There are two clear main protagonists in the documentary Fantastic Fungi: One is, of course, the fascinating (and still quite mysterious) members of the Fungi kingdom –neither plants nor animals, they constitute one of the most diverse and prolific in the natural world; the other one is Paul Stamets, the charismatic mycologist who attained scientific stardom after appearing on TED in 2008, and later the Joe Rogan podcast in 2017. Watching him wander through the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest with his iconic mushroom hat over his head and a basket under his arm to collect specimens, as he explains to the camera how he believes Nature is endowed with intelligence and plants can communicate between themselves –using the vast mycelial network under their roots the same way we humans use the Internet– evokes the inescapable image of an ancient druid collecting ingredients for his potions.
My imagination also connected the footage with my fondness for ET the Extraterrestrial; maybe because in my mind Spielberg’s plant-loving alien always reminded me somehow of a giant talking mushroom; but also because Stamets himself is the closest thing to a talking mushroom we get to have in the real world. Like any superhero, Paul’s ‘origin story’ was part serendipitous and part foolhardy: when he was fourteen years old, he managed to score a bag of shrooms and decided to eat the whole thing (what comes after ‘heroic dose’? Titanic? Demigod??) and then in a spur of the moment he climbed to the top of an oak tree just when a thunderstorm was breaking.
Which is the most incredible part of the tale –the fact he wasn’t killed by lighting, or that he was instantly cured of his stuttering problem with that single mushroom trip– I will leave you to decide; but from that moment on Paul became a man with a mission: to better understand these miraculous organisms, on how that understanding could better help mankind during our current societal crisis.
And it’s not just the mind-expanding properties of psilocybin what this documentary explores, with the participation of several luminaries in the field of psychedelic research like Charles Grob, Andrew Weil, Michael Pollan and Dennis McKenna –Fantastic Fungi is probably the only film that has recreated the controversial ‘Stoned Ape’ hypothesis first proposed by Terence McKenna (a previous envoy of the mushroom intelligences) – or the way in which the United States government put an unilateral stop to clinical experimentation with their stupid War on Drugs in 1970 –which is finally beginning to subside thanks to the success of clinical trials showing the benefits of psilocybin on terminally ill patients. The film is also very illuminating in the vital role fungi play in the balance of Earth’s ecosystems as recyclers of organic matter, and Stamets has become quite a successful entrepreneur after he patented a series of fungal pesticides. Now he’s promoting the long-term health benefits of mushroom supplements, while he explores the ways in which fungi could help us clean our oceans and prevent the collapse of bee colonies
BTW, the clearest telltale this film was produced before COVID-19 hit us, is the fact Stamets also muses on how mushrooms could very well help us tackle future pandemics and revolutionize healthcare, the same way the discovery of penicillin in the XXth century helped defeat the Axis during WW2, and reduced infection-related mortality to rates never before seen in the history of mankind.
With narrations by Brie Larson playing the part of ‘the voice of the mushrooms’, Fantastic Fungi might seem a little bit corny to viewers accustomed to more serious science documentaries. But the film does a wonderful job in inspiring wonder and curiosity about the multi-fold benefits –both medicinal, environmental, and spiritual– of strengthening our bonds with mushrooms, Nature’s hidden allies. So even if you are knowledgeable about the subject, it is still worth your while to check it out.
If anything, the only caveat I had is that there were no mentions of Terence McKenna’s speculations that fungi are actually extraterrestrial visitors sent from a faraway galaxy. Ironic, considering how Paul Stamets is now saying mushrooms should be a necessity to our own goals to colonize space –you know, like Star Trek!
Fantastic Fungi is available on Netflix and other streaming platforms.