William Padilla-Brown

Conversation held on September 13, 2020

We’ve all had to adjust our plans in light of COVID, and that certainly seems true in your case. For instance, under normal circumstances, you would have just wrapped up MycoFest, which you’ve hosted since 2015. What usually goes on there?

MycoFest is an annual mushroom festival, one of the largest on the East Coast. It’s three days of camping, with experts in various fields of mycology and permaculture from around the world giving lectures and workshops throughout the day. We also do forays to find specimens in the wild; depending on the year and rainfall, we can find as many as 300 species of mushrooms in a single weekend. We also have chefs on site, where you can opt in and help prepare meals using organic ingredients from local farms, and there’s live music at night. It’s very much a social event—you get to meet a lot of other nerds that are interested in similar things, maybe make some new friends. Obviously, we couldn’t do it this year due to COVID, but hopefully we’ll be able to get back to it in 2021.

At last year's event, the programming covered some interesting and timely subjects, from food security to environmental restoration. Were there any specific topics that you had planned for this year?

We were going to focus more on life skills, showing people what they need in order to provide for themselves, regardless of whether they’re living in urban or rural environments. One of our big goals with the event each year—and one of the major themes in my work generally—is trying to switch our cultural narrative from dependent consumers to independent producers. It’s about helping people learn how to provide for themselves, their families, and their communities, because who knows how long this system will be able to maintain itself? It’s not sustainable and never has been. Really, we’re talking about skills that we as human beings, living on this biological surface crust on this planet, should all have: knowing how to find food, grow food, prepare food, preserve food.

Beyond that, we would have still done all the mushroom-related things per usual, since that’s the main attraction for a lot of the attendees. I love that stuff, too, but I feel like it’s important to offer other types of material, some different perspectives.

I know teaching and doing public speaking events is also a big part of your practice. Pre-pandemic, how much of your time would be spent traveling?

In a regular year, I'd be traveling two or three times a month to go teach somewhere—so obviously, not being able to do that in 2020 has taken a big cut out of my income. That’s been something to navigate, but I always try to be prepared for the unknown. I’ve found ways to be resilient in a time of change, which has actually made this whole experience useful, in a way. Plus, I just moved into a new house here in Central Pennsylvania, so it’s been good to be around and get everything set up.

Yes! Speaking of which: in July, you posted a video walkthrough of the lab you’re building in your basement. How have you divided up the space? Are there any new procedures you’ll be equipped to do there that you’re excited to dive into?

For the most part, I’ll be culturing mushrooms, breeding Cordyceps, prepping cultures for distribution. That's mostly what I do: inoculating substrates. The biggest change is that I also now have full DNA sequencing capabilities, which is really exciting. I have a nanopore sequencer, which is a new, highly compact piece of equipment that allows you to do intricate analyses of very long strands of code. I just need to extract and purify quantified DNA, and then I can do the full genome sequencing, or full gene sequencing, down to the actual letters. Before now, I could do the gene amplification, but I'd have to send it to another company to do the sequencing. Now, I’ll be able to handle the entire process in-house.

To me, that’s one of the most interesting things about your work, and about the mycological field more broadly: so much of the work is being done by citizen scientists, and even curious non-practitioners, operating outside of academic or clinical settings. We were talking a moment ago about the community-building aspect of MycoFest—all considered, I wonder how you’d characterize the mycological community, and where (and if) you see yourself within it. Are you dealing with academics at all? Is it primarily citizen scientists? Who are you sharing and comparing your findings and ideas with?

For me, it’s mainly citizen scientists, although I do occasionally work with academics from around the world, different scientists and authors. The mycological community itself is really diverse in terms of people’s interests—there are a lot of people interested in the industry side of things, and a lot of people approaching it as a hobby. There’s a very wide range.

How would you compare the mycological community to those of other scientific fields, socially speaking?

As you mentioned, mycology is a very unique science, in that it's been embraced by so many amateurs, which has really done a lot for progressing the science. A lot of the time, whenever a science stays grounded in academia and large business, it's all practiced in a similar way, where everything follows a certain standard. But when it becomes embraced by amateur scientists, who have to figure out how to do it from home and often without any formal training, that opens things up to a lot of new perspectives and possibilities. That’s definitely true in my experience, as I don’t have any formal education on these things, and neither do a lot of my friends. We’ve developed all sorts of unique practices to figure out how to do these things—and because of that, mycology has advanced in a way that a lot of other sciences haven't.

What is it about mycology that makes it attractive to a broader audience?

There's a kind of magic around mycology right now. Mushrooms are in your face and so pretty, even when they look alien, and you can find them wherever you go. That makes people much more open to them and their potential uses. It’s much different from, like, algae, which has largely been deemed “ugly” by our culture. We call them “seaweeds” and “pond scum”; whenever you see algae in the news, it’s always about toxic algal bloom, where you can't go swimming and your animals might not be safe. It’s just a totally different cultural perception. Now mushrooms are all over social media, with people talking about how mushrooms can save the world—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be talking about algae the same way. There's not a Paul Stamets of phycology that's mythologizing algae, explaining all its potential uses and benefits for humanity—but I think it has the potential to get there, and once it does, people will just be in awe of how amazing algae is. Algae and fungi are the alpha and omega of biology. Algae and fungi together created this world that we see. They are the ancient organisms that have been working together forever, but we simply haven’t recognized it.

It’s interesting because, as you're saying, there’s a range of misapprehensions—preemptive fears, really—surrounding algae that will have to be overcome, but in a way, I could see the same being true for Cordyceps. I’d imagine for most people with even a casual familiarity, their introduction came through nature docs like Planet Earth, which depict Cordyceps as this killer fungus that creates zombie insects, this airborne parasite that eventually sprouts out of its hosts body—all of which is accurate, but maybe not too appetizing. In terms of building civilian interest in its medical or even culinary applications, I wonder if you've found any similar misapprehensions that you’ve had to combat?

It’s an interesting question, because a big part of my work is about exposing consciousness to new realities, expanding our points of view. A lot of times, when walking into the unknown, your own preconceived notions can become filters through which you see things; my work is about adjusting that filter to reveal a different perspective on what’s in front of us. I've definitely put a lot of effort into educating people about Cordyceps—not only with my books, but even with a lot of the social media that I use, although a lot of the people who seek me out online already have some level of knowledge. But for example, I recently started utilizing TikTok, where you're exposed to a lot more people that might have no interest in what you're doing—they just happen to see your posts. That’s really interesting to me, because in recent years, I’ve been eager to integrate popular culture and counterculture. A lot of the counterculture dismisses popular culture as something without value—and I feel that way too, for the most part—but the fact is that a majority of human beings identify heavily with it. So I've been trying to build a bridge between the two and get more people to walk across.

Are there aspects of popular culture that you do see as having any intrinsic value?

Art. I think art really has intrinsic value, as does food. I think there are many aspects of popular culture that are actually quite valuable but which, simply by virtue of being part of popular culture, are relying on old and unsustainable systems to operate. For instance, people are buying food from all over the world, or even from factory farms, to create these amazing dishes—but they could be even more amazing if they were incorporating local ingredients and organically raised animals. I think the fashion industry is vital in its premise, providing people the means of expressing themselves, but it’s detrimental in practice due to its utilizing slave labor, its material wastefulness, and so on. Even with popular music, the songs can be amazing and put you in certain moods, but in many cases, the lyrics are not beneficial for the people listening to them. I think there's a lot of opportunity to shift that. There are so many aspects of our lives that could be transformed in ways that remain culturally relevant while delivering a new narrative. Some of those changes have yet to manifest themselves, but in many cases, the options are already there. We all have different choices available to us—it’s just a matter of being conscious and making decisions.

You mentioned your books a moment ago. I wanted to ask you about your latest, Cordyceps Cultivation Handbook Volume 2. Volume 1, which you published in 2017, was the first English-language literature on Cordyceps cultivation available to the general public. Obviously, in the three years since, there's been an explosion of visibility and discussion around Cordyceps, both scientifically and in broader culture. That being the case, how did you approach Volume Two? Does it build on the first book? Are you introducing new techniques of cultivation, new recipes?

I wrote the first book only a year after I’d figured out how to grow Cordyceps, and it was done mostly out of reaction to having so many people asking me how to do it. As you mentioned, though, the field of research was really just emerging at that point, so in retrospect, that first volume was fairly surface level. This new one goes a little bit deeper. It shows people how to find Cordyceps, how to breed them, different substrate recipes and different methods of cultivation for increased yields. It’s more informative, and hopefully people will find it more useful.

Although you’re known primarily for your mycological work, it’s only one of several areas you’ve been exploring in recent years. We mentioned phycology, which we’ll get to in a second, but first I wanted to ask you about entomology. I know you've taught courses about micro-herding insects, showing how they can be integrated into holistic systems of farming. I wonder, though, to what extent your understanding of insect behavior has informed your ability to find and to cultivate Cordyceps?

I still have a lot to learn about entomology in a wild sense. A lot of my knowledge is based around farming and rearing domesticated insects, so to speak—the insects that we've chosen to farm, which would include mealworms, superworms, roaches, and crickets—but I’d like to expand on it further. I’m very interested in learning more about insects’ roles in local ecosystems; like you said, it would probably help me better understand how Cordyceps function in the environment.

Absolutely. For example, I remember you saying on Instagram that you’d observed a greater variation in Cordyceps locations this summer than in prior years: you're working in the same forest, but you're finding these samples in unexpected places. I’d imagine knowing which specific insects the Cordyceps seeks out and understanding their behaviors would help you predict where the Cordyceps might end up.

Exactly. Last year was the first time I really delved into identifying the insects, but I’d only recently taught myself how to do molecular biology, and trying to isolate and identify insect DNA from a Cordyceps specimen is really difficult, since the two organisms are growing on each other. I was able to identify a few—one was Anisota senatoria, the orange-tipped oakworm moth; the sphinx moth was another—but that's just two of the many different insects that we're finding these Cordyceps militaris on. So there’s still a lot of work to be done there.

Are there certain conditions that are most conducive to finding Cordyceps in the wild? Is it a certain time of year, dry versus wet soil, being near or far from water sources?

Here in Pennsylvania, you tend to find them from mid-summer to early fall—mostly in oak-and-hemlock-mixed forests, often near running water. I’ve also found them in North Carolina, New York, and Maine, all under similar conditions, but I know people all over the world are finding them in different places and in different environments. Over the next couple of years, I would really like to travel during the season and find them in different places. Not only would that help me understand how the fungi behave, but it’d also allow me to do the genetic work necessary to build a family tree of Cordyceps and see how they evolved from each other. What’s the closest relative that might connect Cordyceps militaris found in the Northeastern United States to those found in Spain or France? That knowledge would be incredibly useful.

We touched earlier on your interest in algae and its potential uses. Among those, I know you’ve explored its functions within regenerative farming systems, particularly in terms of your mushroom grow rooms. Can you speak to how the algae contributes to that process?

That was one of the first things I ever did with algae: I put bio-reactors in a closed loop system with fleshy mushrooms that I was growing to cycle the gases. Mushrooms produce CO2 and need oxygen to be able to produce properly, and the algae needs C02, so I developed a system where they were exchanging gases and helping each other grow.

What are some of the other potential applications for algae that you're excited about?

Wastewater treatment is a really cool area. Doing molecular gastronomy and utilizing algae compounds to recreate vegan seafood options—I think that’s really interesting, too. But it’s also just about getting more oxygen into everybody's lives, providing people with nutrient-dense foods, creating new options for bioplastics and fuel, addressing organic and non-organic industrial waste, curbing greenhouse gases. There are so many possibilities.

In terms of cultivating spirulina, how does the growth process compare that of the mushrooms? Is it any more or less painstaking or time-sensitive? Do you get different kinds of yields?

Cultivating spirulina can be difficult, especially when you have a busy schedule and are doing it all on your own. Spirulina doubles in size every two days; you need to harvest it multiple times a week, or else it’ll overcrowd itself and die. It’s very labor-intensive, but it yields an insane amount of product. Because I’m traveling all the time, I’m really not in a position to be growing it at scale for business, but I've been able to produce large amounts and keep it in my freezer for long periods of time.

In 2015, as your interests were first turning to mycology and phycology, you were working as a server at a restaurant, paying rent, raising a newborn son. You had all these different responsibilities, financial and otherwise—and here you were, entering these new pursuits and betting on their commercial viability. Given the uncertainties involved, did it feel like a leap of faith at the time?

Oh, definitely. I did not know what to expect. But I remember I was still working at this restaurant and some group hired me to teach a permaculture course in Delaware. I think I made $500 for an hour lecture. Coming from a place where I was making $600 every two weeks working at the restaurant, I was just like, “What the hell am I doing?” I immediately quit my job after that. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, how to book events or anything like that, so I was in a bad way for a while, but that really gave me the drive to put everything into it. I understood that you have to be okay with being uncomfortable for a while if you want to get to the other side. It was a really big leap of faith, but that leap solidified everything for me. It just galvanized these ideas, and gave me the confidence to move forward with starting my businesses.

That’s beautiful—and actually, it brings up an interesting point. In writings on your work, you’re often described as having taken a “non-traditional” path to fungi: you're an autodidact, you left school at 16 years old, and you learned all of the basics from videos on YouTube. But given the nature of the mycological community, which includes so many amateur scientists and self-trained practitioners, what does a “traditional” or “standard” path even look like? Do you feel like your route was in fact non-traditional? If so, has that been of any benefit to you?

I would say yes to both. The thing is, over time, I think the approach that I've taken to studying mycology is going to become more of the “traditional” path. People are starting to realize that they don't need to put themselves in debt going to school to learn how to do certain things. Going to school has its benefits, of course, but I think it’s important that people don’t let their circumstances or backgrounds prevent them from pursuing their interests.

Beyond the lack of formal training, your immersion into these fields of scientific study is notable considering you didn’t grow up with much exposure to natural environments per se. Your mother was Director of Foreign Trade for the Department of Agriculture and your father was in the Army, so you moved around a lot—China, Mexico, England—but you were always living on military bases or government compounds. It’s not like you were hiking or camping as a kid.

Right, definitely not.

It’s interesting, then, to look at Instagram and see how different your own son’s experience has been. He’s really seemed to take to it—hunting for Cordyceps, walking through the forest, growing up in an environment geared towards sustainability and self-sufficiency. To the extent that you’re using your work to expose people to new realities and possibilities, I wonder what it's like to do that with a young person, to have that be his lens from the outset and inform his worldview as he goes through life.

Honestly, I can't even fathom the way he sees the world. As he's building his impressions of life and solidifying things in his brain, he's coming at it with a much greater understanding of natural patterns than I ever had. I don't know how that'll end up, because he's still figuring out who he is—he might end up pursuing something completely different, which would be fine. But I do think having that understanding, that foundation, is really important.

One idea that comes up a lot in your writing and interviews is decentralization. It seems like a central tenet not only in your businesses, but also in your attitude towards your research, towards education, towards societal living in general. What does that word mean to you? How is that meaning borne out in your work?

For me, this decentralization is the opposite of what we're experiencing right now as a culture, locally and globally. We go to the same places to get everything; everything comes to us from all over the world and in unsustainable ways. The way we live our lives is inherently detrimental to the environment, to ourselves, and to our communities, even if we don't mean for it to be—and the truth is that it’s systematically set up to be that way. So decentralization to me is about taking back that power from global corporations and doing things for ourselves. There's no reason why we can't be creating our own energy, our own textiles, our own food, even our own technology at a smaller scale. There’s no reason we can’t be sharing our resources and relying on our communities more. We don't need to depend on these globalized, centralized systems for everything.

When and how did these ideas first start to influence your lifestyle decisions?

Back when I was 21 or 22, I tried to create an entirely decentralized home environment. I had a system set up in the backyard to create biodiesel; I was growing almost all my food, although I was vegetarian at that point, so it was a little easier; I was collecting all my own water. At the same time, I was also very involved with local government and the business and professionals’ groups in my town. I was trying to show people in my community that while we’re all so rooted in this ultra-convenience that corporate society has provided for us, we’ve become reliant on systems that are actually harming us. I wanted to provide an example of what a life without those systems could be like—and to show how, in many ways, it was actually more enjoyable.

When people first hear the ideas around decentralization, they think, “I don’t have the time or money to forage and grow my own food. I want to go to the store and eat what I want. I want my car. I want to work less, not more.” From the viewpoint of an average person, the whole sustainable lifestyle seems almost primitive, but it really doesn't have to be. We can still live a life of some convenience, but we can do so in a way that's not so destructive.

How do you find that translates to cities? A lot of these ideas would seem easier to implement if you have land at your disposal; for higher density areas and environments, it might be more challenging for people to do things on their own.

But that’s the thing: it's not something that we have to do on our own. That's coming from that same centralized mindset, the illusion that we're all separate and responsible only for ourselves. Decentralization isn't something a person achieves by themselves—you need other people to be decentralized. I actually think cities are a really great place for decentralization. It would cost some money and require a lot of education, but I do think there’s great potential for moving things in a more self-sufficient and sustainable direction. Two individuals I look up to in regards to these ideas are Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew. They designed a course called Regenerative Urban Sustainability Training, which they teach at their urban farm in Albany, New York; they also wrote a book called Toolkit for Sustainable City Living, which has so much great information on how you can get started moving in this direction as an individual living in a city.

Do you feel like part of people’s resistance or hesitation is the notion that they’d have to drop their current lifestyles entirely, even abruptly? Are these ideas that could be integrated more subtly or incrementally?

Possibly, but to be honest, I'm done with inching towards things. I'm trying to get a bunch of Federal Reserve notes and flip it and turn it into the most epic, sustainable, decentralized system, and then make crazy YouTube tutorial videos about it and do a ton of documentaries and just make it super sexy and appealing. I want it to be like, why wouldn't you be doing this? I want people to see it and think, “That seems attainable. Why am I not doing that right now?” I also want to be blatant and in your face about the fact that the way of life we've been participating in is unhealthy. I want people to see this image that I'm creating and just be like, “Shit, I'm unhealthy and I'm destructive. How do I change that?” I don't feel like there's any time to be inching towards it anymore; I don’t think these changes have to be traumatic, but they do need to happen relatively quickly.

To that end, it’s been interesting to see how people have responded to the disruptions of COVID. It’s provided a lot of us with the opportunity to reassess and revise our patterns of behavior and consumption, at least in the short term.

Absolutely. When quarantine hit, I think a lot of people were like, “Shit, I might not be able to go to the grocery store,” or even, “Damn, this system is super messed up, and I see now that I really can’t rely on it.” Seeds sold out this year. Backyard chickens sold out. A lot of home gardening and food-growing equipment was sold. At the same time, people were also putting a pause on a lot of their typical spending and activities and realizing, “Wow, this really isn’t necessary in my life.” Obviously, it’s a terrible thing, with people getting sick and losing jobs—but I also think this situation has forced people to figure something else out, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s something that needed to happen anyway, and that needs to continue happening.

Photographs by Hannah Metz