by vanessa adams
One August in New Orleans, in the half-city half-swamp of the Couturie Forest, I stumbled upon an unholy stink and its source, a patch of Mutinus caninus, colloquially called the ‘Dog Stinkhorn’ for their resemblance to a pink dog dick.1 Someone had recently put down landscaping mulch to maintain the trails and these slowly decomposing hardwood chips provided an ideal meal for this saprophytic fungi. Stinkhorns were emerging all the way down the mulched path. Some stinkhorns arched to the sky, some were just emerging from
white egg-like sacks, and others lay deflated and soggy on the trail. All of them were smeared on their tip with a primordial brown goo called, ‘gleba.’2 This brown jelly-like substance is filled with spores and stinks of trash, feces, or rotting meat as a lure for fly dispersal.3 I’ve read that Victorians, such as Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty, hated the stinkhorn because of its phallic vulgarity. According to legend, she would wake before dawn to gather their suggestive protrusions and burn them in secret in her study.4 On the other hand, I’ve heard from fungal enthusiasts that ‘Witches Eggs,’ the young stinkhorns of Phallus impudicus (impudent phallus), are considered by many a delicacy to pickle and eat.5 While I have never tried eating them, I deeply enjoy finding stinkhorns in the city. Every encounter feels like a mischievous wave, or a nod from a nasty, fabulous, and somewhat alien queer kin. Stinkhorns feel like a reminder of how disruptive, magical and strange the world – and we – can be if we let ourselves flourish beyond ‘acceptable’ tastes.
Exploring the mysteries of fungi is increasingly commingled with envisioning the possibilities and potentials for our own bodies, communities, and worlds. Fungi are slippery and transgressive – evading the binaries and the neat categorization of scientific taxonomy. They disrupt the hierarchies of western thought and require us to reconsider how we perceive and interact with the non-human world.6 Some scholars have been exploring the parallels between fungal forms and the queer body. In “The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline” Patricia Kaishian and Hasmik Djoulakian look at the links between queerphobia and mycophobia. They explore how both queer bodies and fungal bodies can be marked as ‘other,’ and become something dangerous to warn children about, something alarming to be hidden, regulated, or controlled.7 As queer and trans people are increasingly
attacked by politicians, investigating these interconnections feels more and more relevant.
Fungi, sex, and the queer body
Sometimes I lose track of my physical form. I want to transform but not in a masculine- feminine direction. Here, fungal and botanical metaphors are helpful. I envision myself better when thinking about the growth and expansion of a passionflower, imagining myself sending out tendrils to stabilize my meandering form and fragrant blossoms. Or I can see myself emerging like an oyster mushroom from a rotting log, engaging in everyday alchemy at the
borders between the living and nonliving world and decomposing decaying matter into something new. Interest in fungal worlds has been expanding in communities of queer, non-binary, and trans people, and this attraction makes sense. While western science assigns humans male/female sexes and western thought maps out gender on a masculine/feminine spectrum, fungal species burst with an array of possibilities. The wood decomposer fungi, Schizophyllum commune, or Split Gill Fungus, has at least 23,000 distinct mating types.8 This means that as the growing hyphal tips of Split Gill fungus cruise in terrains of rotting logs and subterranean soils, they can fuse and form a union with almost any of the other mating types except their own.9 There are no physical differences between these multiple mating types, no
“sex organs” to distinguish between them.10 The growing tips of the mycelium can simply pass a nucleus, fuse and create a new generative network with whatever compatible type they come across.11
It’s not just mushroom mating types that are limitless. While we as humans are born with a relatively uniform structure for our bodies, fungal bodies are much more fluid.12 In general, the parts of fungi we often see, mushrooms, are but a small and ephemeral fraction of their fungal body. Mushrooms are like cherries on a tree, the fruiting forms that fungi send into the world to spread and release spores. Below ground, mycelium winds through the soil and can
grow for miles. The largest living organism on earth is thought to be a Honey Fungus, Armillaria gallica, which spreads across 2,200 acres of Oregon, the equivalent of 1,666 football fields.13 When we are talking about this organism stretching for miles, we are mostly talking about its mycelium – the white spongy underground network of threadlike growing tips of hyphae that travel towards food, navigate obstacles, have sex, merge with plant roots, devour insects, and seem to constantly grow and transform.14 As Merlin Sheldrake writes, “The Latin root of the word extravagant means ‘to wander outside or beyond.’ It is a good word for mycelium, which ceaselessly wanders outside and beyond its limits, none of which are present as they are in most animal bodies. Mycelium is a body without a plan.”15 Extravagant is also a good word for us as queer, non-binary, and trans shape-shifters. We can expand and transform beyond the expected limits of gender and the body.
Indeed, fungi challenge ideas of the body as codified through sciences like anatomy. If you were to slice several lily flowers in two, you would get a sense of their general physical form – a structure of pistil, stamen, petals and stems, a repeatable shape and pattern with minor variations. This is not true for fungal bodies. If we dig up several clumps of the Armillaria gallica’s mycelium from different locations, they will likely all have different forms. With each sample, we will see white hyphal threads forking, branching, and spreading into the soil, but the network pattern they create is not their stable or permanent form. They will radically alter their physical shape to respond to their environment – to grow towards a fallen log as a food source or to detour around a new obstacle.16
We too are bodies in motion. Matter – food, water, blood, oxygen, waste – flows through our body systems, while our cells metabolize and die.17 While our forms cannot change as radically as mycelium, the transformative capacities of our bodies threaten established orders. In 2021, over 100 bills were issued to limit the rights of transgender people. Embedded in hatred and ignorance, these laws are also rooted in a deep fear of transformation, and an attachment to ‘fixed’ and permanent sexes, to physical forms which
do not shift over time. Our own queer and trans experiences and the lives of fungi and plants tell us that transformation and change are not only natural, they are foundational properties of life on this planet.
What does it mean to be an individual? Fungi, slime molds, and the collective
Fungi challenge us to rethink neat categories, but they are not the only ones. Another boundary-defying organism is the Slime Mold. These organisms have the astounding capacity to exist both as free-floating single cellular organisms and as a complex multicellular collective organism. With the right circumstances, slime molds will fuse together, merge, and move as a collective entity – called a plasmodium – which allows them to better respond to their shifting environments, search for food, and have sex.18 In a world that feels increasingly precarious, there are lessons here. Devon Cohen, an artist and participant in the Queer Ecology Hanky Project, wrote that for them, slime molds reflect the possibilities for queer communities to work collectively to dismantle the refuse of society – capitalism, environmental waste, cis-hetero-patriarchy, racism – and digest these “into something life
giving, healed, welcoming, and weird.”19
Slime molds, along with lichens and other complex organisms, can serve as a model for queer community and coalition because they challenge the idea of ‘survival of the fittest.’ This Darwinian ideology posits that organisms that are successful diverge from one another and compete.20 But here we have an evolutionary alternative – collaboration – and in the case of lichens – symbiosis. Lichens are complex organisms composed of mixtures of algae, fungi, and bacteria who work together, symbiotically, to survive.21 Lichens are extremophiles and can survive on the shield of spaceships rocketed into outer space.22 They can live for thousands of years, but when an environment becomes too extreme, they can pause, suspend their life cycle, and revive when circumstances improve.23 It is their partnerships with each organism providing something metabolically unique that allows lichens to thrive in
harsh environments and unconventional ways.24 Scientists believe it is lichen-like symbiosis, partnership, and collaboration that allowed plant life to first leave the earth’s oceans. This means that symbiosis, and the collective, are the foundations for all life on earth and should be in the forefront of our queer and trans visions for the future.
¹ Eugenia Bone, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (Rodale Books, 2013), 46.
² Jennifer Kerekes, “What’s All the Stink About?” Mykoweb: Mushrooms, Fungi, Mycology,
³ Bone, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, 46.
⁴ Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures
(Random House, 2020), 212 -213.
⁵ Bone, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, 46.
⁶ Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures, 22
⁷ Patricia Kaishian and Hasmik Djoulakian, “The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline,”
Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience, Issue 6 (2020): 10 -14.
⁸ Kaishian and Djoulakian. “The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline,”10.
⁹ Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures, 42.
¹⁰ Tom Volk, “Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for February 2000” Univ. of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
¹¹ Kaishian and Djoulakian. “The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline,” 10.
¹² Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures, 57
¹³ Bone, Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, 52-53.
¹⁴ Kaishian and Djoulakian. “The Science Underground: Mycology as a Queer Discipline,” 4.
¹⁵ Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures, 55.
¹⁶ Sheldrake, 57.
¹⁷ Sheldrake, 59.
¹⁸ PBS News Hour, “Slime Molds: No Brains, No Feet, No Problem” Science, https://www.pbs.org/newshour
¹⁹ Devon Cohen, “Artist Statements and Bios,” Queer Ecology Hanky Project, 2020.
²⁰ David Andrew Griffiths, “Queer Theory of Lichens,” Undercurrents (2015): 36.
²¹ Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
(Princeton University Press, 2017), 158.
²² Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures, 85.
²³ Sheldrake, 89-91.
²⁴ Sheldrake, 87-89.
Vanessa Adams is an artist from New Orleans, LA based in Pittsburgh, PA. Vanessa creates prints, zines, and installations exploring the life-cycles of plants, the phases of the moon and queer futures. Vanessa’s work investigates how to see in places of darkness, and how to harness intuition in the face of the unknown. Vanessa was a contributing artist to the Slow Holler Tarot Deck, a collection of tarot cards by southern / queer artists, and is currently a co-curator of the Queer Ecology Hanky Project. They make collaborative botanical prints with their partner Andrea Narno, as Birds of Paradise Press.