Had a casual observer passed through the kitchen in the Greenway C residence hall one recent evening, they’d have been permitted a double-take, as Rhys Hare ’22 was diligently leading students in boiling full rolls of toilet paper.
As odd as it appeared, the activity did fall under the category of food preparation, though not food for people.
“You can use cardboard, newspaper, straw, a bunch of different things,” said Hare, founder and president of the Amherst College Mycology Club, as she prepared the fibrous cylinders as food for mushrooms, in this case oyster mushrooms. Five fellow students dunked the rolls in boiling water, smeared them with spores (from a mail-order grow kit) and tied the wet rolls in plastic bags. After a couple of weeks in an appropriately dark corner, Hare instructed, edible oyster mushrooms would begin to bloom.
The Mycology Club is among the newest of Amherst’s nearly 150 student-run organizations. Every year, students can present their ideas for new clubs directly to Paul Gallegos, Amherst’s director of student activities, and if the proposals are well-researched and demonstrate passion and follow-through, he says, the College will help provide the space and funding to bring the new club to life. For approval, each group has to come up with a basic constitution, with clauses such as those forbidding discrimination and hazing.
Hare, a New York native, is the daughter and granddaughter of avid mushroom foragers, members of the New York Mycological Society. When she discovered that neither Amherst nor any of the surrounding Five Colleges had such a club, she approached Gallegos about starting one.
“I wanted to get a group of people together,” she says. “That was the main thing on my mind. I really wanted to grow mushrooms and see what happened.”
Her interest mushroomed, one might say, last year, as she researched a paper on the use of fungi to remediate polluted soil. This research was for the course “The Resilient (?) Earth: An Introduction to Environmental Studies,” taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ashwin Ravikumar.
Hare went on to grow mushrooms in her dorm room, thanks to a dearth of windows and a forgiving roommate. (“It smells a little bit,” Hare admits, “but it doesn’t really stink up a room.”)
Last year, she loaded up on more mushroom wisdom and made the acquaintance of Willie Crosby, a local commercial mushroom grower. Crosby has been a great source for tips on foraging and cultivating. Next semester, the club plans to bring Portland, Oregon-based grower Peter McCoy to give a lecture on using fungi to remediate pollution.
The club meetings include growing and identifying mushrooms. “The mycelium is under our feet right now,” Hare said at another recent meeting, as four students walked through the College’s Wildlife Sanctuary in the darkening twilight, searching for the white webbing of mycelium and the stalks of mushrooms. “Trees are able to pass nutrients through the mycelium to the different species of trees,” Hare instructed her peers. “Mycelium is huge. It can span for miles.”
While Hare and her fellow mycologists grow oyster mushrooms and explore the Wildlife Sanctuary, Gallegos and his colleagues are exploring ways to more actively involve students in approving new clubs. The College also is expanding the support network for student clubs, he says, including through workshops with Jelani Johnson, associate director of student activities, who helps students interested in starting clubs.
Doing this work at the front end, Gallegos says, helps prevent clubs from folding when their founders graduate.
“We have our eye on establishing more of a training regimen for groups to not feel overly burdened, to give them the support that they need,” he says. “That’s the beauty of working at a small institution.”