Mushrooms and Tumor

by Aaron Tim

Grasses of various colors cover the water slowly moving down the hill to meet three creeks that become one, all under the watch of the great Douglas Firs growing abundant and strong. Fallen logs covered in waterlogged moss surround the marshy ravine fresh with the aroma of rotting soil and sporting red and green small leaved plants. Ferns grow throughout the area, small deer ferns and large sword ferns, green and vivacious as the bracken ferns are yellow and flaccid. Oregon grape grows along the hillsides, some still with dark purple-blue fruit, its pinnate leaves glistening with moisture. Many plants thrive here, but I am focusing on the rulers of this land, the fungi and bacteria.

Atop and along the dead and fallen logs, fungi grow from small holes in the wood. A close look shows that three mushrooms are all one organism, their thin mycelia threads connected below the surface. Fungi can grow to intense sizes, being some of the largest organisms in the world. The Honey Mushroom (Armillaria gallica) is a single organism that covers 2,200 acres in Malheur National Forest in Oregon. It is believed to be one of the biggest known organisms in the world, but some argue that it may not be considered a single organism because each mushroom that is visible does not attribute to every other mushroom through its underground connection of mycelia threads. Of course, it is easy to define a single organism when we speak of a whale or elephant, but it gets difficult when we study fungi, bacteria, or even large groves of trees.

I am unconcerned with this debate as I look at the fungi around me. I am more amazed at the variety of mushrooms, each having its own niche. The feelings aroused by such subtle inhabitants of the wilderness are nothing new to me, but they are definitely stronger than the last time I ventured into the woods with only a backpack and my resourcefulness. It has been over a year since I last went on a wilderness backpacking trip, a 27-mile hike through the Bull of the Woods Wilderness with a backpacking class at Western Oregon University. It was on that trip that I started feeling a small pain in my testicle (the right to be exact).

The pain would turn out to be testicular cancer, and I would be sidelined from many activities throughout the next year from first the pain of the infected testicle, second the pain of my orchiectomy (removal of infected testicle) and third, the nine weeks and longer recovery of chemotherapy. It would be this experience, and some of the knowledge I gained during the cancer treatment that would give me an even more appreciative stance on not only the plants, fungi, bacteria, and animals found in the wild, but also of the science that finds cures for fatal diseases from these sources. Staring at the three mushrooms in the rotting log I felt an appreciation for the little fungi.

Other mushrooms came into sight and I began to fall to the ground for close looks and close pictures. As I examine this new mushroom I mentally note its red color, usually a sign of danger in the wild. Looking at it from the top it strongly resembled an apple; dark red in the middle, rounded and varying in color to a light red on its perimeter. It has two cracks that expose a soft white core, again resembling an apple, yet unlike the apple this thing would probably kill if eaten, maybe seizing the kidneys or stopping the heart. Mushrooms are deadly, beautiful beings. On my close examination of the mushroom (which I have yet to identify) I sniff the ground. The mildew, a a musky smell, enters my nose and I am reminded of the bacteria that are responsible for breaking down the plant matter that then turns to the rich soil all the fungi grow from. It is also one of these hundreds of bacteria that helped save my life.

Bleomycin, a chemotherapy drug used for testicular cancer, among others, is produced from the bacterium Streptomyces verticillus. I am not familiar with the exact scientific procedures used to turn the bacteria to a chemo drug, and I don’t think I would be too interested. What I do know is that bleomycin is a frightening drug, capable of destroying one’s body. When I was first given bleo (as it is called by nurses, doctors, and the informed patient) I was given just a small amount of the clear fluid intravenously and the nurse stayed with me for an hour just to watch my reaction. They were watching for any signs of an allergic reaction, such as maybe my throat closing up and rendering me useless. Luckily, I had no adverse reaction and was able to get the full treatment of the bleo. With this I would also feel the wide range of side effects bleo caused, including rash and fever.

Another side effect, caused by the combination of bleo and two other chemo drugs, etoposide and cisplatin, I felt throughout the trip into Marion Lake. This side effect was the incredible leg cramps and pain.

As I begin my trip into the wilderness with a forty pound pack and my legs immediately feel dead and slightly painful. I try to ignore the pain by focusing on the surroundings. Large Douglas Firs grow all around me, shooting high in the air and protecting me from much of the rain that falls through the sky. Ferns and shrubs, glistening with moisture, grow around large stones and through thick layers of duff. I am enjoying the sights and holding back the pain as I tread up the soft incline until a thought crosses my mind. Did my hiking partner Travis, who is twenty feet in front of me, grab the two cans of soup from the car that we had bought for dinner?

“Travis, did you grab our dinner?” I yell.

We drop our packs and quickly make our way back down the trail to the car and come back to the packs. Once again the pain comes to my legs as I start up the switchbacks. It is only a three mile hike, and the temperature is perfect for backpacking. Cool enough to not sweat out to much precious fluid, but not so cold as to freeze, as long as one keeps on the move. My legs, after only another quarter of a mile are burning like I have just run a marathon. My back is aching, a sharp pain in the swell of it, where my backpack rests. I breathe hard, my heart pounds, and I am already sweating under my light raincoat and waterproof, black brimmed hat.

The trail starts at 3,371 feet according to my GPS. The camp we will eventually stay in is at 4,059 feet. Only a 700 foot elevation rise, yet it is killing me. One year ago I did the aforementioned twenty-seven mile backpacking trip, with much more elevation gain and loss and did not feel anything like I am now. As I hike up the Marion Lake Trail I begin to get frustrated and angry. Yet I still notice the small red leaves growing through the duff, the sound of the creek flowing harshly in the canyon to my left. No matter how much it hurts or how angry I get, nature keeps going. I have to stop several times to let my leg muscles get some rest. I am on the switchbacks now and forcing my way up the trail. I am still angry and frustrated, but then something clicks. I think back to the day I was in the backyard, hairless from the chemotherapy and enjoying a quick dose of sunlight (too much sunlight was not good for me, but at times I had to feel it’s warm glare). As I stood, my dog ran by with a toy and I gave chase. Two running steps later and I fell back, landing hard on my ass, my vision blurring and my body an aching mess. As the dog ran around me I had to sit for ten minutes just to get the energy to stand up and stagger inside to the couch. My breath came in gasps through a tight chest. I would sleep for hours after the exertion of two steps.

The fatigue was horrible, taking everything from me. I lived in a townhouse, and at times I would literally have to crawl up the small flight of stairs to make it to my bedroom. Now, I am pushing up a series of switchbacks with a forty pound pack. Only five months ago I had been hospitalized because I was too weak from my chemotherapy and now I am reaching the top the switchbacks. I feel like the further I push the more I feel like saying “Screw you cancer, I beat you!” But to say that scares me, for the cancer can strike again. So instead I push on, letting my aching legs ache and enjoying the dull sense of accomplishment.

Around camp, I spend two hours exploring, examining and taking pictures of the mushrooms. From small white fungi, to large fungi growing like tumors off the trees, I am content to walk back to camp. As I hit the trail I see a yellow mass, coral like and growing out of the earth. It is yet another fungi and I am amazed at how it looks. It appears, as I said, to look like soft coral, an ocean creature growing within the woods. I hit the ground and take a close up look, my body feeling nothing of the cancer effects as my mind is elsewhere, in the realm of the amazing.

I go back to the point that I now seem even more interested, and astonished, by the gifts of nature. Not to say that I had not been amazed and astonished before my cancer treatment. I have always seen nature as God, not nature as God’s creation. Likewise, I see nature as my church, my place of worship, a place for my own religious experience, lacking the doctrines of the establishment that proposes humans as special. We are not, for we are just nature.

Nature does not judge, does not befriend, does not save you if you pray and does not promise heaven. Nature does what it does, and that is true Paradise. As Edward Abbey said in his landmark book Desert Solitaire:

Now when I write of paradise I mean Paradise, not the banal Heaven of the saints. When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flashfloods and quicksand, and yes–disease and death and the rotting of flesh, (167).

I have learned what Abbey speaks of, and continue to learn by my experience. From the examples of the mushrooms that grow from death to the trees that die to give life, from the cancer that tries to kill to the medicines derived from bacteria and American Mayapples[i] that try to heal, from the water that deforms the rocks to the grotesque shapes we postcard every summer, nature has the first, and final say. We must learn to listen, as I have, to the fungi and bacteria around Marion Lake.

My first backpacking trip since my fight with cancer, and the fight still rages in my mind every day. I still envision the mushrooms and smell the bacteria of today and feel the vomit and fever of yesterday. With this I praise the earth and take solace in the fact that as nature effectively killed me every three weeks (my cancer doubled in size every three weeks) nature cured me. It was a fight for survival between the two most powerful forces on earth–nature vs. nature. Darwin spoke of it in 1859 and we live it every day. The struggle for existence is not beyond us, and the struggle may be within the nature that we so willingly oppress and lethargically enjoy. In time we may learn, learn to love nature like it loves us, which is not love at all. It is not hate, it is not envy. The trees do not hate us for cutting them down the same as I don’t hate nature for giving me cancer. It just is what has happened. But, there is one difference. While we, like nature, destroy other nature to survive, nature only takes what is needed.

The mushrooms only take the small bits of land they need to survive and reproduce. They live symbiotically with the surrounding trees and plants, not hurting and most of the time healing. They also kill humans if ingested, or make us see God in a fit of hallucinating triumph; much like the peyote shows us visions of nature. Bullshit much of it, but so is life. The mushrooms know this, but not like we know it. The mushrooms are genetically wired to know that it does not matter if you die, or what it is that kills you, what matters is only that you hold on as long as possible, and multiply, and flourish, and try not to be eaten alive from the outside in or the inside out. Surviving is the ultimate goal.

[i] *Etoposide, another chemotherapy drug I was administered, is chemically derived from a toxin found in the American Mayapple.

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Simon & Schuster, 1968. Page 167.