We are trying to get more juice from the sun by making the sugar it helps produce go farther. The past month we did a bunch of small experiments at Lijiang Studios, including growing mushrooms and making beer from local materials. Mushrooms are one way to extract more solar energy from "waste" materials. These will contribute to the creation of some luscious edible myceliated structures to be installed in the Lashi Basin in ecologically fragile locations. Here they will help to staunch erosion and build and detoxify the soil where it has been over-farmed, over-grazed or over-"permed" by agricultural chemicals.

Plants capture and store solar energy in the form of sugars and carbohydrates. Agriculture is a process that attempts to increase the output of this captured and converted solar energy. Unless nutrients equivalent or greater to what has been taken out of the ground are returned to the soil, however, most agricultural methods lead to the degradation of the biosystems supported in the land. Cultural practices of farmers can also contribute to this degradation, especially when traditional subsistence practices (the crops they grow for themselves, and the resources they extract from the land for daily needs) are impacted by forces that are part of larger geographic spheres, regional, national and global.

Yunnan is an important place for mushroom cultivation and a lot of people also gather and dry wild mushrooms to supplement their incomes. We are growing Pleurotus ostreatus (Oyster), Flammulina velutipes (straw mushroom) and Coprinus comatus (Shaggy Mane), all mushrooms with low commercial value, but that have been documented as useful for bioremediation under different circumstances. The samples we are growing came from our own foraging, and from other mushroom farmers.

Fungi are an amazing and unique life form. They eat dead plant material and other waste. Mushrooms are a great organism for extracting more solar energy(as sugars and proteins) from otherwise indigestible (by humans) farm and brewery waste. People are probably familiar with their use as food and in medicines, but might not be as aware of their ability to filter and detoxify substances in the ground and water. There is still lots of research to be done on how mushrooms can break down dangerous substances in the environment, and encourage new growth of complementary species. We explore the basics here, and refer you to the mycologist and author Paul Stamets for a deeper understanding.

The fungal body consists of material called mycelia, while the mushroom that comes above ground is the fruit. Some fungi never fruit into mushrooms, but can get quite large underground. Every part of the fungus contains identical genetic material. Mushrooms do not need solar energy to grow, and the mushrooms we are growing all feed specifically from decomposing material. The mycelia of the mushroom body are tiny little threads looped together like velcro. They can move rhizomatically, branching off in any direction they need to in pursuit of food. The tiny mycelial threads will grow as densely as available food nutrition allows them; under good conditions, they are packed so tightly together that a gram of soil can have up to a mile of mycelial cells. This mass of cells acts like an extremely dense filter through which liquids pass. Mycelia are also cool because they excrete digestive enzymes- as if your stomach was outside of your mouth, allowing you to digest food in advance of eating it. This is very efficient- they digest their food, and then take in exactly the nutrients they need to grow, leaving their "waste" already broken down into simpler components. The mycelial web that is in all healthy ground (the small white filaments you sometimes can see in soil) helps small trees and other plants get established, while also breaking down many toxins in the soil and water.

To propagate mushrooms, small samples can be taken and placed to grow in the dark in nutritive mediums. Usually this is first agar (seaweed) mixed with potato or another kind of sugar or starch, and then grain, and finally straw. Once our mycelia have propagated fully in straw bags, they will be moved into large bamboo baskets, and placed in the landscape where is evidence of erosion.

Since all parts of mushrooms carry the organism's genetic material, it is possible to propagate new mycelia off any parts of the mushroom. The problem is that it is easy to contaminate the new mycelial growth- all kinds of critters, bacteria, and other fungi will try to eat at the nutrients intended for the mushrooms we are growing. This makes a clean room necessary, and also creates a need to boil all of our vessels and materials.

Experiments with the sun to heat water for sterilization and to heat the air in the incubation hut.

Beer making is another way to maximize the solar energy saved in plants. Beer is made from grains, which can still be used to grow mushrooms after the beer making process. The leftover malted grain can also be used to feed animals such as pigs. This is the extra we get off the 1% from the sun. Beer making is an ancient art. Some anthropologists believe the real beginning of agriculture came with beer making, as farmers tried to find the best cultivars of barley and wheat to use for fermentation.

Beer was part of the social life of humans -- or perhaps, a way to cope-- at the start of agriculture, and is still around, even as agriculture reaches another turning point.

A picnic is a time to drink and feast and rest and reflect.
We want to know, what will we eat at the picnic of the future? Where will it come from?
It is possible to have a picnic that feeds and cares for the forests and water and soil, and also the humans?
Our understanding of the forces impacting farmers in the Lashi Basin is very imperfect, but we see that farmers are losing ground as land is flooded for the expansion of Lashi Lake. Our experiments with increasing the use of energy from the sun for agriculture rose from the question of what farmers would do if they needed to farm on less space. It also seems to us that the pressures of environmental degradation and economic liberalization (and perhaps individual desires for new kinds of participation in the world, as per the "New Countryside" speech of Hu Jintao,) are influencing farmers to find supplementary sources of income. Building trades are expanding, as are jobs in tourist "hospitality," and "eco-tourism" lines like pony-riding. Each month seems to bring both new roads and on these roads, new drivers. There is uncertainty as to what precisely the future will bring, what people will do in the future.

We also wonder what will happen on this land: the farm plots irrigated by ditches and streams of fresh water running from the mountains toward Lashi Lake, the nearby mountains and their soil and their small trees clinging to the hillsides. And also the not-so-distant glaciers, slowly warming and discharging their water for good.

Since 1999, following the floods on the Yangtze River, China made the decision to conserve forests, but maybe their future is still insecure. There are allowances for family use; will there be enough for all families to share? And we can see new developments carved into forested hillsides above Lijiang; new people coming to the area. New policies in the making will have unforeseen impacts on how forest cover make it in the future.

Farmers might have to find new ways to cope; will they find new ways to farm that will expand the energy potential of the sun? And as the natural resources of trees and water are claimed by different parties, can the farmers help sustain them for healthy life into the future? Growing mushrooms is one very safe way to add to the energy from the sun to make food for the people, while providing for the forests and improving the quality of the water. Perhaps you know some others.

September 2008 Lijiang Studio Residency

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