Ethnomycology with Elinoar Shavit
Ethnomycology — the study human historical and cultural use of fungi. It is a wonderful and vast topic, and today we are joined by one of the world’s few ethnomycologists, Elinoar Shavit. We specifically focus on the desert truffle and its vital role in local communities in the middle east. With the tributes to the desert truffle, we highlight the multitudes of other vital fungi that deserve our recognition and protection globally. Be sure to check out the show notes for more information on this essential science.
Elinoar Shavit is an ethnomycologist specializing in mycological and cultural research regarding desert truffles, functional mushrooms and the traditional use of fungi and plants by indigenous people around the world. She is a frequent speaker on these topics in international and domestic conferences and has published numerous research papers and book chapters.
Show notes: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1maY1P7LMd21YcuvExHNF-FrYDxAR0cRu?usp=sharing
Alex Dorr 0:22
Welcome back to another episode of mushroom revival podcast we are bridging the gap between our amazing beautiful listeners and the wacky fantastic lovely world of mushrooms. So, we interview people and experts all around the world to partner with us and go on an adventure to explore the wonderful wacky world of mushroom so thank you everyone for tuning in wherever you are in the world. And let’s dive in.
Lera Niemackl 0:54
So quick disclaimer before we jump in this episode is not like the rest we did not record it live but submitted some questions and talking points to Elinoar and she responded with pre recorded audio and we spiced in some afterthoughts and prompts so please excuse the inorganic discourse but nonetheless, this episode is full of juicy information and I hope you all love it. Elinoar Shavit. She is an ethnomycologist specializing in mycological and cultural research regarding desert truffles, functional mushrooms and traditional use of fungi and plants by indigenous people around the world. She’s a frequent speaker on these topics and international and domestic conferences and has published numerous research papers and book chapters. I wanted to get Elinoar on this podcast ever since I found out about her. I followed her work through Fungi Magazine, and after a few emails, I finally got ahold of her and I’m so excited to welcome her on the show today. So to kick it off, of course we always ask what is your mushroom story? How did Elinoar become one of the pioneering and very few ethnomycologists in the world?
Elinoar Shavit 2:03
Thank you for inviting me. I’m not sure that I got into SM ecology it’s more like it’s an ecology finally grabbed me with some pushes from friends like Gary Lincoff, Tom Volk, Elio Schaechter and Britt Bunyard. But I think that it was a natural succession sort of following my love for mushroom hunting, anthropology, archaeology, theology, linguistics, right into ethnomycology. I have loved mushroom hunting and foraging for wild plants. From the very second I could have gone to my grandmother’s hand and drag a bucket full of mushrooms behind me. Mushroom hunting is a social activity that you share with family with friends and you don’t have to know everything there is to know about it. You’re always meeting new people and learning something new. But to be fair, it was my American grandmother who instilled in me the love for mushrooms for foraging and quite a bit of knowledge and her passion for folklore in 1921. She and my grandfather were among the founders of Israel’s first Moshav called Nahalal, which was built in the Jezreel Valley. Which is the floodplain of the ancient Kishon, the biblical Kishon River. But after the first heavy rains, the valley got covered in carpets of flowers and green vegetation. Lots of tasty Mediterranean edible plants, like mallow, parceling, sorrel, dandelion, chicory, mustard, wild radish, nettle, ficil, amaranth— I can go on and on. Some of these actually thinking of it quite a few of them, I also use in Massachusetts, and in a good rainy season, we would get delicious Volvariella speciosa mushrooms. They would pop up crop after crop following each cycle of rains. Now, we do get something similar in the United States because taxonomically, this mushroom is a relative of the West Coast Volvopluteus. But that’s exactly where all similarities immediately end. Because Volvariella speciosa, the Mediterranean one that we get in Israel, is a delicious large mushroom coveted by everyone. The Palestinians call it “nose of a calf” because they are referring to the tacky protective membrane that becomes shiny when it’s wet. And in prolific seasons. These mushrooms look like someone tossed a whole bunch of shiny frisbees on the grass. My grandmother learned how to hunt for mushrooms and forage for edible plants from her Palestinians and Bedouin friends. She cherished the stories that always came attached to the practical advice as to how to make things and you know where to pick them. And by the time that she passed all of this information to us to my mother and I, the stories would be mostly what was left but it was Gary Lincoff, the great mycologist and storyteller. And a very special friend who finally pushed me to pursue mushrooms through this special perspective of ethnomycology because after each time I published something about the use of a mushroom, or desert truffles, he would say, “You’ve been doing it anyway.”
Lera Niemackl 5:05
I often wish I could be in the same room with Gary and Elinoar and the many other people that Gary influenced. His impact on the mushroom culture in the United States and beyond was so notable. The National Audubon field guides that Gary created are some of the most comprehensive resources for avid foragers in North America. Gary captivated people he opened our eyes to the vastness of mycology, while also making it feel like an approachable, needed and cutting edge science. Elinoar is going to tell us how she met Gary and how he impacted her trajectory.
Elinoar Shavit 5:39
We moved on New York, New York City in 1981. And we met Gary and Irene A few years after that. So at the time, I was busy pursuing advanced academic degrees at Columbia University, all having nothing to do with mushrooms are foraging. And to clear our heads, we used to hike on the weekends in the Palisades, tons of unfamiliar mushrooms. So we use Gary’s Audubon guide to North American mushrooms to identify them. And then when I saw that Gary was giving a class in psychology at the Bronx Botanical Garden, I immediately registered. My meeting with Gary and his mycology class changed my life. Our families became friends, we hunted mushrooms and foraged for berries and nuts, saw movies together. Gary and Irene introduced us to the New York mycological society, and we became members.It was light years before genetic sequencing. A different life. people joined mushroom clubs in those days to learn more about edible mushrooms, or because they loved to deliberate taxonomy. To make things easier for beginners and to reach out to the culinary bunch. Gary would occasionally hold up a single mushroom, turn it slowly to show everyone all its angles. And then he does the gathered crowd, to identify to genus and then to species. The second part was often followed by complete silence. On such occasions, Gary likes to say the following, “Try again try anyway, what have you got to lose? Identifying a mushroom to species is not as important as being able to say something meaningful about it.” Now, by something meaningful, Gary meant the mushrooms identifying features like I dunno, descending gills or ring-partial-vail. From the first time I heard it, I had another meaning in mind. And this sentence, “..saying something meaningful about a mushroom”, stuck with me like a slogan. I don’t know how many times I’ve used it in in all sorts of contexts. Because something meaningful about a mushroom can be so many things like the knowledge that you can shove a handful of spores from the giant puffball Calvatia gigantea to slow or stop the bleeding of a wound. The American Lakota knew. Or, Ötzi The Iceman he was found dead in the Tyrolean Apls, but apparently his mummified body was 5300 years old. Yet he knew to carry with him to the icy mountains, a piece of the Tinder polypore, Fomes fomentarius, because Ötzi knew that the inner part of the fruit body of this mushroom is very easy to ignite even when it’s damp outside and you know, you just need a tiny spark and that it will burn slowly like a piece of coal giving him ample time to build himself a life saving fire. Certainly our friend Paul Stamets can teach us something meaningful, or two, about a mushroom when he demonstrates how to harness the decomposing properties of some mushrooms, like the culinary favorite oyster mushroom pleurotus ostreatus to remediate our soil cleaner, toxic waste, and who knows what else. And I can go on and on but you get the drift. All the meaningful things I’ve just mentioned refer to ways in which people use mushrooms. So thank you, Gary for saying something meaningful about the mushroom. And for shoving my hand into the hand of ethnomycology.
Lera Niemackl 9:11
Elinoar went from a casual forger to being elected president of the New York Mycological Society. While this organization is a hub for learning, like many mycologist soon discover, we as a nation, are in the remedial phases of mycological discovery and understanding. Elinoar acknowledges this and begins to expand her career and collect research globally.
Elinoar Shavit 9:31
After I was elected president of the New York Mycological Society I made time for lots of mycological studies, usually with Gary’s supervision. But soon enough, I realized that I was learning far more going on expeditions to remote areas in the world, like the Amazon, or Australia’s Outback and Alaska or when I participated in conferences like the biannual International Medicinal Mushroom Conference to discuss hundreds of reports from all over the world about the different medicinal uses of mushrooms. And just like that, I had committed to ethnomycology.
Lera Niemackl 10:07
Elinoar becomes one of the few established ethnomycologists and after many years of research and experience — of course ethnomycology is a multifaceted discipline and was only adopted as a study in the mid 20th century. She will tell us about the roles of ethnomycology, how it is defined by contemporary researchers, its emergence in politics and how we can use this science to preserve traditional mushroom knowledge.
Elinoar Shavit 10:32
In a nutshell. Ethnomycology is the field of scientific inquiry that examines human machine interactions, and it is an inherently multidisciplinary field because by its nature, it is tightly connected to other fields that study aspects of human interaction such as anthropology, ethnobotany and ethnobiology. They all share and cross interests with the humanities with fine arts, with social and with natural sciences, especially in medicine. Too wide? Yeah, but that’s why it works. I also like how Dr. Sveta Yamin-Pasternak from the University of Alaska defines ethnomycology. She personifies the part of mushrooms in the relationships, and I like that! Her definition of ethnomycology, and I’m almost quoting, is that the scientific field of ethnomycology is concerned with a rolls of fungi in the human social experience. Now, the field of ethnomycology didn’t even exist as a field before 1957. And what gave it its rise out of cultural anthropology and ethnobotany and carved its niche among the sciences, the deal with interactions of human societies with their environment, was the work of R. Gordon Wasson and his wife, Valentina Pavlovna. Their longtime research on the connections through time between human cultures and the world of mushrooms, was finally published in 1957. In their book, “Russia, Mushrooms and History”. And I remember reading it for the first time in thinking why hasn’t anyone looked at this before? Aend their work, along with their work on the use of psychotropic mushrooms in cultures around the world in their decade long exchange with the philosopher and French anthropologist and its ethnologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, carved the niche for this field of ethnomycology. And it may interest the audience to know that some of the terms that we regularly use in the mushroom world, like mycophile for mushroom lovers, and mycophobe for mushroom haters, were coined by R. Gordon Wasson and Valentina Pavlovna. And funny story, because it’s actually based on their own personal experience because the two of them came from different backgrounds, and as soon as they went on their first mushroom walks or the first walks, they realize that each of them displayed strikingly different attitudes toward the mushrooms that they saw. They attributed the differences in these attitudes to their backgrounds because Valentina came from a mushroom loving culture in Russia. And westerns, dread of mushrooms, was part of his Anglo-Saxon heritage. So there you have a mycophile, and a mycophobe. Oh, by the way, they also coined mycophagy for mushroom cookery.
Lera Niemackl 13:45
Thanks to Gordon Wasson, who coined these terms and catalyzed our more pedestrian use of affixing the prefix “myco-” on just about anything. We commonly say things like “mycoverse” “myco-meat” “myco-friends”, and we even see new businesses with this prefix in their title such as Mycotechnology, MycoWorks, Mycosystemics, Mycopigments— you get the picture. Although all things “myco” are becoming increasingly popular in the Western world, there is an opposing force of myco-knowledge, where the indigenous knowledge is diminishing. Elinoar makes the case that ethnomycology can be of great service in the fight to preserve it.
Elinoar Shavit 14:23
I think that ethnomycology’s most important role today is to record the traditional mushroom knowledge in indigenous societies, particularly in those societies whose habitats are threatened. Because we are losing traditional mushroom knowledge along with natural habitats at an alarming rate, and for a variety of reasons. And this is compounded by the fact that most indigenous societies have had oral traditions not written once, and their knowledge is passed down from generation to generation through repeated stories. However, to maintain their traditional knowledge, people must be in position to practice and exercise their skills, or they’ll be forgotten. So unpracticed skills and know how will often not be passed down to future generations. Now, while recording traditional mushroom knowledge among indigenous societies remains the role. There are three applications of economic Ecological Research that I would like to point out. And it is important to point out that in most traditional societies around the world, women are the keepers of their people’s traditional mushroom knowledge. They are the gatherers and the foragers for food, and for the family’s medicinal needs. They know the details of their resources, they know how to use them, and they teach this knowledge to their children. These responsibilities and the accumulated traditional knowledge that women possess, put women in a valued position within their family, and also within their community. But when people lose their traditional habitats, or they are displaced for any reason, they may no longer be able to practice much of what they know. And that part of their traditional knowledge is forgotten. And in many countries in the world, when the traditional knowledge and the experiences that women have accumulated through generations of mushroom use, are no longer practiced, valued or passed on to their children. This knowledge is quickly forgotten. And when women may no longer be in position, to carry out their responsibilities for their family, and for their community, the same responsibilities for which they were valued before their position within their family and community, even within their culture, takes a problematic and often devastating blow. Another point is that ethnomycological researchers are often at the right place to report potential threats to human populations, and to the habitats of mushrooms. As a result, ethnomycological studies have already been used by international, national and even local policymakers in planning the protection of local populations and in preserving natural habitats and resources. The third point I would like to make is that throughout our mutual history, humans have used mushrooms also as functional foods to maintain good health, and also to cure diseases. And mushrooms have had prominent representation in traditional medicines, and have already provided modern medicine with numerous medicinal compounds and treatments. So another role of ethnomycological research has been to bring to the attention of the scientific community, potentially promising mushrooms that have demonstrated a long history of safe and effective use in traditional medicines. And in turn, traditional medicines have inspired scientific investigations, which have already substantiated several claims of efficacy involving the use of mushrooms in traditional medicines. So fungi have been an impressive source of potentially powerful new pharmaceutical products and they are expected to continue to be so. So the most important role of ethnomycology today, in my opinion, is to effectively record and keep on recording traditional fungi knowledge everywhere, particularly in the more threatened and fragile corners of our world, where indigenous peoples voices are easily ignored, and their traditional knowledge and their natural habitats are not valued to ensure that it is not lost and that it will be available to future generations. Because this bulk of accumulated ethnomycological research represents humanity’s collective memory. We present our collective memory of traditional mushroom knowledge. These traditions of use and people’s lore are hugely important to us into science.
Lera Niemackl 19:20
I want to reiterate Elinoar’s last comment that this research represents humanity’s collective memory of mushroom knowledge. And I believe this knowledge goes far beyond the mushroom space. Mushrooms are by their nature extremely ephemeral and choosey organisms. So unlike plants, animals and other macro species, fungi are very responsive to the subtleties in their ecosystem. Year to year the mushroom population in the same forest will fluctuate immensely. The presence or absence of mushrooms can tell us a lot about an ecosystem, more obviously, than the plants and animals in that space. The conditional nature of mushrooms give us a deeper understanding of the ecosystem. As a whole, which only amplifies the importance of preserving this indigenous wisdom. Now Elinoar recorded this prior to the fungi foundation going global, which reflects the progress and the global appeal that mushroom significance is making. For those who aren’t familiar, the Fungi Foundation was founded by Giuliana Furci, and is a Chilean nonprofit that is dedicated to the research, conservation and education of mushrooms. They just opened a US chapter and have international board members. This was huge and super exciting. And we will be covering more of this in the coming weeks. I love this idea of conserving fungi because it’s not far from an ecosystem conservation. These organisms tend to be more particular about their environment to thrive, and therefore it inherently requires the conservation of its surrounding organisms. Another notable occurrence and policy was the ethnomycological report from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations in 2004. Their conclusion was essentially that mushrooms are indeed an important source of food and medicine and it’s worth our energy to protect it. So I asked Elinoar if this report had any effect on the policies regarding the management and conservation of native lands.
Elinoar Shavit 21:09
It was certainly an important step in the right direction. And it focused the world’s attention on the importance of wild mushrooms to indigenous populations in large areas of the world, often in the poorest and most conflict ridden countries, where people use their native wild mushrooms regularly and even depend on them for food, for medicine, and for cash income. They use their traditional knowledge for information regarding every step in gathering and in using these mushrooms. But what happens to this useful knowledge if vast parcels of the native forests and vegetation are cleared to make room for commercial plantations of introduced trees.
This devastates the native mushroom population, and forever alters the life of the indigenous populations who used to call these forests home and dependent on the mushrooms and on the forest product for their livelihood. And this is what happened in some South American countries where massive areas of the native vegetation were cut to make room for such commercial tree farms, putting immense pressure on the local populations and wreaking havoc on their mushroom populations. Now, some of the introduced trees that were planted in these commercial tree farms, like the pines in Chile, also brought with them their own groups of mycorrhizal mushrooms. And among them are some very good edible mushrooms. And the local populations have indeed learned together and use and sell them in the market. So the question immediately came up. So how devastating was the damage to the local populations. A couple of years ago, we drove for hours along one such commercial tree farming in Chile with Giuliana Furci. And Juliana is a formidable mushroom activist and she is the Jane Goodall of mushrooms. She’s the founder and executive director of chilas from the Seon fungi, which is a conservation organization that affects legislation regarding fungi in Chile, and should be a model to be copied by other countries. Giuliana is also the author of two excellent martial field guides to Chilean fangy. While we were in Chile, we had the honor to meet with a Mapuche elder from an area that was affected by planted commercial tree farms. And he shared with us the predicament of his people emphasize the economic and the cultural blow, that cutting their native forest was to his people. And he talked a lot about the importance of the native mushrooms and the impact of losing them. And then he shared with us his worries for the cultural future of the Pucci. He worried that because so many of the younger generations they’ve had to move away from their community as a result of these tree farms, even to different countries to look for livelihood, they will inevitably lose their traditional knowledge and will become cultural refugees. Which is also the reason I think why the Botanical Society of Argentina decided to sponsor an emergency economic ecological study in the region of Cordoba, which is home to indigenous groups of people. Now, commercial tree plantations have already been planted there and they’ve already caused a lot of damage to the natural habitat and devastation to the local population of the region.
Lera Niemackl 24:46
And just like the authors of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report, the authors of the Cordova ethno psychological study immediately expressed their surprise the previous has no psychological studies. of the region, which would have detailed the importance of the native mushrooms to the economy and to the culture of the local populations were not available to policymakers before the native forests were destroyed. Now, the study was published in 2018, which was the year that we visited Chile. And the office began by stressing the importance of macro fungi to indigenous cultures in South America, repeating that the importance could not be overemphasized. The study also found that the native mushrooms were not only important source of food and medicine, and monitoring income for the local populations, but they were also very important to them culturally. Specifically, in regards to the Cordova area. The study concluded that clearing the native forest and the vegetation to make room for planted tree farms devastated the native mushroom populations, and the loss of their native mushrooms posed a severe threat to the livelihood of the local populations. In fact, so much so that the author’s stated that the situation of the local population was so dire, that immediate recovery measures should be taken to restore the native forests and to protect them in the future. Which is when the authors also stated that there, they hope that their published report will be useful to authorities in their efforts to restore and to preserve the native forests in the region of Cordoba. So this is a case where the native habitat of indigenous societies is destroyed. But similar problems arise when people are removed from their natural habitats, and they become refugees. And we see this situation happen all too often in conflict ridden areas around the world.
So this is a little like saying that you can take a person out of their habitat but you can’t take the habitat out of a person. Ethnomycological studies can address situations in which people are displaced from their homelands. Elinoar will give us examples on how.
Elinoar Shavit 27:19
I was thinking of an exceptional ethnomycological study that was conducted among the displaced Sahrawi refugees in the Western Sahara, which were displaced in 1975. As a result of war, they became refugees living in refugee camps somewhere else. And this study records a point in time in which a crucial part of traditional desert truffle knowledge, which was no longer even valued by the younger generations of the community, it was about to be lost as the elders of the community or its succumbing to old age one by one became their most valuable asset. And the authors also witnessed and recorded the transforming effect, that achieving success by employing a bit of practical information from their communities own knowledge head on the entire community. And then it goes ahead and maybe doesn’t suggest it but he implies and it’s an intriguing idea that perhaps agencies could employ traditional knowledge in their efforts to help displace refugee communities begin to sever their total dependency on aid agencies, and perhaps even take some first steps to restart their own cultural life. Before the war that displaced them. Some, what is it three decades ago? The Sahrawi lived a nomadic pastoral life, gathering plenty of desert truffles for all their needs, in their traditional desert truffle areas, and for the market. But they have continuously lived in refugee camps since 1975. And for the most part, they had not been able to return to their peoples historical desert truffle gathering areas. Also because they lacked them. The means to get there like the vehicles, they still gather at some desert truffles for their needs, and maybe even some to sell. But knowing where to gather desert truffles in large quantities, and the intricacies of this trade. It requires extensive expertise and practice, a lot of knowledge, the youngers for how we did not have that. And when a decade or so ago, the demand for desert truffles all over the world began to skyrocket. Along with the price of the truffles. The young Sahrawi quickly realized that they no longer knew how to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors and gather a lot of desert truffles feed for the market. They could not cash in on the truffle craze because they lack their ancestors expertise and know how. Fortunately for them, some of the elders still remembered gathering desert truffles either people’s historical desert truffle areas before the war, and their practical knowledge and their expertise actually saved the day. So armed with this detailed information, the young Sahrawi refugees were able to get in on the desert truffle trade, and supply good amounts of truffles to the hungry market. And with the income that they generated using their ancestors traditional knowledge, the Sahrawi made their first attempt in more than three decades. To reduce their communities total dependency on aid stations for everything. They were even able to take some first steps toward rebuilding their community and cultural life. And the author also points out that the younger Sahrawi they interviewed, said that they perceive their elders desert truffle traditional knowledge to be their most valued asset.
Lera Niemackl 31:01
The desert truffle is a great example of how deep the mushroom knowledge goes and the potential consequences of losing that knowledge. Elinoar has published numerous articles on these truffles. So of course, we wanted to know more. We asked Elinoar if these were true truffles meaning the ectomycorrhizal subterranean fruiting mass and the ascomycota phylum. Why are they so special and anything else that was worth sharing about these desert truffles?
Elinoar Shavit 31:26
I am so happy about this question. It is my favorite topic to talk about. And yes, desert truffles are indeed true truffles, just like the European truffles. And just like the European truffles, they are in the ascomycetes and they produce their fruit bodies underground, or in the desert truffle case, under the sand. And like the European truffles, they are mycorrhizal but desert truffles do not form their mycorrhizal relations with trees. They form them with drought hardy plants in the Cistaceae, which many of us know is the rock-rose family, mostly with species of helianthemum. They also thrive in arid and semi-arid areas around the world, on all continents except Antarctica, and they don’t rely on the production of aromatic chemicals to attract animals to eat them and thus disperse their spores, like the European truffles do. Although they do attract some rodents, and they do attract us. They rely on desert winds to blow their spores after exposing their dried fruit bodies. In towards this purpose. they ripen just beneath the top layer of the sand. And they’re swelling fruit bodies, push the sand layer just enough to form a telltale typical concentric area of cracks in the sand right over the swelling truffle. It makes it easier for the wind to expose them. But, it also makes it easier for humans to find the truffles hiding place and scoop them out with thier bare hands. And it is common for truffles to ripen their food bodies partially out of the sand, looking like bumps on the desert floor. And the white desert truffle, Tirmania nivea, even likes to pop completely out of the sand and ripen over it. And these ripe white truffles can grow often as large as a tennis ball, even larger, and they stick out on top of the desert hot sand looking like a snowball. The best known and most sought after desert truffles are species in the genera Terfezia and Tirmania. These truffles tend to grow relatively large fruit bodies mostly somewhere between a walnut and a golf ball. And they’re growing habitats stretch along a huge part of the world, all the way from the Persian Gulf to the east, through the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin, Northern Africa and all the way to the Western Sahara and the Atlantic Ocean over three continents. These vast areas are desert truffles main hub. But, they also grow in China. And they grow in the African Kalahari where they’ve been essential food for local populations for hundreds of years. And now they support these populations through ecotourism. And they also grow in Australia’s Outback, where they used to be very important to the indigenous populations and you can see it in their arts. But their traditional desert truffle knowledge is all but lost. Whatever it desert truffles may lacking strong aroma, they more than make up for in producing huge quantities of highly nutritious and delicious fruit bodies. And whereas the European truffles are but an expensive condiment that we shaved raw over other foods to enhance their flavor, desert truffles are the food. Desert truffles begin producing their food bodies not too long after the first rains, and they fill in the gap between the first rains and the time when the first fruits and grains are finally ready for harvest, producing plenty of nutritious and delicious fruit bodies, often for three to four months straight bending on some rain. And they’re also easy to dry and to preserve for future use. Drying hardly affects their nutritional or their medicinal properties, and the dry truffles will keep for a long time. And in this desert truffles are the perfect emergency food, and they are highly popular among millions of people living in the poorest, driest, hottest places on earth. They’re also often survival food for nomadic desert populations, because you can carry the dry slices with you wherever you go. And some communities of Bedouins will eat only desert truffles for the entire three plus months of their growing season, eating nothing else. And we have lots of records of that. It is no wonder that desert truffles have been cherished throughout history, regarded as a blessing, a reward for suffering and the gift from God. And they are just as important today is they were to desert dwellers some 4000 years ago. And I’m not surprised that the world at large has finally honed in on their value, and that both the truffles, local and international popularity have soared such that they have become a commercial commodity. Their growing popularity may support the efforts to preserve the truffles fragile habitats, as well as the fragile traditional knowledge of the nomadic and sedentary desert populations who use them. And mostly this is information that is held by women. And it may even provide a solution for women within their family and society. As many nomadic desert societies have had to settle down in one place, countries have made efforts to find ways in which to help them make a living there have been sedentary societies that are used to their nomadic and pastoral life making living in one place. In the growing demand for desert truffles, especially the international demand for desert truffles, has made it economically for them to establish family or community processing plants in the areas where the truffles grow and, and like I said nomadic populations they’ve had to settle. This makes the traditional desert truffle knowledge mostly held by women valuable again. And these profitable family businesses provide women with a again profitable, culturally acceptable working environment based on their knowledge on their traditional knowledge and empowers them again. And in some countries, efforts to cultivate desert truffles for the market, but also to reintroduce back into the wild in the form of pre-inoculated helianthemum plants to supplement the natural habitats have already shown success. Internationally supported projects to preserve the culture of some nomadic societies like the Bedouins, using their traditional knowledge in an economically sustainable way, have already shown success as well. In they concentrate also on the on women’s accumulated traditional knowledge of use of plants and mushrooms in every way, including not just food, but also the medicinal applications. And it is also important to think about the idea that when nomadic people settle down in the truffles areas, and they use their resources and natural resources to make a living, they’re going to take good care of those resources. So that’s a way of preservation as well. Desert truffles boasts one of the most impressive pedigrees of any natural food. The 19th century writer Alexandre Dumas, who gave us The Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo put it best when he said that to tell the story of the truffle, was to tell the story of human civilization. Because desert truffles have had the longest unbroken recorded history of use of any mushroom in their present growing hubs. And they already appear by their same names by which we still refer to them today. In the earliest records of human writing from Mesopotamia well over 4000 years ago. They are discussed in the records of the ancient Egyptians, in the Bible, in the ancient Greeks writings, in the Jewish Talmud, in Islamic religious writing, and travelers through the centuries. Islams Prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century, is reported by his companions to have said that desert truffles were the manna that God gave the Israelites as their food when they wandered in the desert in that desert truffles juice was medicine for eye ailments. And this last important piece of information was repeated by the important Persian physician of Avicenna in the 10th century, giving desert truffles an important place in Islam traditional medicine. If I’m not mistaken, desert truffles are the only mushroom discussed by the prophet Muhammad.. Desert truffles hold an important place in Islam, traditional medicine and in other traditional medicines that are practiced in the truffles extensive growing areas where they have been used successfully against several human and animal pathogens. The liquid of the fresh truffles and the rehydrating liquid of the dried ones, especially after Terfezia claveryi, and Terfezia boudieri, is considered particularly effective in the treatment of bacterial and viral eye infections. Desert dwellers keep dry desert struggles with them for medicinal uses, both for people and in herd animals all through the year. Islam’s traditional medicine is practiced by populations in large parts of the world. And as a result, extensive scientific research has been done already to verify and substantiate many of its claims for efficacy and safety. And scientific studies have concluded that desert truffles liquid and extracts demonstrated antibacterial activity against several common pathogens that cause diseases in human in particular, pathogens that cause eye diseases, including Chlamydia trachomatis, which is the bacteria that causes trachoma. And this is significant, because as the World Health Organization reports in many developing countries in the world, including the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Sahara, trachoma is a leading cause of blindness among poor populations. More so, among younger people. And many of these poor populations live in the areas where desert truffles grow, and where they are traditionally gathered and used by local population. So they are available. And this is significant because the WHO also reported that of these way too many cases of blindness, some 75% could have been prevented with treatment. Now, the scientific substantiation of safety and efficacy claims from traditional medicine regarding the use of desert truffles to cure eye infections may also make a difference to populations living in remote locations, often in conflict zones where medications and conventional medicine and conventional medicine treatments may be close to impossible to get. Even people who may not have opted to use traditional medicinal plants and mushrooms before may wish to know this information and opt to keep some dry desert truffle slices is a safe and effective alternative to the medicine that they cannot get. Their juice may not be as effective or quick to resolve a problem is an antibiotic ointment, you know purchase at the pharmacy, but in the absence of that ointment, they may offer a safe and even effective alternative.
Lera Niemackl 44:06
The desert travel is a remarkable example of how significant mushrooms are to human civilization. They have had the longest unbroken history of use, have kept their namesake, and appearance some of human’s earliest writing. To think that that knowledge on where to find and how to use these truffles was almost lost is worrisome and sad. But by the same token, this truffle revival in local communities is inspiring. And while there must be so much last that we never had the chance to document, I think that this story is a testament to the importance and hopefully with the work of ethnomycologist the Fungi Foundation and other conservation based entities we can start celebrating more of these preservation stories and just inspire people to pay attention and recognize the importance of these fungi. And finally we as Elinoar will be asked each guest on the show, and that is if mushrooms had the mic and could say one thing to the whole human race, what would they say?
Say something to us? Wow. Perhaps Dumas said it best back in the 19th century. I’ve worked in the company of mushrooms my entire life. I’ve tried to outsmart them each morel season. I can’t imagine my world without them yet I have never understood their nature. For that matter, I have never met anyone who did. Fungi are a formidable force in the environments of our world. They are all around us, inside us, doing their thing despite us, sharing many of our traits. Would anyone in the world of fungi even care enough to say something to us? Well, perhaps to Paul Stamets. So let me resort to Dumas and tell you a short anecdote, which I’m embellishing and it goes like this. Dumas, who I have already quoted, could barely tolerate people but was crazy about truffles. So at a lavish Parisian banquet, he was handed a toasted foie gras baguette piled high up with extra slices of black truffles. But before he could take a bite in it, the hostess asked him what he thought was the nature of the truffle. Dumas gave the hostess a sugar-free look, and with much authority said to her, after we’ve argued this matter for over 2000 years, the truffles themselves were finally asked, but their answer was great. “Eat us! And praise the Lord.” And with this, he took a bite in the truffles. I really should stop here, but I can’t resist. Because when you think of it, making us eat them was the truffles plan all along because this is after all, how these truffles spread their spores. And with this, I thank you guys for inviting me.
So big thanks to Elinoar for being a pioneering ethno mycologist and doing important work and spreading the knowledge. She is a contributing editor to Fungi Magazine so you can follow her work there. She is also on LinkedIn and I have shared an abundance of her work in the show notes so make sure to check that out. There are some great pieces on mushrooms preserved in amber and copal, which is a tree resin, and some of them, some of those specimens are millions of years old. So it is a whole other topic in and of itself. But you can read about it, enjoy it and be inspired. There are some other parables and mushroom recipes and more fun stuff in the show notes. So, click the link to get into that Google Drive. And thank you all for tuning in. Mush love and may the spores be with you.