Myceliating the System and Rebuilding Rot with Olga Tzogas

SA

First off, how are you?

O

Hello! Hello! I’m doing good, busy but really feeling decent these days. Lots going on but the rains are bringing me joy, because they help fruit so many beautiful fungi! It’s been a lovely year for wild mushrooms so far. How’s it going over there?

SA

It’s going well! I agree, the rain is so cleansing. I’m in Brooklyn right now, and there’s something about the weather today that is lending itself to both melancholy and introspection. I’m so excited to talk to you because what you do is very moving to me — teaching people more about mycology — and so I want to know everything. 

Tell me, what was your journey to mycology? 

O

Yes the waters! So cleansing, it feels so much better out there after a rinse I tell ya! Thank you for your kind words! I’m just the messenger of the fungi and it’s been such a treat sharing what I love with people and other folks catching on to the divinity of mushrooms and Fungi. I always loved eating mushrooms, in foods, and growing up, my mother, every New Years Day would make this really simple dish with white button mushrooms, parsley, wine and lots of garlic…mind blowing. As I started to steer my studies in community college away from art to more biology, I had some amazing teachers that were walking encyclopedias, they could see anything outside that was wild and tell you its name and everything about it. It was inspiring and mostly because when we started learning about mushrooms and fungi, we found hundreds of varieties and many of them incredible edibles. I’m super into food, grew up in a Greek diner and that’s the way to my heart. So they grabbed my attention and really, I just rabbit-holed myself into their wonder. It’s vast, as we know, mushrooms are beyond food, but medicinal, therapeutic, ecological healers and ceremonial. They are almost infinite in their abilities and their range of existence in so many fields of study and life. It was indeed the love others had for fungi that was contagious and I caught on as well.

SA

This is so concise, I love how you can track your love and interest in mushrooms right from these formative moments like New Years Day meals… Food is a gateway for me as well. I started gaining more interest in mycology/fungi/ the mycelium network through the work of Paul Stamets and Fantastic Funghi recently really blew my mind… just how intelligent this species is. You say you’re a messenger (and I believe it) so was there a moment that you can remember where you felt you had to teach people about this majestic wondrous plant/medicine? 

And if so… why? I’m really curious how that journey started for you. Did it feel like a divine calling? 

O

It’s funny because I think it just happened naturally. It’s almost like, every person who does know about Fungi is a teacher because we end up having to explain to folks what they’re looking at all the time hahaha. I would be at markets selling some gathered goods, when I first began my ‘business’ with fungi and half the time it was educating folks, because they would be like, “hey! I saw something like that the other day! What is that?” And you end up giving them a little lesson along the way. Really, though, it was the need for the info in the community around here, the desire to bring other teachers, to host, to learn from too. I definitely put lots of my initial knowledge to the credit of incredible fungal mentors like Ja Schindler of Fungi for the People, who really taught me how to grow mushrooms and encouraged me to share the knowledge as much as possible.  

SA

I feel like most people I meet who work with Fungi are teachers, you’re right. I’m also in awe of anyone who dedicates their time, efforts and energy into educating people about this Earth. You’re also right about community — I find there’s something really utopic about Fungi because they have this immense regenerative quality that is so profound — and in conversations even about our ecological future in the face of the current climate catastrophe I believe that Fungi does and will play such a role in how we reimagine the world ahead of us. 

Does that resonate with you? Do you agree? 

O

I want to say yes, but I’m also a bit bitter of green washed models of what our future could be like. I think we know what it could look like, because the models are present all over the world in various pockets of areas left alone from so-called ‘progress.’ Like, that recent Elon Musk tweet he’s offering tons of money to combat the climate crisis and it’s like, JUST PLANT TREES! LOL It’s the Industry fucking shit up, and they just want their little green washed eco campaign to make their other awful practices seem less terrible? Idk im pretty ‘anti civilization’ in the sense that so much is caused by immense industrial frameworks for everything we do and consume, I think it’d be way better if it didn’t exist at all LOL but obvs that’s not reality and we live in the so called late stages of capitalism, do I think mushrooms are going to make greedy jerks not mess the planet up? I don’t think so. I think there’s this boom for profit that just won’t let up. Do I want there to be a better ecological future? Sure do! But until we really see that, the pipelines are still being built, by the same companies selling green energy, giving us the ‘alternatives’ when really Mama Earth provides all. We’re so detached. It’s hard and it’s also just the systems in place, it’s hard to escape the rat race as they say. There’s tons of privilege that exists with this notion of returning to the land, growing food, growing mushrooms, etc because that’s not a reality that everyone can do, and sometimes the folks that were living on the land good, get displaced by giant energy projects, pipelines, developments, hotels etc. I’ll also say that, Paul’s youtube video about ‘mushrooms saving the Earth’ is deflective, it puts huge pressure and hope that one organism is going to save us, a ‘cure all’ if you will and it’s not that simple. I mean it almost is, but most don’t want to have that convo; abolition of the military, prisons and what was it? 70 companies responsible for the rest of the ecological crisis? It puts this personal responsibility on the US when it’s really on THEM.   

SA

Yes, I absolutely feel you. Late stage capitalism is really an interesting beast because it really wants to take the planet down and doesn’t care if it extracts the entire Earth for resources, it’s a devastating reality we live in right now but I guess it’s funny I’ve been thinking about the future a lot as I’m writing my fourth book on the wellness industrial complex (called Who Is Wellness For?) so I’m examining the question of futurity a lot. I absolutely believe we can only have a future on this planet by collapsing predatory Capitalism (though I don’t believe an ~ ethical alternative ~ which I’m sure they’ll try to sell us will work when our planet is literally melting) and that’s really the only way. Because… what happens when power lines go down, or labor workers can’t work — Capitalism relies on cheap labor and the “compliance” of the Earth… and I actually feel her saying NO. Like a big booming NO. And I think she’s going to keep saying NO! NO! NO! Until we are forced to stop and reconsider. So yes… absolutely feel you on the reality we are living, but I think that future relies so much on the hope that we can collapse and reimagine… without greenwashing but by actually collapsing and reinstating new paradigms. I feel like that’s what your work is doing on a community level… by educating people you’re giving them an entry point to their own liberation from Capitalism in a way!!!

So what do you think are steps we can take for anyone who reads this to engage with Fungi in a holistic way? I feel like learning how to be with these medicines is definitely a step toward redefining the right relationship to the Earth. 

O

Study them and all their relatives. Study the trees, smell the flowers, feel plants. Listen to the birds and go outside and see the Earth resisting the concrete and the flowers that make their way to every corner of the city and beyond. We need to listen, and you’re right, Earth is saying, NO NO NO! And we need to hear that and protect Earth at all costs. We need to connect to teachers and folks who are sharing. Obviously that could get tricky cuz the internet is filled with a wide range of info and content. I luckily did start learning about Fungi, kind of before there was much internet content out there and I began learning from folks in local mushroom clubs. It really is a great way to connect and learn. They know their stuff. It is definitely a more colonized approach to Mycology; most mushrooms are picked, identified, placed in herbariums and stored. But it’s a stepping stone to get comfy and maybe find your fungi crew to connect with. It’s a matter of time, we find each other. Sadly, clubs are very apolitical. They won’t talk about deforestation or climate crisis because this older boomer model, ‘leave politics’ out of it’ let me have my club time, when the habitats they like gathering from are under serious attack and gone. Thankfully now though, with the help of the internet, we have found more rad, inclusive spaces to adore fungi and study. I’m grateful to many teachers like the folks over at the POC Fungi Community, Mama Maiz and countless BIPOC Earth stewards leading the way.  Showing me and my community how to navigate with more care and connection. It’s been a journey for me, if we spoke 15 years ago, I would of told you I wanted to be the next Paul Stamets, seriously, now, with the grace and guidance of incredible people everywhere, my growth within the fungal centric world, I tend to be steered away from his model and more of a smaller, diverse, decentralized and interconnected one. I want discussions around water and land rights to be part of the conversation when we talk about fungi, when we talk about mushrooms at the store or in the packets. Where did they come from? There’s tons of mushroom companies out there right now and I’m def in favor of supporting smaller growers and folks making noise for change. Like, I don’t know about you, but I want to give money to people doing rad work, advocating for police abolition, the end to corporate welfare and a real eco centric paradigm.

SA

I think that’s why your work shows the radicality of fungi—because what is it if not a confrontation of death? I’ve been thinking about death awareness a lot as a way to navigate thwarting Capitalism. Everything you’re speaking to as well — abolition of cops, of prisons, of Capitalism, of these industrial complexes that need to collapse — is all a part of the future of Fungi to me, because with that very praxis of mycology there seems to be an intelligent system that though might not have all the answers how they respond and communicate with each other, at the very least, to me, is a radical way of showing how to learn from them. 

Thank you for this conversation. It’s been so healing. 

One last question, I want to know through all of this radical work that’s being done and needs to be done, how do you center and take care of yourself? This journey towards ~ the collective anti-Capitalist future ~ is a long one. How do you harness yourself for it? Do you use daily tinctures? Are there particular blends or fungi you would recommend for caring for yourself and your community through fungi? 

Are there any smaller growers you would also recommend? Folks that you would recommend others looking into? 

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

O

Yes, we definitely gotta decompose, myceliate the system and rebuild from that rot! Rot can be good and I hope we can get more comfy having conversations like this. Here, in the West there is this innate fungiphobic mindset that has stemmed from our fear of death and the unknown and I appreciate you bringing that up. Fungi are mystics and carriers of so much knowledge, bridging all the topics, all the waters, all the conversations and I think we gotta honor that. The medicine that I try to connect with is honoring my one commitment to take a walk in the woods at least once a week. It’s something I’ve been really trying to make sure I do for at least an hour a week. I know that might seem bizarre because I work with mushrooms, but sometimes, the farming and the business side steals the original joy, which was walking around, seeing what was growing, which is just such a delight. It’s new every time. It’s very stimulating and sometimes ya just end up picking berries or watching woodpeckers, heck or getting bit by a tick too, it’s not always a dreamy landscape.  When I do get the need to take medicine, I really like Turkey Tail mushrooms, they are incredible. I could talk about them for an hour on their own. I’m also really excited about growing cordyceps, and playing with different extractions with them. I love all mushrooms, they’re hard to pick. I tend to work with mostly polypore fungi, reishi, maitake, turkey tail and violet toothed polypore. I love chaga but I dont offer it anymore because I’m getting so shaken up by the massive extractive industry that’s just getting bigger and bigger.  The Chaga ‘fruit’ is only found in the wild and it makes me really scared to think how much of it exists on shelves of stores right now. When I am stressing about climate collapse, I tend to take some roses, elder flowers, tulsi, various herbal essences and lots of cannabis. Thank gawd for cannabis. Also lots of water, tons, and with lots of lemon. Hot water with lemon is my go to.  

As far as growers and makers, it’s almost impossible to not find a local mushroom farm at this point. There’s been a boom of mushroom farms and businesses. I def encourage folks to visit their local farm markets and see who is growing what. It’s a great way to get really fresh produce and foods. I love so many people doing so much amazing work, growing and sharing with their communities. Herban Cura does a phenomenal job offering classes and they also have a great line of extracts called BRUJAS that has both botanical and fungi extracts. William Padilla Brown, has an assortment of high concentrated extract of medicinals, very techy, and inspiring. Out West in Oregon, ZoomOut Mycology offers kits and medicinal teas and extracts.  Our fam down in Southern California, as mentioned POC FUNGI Community provides classes, medicine and resources to BIPOC communities to get into fungi.  For any mushroom cultivation classes I really do suggest the school at Fungi for the People, Ja and Val are incredible teachers and you will not regret it. It’s very loaded with info and most folks out there aren’t offering a course for 7 days which includes meals and camping. TBH I took Paul Stamets classes 12+ years ago and looking back, it was not worth it. It’s a bit of a novelty class, there were no real hands-on demos, no interactive way to learn. Very formal, and standardized.  Basically save the bucks and learn from smaller growers, his books tend to leave folks thinking they gotta drop $20k to grow a mushroom, that’s not the case.  They literally can grow on most water streams.  One of my current favorite cultivation books out there right now, is DIY Mushroom Cultivation By Willoughby Arevalo, who is soo talented and hilarious.

Thanks so much for this opportunity. Appreciate you

The Importance of Understanding Medicine and Healing for the Revolution with Marisa Hall

SA
Hi Marisa, how are you this morning?

M
Hi, my love! I’m doing well 🙂 A little sleepy, but at my core feeling inspired. How are you? Am I allowed to ask you questions?

SA
I’m good… or maybe that’s my default at this point. You totally are allowed to ask me questions, I want this to be a conversation.  

M
Amazing, I just wanna hear how you are! And I think we all have our default answer. Like, the truth is probably 90% of the time my truth is a foundational exhaustion. Beyond that, there’s life to be lived, so I find fuel somewhere. Like here! I woke up so sleepy but was like I gotta get it together for this interview

SA
Well I accept you as you are, always. Talk to me about this foundational exhaustion. 

M
Yeah, I actually was just talking to Marlee about this yesterday. Like, the reality of what we fight for. I’ve been considering this question a lot. What are we fighting for? And what we’re seeing in this catalyst in the movement is really just advocating for the ordinary. For it to not be exhausting for us (Black people) to do regular ass things (to be in love, to cook, to sit, to open our emails, open books, to take baths, write poetry and letters and get the flu) without the additional weight of fearing for our lives. It’s about the right to exist in the mundane and extraordinary. 

So when I think and talk about foundational exhaustion, I’m talking about waking up and feeling that weight. And I love the ordinary, I love being queer and black because we make life sparkle by way of achieving the ordinary. To live in this body is to exist in transcendence and that is a beautiful thing, in the end. I don’t know if that answers your question. What else would you like to know?

SA
I love this explanation because it’s so acute, it’s something that’s important I think, as a non-Black person, to recognize that weight, to understand this reality of Blackness for Black people, not just an imagined projection. Holistically, it’s an important part of acknowledging white inferiority, to know the history of oppression, and the current weight of it. What I love about you, and the work you do, is that you also are finding ways to shift this energy, to really look beyond it… to find joy, to find healing, to find reprieve. I want to start at the beginning. Tell me about why you gravitated towards making medicine? What compelled you?

M
Mmm this is a question I’ve mulled over at so many points over the last year or so, and I think there are so many multi-dimensional factors that have played a part in my journey into making herbal medicine.

The first and probably most important influence has to do with my ancestry and where I grew up. Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood are in my grandmother’s garden, in the Bay Area, California. My maternal grandmother’s family is Louisiana Creole, and she grew up in rural Louisiana with the norm being growing your own food and leaning heavily on community knowledge and resources to heal. When she moved to San Francisco after she and my grandfather got married, there was a lot of shame in that way of thinking, I think. To live and heal off of what you grew was a delicate balance between leisure (what you wanted to do) and class implications (what you could or couldn’t afford to do). So she was kind of discouraged from leaning on plants for medicine as not to embarrass the family, but did it anyway. 

When I was little, I spent so much time in her garden, mostly when I was home sick from school. I grew up with my mom, and my grandmother’s house was the default when she was working, and I got sick a lot as a kid. So, my grandmother would be doing her thing and I would lay in the grass and eat strawberries while she hung laundry on her clothes line, or sit under her fig tree and eat the fruit, or sit by the fence and eat the berries. The sun and the fruit were so healing for me and we were always outside. I think as an adult, my inclination was, for so long, to lay in bed when I wasn’t feeling well, and it took this re-ignited interest in nature that reminded me that being outside with plants is actually so integral to being well for me.

Plant medicine offers this bridge from the external (the dirt, the wind, the matter), to the internal (the vessel, the body) and I was reminded of this over and over after my grandmother passed away, because she would show up in nature all the time, often right when I needed her. And also when my family has needed her. There was a moment last summer when I went home and had a conversation with my mother and aunt about dandelion (which I was diving deep into) and they started reminiscing about my grandmother making them dandelion tea to soothe their morning sickness when they were pregnant. It’s such a beautiful lineage to uncover.

When I was in college there was a point when I was super anxious and depressed and was on medication for about a month, and it did not work for me. This is not at all to say that medication isn’t essential for some people, but I realized in that moment that I wanted to find other ways of managing without numbing myself out – I wanted to feel everything, just not be overwhelmed by the sensation of feeling everything, you know? Being amongst plants has always felt like something that is so sensory and joyous, but I also feel held. So, I guess there isn’t so much an origin story to my inclination to work with plants so much as there has been a constant presence and slow gravitation toward this way of working with them and being able to share it with people – which has been the coolest, most magical thing I’ve ever experienced and continues to blow my mind.

SA
The idea of you eating strawberries on the grass, or figs under the tree, is so beautiful to me. What a joyous idea. I think for me, though my knowledge of plants is not as expansive as yours, there’s a similar gravitational pull… and maybe a lineage (as you touched on with your grandma, too) that there is this almost inexplicable sensation of coming together with plants. I think that’s why I personally ingest a lot of plant medicine… I access myself through them. Another world, but another more honest self.

I’m also just suddenly remembering the time I put a picture on instagram of my backyard and you pointed out the dandelion, and it kind of made me emotional… because there’s so much beauty we don’t see that’s around us, and communing with plants is almost an instantaneous way of accessing that connectivity. 

Tell me a memory that brings you joy of learning more about plants.

M
Yes! I think it is so ancestral, and that we all have the ability to listen to plants more closely and notice beauty that is offered with no pretense more often. I wonder all of the time what we’ve done to deserve such beauty and an abundant resource and then have to remind myself that something made in and of nature would never ask that question. They just exist and offer. I’m just over here tryna be more like a plant.

I trained with Amanda David (founder of Bramble Collective in Ithaca) and owe so much of my framing of all of this to her guidance. One of the core principles that she focused on is the idea of ‘barriers to cure.’ 

So, in thinking about something like anxiety, one might refocus the lens to consider what the aspirational feeling or emotion or way of being might be, and what is getting in the way. So I realize that I want to feel calm, but instead I feel jittery or agitated or restless — the question that I’d ask myself, is what is between me and that peace or relief? The medicine that I choose would align with the thing that’s in the way. Getting really close with what can be scary brings me joy. A plant like Motherwort wraps its arms around fear.

I remember harvesting motherwort for the first time (which, if you search for a picture of it is this gorgeous, stalky green plant with jaunty leaves and serious thorny buds all up the stalk), and having a conversation with the plant and needing to go so slowly as I cut one stem at a time. It was a moment of collaboration and permission between the two of us, and that intimacy in process has been such a powerful and motivated constant reason to rejoice as I’ve done this work.

SA
So “barriers to cure” is essentially a concept of understanding your bodily response and then learning how to holistically provide for yourself? 

M
Yeah, essentially. It’s searching for the root of something instead of focusing on a symptom. The western medical system is all about treating symptoms. Numbing pain instead of trying to figure out what is causing pain and offering slow, tender care to that place while also finding ways to offer relief. And I think that folk medicine and western medicine can exist and work in tandem, for sure, but holisticism is so central to how I think about care and addressing dis-ease. Our bodies are so intelligent, we just need to pay attention and trust that we’re the experts in our own experience.

SA
Ugh, I love you. Yes, and I imagine this is one of the reasons that during the revolution (and before) you’ve been providing medicine for Black folks to heal and take care of themselves. What do you want people to think about when it comes to holistic medicine? Especially for someone who has maybe been failed by the Western medical system, but doesn’t know where else to look…

M
I want to encourage people to look inward. One thing that being in relative isolation can do is push the individual to pay attention to what is going on for them, which again, can be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. So you take something like getting home from a protest in the middle of a pandemic where people are met with a lot of anxiety about their health, anger about systemic fuckery (thinking of a different word here), and physical and mental and emotional exhaustion. What tools might be helpful to temper a moment like that? 

I want people to be open to advocating for themselves, for saying no to things that don’t feel quite right, and knowing what questions to ask. It’s all about empowerment, and chipping away at this barrier that is, in a lot of ways, a learned mistrust of self. When we realize that we have everything we need in community, I truly think we’ll be able to be unrelenting in our pursuit of joy. 

The decision to offer medicine to black people at no cost was meant to remove another barrier so that the financial access piece was removed. Everyone should be able to integrate tools that could open a door to a fuller experience of their lives.

SA
I have been thinking so much about the learned mistrust of self, and how that engineers a constant state of anxiety because you never know what to trust (and especially not yourself) which therein creates a cycle of self-sabotage. One of the most helpful spiritual lessons I’ve ever learned is “trust your knowing.” During the revolution we’re learning how to equip ourselves, what are 2-5 herbs you think everyone should have, and why? Whether for protection, healing or self preservation.

M
Ooh, I love this question! I really love the idea of trusting your own knowing, because there is an implicit knowledge of knowing and an opportunity to ask yourself, what do I know? and how can I reach a greater state of knowing?

I’m gonna embed an image of an image of a little worksheet/zine that I made for a workshop a while back, but some of my favorites are:

Tulsi – this is an adaptogenic herb that is delicious and abundant and you can feel it. What integrating tulsi (in tea, tincture, etc) can do is help your nervous system recover from intense sustained stress, and help your body adjust to stressors so that all of your energy isn’t expended in the ‘fight or flight’ wheel that is so easy to get stuck in. When considering the energetic components of a plant, tulsi is one that grows so abundantly and toward the sun, so it’s excellent for fostering a sense of levity and expansiveness. It’s important to keep that in mind while we’re all trying our best not to burn out.

Rose – rose is honestly just the best. I put it in almost all of my blends, and it just feels like a hug. It’s an anti-inflammatory, and is a mild sedative. So if you get hot/flushed when you’re stressed and just need something to soothe you and help slow you down, rose is gentle and effective. Also just delicious.

Bee Balm – bee balm (monarda) has a beautiful flower that is like candy for hummingbirds. It has these trumpet-shaped flowers with the sweetest nectar at the base, and the leaves act as really powerful immune support (better than echinacea). My physiological focus in the revolution has been care for the nervous system and care for the immune system. Sleep plays a big part in my practice, but monarda is something I reach for when I’m feeling like I need something to bolster my system’s defenses.

Nettle – nettle is a superfood, so if you’re looking for something that is nutrient rich (and a neutral base for teas) nettle is a wonderful option. It’s a diuretic, so supports the urinary system which is also really important to take care of in moments of high stress as it purifies the liver, kidneys, and urinary tract. If you’re drinking or eating foods that feel hard for your body to process, nettle is good to integrate for balance. I usually try to have it early in the day for energy.

SA
Marisa, thank you. This is so powerful. Are there any last things you want to add?

M
Thank you! Lemme think…

Ok, two things:

One is a quote that has stuck with me in reference to considering one’s own healing which is in line with the Wise Woman Tradition by Susan Weed (has it’s issues, but there are some principles that can be reframed):

‘The focus is on the person, not the problem, nourishing not curing, self-healing not healing another. A give-away dance of exploration and experience, with no answer to the question “why?” No blame, no shame, no guilt, no reason, no answer ever to “why?”’

The second is this photo of my grandmother harvesting dandelion in San Francisco, in a white dress that she made, which I just adore. Nothing can keep us away from the earth, and that is powerful. To know that as long as you have access to the earth, you have access to healing.

SA
Have you read “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer?

M
I love that book so, so much! That was really the window that swung open for me (maybe 5 years ago when I first read it) in realizing that working with plants was something that I had to do.

SA
You remind me of Robin. The way you write about plants, really evokes a true love and dedication to them. It’s spectacular to witness, thank you. 

M
Thank you so much for offering this space! I love talking to you, always. Plants will always love you back and guide the way. I just want people to trust you can always turn toward the sun or go touch a tree when humans are bumming you out. 

Marisa is a writer, yoga teacher and herbalist from Berkeley, California. Her interest in healing stems from  a consideration of holisticism, to create a deeper relationship with self, and she offers these modalities (whether through making medicine, or teaching yoga) to nurture self-awareness, love and joy for one’s self and community.