Fungi frequently are forgotten and taken for granted. In fact, without knowing it, people trod over about 300 miles of sprawling fungi with each step. That is according to Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us, a documentary film that was released in the United States in October 2019. At the end of April 2020, the film had a 100% rating on both Rotten Tomatoes and Flixster.
Directed by Louie Schwartzberg, written by Mark Monroe, and narrated by Brie Larson, the film features interviews with a host of notable naturalists and scientists, including Andrew Weil, MD, and Dennis McKenna, PhD. Renowned mycologist (fungi expert) Paul Stamets, however, is definitely the star. Throughout, his enthusiasm and passion for fungi are contagious, and the insights he shares reflect a lifetime of research and knowledge.
The film is replete with stunning visuals and cinematography that may be worth the watch alone. This includes fascinating time lapses of fungi growing and breaking down everything from fruit to termites to a mouse. Kaleidoscopic geometric patterns occur throughout and presumably are meant to elicit the feeling of using the psychedelic compound psilocybin (derived primarily from the fungal genus Psilocybe [Hymenogastraceae]). In key places, the music by Adam Peters elevates and reinforces the mood.
In the film, Stamets says that fungi “can heal you. They can feed you. They can kill you.” Though the focus is mostly on the positive aspects of fungi and mycophilia, or the love of fungi, it is admitted that mycophobia, or a fear of fungi, exists too, perhaps because of their association with death, decay, and disease. The film emphasizes that while fungi do represent the end of life, they also represent the beginning of life and enable restoration, rejuvenation, and resurrection. Described as nature’s “digestive tract,” fungi help generate life-giving soils.
A recurring theme is how fungi are omnipresent on one hand but “hidden” from view on the other. In fact, humans inhale fungal spores with each breath, from their first breath to their last. Fungi are out of sight, out of mind, and typically much less conspicuous than members of the plant and animal kingdoms. The interconnectedness of fungi, plants, and animals is also explored. For instance, nutrients can pass from tree to tree through underground fungal “passageways,” and, after trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, much of that carbon travels underground, where it is stored by fungi. Without fungi, plant life would choke the Earth, the film explains.
The incredible diversity of fungi is also a central topic, from luminescent and purple fungi to the Earth’s largest (by area) known living organism: a specimen of Armillaria ostoyae (Physalacriaceae) called the “Humongous Fungus” in Oregon. “Pando,” a clonal colony of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides, Salicaceae) trees in Utah, however, is considered the largest known living organism by mass.
Fungi, which produce chemical compounds that are not produced by other organisms, are proposed as sources of viable solutions to many of the world’s biggest problems, from human to environmental health concerns. Stamets stresses the importance of preserving old-growth forests as repositories of fungal resources. As explained, fungi can break down oil and filter water. And lion’s mane (Hericium erinaceus, Hericiaceae) may be able to promote the regeneration of nerve cells, which suggests possible benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease, for example. These and a wealth of other abilities led some people in the film to describe feeling empowered by fungi.
The use of fungi to reduce viruses in honeybees, which was covered extensively in HerbalGram issue 125,1 is mentioned briefly, but I would have liked a longer segment on this important and timely research. This could have been an opportunity for some great videography showing the bees and fungi in action. The film also could have discussed the potential importance of a fungus’ substrate (the material on or from which an organism lives, grows, and/or obtains its nourishment), and how it can impact the fungus’ chemistry and value.
Much of the second half is dedicated to psilocybin. As explained, psilocybin can induce synesthesia, or a blending of the senses (e.g., hearing colors). The film suggests that psilocybin use by ancestors of modern humans may have played a role in the development of the modern human brain. The recent history of psilocybin is covered, from its introduction into popular culture by the ethnomycologist Robert Gordon Wasson (1898-1986), to its stigmatization and, recently, the resurgence of interest in its therapeutic use.
The testimonies of two end-stage cancer patients, a man and a woman, are particularly meaningful. They participated in recent clinical trials that assessed the effects of psilocybin on depression and anxiety associated with existential distress.2 The man said that just a single dose of psilocybin made him more comfortable with living because he was no longer afraid of dying. Despite the stigma against psilocybin, given its hallucinatory effects, after hearing these testimonies, it is difficult to deny that it can have profound, life-changing effects for some people in some circumstances, whether extenuating or not. In fact, the film explains that many study participants ranked their psilocybin session among the most meaningful experiences of their lives, and many compared it to the birth of their first-born child.
As this review may just scratch the surface of the film, the film itself may just scratch the surface of the fungi kingdom, which is described as a “frontier of knowledge.” This is not a criticism, at all, but more a testament to the subject. In fact, perhaps it speaks to how much people take fungi for granted and how little is known about them that they could be summarized so well in Fantastic Fungi, which runs only 81 minutes. To summarize plants, for example, in one documentary of equal length would seem impossible, even though fungal species greatly outnumber plant species and have existed longer than land plants.3 After watching Fantastic Fungi, maybe more people will become mycophiles; be left with a greater appreciation of the complexity, diversity, and versatility of these organisms; and be inspired to expand the knowledge-base and find the next fungal-related scientific breakthrough.
Schwartzberg said he loves taking audiences on journeys through time and scale (oral communication, March 12, 2020). “I really try to share the wonders of nature’s intelligence, by making the invisible visible and using cinematic techniques like time lapse, slo-mo, micro, and macro,” he said. “By showing nature’s beauty, rhythm, and patterns, I want people to fall in love with nature, because if people fall in love with it, then they will protect it. We need that to create a sustainable future for our planet.
“One thing that I discovered [while] making Fantastic Fungi is that the underground mycelial network is a beautiful economy where nutrients are shared for ecosystems to flourish,” Schwartzberg added. “I hope audiences will take away [the idea] that communities survive better than individuals. Nothing in nature lives alone. This could be a model for us to replicate in our cultural and political society. Sharing is nature’s way of doing things.”
The film presented challenges. “Shooting time lapse is a very slow and difficult process filled with a lot of failure,” Schwartzberg said. “It takes a tremendous amount of patience. I have had cameras running non-stop for decades in my studio. And all of that time is squeezed into hours of film. So, it is very challenging, but the results are breathtaking.”
Stamets is “very pleased” with the film and would consider making another with Schwartzberg (email, March 5, 2020). “Louie approached me after seeing my lecture at a Bioneers conference in the mid-1990s,” Stamets wrote. “He showed me some time lapses that blew my mind. After I [later] committed, it took [more than a decade]! I wanted to show how we are all interconnected via mycelia [the vegetative part of a fungus’ life cycle that consists of many threadlike tubes], and that mycelia have the resources to help us and our ecosystems survive and improve. We share a great consciousness with nature, and mushrooms are a portal. We need to reconnect with each other and with nature. That most showings of the film were sold out reflects the hunger that has built up for the need to understand the meaning of our being.”
The film is available on www.fantasticfungi.com for digital download ($14.99) and streaming ($4.99).
- Yearsley C. Can Fungi Ease Disease in Bees? HerbalGram. 2020;125:66-73. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/125/table-of-contents/hg125-feat-bee/. Accessed March 30, 2020.
- Yearsley C. Psilocybin Reduces Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression in Patients with Cancer in Two Clinical Trials. HerbalGram. 2017;114:38-42. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/114/table-of-contents/hg114-resrvw-psilocy/. Accessed March 30, 2020.
- Heckman DS, Geiser DM, Eidell BR, Stauffer RL, Kardos NL, Hedges SB. Molecular evidence for the early colonization of land by fungi and plants. Science. 2001;293(5532):1129-1133. doi: 10.1126/science.1061457.