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April 2021

the internet is a fungus

A New York urban gardener takes a look at life online

Screenshot 2021-04-01 at 16.43.10.png

candace thompson

The Internet is a Pleurotus ostreatus. 

Pervasive, digestible, accessible, and functional, the common oyster is the first mushroom I learned to identify as a forager. With few deadly lookalikes they’re nearly foolproof, cooking them is a cinch, and their flavor and texture is appealing to even the most squish-adverse. When shipped in pre-inoculated bags of sawdust they’re so easy to grow at home that a child can do it, and it’s not even super hard to grow them from scratch with nothing more than a couple of fresh stem butts, some wood chips and some hot water.


Sometimes they are bright white and smooth, like they were designed in Cupertino, California. Sometimes they are pastel yellow, pink, or blue like a child’s toy or a novelty phone case purchased off Amazon. Watching them grow is a delight, and their fluted shapes are both elegant and bizarre-- moving from a phallic sort of trumpet into a perfectly flat plate, ready for dinnertime. I can’t imagine looking at an oyster mushroom and being afraid. Nothing about them screams death, everything about them is a joy.


And, it seems, they are eager to be humanity’s helpmate. Oysters are one of the key species being ‘taught’ to digest polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: the toxic spills left in the wake of oil companies like Texaco, Chevron, Exxon, BP, and the rest. For the past couple of years a group of concerned local citizens and international researchers have been inoculating logs with Oyster mushroom spawn and dumping them into the giant sludge pools contaminating large swaths of the Amazon-- land that rightfully belongs to Indigenous folks but has been stolen and left a wasteland in the name of wealth. These humble mushrooms-- currently growing in a tree near you-- are doing what multibillion dollar corporations apparently can’t: cleaning up a deadly mess. Oysters very well may be one of the species that saves humanity’s future from humanity’s past. 


It’s mid-April 2020 and I’m at home, just like everyone else. I receive an email from a person I’ve met through the internet, connecting me with several other New Yorkers who make work about ecology, but none of us are complete strangers. In fact, I’ve met one of these people in person several times after becoming Instagram friends, and the other I have yet to meet but am also a fan of their IG handle. We find out from this email that an urban farm at JFK is being disassembled, and several tons worth of clean soil and plants in portable milk crate containers is slated for the landfill. Meanwhile, for the first time in modern life, soil is more expensive on the global market than oil, as people trapped in their houses decide that this is the year they’ll start a ‘victory garden’. Seeds are harder to get a hold of than the hottest club drug, or a decent face mask, or an ICU bed. This urban farm-- a failed greenwashing scheme-- is an opportunity to give the people what they want. 


Over the next six weeks, I and five other organizers I have never met in real life but know through the internet  will work together-- almost entirely remotely-- to coordinate moving 2,300 milk-crates-worth of soil (some 23 tons of it altogether) from JFK to over 500 households and 28 community groups across four boroughs in the name of food sovereignty and mutual aid. We’ll give out seeds and zines teaching people how to grow. We’ll meet in person, masked-up and distant, to do the actual labor-- and it’s a lot-- but all of the heavy organizational lifting takes place in virtual space: multi-hour zoom meetings, instagram posts that link to google forms that create massive digital spreadsheets we can co-manage remotely. Venmo will be used to crowdfund our moving trucks, and an array of google and third-party apps activate a squad of over 100 volunteers who meet us at local hubs and get these milk crates off the trucks and into the carts, cars, and homes of regular people eager to get their hands dirty. A friend who volunteers tells me that it gives her hope in a hopeless time, and by the end I’ve met hundreds of people and forged five new friendships in fire. This group of food and land justice activists--- all of us claiming various intersectional identities---will log countless hours working alongside one another, predominantly as disembodied heads in a browser window. We laugh, we fight, we support one another, we take breaks, but we get the job done. If it weren’t for the internet we probably would never have known one another, and we certainly wouldn’t have trusted one another so quickly to mobilize something so massive, so fast. 


This is the internet at its most utilitarian: an ever-expanding mycelial network, able to redistribute resources from one point to millions of distant nodes, composting something dead into something teeming with life. It would be much harder to travel from JFK to the South Bronx without the infrastructure of roads. Without the internet it would have been much harder to connect them, too. 


When I think of the Oyster mushroom I see all that is good in the wood wide web, working to do the greatest good for the greatest number. 


The Internet is an Amanita muscaria.

I’m a millennial, so I spent countless hours of my youth eating the Fly Agaric mushroom in the form of my Italian plumber avatars in Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers. In the game, Mario and his kinfolk ingest these bright red mushrooms with white spotted caps as a means to grow big, jump high, score coins, spit fire, and find love. It’s basically required that you eat the shrooms to win the game. I guess, conceivably one could play it and remain pint-size the entire time, but it would be a heck of a lot harder.

However, this species has a much deeper ethnobotanical history. If you like the mythos and trappings of Christmas-- the red and white of it all, the Santa, the elves, the trees and Rudolph too, you may have the Fly Agaricto thank. Since the late 1960’s there has been a theory among some ethnomycologists that the classic figure of Santa is actually a descendant of Arctic shamans who, during the winter solstice, would ingest this psychedelic mushroom, enabling them and their reindeer to ‘fly’ as they traveled from house to house, leaving gifts of more dried mushroom morsels for their community. They’d leave these gifts under cut evergreen trees-- an indoor installation depicting exactly how they grow in the wild. In a location where winter brings 24 hours of darkness, and starvation threatens any who have not spent the fall stocking up, the promise of a colorful and bright surprise under the tree must have been very necessary medicine. Today, when we spike the eggnog to make a three-hour-long family holiday dinner bearable, we can take comfort in the fact that we may be merely performing a far more docile version of our Arctic ancestors’ best wintertime-coping strategy. 


Still laughing, B's disembodied head says, “Oh my God can we watch it again??!”. On the screen, mine and K’s disembodied heads nod emphatically. This is our regular Thursday night Zoom friend sesh, and moments before B was unloading about her particularly stressful day: a new mom struggling with health issues, stuck at home, teaching on Zoom, feeling exhausted, overworked and underwhelmed. But one 49-second video clip has changed the tenor of the conversation completely. Between ourselves, K and I have probably seen this clip a dozen times from our own respective quaranbubbles, but we're more than happy to rewatch it again with B, since this is her first time. I hit play and we watch in delight as a watery kitten’s mouth says… clearly befuddled... “I’m ready to proceed, I’m here live. I'm not a cat.” All three of us immediately howl with laughter until we're crying. My cheeks ache in a way that I have most frequently felt while in the ecstatic grasp of psychedelic fungi. The clip is never not funny. With each rewatch the joy of the delivery, and the expectation, deliver a much needed dopamine hit. With each replay we’re given the chance to dig into the many nuances of the moment: the litigator in the upper right-hand corner desperately trying not to bust out laughing. The way the cat’s eyes seem as surprised as the human voice behind them. The imaginative speculation of just what the hell went down to turn this poor defendant into a baleful looking kitty.


The internet is functional, yes, but this is really where it sings: tiny documents displaying the absurdity of life, even in the midst of a pandemic court hearing. A place of gifs and gifts where anything can be made infinitely funny through repetition or constant mutation. It isn't lost on me that the speaker of the clip in question is a cat--  perhaps the most common of cultural currencies. It is said the ancient Egyptians worshipped felines, and I think that a thousand years hence if somehow the culmination of internet culture is ever discovered by an alien life form they will say the same about us. Cats are our digital shamans, our collective patronus, the currency by which we share joy and speak to the absurdity of existence. One of my favorite gifs right now is a particularly meta nod to this: a compilation of cats in their owners arms, looking into the phone screens as their owners don a digital cat face filter. The cats, each in their own individual ways, freak the fuck out at this discovery (a remarkable moment in itself as this means cats can self-recognize in a phone screen)  and we watch as they try to discern which reality is real. It’s trippy for them. It’s trippy for us. It’s just trippy, man. 


This is  the internet at its most medicinal. The packaging of human (and cat) experience in all its vulnerable, awkward, hilariously diverting magic.  Something so #relatable that whatever darkness you carry can be briefly forgotten, much as a group of shiny bright red mushrooms tucked under an evergreen would have helped our ancestors remember that after dark days always come light….


[end of part one]

The Internet is a Fungus continues next month in Issue #12.

You can read Part 2 here.

CANDACE THOMPSON is an artist, activist and land steward whose work concerns the digital and natural worlds.  She/they/he manages a 2 acre native food forest in lower Manhattan built on a former industrial site and teaches internet skills within the adult education department of the New York Botanical Garden. Candace makes art work about our codependent relationship with the data surveillance state and about how we can be in right relationship with the natural world while staring down the barrel of climate crisis. Candace is also a mycophile who is very worried about the current state of the internet. Her writing attempts to parse the good, the bad, and the ugly of the digital moment. WEBSITE. INSTAGRAM

(Image Credit: Screen shot from Super Mario Bros. World 1-1, Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka,1985.)

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