The evolution of the thinking of a mycologist, who believes we'd all be better off if we went outside to discover nature.
Like many, I grew up in cities. When I was born, my mother was still in college, so I lived with my grandparents in North Carolina. My first experiences with the wild were chasing little lizards in their backyard. A few times a year I would go to visit my father in New York City. I remember the city scared me when I was younger: so much energy moving, so many unfamiliar people, the towering buildings. Eventually, my mother graduated and we moved to the D.C. metro area. The child of a soldier and a foreign services worker, we moved again and again—we lived all over the world. These cities hid something from me: wild spaces. My parents, who also grew up in cities, preferred life in them, enamored with comfort and technological advances. We made extremely rare visits to wild spaces.
In my early teenage years, my grandfather passed away from cancer. His illness was hard on me, harder for him: He was in a lot of pain and his life ended very uncomfortably. A year or so after my grandfather’s passing, I found myself interested in cannabis. Many kids at my school were using cannabis and, contrary to what my parents and D.A.R.E. told me, they were healthy, still getting good grades, playing sports and having a healthy social life. I decided to spend my time after school researching the effects of cannabis on my mind and body. To my disbelief, I discovered cannabis was not only safe, but that it had medicinal and therapeutic benefits.
This discovery rocked my world.
After watching my grandfather pass away slowly and painfully, and then finding out a harmless plant could have eased his pain and potentially helped him successfully go through his chemo, I began to question everything I knew. At this point in my life, I had never tried any mind-altering substances, but this situation triggered a psychedelic experience that lasted for a week. In this experience, I came to many realizations—one of those being that nature may hold more answers to my questions than the urbanized world.
As I drove through the countryside on cruises with my friends I would think to myself, “These farms are beautiful; this is what nature should be like.” In my late teens, when I began to hang out with my friends on my own, I took more steps into the unfamiliar terrain of the natural world. It was like becoming a child again, exploring a reality I barely knew. Most of the time we would hike while we smoked weed or ate mushrooms, which both increased the effect of a childlike unfamiliarity with the wild.
When I was 17, I moved out of my father’s house to live on my own. I wanted to grow cannabis for a living, but as I lived in a state that had not adopted medical or recreational laws, this wasn’t a feasible option. I figured I would learn to grow food crops, so that when the time came that I could afford to move to a more forward-thinking state, I would at least know the basics of growing plants.
In my foray into agriculture, I met a group of interesting characters practicing permaculture, ecological design science and rewilding, the act of returning to natural systems. Joining in the activities of this new group of friends, I found myself spending more time in wild spaces. Exploring wilderness with more nature-savvy individuals began to shed light on what this reality really was. My mentors and friends began to teach me about ecological progression. They told me about how the East Coast of the United States had been deforested on multiple occasions, and that the forest we see is still trying to regenerate. Once I began to learn about ecological progression, I realized the big mono-crop farms I used to look at were far from what nature should be. And that the forests I had been hiking through were far from perfect. The forests were filled with short-lived brambles and many of the brush species were “invasive.” (I don’t like the word “invasive.” If you really think about it, we’re all invasive. I prefer the word “opportunist.”)
These small bushes and brush existed to live and die, replenishing the nutrient content in the soil so the larger trees that once lived and provided their wisdom could return. I learned how the vines and ivy that people try so hard to get rid of, were growing to ultimately replenish the soil for the mature forest plants to grow back.
I began to realize that I had not seen a natural system undisturbed by humans.
Spending more time in wild spaces encouraged me to familiarize myself with the organisms that lived there. I learned to identify plants and began eating the abundance of foods the forests and fields were producing. Eating from the wild taught me more about the intuitiveness of nature, how plants that grow in the spring provide loads of nutrients to replenish your body after winter—and also produce compounds that are beneficial to prevent allergies. I learned about hydrological systems, as I began seeking out clean springs to drink from, which are becoming rarer as humans mine and develop around them.
I also learned to identify mushrooms, which I believe are the Hooked on Phonics of ecological literacy. Learning to find mushrooms will force you to develop a better understanding of the ecosystem: To find mushrooms, you need to learn about mineral content in the soil, what type of trees grow in the area, what type of animals live in the area, the microclimates and more. Seeking out mushrooms led me to find more undisturbed areas. I began to realize that game lands are often more taken care of and further along in their ecological progression than state parks and conservation land.
I realized caring for these delicate organisms, researching them and providing some sort of purpose would make more people care about them. When more people value nature, more people will care about nature. When more people care about nature, more people will act to protect it.
I’ve now made it my goal to find rare organisms, sequence their DNA, learn their medicinal or economic value, experiment with cultivating them, and to document what I learn. Many of the organisms will only grow in mature ecosystems and with a little economic encouragement, I believe we could embolden more people to farm the forest and become stewards of the ecosystem. This, in turn, would lead to more mature forests.
Working with wild spaces has taught me more about myself that I would have ever imagined. Growing up in modern cities and social systems lead many to believe we are separate from each other. Developing a dialogue with the wild will lead many to remember we are of nature and that nature is all connected—there is no separation. This is just my story. I’ve been able to make great changes around our country with the work I have done, and there is so much more room for many discoveries that can change the trajectory of human and technological progression. I believe in a more beautiful tomorrow. I hope you will be a part of it.