO, Warner Bros.
Fungal looking also admits it doesn’t know. It stops to consider before it acts—on peril of death. There are mushrooms I didn’t eat for years, until I’d collected and verified their identities several times. The science of mycology is young, so young, in the face of what it surveys. Mycologists admit into their daily looking the existence of the cryptic, of illegibilities. Fungal looking stitches together ways of knowing just as it stitches together “unlike” organisms—it could never be an island.
The language of the fungal lens is carefully uncertain. Look at even seasoned mushroom experts helping to identify someone else’s find in an online forum: “That looks like . . . Compare to . . . I’d call it . . . What does it smell like? What does it taste like? Did you take pictures in situ? Could be . . . What trees were near it? I can’t rule out . . . Did you take pictures of it at different stages of maturity? We need you to dig the whole thing up so we can see the base . . . Can’t be determined without microscopy . . . This might sound strange but what was the heft of it, its density?” Even scientists tread carefully at the edges of their knowledge: “That’s a nomen provisorium, a provisional name. . . .”
This humility is a balm in our time of cynical knowing. Sometimes it feels like our whole culture is oriented against awe, that the academy’s major engine is disenchantment, and that the public is more and more taken with tribalism and conspiracy, more interested in paranoiac pushpins connected with colored yarn than with the web of life. Isn’t it past time to readmit to the public square questioning and bewilderment and working titles and “I simply don’t know”?
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Weirdly, a show like The Last of Us, mired though it is in mycophobia, in mushroom as monster, has much to tell us about the sort of looking that inspires awe. In the penultimate episode, a cult leader named David tortures Ellie and bullies his Christian followers before cannibalizing them. He explains to her his secret: he reveres Cordyceps like a god. The end of the world was his revelation, and he models himself on Cordyceps, which is fruitful, which multiplies, which “secures its future with violence if it must.” In his apocalypse-addled mind, all possibility, all questioning was obviated. He had his answers.
Ellie did what she had to do to escape him, but on the other side of that traumatic reckoning, in the final episode, the canny but childlike light had gone out of her eyes. That is, until she sees and feeds a feral giraffe, gigglingly, with her own hands. That would be a hard awe reset for anyone. And it seemed to reinforce her resolve to make the sacrifice she’d spent the season prepared to make. It’s not just Ellie’s capacity for awe or her cleverness that make her lead with questions. Her very existence, her tissue as possible cure, is a question as well.
The softness and secrecy of fungal bodies will likely always leave us with questions, ones that can point us toward an earthly cosmology. Where do the fungi myceliate and whom do they link? Just what are they doing? What do they get out of those relationships that seem unselfish? How can we help them do their job of continuing to digest and build the world, to help them keep the balance? We will need to ask these questions over and over again and be prepared to not understand and still ask and ask and ask. And it might be that the most important thing is not what we find, but that we continue to look.
Mushrooms on the brain? Check out our conversation The Future is Fungi with Merlin Sheldrake, Jeff VanderMeer, Kaitlin Smith, and Corey Pressman.