“Puhpohwee” is a term from a Native American language that means : “To swell up in stature suddenly and silently from an unseen source of power”. Some time ago, I stumbled upon this word in a small and unusual book entitled Puhpohwee for the People, a Narrative Account of Some Uses of Fungi among the Anishinaabeg.* For the Anishinaabeg** it not only refers to the way fungi suddenly appear, as if by magic, but it also has a more universal significance in terms of knowledge and empowerment, rising, emergence and growth.

This ongoing series of bronze casts of homegrown oyster mushrooms, of which my first experiments started in 2022, can be considered as a tribute to the Native People of the Americas and their knowledge of the medicinal power of wild mushrooms, but also as a hommage to the humble oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus). It is often said that if any organism will save the world, perhaps it is the oyster mushroom. These can be used to remediate polluted soils, break down plastics, insulate houses and they provide tasty protein-rich food at low cost, among other things.

The works I created have something of an ancient fossil. Somehow I was reminded of the beautiful plaster sculptures of reclining figures at the archaeological site in Pompeii. They were surprised in their sleep by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and were covered with ash and lava. The heat vaporized their bodies and left a cavity. When years later archaeologists filled these cavities with plaster, beautiful, lifelike casts were created.

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Together with yeasts and lichens, they form the kingdom of fungi. They are therefore neither plants nor animals, although they appear to be more closely related to animals than to plants.

A few years ago, a fossil of a fungus believed to be a billion years old, was found in the far north of Canada. So it has become clear for several years that fungi are among the oldest living organisms on Earth, after microorganisms such as bacteria. Recent research shows that fungi were present on Earth millions of years before plants. Without fungi, life would not have been possible. Through their fungal filaments that emit enzymes and acids, they digested the hardest volcanic rock that was thus converted into fertile soil. It seems very likely that more than 500 million years ago, aquatic algae could hitch a ride on fungi to leave the water and colonize the land. These algae would have evolved in symbiosis with fungi to become the first land plants. Through photosynthesis, these brought oxygen into our atmosphere, making all other life possible.

Recent estimates suggest that up to 13 million different species of fungi exist, of which only about 150,000 have been identified. Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Amsterdam is on a mission to investigate how fungi can help prevent climate change. “We’re so preoccupied with what’s going on above ground that we’re literally missing half the picture,” she told The New York Times in the summer of 2022. Among the fungi, we can also count the world’s largest multicellular life forms. In Oregon in the USA, a honey fungus was found whose underground network of fungal threads covers an area of nearly nine square kilometers, and that network is thought to be 2,500 years old. Other species, in turn, are microscopic.

Fungi are everywhere: in the forest floor, in deserts, savannas, at the bottom of the ocean, in rocks, in every climate and on every continent. Even our daily life is full of encounters with fungi: we breathe in their spores during our walks in the forest, they are in bread, beer, yogurt, tempeh, miso, the natto made from fermented soybeans that I eat every day, the Korean kimchi, and they are at the base of the life-saving penicillin, which is also a fungus….

Fungi are not only among the oldest organisms on earth, they, along with bacteria, may also be the last, as they can potentially digest everything; from the hardest rock, to plastic, crude oil, and pampers to cigarette butts. Just recently I read a scientific article that fungi could be used to repair cracks in concrete, using the verb “cure.” Recently, by the way, there has been concern about certain fungi that can rapidly genetically adapt to survive in higher temperatures due to global warming and could colonize and kill the human body in the process.

Fungi have also been in the news frequently in recent years because of the wood wide web, a hot topic among biologists, botanists and ecologists. Briefly, it means that the roots of trees and other plants form symbiotic partnerships with fungal species and bacteria, passing information and food to each other. The term was introduced in the doctoral research of Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, published in 1997 in the leading scientific journal Nature. After that, the term was popularized and, as always with discoveries of this nature, there is controversy about it to this day.

Already in 1998, leading mycologist Paul Stamets experimented with highly contaminated soil that had been soaked in diesel and oil. After only four weeks of growing oyster mushrooms, he found that the soil had lost its toxic odor and returned to a light brown color. After eight weeks, the level of gasoline hydrocarbons in the soil had dropped dramatically. During that time, the mushrooms also introduced a whole new ecosystem of insects, birds and a wide variety of plant species. “We felt we had witnessed a miracle,” Stamets wrote in his groundbreaking 2005 book Mycelium Running. “Life was flowering on a dead, toxic landscape.”

When I recently reread the “Metamorphoses”, written more than 2,000 years ago by Ovid and one of my favorite books for many years, I noticed that on one of the pages on a previous reading I had underlined the following sentence: “Here, tradition says, that in earliest times, human bodies sprang from fungi, swollen by rain.” So, according to Ovid, the history of mankind is intimately connected with the presence of (rain) water but especially with fungi.

  • Keewaydinoquay Peschel (Woman of the North West Wind), Puhpohwee for the People, a Narrative Account of Some Uses of Fungi among the Anishinaabeg, published by Botanical Museum of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978.

  • The Anishinaabeg are a large group of related indigenous people who live from Quebec right through to the Rocky Mountains all the way down to Oklahoma up through to Ottawa.

This work was made at the invitation of Zin in Noord, an affiliate of Befimmo, and the Flemish authorities. The work, which is installed on the ground and first floors of the new Marie-Elisabeth Belpaire building, which is sitauted in the so-called office area called Manhattan in Brussels, can be visited during office hours after the official opening which took place on 5 February 2024. The address is Boulevard Simon Bolivar 17, 1000 Brussels.

Ongoing series of sandblasted bronze casts of homegrown oyster mushrooms, each piece unique; depending on conditions, the bronze will slowly and naturally acquire a patina