“No one gives a shit about art.”

The statement shocked me coming, as it did, from Phil Ross, the best artist I’ve ever known—and I’ve known quite a few. At the time, almost 10 years ago, I was a fledgling magazine writer in San Francisco, and the New York Times Magazine had decided that I was an art specialist. But art writing was a side hustle, as my main subject was tech and the insane startup scene all around me. That’s where the freelance-writing money was to be made. But still, I had spent most of my adult life hanging out with creative types in New York and San Francisco. So the freaks were close to my heart.

Phil Ross and Adam Fisher join Alta Live.

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“I’m leaving the art world.”

Ross again. He was my favorite. He was every artsy cliché mashed into one. A leftist. A bohemian. A Jew. An intellectual. And he had come by it all honestly, courtesy of his parents and a misspent youth in New York City, which, when Ross was growing up, in the 1970s and early ’80s, was still the red-hot center of the leftist-bohemian-Jewish-intellectual world. But that world was changing, and not for the better. Ross remembers exploring the northern wilds of Central Park as a teenager and coming across the crucified remains of a squirrel. It was hoodoo-inspired necromancy, the calling card of a religious cult in the neighborhood. Time to leave. After a few years of wanderlust, Ross washed up at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1988 and left with a degree three years later. His medium of choice? Mushrooms. “I accepted rot into my life,” he says.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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Ross burst onto San Francisco’s tiny art scene in 1997 with a gigantic sculpture inspired by the reconstructed wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103, the 747 that had been bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, on the orders of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Ross replicated the reconstruction from garbage and castoffs and then inoculated the entire thing with oyster mushroom spores. During the sculpture’s five-week run at Gallery 16, the mushrooms ate the 747 in a slow-motion explosion of fungal life, fruiting and then rotting. “It’s about any moment that passes and the garbage that’s left over,” says Ross. “I was just expressing a giant…thing.” It was also a self-portrait. “I’m an artist, man,” Ross explains. “It makes sense, and it doesn’t make sense.”

Ross’s next myco-masterpiece was Mycotectural Alpha, a sculpture in the form of a small building that was not built but rather grown, from spores. Ross called it his teahouse, because when the roughly six-by-six-foot shelter debuted at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf contemporary art museum in 2009, viewers were invited to sit inside and drink a cup of tea made from the structure itself. The show was titled Eat Art, and eventually the entire piece was boiled down and ingested by its viewers. The artwork, and others like it, established Ross as one of the founding members of the burgeoning bio-art scene, ultimately landing him a professorship at the University of San Francisco. As art careers go, pretty impressive. But Ross was abandoning it.

“And I’m starting a company.”

I had to stifle a laugh, especially since the only other entrepreneurial venture Ross had ever been a part of was his now ex-wife’s food company, Don Bugito, which markets insects as snacks: chocolate-covered crickets, coconut-brittle mealworms, worm salts. Ross had discovered what he calls “bug meat” on his youthful travels through the least developed of the developing nations, and he continues to champion it as a sustainable, low-impact, eco-friendly protein source. As you might expect, yummy bug snacks still haven’t really caught on. It was the story of Ross’s life.

“Because no one cares about art. Right?”

He had a point. And when pressed, I did have to concede. San Francisco didn’t seem to care, really, about art—at least not as much as it cared about startups. This was back in 2012, at the opening of another of Ross’s semiregular mushroom-themed happenings: this one, a furniture show. We were sitting on myco-chairs, next to a myco-table. Ross was always as much an impresario as he was an artist, and he was morphing, moving through disciplines he himself was creating: from myco-art to myco-architecture to myco-furniture. But what was Ross’s company going to be?

“I’m calling it MycoWorks.”

He had recruited a former intern, Sophia Wang, to be his cofounder and CEO.

I wished him luck.

ganoderma mushroom
Detail photo of a “Ganoderma” mushroom, the same type Phil Ross grows to create myco-leather.
Agorastos Papatsanis

The science of mycology has always been remarkably open to amateurs, perhaps because, scientifically speaking, the field itself is brand-new. Fungi were only given their own taxonomic kingdom in 1969. Seven years later, the first great popularizer of amateur mycology, the future psychedelic intellectual Terence McKenna, wrote Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide with his brother. It was an underground hit. Then Paul Stamets, another self-taught hippie mycologist, realized that mushrooms were useful for more than just getting high and in 1983 coauthored, with J.S. Chilton, The Mushroom Cultivator: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home, which kick-started the gourmet mushroom-farming industry.

Ross, who supported himself as a cook in his younger years, first came across edible wild mushrooms while working at a new age retreat center in New York’s Hudson Valley. They were growing in the woods behind its kitchen. “One day, the chef was like, ‘Let’s go mushroom hunting,’” remembers Ross, “and after an hour we came back with a giant basket of food. I was hooked!” Later, after he moved to San Francisco and became involved with the AIDS political advocacy group ACT UP and hospice work, he was introduced to a medicinal variety, the reishi mushroom, at an underground pot club in the Castro neighborhood. He was there to source medical marijuana, but at the time, the group aspired to offer a complete alternative healthcare system where one could learn about everything from healing vibes to Chinese medicine to the latest breakthroughs from the National Institutes of Health. Yet it wasn’t until Ross discovered Stamets’s book that he started growing his own.

“What Stamets was talking about wasn’t just large-scale cultivation—it was really about cleanliness,” Ross remembers realizing. “And the only things that I was missing were a couple of pieces of lab equipment, but I had been making artwork, and so I was like, ‘I can jury-rig these things together.’ ” There was no need to buy, for example, a $10,000 commercial-grade air-filtration system “because I could make one for, like, two hundred bucks!”

He honed his cultivation technique in the studio, learning by trial and error. Gradually, Ross found that he could coax reishi to assume just about any physical form that he wished. Where Stamets saw a new food crop, Ross saw an all-purpose construction set, a building material for an all-organic, completely compostable eco-future. So he made bricks.

“It was an artist’s idea about how you would utopianly remake all of architecture,” says Ross, rolling his eyes at this memory of his younger self.

Ross made the bricks for his myco-architecture experiments by filling brick-shaped molds with sawdust, food for the fungi. Slowly, the fungal root system—the mycelium—would eat the sawdust. Then, after a two-week-long “cook,” he would simply pop the bricks out of their molds to air-dry.

“It was a spastic, ill-informed, Whole Earth approach to the problem, which was ‘Not only will I make a brick, I will make a better brick,’ ” Ross recalls. “A Lego system of polyomino bricks!” Ross imagined a scheme whereby his dried, irregularly shaped myco-bricks would snap together not only with other myco-bricks but also with bamboo poles and two-by-fours. “It was stupid, as a way to sell anything. I couldn’t just imagine a simple brick.”

Yet as a material, pure mycelium proved to be fairly remarkable. The bricks were nontoxic, fireproof, mold- and water-resistant, a good insulator. They could float but were also stronger, pound for pound, than concrete. One big problem Ross was having with using his myco-bricks as a building material was that they were too strong. He was ruining saw blades and dulling files at an alarming rate. As an experiment, Ross once shot a stack of his bricks at close range with a .38 pistol. The round stopped five inches in.

mycotectural alpha, phil ross
Ross’s myco-masterpiece “Mycotectural Alpha” (2009), a sculpture in the form of a small building that was grown from spores.
Courtesy of Phil Ross

In 2010, Ross gave a lecture about his findings at a Mycological Society of San Francisco event. Roy Kornbluh, a roboticist at SRI, a legendary Silicon Valley R&D outfit largely responsible for creating both the internet and the personal computer, took note. “I was dragged there, and only half-interested in the biology, and all of the sudden he opened the door to engineering with fungus,” Kornbluh recalls. “That got the creative juices flowing! I immediately started thinking about replacing particleboard and plywood.”

“We were imagining an industry, but it was hard to get people to fantasize about a flat panel,” says Ross. “People had to touch it.” That’s where the furniture came in. The myco-furniture was made the same way the myco-bricks were, except instead of brick-shaped molds, Ross used table- and chair-shaped molds. The furniture was not particularly comfortable, but that wasn’t the point. “If someone is willing to put their butt on it, that forces a certain type of contact,” explains Ross. “So really, the furniture was just a way to make it more obviously familiar.”

phil ross, yamanaka mcqueen
Ross’s “The Yamanaka McQueen” (2012), an example of myco-furniture that he created with “Ganoderma” grown in a chair-shaped mold and with salvaged lumber.
courtesy of phil ross

In some ways, the furniture stratagem worked too well. With the debut of his line of myco-furniture, Ross became a very minor media sensation, as he fit right into the perennial “What will those wacky San Franciscans come up with next?” story line. (I am ashamed to admit that for a while I worked the California-kook beat for Time magazine, which is how I first identified Ross as a person of interest.) But while the mainstream media saw Ross as a nutjob, mainstream business took him seriously, a development that, more than anything else in his certifiably strange life, freaked Ross out.

“I was being approached by these planetary-scale corporations, these giant entities: Google, 3M Corporation, the military,” says Ross, “and in my studies of the individual in relationship to the Leviathan, I realized that there was no way an individual can talk to companies on that scale. So I had to become a corporation.”

Thus, after almost two decades of tinkering with mushroom tech, Ross incorporated. MycoWorks was founded in April 2013 and funded with angel money from, among others, Kornbluh. For the first couple of years, the company was a pantomime, as Wang and Ross blindly cast about for advice. Ross had given Wang the CEO role because she was the smartest, most organized person he had ever worked with. But she also had a background much like his: Wang is a former ballerina with a PhD in English from UC Berkeley. “Neither of us had any experience with money, with business, with anything,” Ross admits.

He describes those early years when it was just him and Wang as akin to Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, a cult comedy from the late ’90s with the tagline “The Blonde Leading the Blonde.” In the movie, Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino play two low-achieving party girls who decide to show up at their 10th high school reunion and claim to have invented the Post-it note.

“They pretend to be businesswomen,” Ross says, summing up the movie’s comic charm. “So for the longest time, me and Sophia would be like, ‘We’re businesswomen!’ ” He affects an unconvincing Romy White that collapses into his trademark giggle.

But unlike the Romy of the movie, Ross did invent the Post-it, or a better mousetrap, or…something. And that was the problem with MycoWorks. It was unclear just what the company was making, let alone selling, although Ross did have U.S. Patent Number 9,410,116 for a “Method for Producing Fungus Structures” that “can be engineered to serve a wide range of manufacturing and construction applications.” It was the promise behind that patent that kept the phone ringing. “We just kind of bounced around for years, offering solutions to all these Fortune 500 companies that just kept cold-calling us, so we figured we must be doing something right,” Ross says. He estimates that MycoWorks fielded calls from fully 10 percent of the companies on Fortune’s list of the biggest of the big. “Word on the street was, this fungus kid could grow anything!” he says, this time affecting the voice of a grizzled prospector, before again getting the giggles.

But what to grow, exactly? That was the rub. The initial interest was in new eco-materials that could replace standard industrial materials. Foam, for example: one of MycoWorks’ early contracts was for the development of an insulating, vibration-damping material that didn’t off-gas like neoprene did. And, sure enough, Ross was able to convince his mushrooms to grow into a really thick, rubbery, open-cell-type material. But there was just no way to produce it cheaply enough. Expensive foams are 39¢ a pound, compared with MycoWorks’ projected production cost of $20 a pound for myco-foam. “We were like, ‘Fuck this shit,’ ” Ross recalls. “ ‘There’s no way we can do this.’ So we put that on the shelf.”

There were other inquiries, and other prototype myco-materials, but the pattern repeated itself, over and over. In theory, harnessing the natural flows of rot and decay is the lowest-energy, and thus the cheapest, way to build anything. In practice, for any of the use cases to be economically feasible, MycoWorks needed vast economies of scale to lower its costs.

Ironically, it was investors who kept MycoWorks going but, ironically, not with their money, exactly. It was with their encouragement. One of Romy and Michele’s first meetings was with Sequoia, the granddaddy of the Silicon Valley venture capital firms, which had famously backed Atari, Apple, Yahoo, and Google—when each of them was just two guys in the proverbial garage. “I come in looking like a clown, with Sophia, who looked totally out of place,” recalls Ross, “and I’m like, ‘I’m getting cold calls from Google and 3M.’ ”

Equally astonishing was MycoWorks’ manufacturing model. The company’s myco-material grows on boiled ag waste—sawdust, corn stover, wheat straw—and the only other inputs are light, humidity, and air. “It was shocking to [potential] investors,” says Ross. “They’re always like, ‘What?! You’re not doing GMO anything?’ ” MycoWorks was a biotech company but without the technology part. “We just turn down the temperature a few degrees and turn up the rock and roll.”

Sequoia didn’t invest, but it did take MycoWorks seriously, showing the two naïfs how to incorporate and manage their patents. It was exactly what the embryonic company needed. The professional advice “helped us to just survive,” says Ross. “And it taught Sophia and I much more about being businesswomen.” In the end, the lesson was about how to relate to power and, ultimately, how to wield it. “We really adopted the role of courtesan—in a classical sense,” explains Ross, musing that “maybe the term power bottom would be the contemporary interpretation of this.”

In 2016, MycoWorks was at another crossroads, and Ross and Wang decided to again tangle with power. The angel funding scraped together from friends and family three years earlier had dwindled to almost nothing, so they decided to apply to IndieBio, a boot camp for promising biotech companies. Acceptance would come with a round of financing. As Ross tells the story, it was a Hail Mary. When he and Wang showed up to make the pitch to IndieBio, Ross realized he had forgotten the sample case containing the fruits of his myco-material experiments. “So then when it came down to ‘Well, what’s your proposal?’ I was like, ‘Huzzah!’ And threw down my hat.”

The hat was made from a myco-material—though not a MycoWorks–grown variety but, rather, something called amadou, a myco-material wild-harvested from a tree fungus.

“That’s what we’re about!”

Gathering and working with amadou is an ancient craft, extinct but for a handful of milliners in a single, remote Transylvanian village.

“It was the perfect theater moment!” says Ross. “We’re business-women, and we’re going to Broadway!” Giggles galore.

Po Bronson, the managing director of IndieBio (and an Alta Journal contributor), remembers MycoWorks well. “People here called it an art project,” he says. “It was the coolest art project ever, but it was an art project until they got their new CEO.”

Matt Scullin came on board in October 2017.

mycowork, mycoleather, reishi
MycoWorks’ myco-leather, Reishi, has the look and feel of fine cowskin.
MycoWorks

Believe it or not, MycoWorks got the money from IndieBio: $250,000. Then it embarked on a campaign to raise another $2.3 million. I had been following the Phil Ross story for the better part of a decade at this point. We had become friends, and every six months or so, we’d get together. Ostensibly, the purpose was to assess the MycoWorks saga for a possible magazine story. The time was never right, but Ross was so entertaining and his journey so unusual that I would eagerly look forward to our biannual meetings just for the lulz. There was always some twist or turn, and I’d be at the edge of my seat until we met again, wondering what was going to happen next.

But not long after the injection of the IndieBio money, the tone of our conversations changed. Ross couldn’t be an artist-provocateur, as he was now the chief technical officer of a real corporation. Wang was now chief of staff and culture. It wasn’t just Romy and Michele pretending to be businesswomen anymore. The company had a new CEO, hard-nosed investors, a half dozen employees. What’s more, Ross had a secret.

He wasn’t telling me much, but the clues started to add up, and eventually I pieced the story together. There had been a shift in the type of corporate cold calls MycoWorks was receiving. It was no longer materials manufacturers. Suddenly, a new class of companies was beating a path to Ross’s door: massively capitalized shoe makers, European fashion houses, luxury goods conglomerates—Ross refused to name names, but he assured me that I was very familiar with all of them. And they wanted myco-leather.

The shift was due to a change in the geopolitical weather system, mostly. The rise of luxury markets in Asia and Russia meant that suddenly the West was no longer getting first dibs on the world’s best leather. Luxury brands had to pay 3 to 10 times as much as they had paid just a few years before—if they could buy the leather they needed at all. Supply chains were breaking, bottom lines drooping, business models imploding. Could MycoWorks help?

Indeed it could. Sitting on the lab shelf were those dusty old experiments in neoprene replacement. Ross still had the magic formula, and myco-neoprene had nearly the same properties as real leather. It just had to be tweaked: made thinner, more leathery. Mostly it was an aesthetics problem.

Joanna Steinhardt was there at the time. MycoWorks was her day job. Her real vocation is cultural anthropology, and when she wasn’t working for Ross, she was studying him for her PhD thesis, “Mycelium Is the Message: Open Science, Ecological Values, and Alternative Futures with Do-It-Yourself Mycologists.” Steinhardt, now Dr. Steinhardt, recalls the moment well.

“The company was 10 people—3 of them were ex–art students who were growing the leather—and they were just beginning to work on standardizing it,” she says. “And Phil came into the meeting and said, ‘We need to make it look like it came out of the plastic asshole of capitalism!’ ”

Three months later they had shat out a cow-size hide, and in December 2016 they posted a YouTube video showing it off. “It was like, ‘Ta-da…’ ” says Ross. “ ‘The Aristocrats!’ ” He cracks up.

That was also the moment when I, witnessing this from the outside, sensed that things were turning for Ross. MycoWorks was no longer an outsider looking to upend an industry. It was now inside the super-luxury system, a bowel moving product through the very cloaca of global capitalism. And Ross didn’t feel like an artist anymore; he felt like Sméagol, the degraded hobbit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary imagination. “Art kids with a Gollum ring,” says Ross, summing up his hero’s journey. “The Eye of Sauron was upon us.”

hermes, sylvania bag, mycoworks, mycoleather
Hermès’s new Sylvania bag incorporates MycoWorks’ myco-leather as side panels.
Pinterest

I could see the effect that his secret, his precious secret, was having. Ross had always spoken in metaphors, but they became darker and more cryptic. Bad things started happening. There were vegans—militant vegans—cornering him and demanding allegiance to the tribe. There were tangles with would-be investors who came on like lovers and then slowly turned into jealous boyfriends, possessive and demanding. There was a divorce. There was his sister’s unexplained suicide; she left no note. There was the death of his father from COVID-19; he died at the height of the pandemic, so the funeral had to be done remotely, over Zoom. You could see the ripples of Ross’s subterranean struggles right there in the MycoWorks Instagram feed. In a now-deleted post from 2018, the Eye of Sauron stared out at IG doom-scrollers. The hashtags included #preciousprecious, #cthulhurising, and #oscarwilde.

Not coincidentally, Emeryville-based Bolt Threads had just announced its own version of myco-leather, called Mylo. Bolt had been founded in 2009 on the promise of fabric made from bioengineered spider silk, but now it was pivoting to myco-leather. At the time, MycoWorks had already announced that its proprietary myco-leather, Reishi, grown from a species of Ganoderma tree fungus, was in the works. Bolt was high-profile, highly capitalized, and more than happy to eat MycoWorks’ lunch.

Ross’s post on Insta was a high-tech hex on Bolt, a curse invoking absolute evil in the flavors of both Tolkien and H.P. Lovecraft, a reminder to the universe that, in the words of Mr. Oscar Wilde, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” And indeed, while premium Reishi myco-leather has been independently lab tested and meets or exceeds cowhide leather in tensile strength, tear strength, and abrasion resistance, Bolt’s Mylo myco-leather has not, and likely does not. (Bolt declined to comment.)

The more practical response was to return to the capital markets, this time to load up for the coming myco-war. When Bolt first let it slip in 2018 that it was going to move into myco-leather, MycoWorks was surviving on just the initial funding from IndieBio and seed financiers. Bolt, by contrast, had amassed nearly a quarter billion dollars in venture funding. Over the next two years, MycoWorks built up its own war chest: $17 million in an A round; then, last October, an additional $45 million in a B round. The funding will help build a new factory: a million-square-foot grow room. MycoWorks versus Bolt Threads was always David versus Goliath, but with the capital injection at least David had a fighting chance.

“You’re the first person to have this whole story all spelled out,” Ross said in a phone call early this year that precipitated this piece. He was finally going to tell me the secret that had been so obviously gnawing through him for the past five years. And he was inviting me to be there when the final veil dropped. There’s going to be an announcement, he said. “The era of Big Mushroom is dawning.”

On March 8, Ross and I meet up in San Francisco and take a walk. “I haven’t told anyone. I didn’t even tell my father, before he died,” he says. We talk about secrets, and mushrooms, and the secret of the mushroom. We reminisce. Apparently, I was the first journalist who used the word “myco-architecture” in print, so we’ve come full circle. It’s a pleasant way of killing time until the news hits—in Paris. We wander through the Fillmore district, duck into a Korean corner store, emerge with some fermented vegetables and rice, and sit down on a park bench in a deserted plaza across the street. And then, in between bites, Ross checks his phone.

“Hermès,” he says triumphantly, pronouncing it the French way, air-mez.

Undeniably, there it is, an announcement on the MycoWorks website. The venerable Parisian fashion house has been producing leather bags for a century, and its newest is made of MycoWorks’ myco-leather, tanned and finished by Hermès and branded as Sylvania. Ross has supplied Hermès with the finest myco-leather that he could grow, but even he hasn’t yet seen what the company has made from it. The press shot shows a simple carryall, a small purse with glowing myco-leather side panels and contrasting handles.

“Oh my God,” says Ross, reading the fine print. “The handles are made of calfskin!” And then he starts giggling uncontrollably. “Take that, vegans!”

Ding! The phone vibrates as a message arrives. It’s a text from Wang, reminding him to do nothing, to talk to no one. Hermès is running the media play. The bag is about to embark on a world tour and is booked solid for the next two weeks for appointments with more than 300 important fashion journalists. Wang instructs Ross to sit tight, avoid the press, and for God’s sake not post on social media. The company took away Ross’s access to the MycoWorks Instagram account after the Eye of Sauron hexing incident. “But it worked!” Ross says, defending himself to me as we meander back to his apartment. “Today we destroyed half of Bolt’s perceived value. We destroyed a quarter billion dollars! Hermès just validated us. They’re like, ‘You’re the winner.’ ”

So when, I ask, are you going to get an Hermès Victoria bag in Sylvania leather for yourself? “Mycelium…for men!” he jokes, cracking himself up with another fit of the giggles. No, I say, I’m serious. When? It would be a way to mark the moment, I suggest. The bag is, after all, “the world’s first object made with Fine Mycelium,” at least according to the MycoWorks press release.

“I can’t afford one,” he says. “It costs more than my car. It’s nicer than anything I own.”

That is most definitely true. Ross has an aversion to spending money. He wears secondhand clothes and lives like a pauper in a small walk-up rental that overlooks a freeway.

“But you own the company,” I say, “or at least part of it.”

“I own the Gollum ring,” he says.

He makes the Tolkien analogy every time we talk.

“So, in order to get rid of the Gollum ring, you have to throw it into the Eye of Sauron,” I say. “Haven’t you done that?”

“It’s harder than you imagine.”

phil ross
Ross’s close reading of fiction by Tolkien, Lovecraft, Pynchon, and others helped him realize his visions for materials made from mushrooms.
Penni Gladstone

About a week after the Hermès reveal, we take another walk, this time in the woods. I’m waiting for him coastside, 30 miles south of San Francisco, at the end of Higgins Canyon Road. Ross pulls up in a dusty and battered Honda. The right front quarter panel is crumpled from an ancient accident. Clearly, the paper millions of newfound myco-wealth have not gone to his head. However, as he emerges from the car, he does look happier. His freak flag is flying free, giving him a young-Einstein-at-the-electrical-socket look. He seems lighter on his feet, too.

Ostensibly, our trip is a mushroom hunt, but the real aim, for me at least, is to see whether Ross can rediscover the fun in fungi. We climb the grade up into the redwood forest primeval. We crisscross Purisima Creek, sometimes atop fallen logs, other times on a sturdy footbridge. Ross starts to talk about the past. This coastal range is where modern mycology was invented, he notes, and where he first found his calling and himself. He was a Manhattan kid, a creature of that city, but he found that by training his powers of observation, he could read the forest. “It’s a lot like learning to read graffiti,” he says. “To most people, it just looks like chaos, but it’s actually telling you something.”

I see gorgeous green chaos: a thicket of redwoods rising up from the canyon walls and through the mist, engulfed by a riot of ferns in the understory. But Ross sees something else: digestion. The canyon is a maw, gulping the redwoods down. Fungi attack the fallen logs, reducing them to a literal pulp. The creek is an alimentary canal that excretes the rot into the sea—food for the fish. In short order, we come across our first mushroom. Its white cap has an otherworldly tinge.

“Destroying angel. One of the deadliest.”

The deeper we probe the riparian zone, the weirder it gets.

Ross tells me the story of the Necronomicon, a book first described in the horror fiction of Lovecraft. Also known as the Book of the Dead, it is a grimoire—a spell book that unlocks the occult powers of necromancy—that was written by the “old Arab daemonologist” Abdul Alhazred in the eighth century. Lovecraft knew the Necronomicon was a total fiction, because he was the one who had dreamed the book up, but over the past century, many horror authors have referred to the forbidden book as if it actually existed. And, not surprisingly, various editions of the “real” Necronomicon have been “discovered” and published, copies of which have been used as evidence in actual criminal trials. One such case, in Florida, sent a man to death row.

“Holy shit,” says Ross, interrupting himself and pointing to a gelatinous orange goo sliming a fallen tree. “Witches’ butter.”

Ross relates his own experiments with mushrooms to the Necronomicon story. He didn’t invent anything, he says. His myco-leather was first described by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow as Imipolex G, “the first plastic that is actually erectile.” In Rudy Rucker’s subsequent Ware Tetralogy, Imipolex G is used as flickercladding, skin for robots that ultimately becomes infected with chip mold, resulting in a new, hybrid life-form: the intelligent symbiotes known as moldies. It was only Ross’s close reading of the sci-fi canon that allowed him to conjure myco-leather into existence in the first place. The fiction invoked the reality. Ross simply manifested it.

“Look, there’s Hermès’s leather!”

And there, at our muddy feet, digesting a hardwood log, is a pancake-
size Ganoderma, named for its “shining skin,” which glows like a Kelly Bag. It’s Ross’s favorite genus and the basis of his empire. He loves the irony of just finding it here in the forest, because it proves what he has been saying about biotech all along: That there is no need to engineer life when it can be domesticated, bred, tamed. All the tech we need is already here, in nature, right in front of us, just waiting to be rediscovered, replicated, reconstructed.

Ross grows particularly animated while telling me about a paper just published in the scientific journal Mycologia: “Fungal Mycelial Mats Used As Textile by Indigenous People of North America.” It seems that a certain tree fungus will grow between the bark and the wood of a decaying log to form a sheet: a natural myco-leather. Whole hides of it can be found by peeling the bark off the giant trees of the Pacific Northwest. Furthermore, beaded Tlingit artifacts made of this myco-stuff have just been rediscovered, after languishing for 60 years, at the Oakland Museum of California as well as at the Hood Museum of Art on the Dartmouth campus.

Fungus is the past. And fungus is the future. Mushrooms have so much more potential than just myco-leather, Ross says. What we are witnessing is the emergence of a new biological platform, a living composite that can integrate just about anything else: metal wires, Teflon, drugs, electronics, nanoparticles. What’s more, the wires and the rest can be laid down to be absorbed by the fungal body with micron-level accuracy. So it’s possible, using the technology pioneered by MycoWorks, to grow radar arrays, sensors, drones, science-fiction hybrids of life and machine. That’s the vision that knocks the Defense Department’s socks off, says Ross, who’s clearly a little weary of it. It’s been a long road: nearly a decade since he founded the company; a purse five years in the making. But with MycoWorks’ success now practically assured, his work is largely done.

“I didn’t realize it, but being issued a patent was becoming a wizard. And then I became a warlock a year ago. And now, all of a sudden, I’m a demon,” says Ross, referencing Tolkien again. “I think I need to get to one more level before I throw the ring back into the Eye of Sauron.”

Um, OK.

So what’s next, I ask as we cruise back to our cars.

“Bavarian pants,” Ross exclaims, suddenly getting excited again. “Lederhosen made from mushroom!”

It takes me a while to figure out what the heck he is talking about. But it seems that two years back, at a conference in Munich, he fell into a conversation about myco-leather with a man who tipped him to the fact that lederhosen—Bavarian pants—were once made of myco-leather. Traditional lederhosen, made by a craftsperson known as a säckler, are cut to order from deerskin and then embroidered in a manner that reflects the status and wealth of their wearer. But it seems that there is evidence of an even older tradition in which lederhosen were crafted from a natural myco-leather, like the amadou hat that Ross used to convince IndieBio to invest. Which, of course, reminded Ross of the recently rediscovered Tlingit artifacts, also crafted from a natural myco-leather and, similarly, beaded.

Long story short, ever since Munich, Ross has been on a quest to track down Tlingit craftspeople who are interested in learning how to work with the traditional myco-textiles their ancestors used. Ross dreams of organizing a conference, an international summit where the Bavarian säcklers and the Tlingit artisans can meet and together reconstruct a knowledge that has been lost by both cultures—the art of myco-leather beadwork and embroidery.

It’s a cockamamie project. Ross is trying to raise not one but two ancient cultural practices from the dead. From a certain perspective, the project is a real-world attempt at necromancy, which would put Ross in the role of wizard, or, indeed, warlock, or even demon. And the more I hear, the more I start to feel the source of Ross’s particular magic. Ross writes the narrative until he finds himself inside his own fantastic story. The big idea is not simply that fiction patterns reality—of course it does—but rather that, in some ultimate way, fiction is reality. It’s his intuition that the great ribbon of knowledge, which extends down from humanity through biology and chemistry and physics into quantum-statistical pattern and, also, up from the individual through society and literature and culture to the plane of myth and archetype, is, in reality, a circle of knowledge: that the two ribbon ends loop and join, somehow, back together to create a Möbius strip, so that it is really, literally true that the ultimate nature of reality is imaginational—and vice versa. Thus, the real emerges from the stuff of our imagination, just as the imaginary emerges from the gray, gooey matter between our ears. We create our own reality. The worm eats its own tail.

“And that’s better than any fucking art project,” says Ross as we return from our mud-spattered mushroom trip. “Don’t you think?”•