Methods of Mycelia
A Real Life Tale of Battle With Unseen Forces
4-515 Adelaide St,
Berhampore, New Zealand
They are all around, in the air I breathe, colonizing my mucous membranes and forming mycelia through my brain and nervous system. My skin crawls with their prick, first on my temple, then my cheek, now my forehead. A tick has developed beneath my right eye, my heart races one moment and slows the next. Loki sits across the room sneezing in furious bouts every few minutes. His eyes are red and running, his breathing harsh and labored. We are both lethargic and uninspired, our brains foggy, unable to focus or to make decisions. As we twitch and gasp, the night deepens and the air seems to close in–oppressive; full of unseen spores and myco-toxins.
Loki and I had recently moved into an old neglected apartment, with a strange smell, gently reminding us of cat piss. We soon discovered that underneath the carpet the floor was completely digested by mold. There was no ventilation other than a few small windows, which were constantly dripping with condensation. Even the ancient fridge was harboring a variety of fungi. The air was close and the smell of musty cat urine oozed out through the air.
During the winter we noticed we were constantly lacking in energy. Loki’s asthma, which he hadn’t had since he was young, returned and steadily grew worse. When the temperature suddenly warmed up with the coming of spring, our symptoms became more acute. Finally, I went through three days of intense sinus headaches, fevers, nausea and vomiting. During this time all I could do was toss and turn, even groaning, as I tried to find a position that eased the pain. Half asleep and half awake I had strange lucid dreams of conversations with large wolves and little people alternating with sharp pains in my uterus and chest. I was getting my period every two weeks.
Our concern that our health was being effected by these damp moldy conditions was confirmed after finding mushrooms popping their slimy heads from an especially damp corner of the room. I remember how I found them. I was pushing aside one of the long curtains in the living room when I noticed some strange cords poking out from the edge of the carpet. I looked closer and suddenly realized I was looking at mushrooms, not cords. Stunned, I yelled for Loki, he came over and grumpily stared at what I was pointing at.
“Yeah, so?” he started to mutter, “why are you looking at those cables?”
I said “No. Look!”
The mushroom heads were shining and slimy, dripping slightly, they were very unfriendly-looking mushrooms. We looked at each other, disbelieving. We both started trying to wrap our minds around the situation we were in and decided we better get out of this health hazard of a building as fast as possible. Unfortunately the various New Zealand Authorities we turned offered no help and we were advised to just get out of the lease and move out.
After finding those mushrooms, I dragged myself outside to go for a walk and get some fresh air. I forced myself out into the cheerfully blinding sunlight and headed towards the sparkling blue ocean at the end of the road. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, but I was so lethargic all I wanted was to go back and lie down in our contaminated home.
We were starting to feel as if several varieties of fungi were competing for complete dominion over our nervous systems. We were becoming increasingly irritable and paranoid, irrationally snapping at each other, I usually ended up having a crying fit. So I continued on, determined to stay out of the apartment for as long as possible, and tried to regain my sense of reality through the foggy, nagging feeling that my body and senses were being controlled by a parasitic life form from another world.
Thinking about all these things I barely noticed my surroundings and soon discovered I was walking up some low hills overlooking the great wild ocean. Tall fennel forests grew on either side of the small path. Their dried out fractal branches reaching up and out into the cosmos, as the bright fresh green ostrich plumes of their new growth spurted out around their feet. The lovely sweet aroma of anise wafted through the air, insisting that I enjoy the moment. I shook my head and looked around, forgetting the insidious fungal spores that still clung to me, flavoring every breath from where they lurked in my nasal passages. I was nearing the top of a hill that overlooked a long black beach with waves rushing up and back again along the sand. An old cement structure poked out from the hillside just ahead. I clambered up the last of the slope and found it was an old bunker for defending the coastline in days gone by, now crumbling and decaying. The flat concrete roof provided an excellent surface to stretch out on, relax and enjoy the fresh air, sunlight and lovely view.
As I lay there soaking up the wholesome atmosphere there was a rustling below me. Leaning over the edge of the roof I looked down into the bunker and saw a small old woman fooling about with a pile of decaying leaves. She smiled up at me and laughed.
“Just looking for my favorite mushroom, this is the perfect time of year for them and they don’t last very long so I have to be quick!”
Mushroom hunting! The air seemed to shiver slightly. I had always thought that would be great fun.
“Are there any there?” I asked, jumping down from the roof and trying to squeeze in through the narrow window of the bunker.
“Yes, I have found some lovely specimens actually.” She brought her small basket over to me and held them up. Brown capped mushrooms of a variety of sizes were jumbled together, a faint musty, nutty odor coming up from them.
“Can I help?” I managed to wriggle through the narrow space and jumped down into the bunker. Glancing around I wondered where the usual adornment of broken bottles and graffiti were. The old lady had on an apron, her hair was pulled back into a bun and had basket on her arm. I felt as if I had somehow dropped back through time.
“Sure, always happy to have a bit of company,” she replied. “Everyone calls me Ma Tilde. I just have one more bunker to check, lets go.”
We set off around the hillside and down through tangled tree branches. She ducked down beneath some low branches and forced her way into a large damp bunker.
“This one usually has the best mushrooms, so I always save it for last,” she explained to me. She was right. As we approached the piles of leaves I could see little brown mushroom heads popping up all over them. She laughed in delight and showed me the best way to pick them and which ones exactly we were looking for. Soon her basket was full.
“Why don’t you come over to my place and we can have a little mushroom snack?”
“I’d love to.”
Walking over the hills towards her home I told her my story about the molds that ruled in our apartment and of all the problems they were causing. She listened carefully and then said quietly “I have something that will help you. Enjoy our walk now and I will show you when we get to my house.”
We were soon climbing a steep narrow path towards a small house on the outcrop of a cliff. Around the back of the house was a small garden and a couple of small wooden structures. “I have a drying room and a smoke house,” she explained as we drew near. “Welcome to my home.” Opening the door to her small cottage confirmed my feeling that I had stepped back in time or into a fairy tale. Here indeed was the fairy godmother’s happy abode. The air seemed to glow, and the kitchen and living room were all a happy welcoming symphony of smells, vibrations, colors and textures. The wooden stove was cooling and fresh bread was sitting on the counter. A lanky black kitten unraveled itself from the knitting basket and came purring around her legs. “Meister Eckhart” she told me as she tickled him under the chin, “a very mystic cat this.”
She quickly had the kettle on and was sorting the mushrooms from the basket. I sat down at the kitchen table and marveled at the freedom of a home without millions of mycotoxins and spores filling the air, settling on every exposed surface. And then realized that actually there were a whole pile of myco-spores on the table in front of me, and started to wonder what made some so-offensive to our bodies, while others were so helpful.
“Years ago,” she began to tell me, “when I was a very young girl and this city was still a village, there was a strange epidemic that killed nearly everyone in a couple towns over the hill. The symptoms were very similar to what you are suffering. People grew increasingly unhealthy, suffering headaches, digestive problems and often unusually aggressive or paranoid behavior.”
Ma Tilde’s Tale:
She then went on to tell me this story: A family from one of those towns moved next door to them. She soon became close friends with their son, when they were older they married. On the morning of the wedding his mother had come to Tilde and given her a small amount of bread dough, telling her that this particular culture, or desem, had been taken care of by their family from as far back as they could remember. They believed that the desem would reward the care put into it with good health. A small amount had been passed to her on her wedding day, just as she was passing it on to Tilde, trusting her to keep it going for future generations. Tilde felt a deep responsibility as she accepted the gift.
Tilde and her husband started a small bakery and the desem leavened bread quickly became the most popular. They were unable to have children but were happy to hand out hot buttered slabs of bread to kids passing the bakery on their way home from school. One winter was short and when the spring came it was warm and wet, people started getting strange symptoms that caused crime rates to rise as people became more irritable and irrational. For some reason the people who preferred the desem bread remained unaffected and level headed.
It was her husband who finally made the connection. Talking to customers all day at the bakery he began to see clear patterns between various events. They speculated with friends that the micro-organisms in the bread were aware of the generations long DNA relationship they had with his family and were able to create varying combinations of bacteria, yeasts and therefore nutrients in each batch of bread depending on the requirements of the baker’s digestive system at the moment.
The weather finally dried up the fungi went back into dormancy, waiting for the right conditions to release their spores once again. People continued to enjoy and thrive off of the desem bread, but when Ma Tilde’s husband died she had to give up the bakery, without children she had been unable to pass on the desem.
At the end of her story Ma Tilde smiled and her eyes gleamed, “But I continued to keep the culture going for the future generations.” With that declaration she set in front of me a plate with a large wedge of dense and fragrant homemade bread. Butter melted juicily into the crumb and a small dish of hand picked sauteed mushrooms was set beside. “Enjoy your snack,” she said and sat down beside me. We tucked in, mushroom juices and butter trickling down our chins and I felt good and excited again. The bread was tangy, but much lighter than any sourdough bread I had tried previously.
After our meal she wrapped up a portion of the precious desem for me. “Here, I won’t last much longer, you must be my daughter now and keep this bread’s culture going for the generations to come.” She explained how to care for the desem, showing me how to feed it daily with freshly ground whole wheat flour, how much to leave for the next batch of bread and the not too hot or cold temperature it thrived in.
“Soon you will be treating this desem as a close friend. When you knead and work it, you will also be working out the kinks and resistances of your psyche, and it will be your meditation. If you treat it right there will be great respect between you.” Her eyes turned inward and she said, “it has been a wonderful companion for me for many years now. The bread will help to give you a strong immune system and you will find that you will have better resistance to the molds in your apartment.”
I awoke from my dream, and sitting up, found myself back on the bunker, the sun sinking over the ocean. Slowly I sat up and headed back home to Loki. We moved out of the apartment as quickly as possible and moved to the very top of the city where the air was fresh and slowly began the path back to health. Once a fungus gets into your system it is tough to get it out. Months after we moved out of the 4-515 Adelaide apartment, Loki would awaken us every night having drenched the whole bed in sweat. Finally we got rid of the blankets and he was able to sleep through the night again. We stopped eating bread, drinking beer, anything with yeast in it. We even went on carbohydrate free fasts for months at a time, still symptoms lingered or would rise again just when we thought we were free.
My dream stuck with me and has raised my curiosity for live foods and the microorganisms that have thrived alongside nearly every culture in the world through symbiotically optimizing digestion deepens as I learn more about them.
I recently made the famous Flemish desem described in Laurel’s Kitchen Bread book and I am very excited to be eating bread made in this old fashioned manner. I look forward to the meditative practice of kneading and feeding the starter. There is a whole community passionate about sourdough.