Drinking in the Dark ~
a monograph on my favorite of the fungi
Common names: Clinker Polypore, Carie blanche spongieuse de bouleau (spongy white birch tree rot) in France, Berkenweerschijnzwam (birch glow mushroom) in Denmark, Kreftkjuke (cancer polypore) in Norwegian, & Pakurikääpä (Pakuri for short) in Suomi
Botanical name: Inonotus obliquus
Temperature: Cool-Cold, Dry
Taste: Woody, sweet
Parts Used: Entire fungi
Constituents: Polysaccharides, beta glucans, betulinic acid/betulin, phytosterols, fatty acids, triterpenes, B vitamins, melanin
Actions/Functions: Adaptogen, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti-tumor, anti-viral, astringent, immune-suppressant, relaxing nervine
November tugs us inwards… it brings with it the weight of longer nights & a longing for quietude. There is a chill to the air which is able to reach the bones. As the trees undress, the stars seem to shine brighter in the crispness of the ever darkening hours. We have officially left the seasons of sun & entered into those of the moon…
The Autumn & Winter are my favorite times of the year. I love the cold, the longer nights, the hibernation, the dark hours. I love wearing layers & sweaters, cooking stews, making decoctions, watching for snow as the herb-infused water slowly rolls on the stovetop. I personally seek dark medicines during this time of the year—-the ones which take me deep, the roots & rhizomes, stones & songs which touch my core. Burdock, Alder, Ruby, Hematite...
The first time I ever tried Chaga was while spending time in Vartsala a small island off the coast of Kustavi, Finland. in 2011. Every night, we put a pot of Pakuri on the woodstove & listened to Kari Rydman on vinyl in the living room of Antti’s cordwood house. After each pour of the decoction, we would add more water to simmer. It went on like this until everyone started to wander off to bed, feeling more dreamy than before, sleep-heavy even though the sun was still lighting up the night sky. These first experiences with Chaga are what have made it far & above one of my favorite, most precious remedies.
Antti was the one who told me that in Suomi, there was a legend about the first man who discovered Chaga in the forest. He was older than old, a long white beard that trailed before him & a long stretch of snow-white hair that followed behind him. He was so old that he was unable to stand up straight, though found himself in one of the beautiful Birch forests of Suomi where he stumbled upon the first Chaga. Upon drinking it, it was said that his hair turned pitch black & his youth was fully restored both physically & energetically. While that of course is a bit of lore, it is also true that in every myth there are at least a few threads of truth. For instance, we now know
that Chaga is extremely high in antioxidants—which directly help to fight the aging process.
Chaga is a parasitic fungi whose rich melanin content gives it the black color it is famous for. It is extremely dense & quite difficult to process or break-apart. Almost indestructible, I would say. I have found myself whacking it with some pretty strange objects in order to break off chunks to make a brew.
Often categorized as a medicinal mushroom, it is rather a mass of mycelium which grows primarily as a parasite on the living trees of Birch, Alder, Poplar, sometimes even on Pine & Oak. In fact, if you pay attention to it, you may even be able to taste the betulin flavor it absorbs from the Birch! The spores of Chaga are able to enter in through wounds or broken places in trees, & will begin to spread a "white rot decay" into the heartwood of the tree, a process which can happen for anywhere between 10-80 years before the sclerotum (the form of Chaga we see protruding from the tree & use for medicine) is formed.
This slow maturation process is what makes Chaga so rare, special, & in danger of being over-harvested with its new popularity in our modern culture. I also feel that way about the dark. Everything is lit up, every corner & crevice of the dark can be flooded with light. We have these portable screens which bear light at our fingertips… Nothing is left to itself any longer, the undiscovered terrain is next to none, the quiet is gone for most people, animals, plants, & environments alike.
Just take a moment to pause on this. I feel that it speaks volumes to some of Chaga’s deepest reaching medicine.
In a way, it is almost pointless to go into a list of all that Chaga is “good for” because it would be too a long list, & one that doesn't truly capture all that Chaga can offer. Besides, the current medicinal uses for Chaga are extremely focused on the constituents rather than it as a whole & it has become an umbrella cure for all manner of cancer. It makes me wonder how many modern herbalists & people are doing a deeper work with Chaga, one that isn’t driven by our desire to live forever, to find the holy grail, to mass-produce a miracle.
So instead, I want to offer the following about the medicine of Chaga: this precious fungi has much to teach us about how we approach the world, how we take resources, how to get at the heart of what makes us sick as individuals & as a society. I also believe that Chaga is an extremely personal medicine, that drops each of us deep within ourselves, into our own quiet, more so than maybe any other plants or fungi I know.
Because of this, I always try to encourage people to intentionally connect with their Chaga, to make space to connect with it in a personal way. Maybe it will even lead you to finding where your own white rot decay is.
One last note: Chaga is meant to be prepared as a decoction or as a tincture via the double-extraction method. The decoction is my favorite, because Chaga seems to have an endlessly abundant amount of itself to give. Try it out if you ever get the chance—it is almost like the longer you simmer it for, the more & more you can steep from a single chunk, the darker & deeper the water becomes.