Mushrooming: a trend that will transform the way you look at the world

Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet hunt is a new book by Toronto artist Diane Borsato. More than a basic field guide, it’s a method for seeing beauty all around you.

Artist and author Diane Borsato on her new book and the hobby that changed her life

Detail of the cover of Mushrooming. White background filled with painted illustrations of colourful mushrooms.
Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet Hunt is more than a basic field guide. The new book, written by Diane Borsato, is a method for seeing beauty all around you. (Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

It doesn't take much to spot mushrooms these days — though not necessarily real ones.

In the realms of fashion, food and even wellness, they've become an invasive species. At the mall, they're sprouting everywhere, proliferating as baby tees and beaded earrings — dupes of the dangling shrooms once favoured by Bella Hadid. Can't afford a classic Murano mushroom lamp? There are knock-off versions at Urban Outfitters, or wherever you shop for Y2K tat. And they've become the stuff of high fashion too, both in form (Rodarte's mushroom prints) and function (Stella McCartney's mushroom-leather handbags being one of the more notable examples).

In art, photographers like Phyllis Ma are blowing up on social media, celebrated for capturing the weird beauty of a spotted toadstool. And mushrooms can make you more beautiful too, or at least that's what this exfoliating "potion" might claim. There's mushroom-inspired nail polish (care of Harry Styles) and Gwyneth Paltrow is shilling shrooms as a magical ingredient, extolling their "healing powers" throughout her wellness empire. And on the subject of Goop (and a certain episode of its Netflix series), mainstream interest in psychedelics is surely part of the craze. Magic mushroom dispensaries are operating openly in Canadian cities including Vancouver, and an immersive art exhibition devoted to mushrooms and the "long, strange history of psychedelic substances" is now running in Toronto, an experience that suggests a kitschy black-light poster come to life. 

In her new book Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet Hunt, author and artist Diane Borsato explores the best ways to forage for fungi — and how it offers us a chance to slow down and look around.

A more sober interest in the science of mushrooms is also trending. Books such as Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake have become best-sellers. His is a pop-science treatise on the nature of the "Wood Wide Web," the author's term for the mycelium. And that network of fungal threads, which links countless organisms, has also become fertile ground for artists and thinkers, even spawning a recent-ish museum exhibition on "art, design and the future of fungi." (Sheldrake's book alone was referenced by fashion designer Iris van Herpen … and Ted Lasso.)

It may be easier than ever to see mushrooms all around you, but what about the real deal? One Canadian artist and author would suggest there's enormous value in putting a little more effort into the search.

Gouache illustration of a red and white fly agaric mushroom.
As Diane Borsato writes in Mushrooming, "popular culture is saturated with stylized (read: oddly proportioned and rarely morphologically accurate images)" of fly agaric ... from Alice in Wonderland to Super Mario. It is a poisonous mushroom, and as Borsato notes in her book: it is "not safe for eating in any quantity." (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet Hunt is a new addition to bookshops. The author is Diane Borsato, a Toronto-based artist and two-time nominee for the Sobey Art Award. And though the book is billed as "an illustrated guide to the fascinating, the delicious, the deadly and the strange," Mushrooming serves as more than a light-hearted encyclopedia.

True, it features informative entries on more than 120 species found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, forms of fungus that have been cheerfully illustrated in gouache paintings by Kelsey Oseid. But beyond its function as an introductory field guide, Mushrooming also boasts several chapters exploring the artistic side of the pursuit.

Borsato writes about artists inspired by fungus, including Katie Bethune-Leamen, who once worked out of a toadstool-shaped studio in the Toronto Sculpture Garden. And as an artist herself, learning about mushrooms — and the act of foraging, or mushrooming — has transformed the way Borsato sees art and the greater world around her. 

Learn how to forage, and you can "mushroom" anywhere, she argues: the forest, the supermarket … even an art gallery, as she does in one chapter of the book. To mushroom is to learn a new language for your senses. "You have to show up to see beauty, and you have to look for it," she writes. Through mushrooming, you'll see that beauty is everywhere.

CBC Arts reached out to Borsato to learn more about mushrooming and how it's made her a better artist. An associate professor in studio art, foraging is a skill she even passes on to her class at the University of Guelph. We reached her by phone the day after she led a group of art students on a special foray. 

Dianne Borsato guided a group of about 20 art students as they foraged for mushrooms near the University of Guelph. (Aastha Shetty/CBC)

CBC Arts: So, yesterday's foray — where did you go?

Every year, I lead a foray for my art students in the arboretum of the University of Guelph. It's like a research forest, and I like to bring the students into the woods. They're graduate MFA students in studio art.

Mushrooming has been a nice practice for me as an artist. I think of it as a way to practise paying attention and looking really closely, you know? To identify mushrooms, you come to use all of your senses in order to determine if things are edible and what they are. It's also a way to meaningfully acknowledge and be present on the land and think about our relationship to nature and the environment. 

I'm interested in contemporary environmental art, so I like to show students that their studios are much larger than just the little white rooms that we give them, and that they can use the entire campus — they can use the woods and the swamp and materials from the outdoors. 

I think yesterday was my 13th annual arboretum foray. I missed the last two years because of the pandemic, which was very, very heartbreaking.

(CBC News joined her class to hunt for mushrooms. Read more about what happened on the foray.)

How long have you been mushrooming, just for yourself?

I've been mushrooming about 15 years. I grew up in Mississauga, where my parents were afraid to let me go into the woods (laughs). My partner, though, is from Nova Scotia and everyone there eats chanterelles. 

I was pretty nervous about eating wild mushrooms, and so I started reading field guides, but as an artist, and just as someone who loves food, I got curious and became intrigued by all of them. The woods are moist and mossy and full of intriguing and colourful forms. There's porcini and chanterelles and all kinds of wonderful edibles. I really became sort of addicted. 

Really lightheartedly, I joined the Mycological Society. I thought it would be nice to talk to people who know a little more. And I just became obsessed with reading field guides, walking in the woods. It was a sort of respite from work in some ways — just a peaceful thing to do. Inevitably, though, you bring your artist's mind to anything. And it started to feed into my own art practice. I started to think of it, in itself, as a practice for being an artist in the world. 

Gouache illustration of chanterelle mushrooms.
Chanterelles, as seen in the pages of Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet Hunt. (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

I understand that your art practice takes an interest in various aspects of the natural world. Even in your website bio, you describe yourself as a naturalist, and I've come across art you've made about observing clouds, bees, birds. What was unique about discovering mushrooming? Or was it just the earliest naturalist hobby you picked up?

Oh, that's a good question. I think that it might be my first naturalist hobby.

At first, I did think of it as a nice break from work, kind of like hiking or birding or something. And then I submitted to following my curiosity, and in turn, it fed back into projects I've made as an artist — doing performances and sort of live art practices. 

In the book's intro, you write about how mushrooming really changed how you see things, and that "to practise mushrooming is to develop an impressive sensory literacy." What do you pay attention to now that you didn't before?

Oh, it's incredible.

It is a kind of literacy. It takes a little practice to actually see distinguishing features [of mushrooms]. And so the longer I looked at mushrooms, I could see, you know, very fine differences in colouring or differences in the texture of the cap or in the fibres on the stock. It's all about very close looking. 

Gouache illustration of a beige bracket fungus on the side of a tree, the underside is etched with doodles.
Artist's conk is a common bracket fungus, and as Diane Borsato writes in Mushrooming, it's been discovered on just about every foray she's led. "I am grateful I can show off the fact that the white underside of this otherwise boring-looking fungus is great to draw on, especially to artists. It's immensely satisfying to make a clean brown line on these when the pore surface is immaculate and white, but remember that it's an unforgiving substrate, and any mark made cannot be erased." (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

Mushrooming also involves smelling things, sometimes nibbling things. You have to pay attention to when in the season things appear, and relationships to other things — what trees and other plants and things are nearby? And so it really brings you into a close awareness of where you are and engages so many of your senses. 

It's always wonderful to develop your language and your sensory literacy. It deepens everything.

At what point did you decide to write a book about mushrooming?

Because it's a seasonal activity, every fall I found myself filling up notebooks, trying to remember my Latin species names. I started thinking I should just put this all in one place so I could study it every year and read my own book. (laughs)

I wanted it to be a useful tool, and not just for me but for beginners and people who are curious — people who like mushrooms and conversations about the environment and culture and beauty and food: the cultural aspects of mushrooming.

Illustration of a grey mushroom.
One of Kelsey Oseid's gouache illustrations for Mushrooming: The Joy of the Quiet Hunt, a new book by Toronto artist Diane Borsato. (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

Yeah, it's so much more than a field guide. It's interesting hearing that it began as a book for yourself, because as I was reading it, I often wondered who you imagined your audience to be. 

I did have to answer that question quite a bit while I was doing my research (laughs). You know, people — especially during the pandemic — have taken up more nature hobbies, birding and things like that. But I keep noticing that artists and designers and architects and people in the arts are crazy about mushrooms! They're reading the Merlin Sheldrake book [Entangled Life] and they're interested in the mycelium and how things are all connected in the woods. Mushrooms always have a place in the style of the moment, and in design.

OK, so yeah! You're also noticing how popular mushrooms seem to be these days. Why are people drawn to mushrooms right now?

People are always drawn to mushrooms. I mean, they seem to touch crucial conversations of any era. And right now, I wonder. I think artists and designers are appreciating the strangeness and beauty of mushrooms. 

Gouache illustration of enoki and lingzhi mushrooms.
In one chapter of Mushrooming, Diane Borsato recounts what happened when she went on Chinatown forays in Toronto and New York City. Enoki and lingzhi are two varieties of mushroom highlighted in the book's illustrations. (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

I think people are interested in foraging for food because we are feeling a little estranged from nature and estranged from the source of our food. I think that's a big part of it. And it's about spending more time outdoors, especially over the last few years when we've been cooped up. They're fascinating. I've always wondered why anyone wouldn't be intrigued. It makes sense to me! (laughs)

Funnily enough, one of my favourite bits in the book didn't really have anything to do with nature. The chapter about your foray at the Met …

Oh, really? I just love that. It's a different way of seeing things, a different way of engaging with the world.

I'm mentioning it because you said there's this real trend of people feeling disconnected from nature, but one of the things that stood out for me in the book …

Was how mushrooming helps you see things in the city! Yeah, yeah. Something I noticed about mushrooming is that once you're looking, scrutinizing really closely, you start to see things other than mushrooms.

At the Met — as an artwork — I tried to see if I could find any fungi represented in the collection of this enormous museum that promises to feature everything on Earth. I really scoured the place and it was a very different mode of looking than I might normally have in a museum — you know, reading panels and looking for artworks in genres that are to my taste. 

I literally looked at every single object. I looked in the background of every painting for any fungi growing. I looked at sculptures, I looked at textiles and tapestries — everywhere. And I discovered that I couldn't find a single mushroom. It surprised me that this entire kingdom — with millions of organisms in it — would be absent from this representation of human culture and experience. I have since found that there are a few mushrooms in the collection, in the vaults, but they're certainly underrepresented. 

Illustration of an artist studio shaped like a giant beige toadstool.
In Mushrooming, Diane Borsato writes about several contemporary artists and designers whose work is inspired by fungus. Among them is Katie Bethune-Leamen. (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

And yet, the book features chapters on several contemporary artists who are inspired by mushrooms. Why did you want to fuse the field guide aspect of the book with what's happening in art and design?

I think I'm always thinking about conversations important to this moment. Among the artworks in the book, there's Jae Rhim Lee, who's a really fascinating American artist. She has a burial suit that's infused with spores, and the intention is that you would be buried in this suit and that the mushrooms would fruit and devour you.

Architects are interested in architectural materials made from mycelium. They're organic; they come from nature and they're super strong.

These topics are already fused for me, in my mind. I'm interested in contemporary art projects that research new technologies and flirt with science — and also artworks that address sensory experience, works that are socially engaged. It's what I bring to the field when I'm looking at mushrooms — and also when I'm looking at artworks I admire. It's all part of the same conversation to me: just learning about the world.

Gouache painting of a bleeding tooth fungus, a white mushroom with spotted red caps.
As Diane Borsato writes in Mushrooming, Bleeding Tooth "grows among coniferous trees, and while uncommon in the east, its presence is widespread across North America." (Kelsey Oseid/Courtesy of Diane Borsato)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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