With a bug net in hand, Anthony Brooks tells a crowd of eager families and amateur foragers knowledge passed down to him through several generations. Brooks, a self-identified Indigenous North American, is a self-taught mycologist from St. Mary’s on Fredericton’s north side.
That day, Brooks helped locate and identify an impressive list of local species: pines and spruce trees, birches and cedars. Add to that list horsetails, cranberries, cattails, wild raisins, and mooseberries, among others.
Brooks grew up learning about foraging practices from his mother, Cecelia Brooks. However, soon after entering university, Brooks became disillusioned with academia and returned to a habitat where he felt much more comfortable—the forests of rural New Brunswick.
“I started picking up mushrooms. I would bring home big giant bags full of random mushrooms, which is probably the most dangerous thing you could do,” he explained, chuckling.
“I would sit at home on my porch, and I would have them all laid out, all separated into different colours and sizes,” he added. “Of course, I couldn’t identify any of them.”
New Brunswick is home to several coniferous trees including balsam fir, pine, cedar, and spruce. According to historian Bill Parenteau, during times of settlement, sawmilling “facilitate[ed] the transition of New Brunswick from a resource frontier to a settled colony,” and by the mid-19th century, trade with the United States had caused the province’s lumber industry to diversify. As a result, businesses began to export “underutilized species such as birch, hemlock, and cedar.”
Over time, the region’s forests have been repeatedly clearcut, decimating New Brunswick’s Acadian forest and affecting biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems. According to a study published by researchers at Oregon State University, since 1985, over three million hectares of forests have been clearcut in Eastern Canada, resulting in vast reductions in tree species diversity and the loss of between 33 and 104 million birds.
In promising rural and working New Brunswickers riches, lumber companies like JD Irving have left our forests struggling. The forests need time to regenerate.
If properly nurtured, fungi and grassroots fungal foragers might provide the province with radical new solutions. Despite the province’s ecologies having faced widespread ecological degradation, mushrooms like lion’s mane, blue oyster, chestnut, chaga, turkey tail, and even the rare matsutake can be found growing across New Brunswick.
Fungi are incredibly resilient lifeforms; they thrive in human-disturbed forests. “Wild mushrooms,” writes anthropologist Anna Tsing, “[are] like rats, raccoons, and cockroaches, they are willing to put up with some of the environmental messes humans have made.”
Determined and worldly creatures, some fungi like Pleurotis — the oyster mushroom — have been found and trained to live in environments hardly considered conducive to ecological flourishing: used diapers and mounds of cigarette butts.
In a province like New Brunswick — monocropped and laid bare by decades of forestry — species like the Pleurotis and grassroots mycologists like Brooks remain central to the further development of the region’s ecosystems.
Today, our knowledge of the region’s fungal species is growing — albeit at a snail’s pace. In truth, we know little about the health and future of our province’s mycorrhizal networks, expansive fungal root systems that comprise an essential component of the wood wide web. To date, around 7,000 macrofungal species have been identified throughout Canada.
In New Brunswick, fungal communities — subterranean ecosystems — have survived and thrived in spite of the ecological devastation wreaked by companies like JD Irving. The University of New Brunswick is home to a range of forestry and engineering programs that act as semi-informal pipelines to Irving employment.
In 2020, JD Irving provided 2,700 jobs to students.
According to UNB’s webpage, “J.D. Irving, Limited has transformed the way they’re investing in New Brunswick’s future.” The Irvings, by providing millions of dollars in “gifts,” scholarships, and funding to the school, have transformed UNB into a proving ground for the Irving corporation and its underlying business interests.
“It’s kind of nasty what [the Irving family] does,” Brooks said. “It’s all swung in [their] favour…. For those forestry students, that’s the first job offer they get.”
To make matters worse, one-size fits all ecological solutions, including many tree planting initiatives, rarely consider insights gathered from Indigenous sources and grassroots mycological communities.
“The problem with science today is that we’re always trying to focus in; we don’t look at the big picture,” Brooks explained.
Mycorrhizal networks, along with local ecologies in general, are incredibly complex; mismatching fungal species, plant species, and animal species, Brooks explained, can lead to more harm than good.
Fungi are veritable ecosystem engineers. Without mushrooms and mycelium — interconnected fungal filaments that form symbiotic relationships with plant life — our soil would wash away, our plants would die from a lack of minerals and nutrients, and our food crops would wither.
“Most plants are promiscuous and can engage with many mycorrhizal partners,” writes Merlin Sheldrake.
“Mycorrhizal fungi, too, are promiscuous in their relationships with plants.” Trees, flowers, and plant life that give us wheat, fruits, and vegetables, by sending signals somewhat analogous to those found in the human brain, are always communicating, always interacting.
Therefore, carelessly strewing about saplings can lead to a host of unintended consequences. For example, planting legions of black ash trees will attract a similar number of the emerald ash borer, a beetle and invasive species responsible for having already decimated several forests in provinces like Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.
“It’s almost like reverse monocropping,” I offered.
“Yeah, it is. If you’re actually caring for those trees and taking care of them, we should be stewards of the land,” he explained. “We’ll be out there every day taking care of them.”
Still, Brooks remains averse to incorporating traditional Indigenous and mycological knowledge into industrial and commercial streams, because the profit motive is fundamentally at odds with those teachings.
“Coming from a First Nations perspective, we think about the seven generations that come after us,” he said.
“You have to understand what your actions will look like in two hundred years,” he added.
Industrialists, in being motivated by short-term profit, rarely consider the long-term effects of their actions. “[Industrialists] aren’t here on vacation. They’re here on business,” Brooks pointed out. “They’re looking for things [to use in industrial projects]. It has a lot to do with Western thought, unfortunately.”
While a forager’s lifestyle might seem unconventional from a nominally modern, urban, and Western perspective, to call it out of the ordinary is a misnomer. “The irony of our times,” writes Anna Tsing, “is that everyone depends on capitalism but almost no one has what we used to call a ‘regular job.’”
At least Brooks gets to walk barefoot in the woods. Many others are not so lucky. Instead, office complexes — grey, drab, lifeless — constitute everyday ecologies for some of us. Perhaps we might benefit from learning a thing from Brooks, and indeed, from fungi. In turn, we might be able to better nurture our mycorrhizal networks, and our human networks, seven generations into the future.
Harrison Dressler is a researcher and writer working out of the Human Environments Workshop (HEW) funded by RAVEN. He writes on New Brunswick and Canadian history, labour, politics, and environmental activism.