Mushrooms Shipped to Thilafushi

An exploration of how fungi species have potential to combat plastic pollution.

by Rose London

I have recently become very taken with the world of mushrooms and fungi. I'm not the only one: mushrooms are having quite the renaissance. This is perhaps symptomatic of a desire to reconnect with a more symbiotic, mycorrhizal relationship with the earth that we feel we've lost. My poetry often focuses around exploring the deep worry that we cannot appreciate nature as we once could, in spite of our modern knowledge of the accelerating affects of climate change.

'something about the mushroom kingdom is a salve for me.'

As a horticulture student and a herbalist-in-training, I find this fear to be a constant companion - the gardens of my classmates and teachers are suffering with the effects of a confused seasonal cycle right on our doorsteps. And yet, something about the mushroom kingdom is a salve for me. These organisms thrive on decay and death, after fires and catastrophe, in places where no other organism can live, tying the whole natural world together.

There is something darkly alluring about their inhuman agency - for example, did you know that slime moulds - despite being classified as single-celled amoebas, not even technically fungi - have the ability to learn a path through a maze?

When I learnt about fungi that can break plastic down into organic matter, I felt conflicted. Nature often offers us solutions to our own problems - but will mass production of fungi on a global scale give us a way out of the polluting waste we have created? No exchange is ever that simple.

Thilafushi is a landfill site to the west of Malé, capital of the Republic of Maldives. It is one of many infamous landfills needed to keep up with our waste production - others being Singapore’s Semakau Island, The Great Pacific garbage patch, and Fresh Kills Landfill in New York.

'Not as a divine saviour to our impending climate collapse, but as a future to be equally hoped for and feared.'

More than 330 tonnes of waste is brought to Thilafushi daily - so much that the island grows at the rate of one square metre per day. A lot of this waste is non-biodegradable plastic, which wreak havoc on the environment. Humans have produced about 9 billion tons of plastic since the 1950s, only 9% of which has been recycled and 12% incinerated. The remaining 79% has accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.

The fungi species I focus my poem around - Aspergillus tubingensis, Pestalotiopsis microspora, Schizophyllum commune and Pleurotus ostreatus - could be a solution to this problem. Not as a divine saviour to our impending climate collapse, but as a future to be equally hoped for and feared.

With this poem, I wanted to invoke an image of great cargo ships filled with living, growing mushrooms, shipped to areas of landfill to allay the pressure on our busy earth. These four species may turn out to be a study of how far nature can be stretched to repair our damage.

Mushrooms Shipped to Thilafushi

There are mushrooms that grow

only in the after-glow of a forest fire so bad

that only embers show.

But we seek a plastic grove. Polyurethane lands,

fingerprint stains from heavy human hands.

Aspergillus tubingensis -

a thousand eyes below the surface.

Awake but not alive, winking blind,

dragged from the black soil feet-first,

blinking into the light

of a spoilt day where nothing decays.

Pestalotiopsis microspora,

we were asked to emerge,

a thousand starving mouths in search of food,

tissue meeting tissue,

moving in shifts, parsing the stones,

a mass of something unknown -

awake - but not alive

Schizophyllum commune -

sent from the earth to seal a wound,

it’s nothing like dying

it’s nothing like old wood

this unknown food

we are a crystal map beneath a ground dug so hard that nothing will grow.

Mushrooms thrown from hands like doves.

Pleurotus ostreatus -

enough destroying magic to make the stock market crumble,

in their thousand oneness dispatched to save

our busy earth, shipped over the waves

and on arrival, in a chorus mumble

what are we to make of this maze of graves?

Rose is a horticulture student and poet from Kent. After graduating with a History of Art degree, she moved to Yorkshire to re-orientate her life around the slower things - and has spent the last year training in Medicinal Herbalism and catching up on reading. When she's not writing poetry about nature or up a ladder for a tree-pruning exam, she can be found scavenging in hedgerows for wild herbs. Find her here: @rosemlondon

Mushrooms Shipped to Thilafushi is one of several poems in imprint's upcoming pamphlet, Emergence, published 20th May. Join our online launch event on the 20th here!