What playing music has to do with the happiness of the forest.
By Maria Popova
Fungi are the evolutionary cardinals of the Earth — the first to conquer it and the last to inherit it, composing the living substratum beneath every forest and every field and every backyard ecosystem. Each cubic inch of mycelium compresses eight miles of fine filaments folded unto themselves — the original superstrings of this terrestrial universe. Wildly unlike us, they are inseparable from our creaturely inheritance. Since the dawn of our adolescent species, they have been touching our cuisine and our consciousness in ever-evolving ways, the underlying mystery of which we are only just beginning to unravel.
In the early 2000s, a series of groundbreaking studies began revealing yet another facet of that mystery — the way mushrooms respond to sound, despite having no auditory organs. One [PDF] found that high-frequency sounds inhibit spore generation and mycelial growth. Another [PDF] affirmed the correlation from the other side, finding that low-frequency sound waves stimulate mycelial growth.
The aptitudes and abilities of every organism — ours included — are puppeteered by evolutionary adaptation. This means the curious relationship between sound vibration and mycelial growth must confer some substantive evolutionary advantage upon mushrooms, honed over the eons.
Master-mycologist Paul Stamets, author of the millennial bible Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (public library), set out to solve the enigma.
In an episode of musician Matt Whyte’s altogether wonderful podcast Sing for Science podcast, Stamets offers a possible — and deliciously plausible — hypothesis.
In that peculiar and recurring way indigenous wisdom has of anticipating the discoveries of science, the folkloric traditions of many first nations across Europe, North America, Japan, and Russia hold that lightning strikes mushrooms more readily than other organisms. Stamets observes that we now know this to be true in measurable ways that contour a measurable evolutionary advantage — the 50,000 volts of electricity a log incurs when struck by lightning greatly stimulates the yield of the shiitake mushrooms growing on it.
This is where Stamets’s deduction gets interesting: Before lightning strikes, thunder sounds — a rolling tide of low-frequency waves unspooling from the horizon. Having had hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary training and triumph by harnessing the elements and the environment, mushrooms would want something to awaken them to the impending rain event in order to get ready to absorb the water and electricity so beneficial to their propagation. Low-frequency sound waves, under this hypothesis, act as a warning bell — a mycelial clarion call for duty.
Stamets reflects on the deeper undertones of this interdependence:
Nature is always listening via mycelium. Mycelium is like strings on a violin, strings on a piano, strings on a guitar — these are filaments that are sensitive to vibrations.
Sensing these low-frequency sound waves, the mycelium begins “responding with joyous, bountiful nutrients” — compounds that nourish not just the fruiting body of the mushroom above, but the entire forest ecosystem — which, as we now know (thanks to pioneering forester Suzanne Simard, who appeared in the inaugural episode of Sing for Science), is undergirded by a complex mycelial communication network carrying simple electrical and chemical signals between trees and other plants. The healthier the mycelium, the happier the canopy, and the more plentiful the flowers and berries beneath it.
Returning to the consanguinity between science and music the show celebrates, Stamets reflects:
People coming together and celebrating with music: nature is responding with the mycelial networks being invigorated and inducing upchannel nutrients benefitting the commons.
What an astonishing world we live in — a world in which, as the poetic naturalist John Muir observed epochs before our science, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Complement with cellist Zoë Keating reading and reflecting on Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mushrooms” from The Universe in Verse — a kindred celebration of science through the lens of poetry, with a side of music — then revisit Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s influential illustrated studies of mushrooms.