This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2023

What can fungi teach us about healing trauma?

What fungi taught me about connection and healing in community

Katarina Sabados

Illustration by Ashley Wong

As I open the bag of mycelium, a pleasant creamy smell wafts through the air. I break off a piece and feel the smooth pores between my fingers. It’s like grazing the soft hand of a long-lost grandparent.

Around 1.1 billion years ago, the animal and fungi kingdoms split from plants and continued evolving together. Only later did animals and fungi separate on the genealogical tree of life, making fungi more closely related to humans than plants. Fast forward a few hundred million years to me, sitting in my garden-suite kitchen across from a bucket of oyster mushroom mycelium.

Mycelium is the root-like structure of a mushroom, a white thread-like mass made up of tiny branches called hyphae. It lives underground or on surfaces such as rotting trees, spreading metres or even kilometres to transfer nutrients, break down dead plants, and connect with other fungi. Mushrooms—the fruits of healthy mycelial networks—sprout when the conditions are just right.

After seeing the red and white toadstools in front of my apartment last autumn, I was enthralled. What started out as a fascination with mushrooms, quickly turned into a full-blown obsession with mycelium. When I learned about mycoremediation—the use of mycelium to rehabilitate polluted ecosystems—I was in awe. The more I read about its potential, and the science of biomimicry, the more I was certain that fungi had something to teach me.

I stare at the white stringy mass that is my fungal relative, longing to know it. To understand it. In the same way I longed to understand the culture my parents came from, the city I was born in, and the place my cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles still live—a sad derivative of a country that no longer exists.

Yugoslavia was a socialist federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, made up of various ethnic groups that coexisted in a single state from the end of World War II until its breakup in the nineties. My parents are of different ethnic groups, and while that was not uncommon in Yugoslavia, it became undesirable when the country was falling apart. Ethnonationalism made it so that you had to choose sides. In Serbia, the country where a malignant dictator was waging carnage in neighbouring Bosnia and Croatia at the time, it was suffocating for ethnic Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians, and other minority groups in the country. It’s a big part of why we left.

As previous conflicts in the Balkans have prompted mass emigration, so did this one. In the last decade of the 20th century, over 100,000 people from the former Yugoslavia came to Canada, including my family.

Being from the geographic battleground of empires for centuries has taken a toll on the collective psyche of Balkan people. And our quests for self-determination haven’t always been smooth sailing either—the carving up of nation-states in the breakup of Yugoslavia thirty years ago being only our most recent collective catastrophe. Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon describes the cultural phenomenon of katastrofa or catastrophe, whereby the story of a family is the story of the bad that happened to it. If the epigenetic consequences of trauma are what scientists think they are, Hemon says, “katastrofa is inscribed in our cells.”

Of course, this was the big katastrofa for my family. Or at least what I pieced together from my parents’ stories over the years. Painful ones about the loss and betrayal of longtime friends, some family, and a society they helped build. Getting them to share these stories was like pulling teeth. Silence, fragmented memories, and non-answers were more readily available.

My parents were always adamant that nationalism and deteriorating social conditions were the reasons why we left, carefully making sure not to position themselves as victims. This was also the reason why joining a diaspora community was out of the question. In Canada, each ethnic group formed their own enclaves, based around places of worship usually. Nationalist narratives, especially among immigrant and refugee Serb and Croat groups, were commonplace, and to my parents, virulent.

These often revisionist narratives meant my identity as a first-generation person of mixed Yugoslav background fit nowhere, and was seldom understood.

Lots of people grow up in immigrant families where questions of identity are complicated. But to be from the former Yugoslavia, to be Balkan, is to not have a firm grasp on where to even begin in making sense of who you are. And alienation from the very people that can help you do it. It comes with an inherent fragmentation of identity, with various intersections, complexities, and trauma in the mix.

As I stuff my bucket with a mixture of damp wood chips and mycelium, I imagine it as a sentient being that can hear me: “Have you also inherited the trauma of your ancestors?” I ask. “The trauma of a changing climate? The trauma of fearing being eaten by rodents all the time? What would our common single-cell primogenitor make of our respective destinies?”

I first discovered biomimicry in adrienne maree brown’s writings on mycelium in her book, Emergent Strategy. To become a functional fruiting body, mycelium has to expand and connect with other fungal and root networks. It does this through individual cells called hyphae. brown draws on mycelial hyphae as inspiration for a social-justice framework based on the idea that effecting societal change requires establishing a select few meaningful connections, rather than fostering a critical mass.

I think back to a small gathering a few weeks back, when I met with a group of new friends I’d made, all Balkan diaspora women who were independently working through issues of identity using art, research, and film.

I stop stuffing the bucket for a second. As the mycelium grows, it seeks out compatible hyphae in a process called homing, maintaining nutrient pathways to grow and spread across forests.

It occurs to me that these women and I were forming a kind of human mycelial network. No wonder I had such trouble with working out my own questions of identity—I had been doing it alone. Cultural identity is formed by communities, not by one individual. What if each of us expanding our own understanding, filling in the gaps, and healing wounds, could create something better?

When you grow mushrooms, you have to do it in a sterile environment that mimics the humidity, air flow, and temperature of the ideal outdoor conditions. Some mushrooms like it hot, some like it cold, most like it humid.

To best simulate and control this, DIY mycelium experts recommend drilling holes in a bucket, and stuffing it with mycelium and woodchips. This provides something for the mycelium to eat and makes it easy to harvest the mushrooms once they grow. After I close the lid on the bucket, I shove it into the broom closet, excited at the thought of the pink coral bunches that will soon flourish.

I already had fungi on my mind while sipping homemade brandy on that particularly damp February evening when I met Ljudmila Petrovic and Iva Jankovic at Sara Graorac’s house. We’d all been sitting in her retro living room, flipping through books on traditional woven rug patterns and swapping stories.

Iva is passionate about empowering local communities through co-ops, helping people access economies of scale. She and I share this very specific feeling, a longing to not only connect with the place that shaped us from afar, but also to fix some of its problems.

For a while, she’s been trying to connect her work in Canada with the Balkans, to see if new cooperative models can help change the depressing realities of post-socialist privatization, unemployment, and brain drain in the region. She has also made podcasts, art, and films about Serbian society and diaspora connections. She told me once that she felt the need to piece together the fragments of history. To close the loop.

While Iva enthusiastically tells us about her attempts to connect musically to the Balkans by learning to play the accordion, my gaze falls to the person who introduced all of us in the first place, Ljudmila.

In order for the mycelium to grow, individual hyphae must undergo fusion. Merlin Sheldrake, ecologist and author, defines this process as homing and the connection as “the linking stitch.” It’s the essence of any mycelium. Ljudmila is like our linking stitch. She connected each of us in a homing of her own, inaugurating us into the group chat that now serves as our main site of communion.

I met Ljudmila last fall when I was reporting on nationalism in the Balkans. Her Master’s thesis was a pioneering study on how multigenerational trauma in the Balkan diaspora fragments identity among millennial women and on the power of narrative in healing those wounds. When we first met over beers at a local Vancouver watering hole, I studied her across the table as she spoke with such conviction about things I had, until then, relegated to the realm of internal musings. We bonded over the quirks of our grandparents and how no one got our names right on the first try. And of course, inat, or the Balkan cultural phenomenon loosely translated into English as spite.

Reading her thesis was confronting. It was as though someone was revealing secrets about my life to me. For the first time, I saw data on how trauma affects immigrant parent-child relationships in my cultural context and the role silence plays in fragmenting identity. I then realized that my career motivations as a journalist were prompted by the desire to create better narratives, more honest ones, borne of resilience and with the ultimate goal of something better coming out the other side.

Ljudmila spends her time helping others heal trauma through therapy. It’s easy for me to imagine her as a guide for the wounded: her care is evident and so is her steadfast nature. She has dedicated her life to the mental-health profession despite naysayers in her family and a cultural stigma around the field. That’s inat in action. A similar embodied resilience strengthens mycelium as it battles something that is almost guaranteed as it grows: contamination.

About a week into my DIY mycological adventure, I notice something green forming on the mycelium. I am confronted by the bane of every mushroom cultivator’s existence: mold.

I panic. Google. Inspect the bucket closely. I wrack my brain over what I might have done wrong: was the water not hot enough when I sterilised the wood chips? Was the bucket too damp?

Luckily, after a frantic phone call with the guy who sold me the mycelium, who assured me that oyster mushrooms are resilient and would filter out contaminants, I feel some relief in knowing what has to be done. I scrape off some of the green fuzz and pop the bucket back into the supply closet.

Then I get sick.

I get so sick that I head straight to the urgent-care centre. By then, I feel steel wool in my throat. Tired, feverish, and dead certain I have a fungal throat infection, I wait for the doctor, feeling defeated. I think about how stupid it was to put my face so close to the mold. Wonder why I tolerated contaminated fungi in the first place. Why did I not think to put on a mask? Sitting in the cold examination room wearing nothing but a polyester hospital gown, I wait for a throat swab.

I was already feeling sick before visiting Sara. She had hosted our gathering of minds the previous month, before I embarked on my mycological adventure. As I walked up the front steps of Sara’s house—one of those beautiful old Vancouver houses with wood siding—I was excited.

Some of Sara’s art deals with Balkan plant medicine. As we stood in her kitchen, she showed me small vials filled with the distilled oil of a common Balkan folk remedy, kantarion, or St. John’s Wort. Lining the shelves above us were large Dali-esque glass bottles holding herbs, homemade brandy, and other oils used in traditional healing.

As I sat in her beautifully decorated living room, surrounded by colourful rugs and books on Yugoslav folklore, I expected Sara to tell me, with all the hubris of an artist, about the power of art in reshaping identity.

Instead, I was met with a quiet intimacy. Her practice is very personal and private, she said. It was important for her to rediscover specifically Balkan folk remedies and use them in a process of healing not just herself, but others too.

“I feel called to it,” she’d said simply, when we asked her why.

All of us have experienced this calling in some form. Sometimes it’s a faint whisper, and at other times it’s as clear as day and impossible to ignore. Navigating the complexities of being in the Balkan diaspora can be exhausting. It makes sense that most people would relegate these nuances to the back seat of who they are and simply assimilate into the dominant culture. After all, the road to assimilation for us is shorter than for other immigrants. Most of us are white-skinned, so shedding the Other within us, our peripheral East-meets-West collectivist culture, foreign unpronounceable names, and distinct position in the history of European conquest can seem like a good deal in exchange for privilege. But it isn’t. For the empaths among us, it may seem like the struggles of more marginalized groups should be where we focus our efforts. But the truth is, if we want to help others we must first heal ourselves.

After a few days of rest, and no call from the laboratory, I recover from what was likely the common cold.

But just to be sure, I exile my mycelium to the back yard, not wanting it in the house out of fear that the mold could become airborne and poison me. As the unpredictable Vancouver spring temperatures hover around zero, I worry that the mycelium might die. The thought of that is too gut wrenchingly sad to ignore.

So, I lug the bucket back into the house, grumbling, wrap it in a plastic bag and put it back in the storage closet. It doesn’t even cross my mind that the mycelium might have a fighting chance. That it could still fruit in the right conditions, if given the time.

One friend who hadn’t made it to the dinner was Dora Cepic. Her work intrigued me the most because her motivations seemed similar to my own. Our media were different, so I went to her studio to get a sense of what creating a new narrative through art entailed.

As Dora sat across from me I couldn’t help but notice the tools poking out of the stacked bins behind her. The aesthetic chaos of an art studio seemed to exist in contrast to the artist herself. Dora, refined and stylish, looked at me inquisitively. Her beige silk blouse illuminated the golden streaks in her hair, giving her a divine glow as the afternoon sun spilled in through the window. She told me about her stop-motion film—a “moving collage” of a female figure wrangling a vessel that keeps escaping her.

In constructing these tiny sculptures and doilies, Dora draws on memories, dreams, and stories rooted in her family’s Balkan background. These micro props form delicate mise-en-scenes that depict the protagonist, half-ghost, half-woman, trying to collect the knowledge that floats away in perpetuity.

“I’m very deliberately trying to construct an identity and sense of space in my own diasporic way,” she said.

Dora likened the process of making this film to searching for a sense of self in a country that feels foreign to her even though she grew up in it. The painful irony, Dora said, is that when she’s in the Balkans, she is very much “the Canadian.” This is the uncomfortable in-between; the hyphenated existence that I imagine most immigrants live. The late Bosnian-Norwegian writer Bekim Sejranovic defined the Balkan version of this existence in one of his books, an epic about fleeing a small town in a country that no longer exists in search of a home that never quite fits; from nowhere to nowhere.

It is that intangible nowhere that formed all five of us, and the place we are all trying to make sense of by making art, forming economic partnerships, doing research, and growing mushrooms.

Fungi have survived all five major extinction events on earth. Despite devastating species loss, they are resilient to calamity and some even flourish in it. In the aftermath of Hiroshima, the first thing reported to grow was a matsutake mushroom and edible morels grow in forests scorched by wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. Fungi are incredibly good at sucking up nutrients where there seemingly are none. Mushrooms can even grow on old diapers and cigarette butts, and now, scientists are using mycelium to clean up oil spills in the Amazon. This type of mycoremediation takes biomimicry to another level: utilizing fungi to clean up the world.

I like to believe our Balkan mycelial network is part of this grand experiment—we can look to the fungal world to solve the modern problems created by humans. In our case, we’re forging honest narratives about what it means to be in the diaspora. Confronting the nationalism and xenophobia that got us here. Filtering out centuries of hate and intolerance through connection. Nourishing one another with ideas. Decontaminating.

I come home from work one afternoon, emotionally spent and questioning if any of my crazy mycelial ideas have any real meaning. Lying on the couch, staring into space, I realize I haven’t checked on the mycelium since I dragged it out of the cold almost a week prior. I saunter over to the kitchen, where the black garbage bag sits, and I begin to untie it. I feel bumps on the sides of the bucket.

My eyes well with tears as I pull off the bag. Bright pink clusters of fused hyphae greet me, poking through almost every hole. Despite the mold, the mycelium had healed itself enough to finally begin fruiting.

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