JESS RUBIN: “MYCOLOGY SEEMS SEXY…BUT”
On the educator, researcher, ecological restorationist regarding the work of myco-remediation, and what the work looks like to try to heal larger natural systems.
“ When you are doing the nitty-gritty research, it does not feel that sexy, but actually requires tremendous focus, concentration, endurance, thoroughness, and continual questioning. ”
Jessica Rubin says about the field. While mycology exists today as a niche field, books like Radical Mycology, Mycelium Running, and Mushroom at the End of the World provide a “sexy” peak into the field. These books tell stories, share theory about fungi that act as a gateway into understanding the way these organisms operate in tandem with human history as well as the history of the larger natural world. However, Jess Rubin’s work, education, and research in mycology frames the field in literally a dirtier way: myco-remediation.
“a restorative practice incorporating fungi to degrade and filter toxins and excess nutrients from the environment.”
Jess Rubin’s recent workshop on August 11 gave the public a chance to understand exactly what this might look like. She has been invited to lead a myco-remediation workshop for Curiouseed’s Intelligent Fungi, a “three month exhibition, research and workshop series to celebrate the fungal wisdoms and learn from fungi, our greatest teachers, to build, nourish, and heal,” taking place on Governor’s Island.
Rubin also “founded and facilitates ecological resilience service, MycoEvolve, which through research, education, and earthworks harnesses regenerative agricultural practices to enhance habitat while restoring watershed health.”
There she is working on
…on an impaired waterway in Colchester, Vermont — a pilot myco- remdediation project (first of its kind in the NE to our knowledge) involving a partnership with the town and MycoEvolve. We are investigating the remediation potential of saprophytic mycelial mats and mycorrhizal fungi dipped native riparian trees and shrubs along an eroded waterway carrying excess E.coli and Phosphorus. In this study the saprophytic fungi denature the E.coli, thereby removing these living pathogens from the waterway. The mycorrhizal fungi uptake the Phosphorus and direct it to surrounding plant, tree, and shrub growth cycles. Water sampling points are strategically placed to measure before and after installations as well as through the wild card freeze and thaw cycles of Vermont winter and spring.
What piqued your interest in environmentalism?
As a girl raised in the suburbs my first major family chore was tending my mother’s plant room. There I learned that each species required different amounts of water and tending. I spent a lot of time climbing and sitting in trees, playing in our backyard, watering our gardens and exploring the neighborhood on my bicycle. I distinctly remember a stream culvert friends and I used to crawl around in, hidden by thick brambles… There was an odd jail-like room just below one of the entrances to the tributary. It was such a mystery to us and kind of spooky. We wondered if there was a prisoner in there or somekind of guarian of the waterway. I think back on that memory, I wonder what that actually was — it seems like a portal between terrestrial and aquatic habitats which was connected to trophic liberation.
Later on in high school, Rubin
…often noticed how disharmony arose when enviornments became too human centered. I started understanding that care for the earth felt like a crucial value to me and my critical analysis of the post-modern industrial revolution. I had just started dipping into the counterculture scene and had been exploring spiritual warrior-hood, when it all began to come together. Earth care felt like the axis of my life.
What is your first significant experience with fungi?
…In my early 20’s friends and I experimented with psilocybin fungi in various forms and contexts. I was amazed by its powerful, transformative, medicinal qualities in loosening the ego’s grip and opening us up to the ever-present magic and wonder of being alive on earth. Later in my 30’s as an outdoor educator, wilderness guide, and land steward, fungi starting jumping out at me on walks, energetically …so my curiosity to know them and partner with them arose.
How do you characterize the relationship between humans and fungi and the larger natural world?
I understand the relationship between humans and fungi to foremost be one of mentee to mentor, in the sense that fungi are one of our ecological ancestors. Fungi are like gatekeepers and midwives to life on earth, continually creating conditions for life and continually transforming death back into substrate for life.
During this 6th Mass Extinction in which we humans are keystone species, fungi can mentor us in how to bridge the microbial and plant elders. If we are humble enough and learn to listen and partner with these beings we can learn infinite forms of symbiotic collaboration to help nurture earth support networks.
Fungi are guides to us in healthy and expansive relationships involving multiple forms of conscious communication that are dynamic, responsive, and continually evolving.
How has your personal relationship with fungi or the natural world evolved since getting involved in mycology?
I continue to be humbled by fungi and am in awe of… their lifecycle presence. While I love the challenge of identifying fungi, this takes diligence and dedicated time, like any relationship. This is still a skill I am still very new at. The more I work with fungi, the more they teach me to be open, and it is only through this openness that I may discover what skills I need to sharpen.
There is a sense that through devoted attention, study, and offerings, secrets are revealed in subtle ways that transcend the intellect, and take a while to translate, but eventually offer practical ways to partner with the beyond-human-web. I feel in many ways like a disciple of the fungal queendom, just as I have been of the plant realms. This involves acknowledging my complex relationship with my ancestral tradition, my settler status on occupied First Nation land, my privilege as a person with white skin, my responsibility as a wombyn, and commitment as a two-legged at the waning post-modern era; when long, overdue reparations for descendants of slaves and revisioning colonial landscape is in process.
What fungi do to matter, specifically on the biochemical level of breaking apart complex compounds, especially toxins, is informative in patterns for dismantling white supremacy and the military industrial complex. The potent substrate fungi leave in their wake inspires me to aim for offering my efforts to benefit the next 18 generations and beyond.
With your experience living and teaching in more rural areas, how has your experience helped you think about the the soils/remediation of urban environments?
The soils in rural and urban areas need great attention, love, and rehabilitation. Whether it (damage) is from years of over-fertilizing, plowing, or mono-cropping, most soils that are not in older forests need remediative care. I understand mycorrhizae to be facilitators of this process. There are also many saprophytic as well as combinations of mycorrhizae and saprohpytic fungi that can remediate impaired soils along with microbes in compost teas, minerals and plant presence. The alchemical possibilities are endless and the work essential.
You mentioned the land you learned and taught on in Vermont and New Hampshire, how does territory acknowledgement play into the restorative work you do with the land?
Acknowledging territory is critical, because the attempted genocide and removal of First Nation people has shaped the energetic patterns of the land and all life growing from it. Spores carry instructions; some spores have witnessed these vast atrocities; therefore, when they land and germinate, they release trails of these experiences. When we acknowledge, learn about this his/herstory, get to know those people’s descendants living today, connect with their struggles for sovereignty,(knowing we are) potentially benefiting from these travesties therefore indirectly involved in committing the crimes, we are put in our tiny place to listen, ask permission, offer, repair, work, be open to getting it wrong and try again with compassion, love, grace — knowing this is all we can do. Even if our ancestors were displaced after attempted genocide, the fact that we live here today means we have a responsibility to stop this warped dynamic our species seems to repeat throughout times across landscapes.
What questions do you have for fungi / others in the myco-community; in other words, what do you not know enough about?
I do not know enough about everything. The questions I have multiply on a daily basis. I ask others in the myco- community about how they can be sure that their efforts in earth repair are not repeating colonial patterns. When I ask and listen for permission or guidance, sometimes it is not always so clear how the fungi feel about all of this. Most of the time it is a green light, but there are times when I have questions about imposing human will, or harnessing one’s power without full consent. There is a spectrum of consent and multiple power dynamics between humans and beyond. I would love to hear from others how they cultivate their listening, intuition, and interspecies communication skills. I would like to brainstorm with folks about cultivation techniques with the smallest ecological footprint possible. I would love to learn more about people’s myco-remediation practices, protocols, and research. I am curious to know more creative ways to promote fungal literacy as a gateway to ecological literacy with diverse audiences. I am always keen to join in on forays to see how others tune in and identify fungi. I would love to learn more informative and fun jokes, songs and stories about fungi. Finally, I hope to learn more about my ancestors’ relationships with fungi.
What feels most misunderstood to you about mycology?
It is not so much that fungi are misunderstood, but that most people know very little about them. There is barely any education about them in elementary and middle school so by the time folks do learn about fungi, it is often in a very limited context…
Mycology seems sexy from the outside, especially how it is written about in certain books like Paul Stamet’s Mycellium Running. When you are doing the nitty-gritty research, it does not feel that sexy, but actually requires tremendous focus, concentration, endurance, thoroughness, and continual questioning. I hope more and more people will join on board to move this field forward, so we can clean up polluted places, learn to stop polluting upstream/up-watershed… Mycology is a complex field. Even its identification is way more challenging than plant identification. Mycology is by its nature interdisciplinary. When I study fungi, I discover there is a complex network, both under and above ground, of nutrient exchanges whose patterns inform humans on how we can reorient and transform our economic, social, energetic, spiritual, emotional, and political systems; because the current paradigms of our “civilization” are in direct conflict with the earth’s nervous system. Feeling and living into this tension (through studying fungi) can guide us in how to be more responsible earth community members.
Ganoderma applanatum (artist conk). I also feel called to share my favorite plants which are: Burdock (Arctium sp.) and self heal-heal all (Prunella vulgaris).