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Self-described “mushroom guy,” John Michelotti’s mission is to spread information about the incredible benefits of fungi, and their capacity to change the way we look at our relationships with each other and the world. He is the founder of Catskill Fungi, which produces the highest quality triple-extracted health tinctures from fungi that are wild-crafted or grown on the Michelotti family farm in Big Indian, NY. Their aim is to empower people to grow edible mushrooms as a source of fresh food, to heal themselves through utilizing health properties of fungi, and to explore the historical uses and present day innovations of this exceptional kingdom.

In this interview, John talks about what makes fungi unique problem-solving tools, how companies are using fungi, how to get creative with fungi, and more.

What got you into fungi? What do you find unique about it?

I’ve always been someone that likes to grow and hunt and forage my own food. One of my friends tripped me off about these mushroom groups that are out there. I joined a mushroom walk with some experts and that’s really what filled my passion. These people were very accepting and open to teaching me about the wide world of fungi. The more I learned the more I realized how beneficial it was for people to pair with fungi, not only for food but for medicine and for solving real world problems of today.

Fungi are their own kingdom. There are more fungi than there are animals and plants combined. Ninety percent of plant roots have mycorrhizal fungi attached in a symbiotic relationship, where the fungi is mining nutrients that the plant roots can’t reach, and transferring those nutrients to the plant’s roots in order to keep that plant alive. Not only are they doing that to one plant, they’re interconnected between multiple plants.

It’s changing the way we look at evolution. We used to look at the trees and say they’re fighting for sunlight, that they’re individualistic. What’s really going on is a lot more cooperation under the soil. It shows up that species that cooperate with the most amount of other species are the ones that are thriving. This changes the way we look at each other and business.

What makes them unique as green problem-solving tools?

Their role in the environment. One of those roles is as the decomposers of dead matter. When a tree falls in the forest, whether someone hears it or not, the fungi get in there, and excrete enzymes to break down the building blocks of wood. As they do this, they are extending out through the wood, breaking down certain things that bacteria can’t. Because of them we don’t have big stands of dead wood in the forest. The way they excrete enzymes and break down wood – certain fungi can do this with other things as well.They can take our human waste products, like coffee grounds, and break them down. We can be growing healthy food from things we throw away, like cardboard, coffee grounds, paper – any kind of wood-based material. You could grow mushrooms on so many different things using low-tech methods. Not only are you helping to break down these certain materials and grow health food, you’re also creating healthy soil because what’s left behind after the mushroom digests it is growable soil. It’s a win-win-win.

Fungi are their own kingdom. There are more fungi than there are animals and plants combined. Ninety percent of plant roots have mycorrhizal fungi attached in a symbiotic relationship, where the fungi is mining nutrients that the plant roots can’t reach, and transferring those nutrients to the plant’s roots in order to keep that plant alive. Not only are they doing that to one plant, they’re interconnected between multiple plants.

It’s changing the way we look at evolution. We used to look at the trees and say they’re fighting for sunlight, that they’re individualistic. What’s really going on is a lot more cooperation under the soil. It shows up that species that cooperate with the most amount of other species are the ones that are thriving. This changes the way we look at our forests as well as how we treat each other and, at Catskill Fungi, we try to model these symbiotic relationships in the ways we grow in the world

What companies are currently utilizing fungi this way?

One is the biomaterials company Ecovative Design. They take agricultural waste and grind it down, introducing the mycelium or root structure of fungi to that agricultural waste. That waste gets bound together. This is how they’re growing a replacement to styrofoam. All your Dell computers are now shipped in mycofoam.

What are some creative ways to use fungi?

One thing you can do is make a spore print. If you look at a mushroom you have a cap and you have the stem. If you cut the stem off and you take the cap and you put it down on a piece of paper. The spores, which are the microscopic seeds of the mushroom, will drop on that paper. They make all different kinds of colors and they also have these patterns like an iris. It’s really pretty. You can do different types of art utilizing fungi. You can even take some of these spores and make ink for pens. Once you throw out that piece of paper, the spore ink will degrade that paper. So it has multiple functions.

I’ve grown mushrooms out of a pair of old jeans, and different garbage materials that were ground up together. It inspires people to look at their waste differently, look at how they can cultivate mushrooms quickly and easily in a variety of different places. Some fungi even have the potential to break down contaminants within soils in a process called mycoremediation.

What are some interesting historical uses of fungi?

There was a lady found in cave in Spain last year dating back to 18,7000 years ago. She’s thought to be some kind of medicine woman because of how her body was preserved and buried. In her back molars they found traces of two different types of mushrooms: boletus and amanita muscaria, which shows that people have been pairing with fungi for edibility and medicinal purposes, both physically and spiritually for thousands years.

Ötzi, a man found preserved in ice in the Italian alps who lived 5000 years ago, had two kinds of mushrooms in his leather satchel: the tinder polypore and the birch polypore. The tinder was used to make fire and to smolder coals while he transported them, like native peoples in this country did. The birch polypore he either used as a bandage because it has antibiotic properties, or to make tea so he could cure parasites and worms.

Faye Sakellaridis

Faye Sakellaridis’s interest in psychedelics and consciousness led her to become an managing editor at The Alchemists Kitchen and Reality Sandwich, where she enjoys the scope of visionary thought that she regularly encounters from the site’s many contributors and the “rich spectrum of intellectual essays on consciousness through a diverse lens of art, culture, and science.” Faye recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens College in NYC, and her professional and academic life have been centered on journalism and creative writing. However, Faye—a classically trained improvisational pianist—says that spiritually, she identifies herself first and foremost identify as a musician. “Music is my most intuitive language,” she says. “If it weren't for music I'm not sure I'd truly understand the concept of the sublime. Writing and music are two are elemental parts of me, and communicating through them is what I do.”

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