Five times more precious than Gold
In a place now long forgotten and at a time unspecified but rumoured to be around fifteen centuries ago a Yak herder was tending to their flock high in the Himalayas, the location rather vaguely somewhere between Northern India & Tibet, a vast range stretching thousands of miles through some of the harshest lands known to man. The Yak herder was grazing the beasts on high pasture in springtime, 10,000 or so feet up.
On this particular occasion the Herder noticed that the animals were acting somewhat strangely, one source mentions ‘a frisky manner’, another describes the Yaks as chasing each other & having ‘lust and intent in their eyes’ I am not quite sure how you work that out from a Yaks eyes, but the herder knew something was up and on further investigation discovered that the Yaks had consumed orange shoots growing amongst the pasture on the mountainside.
This was mans first alleged brush with Ophiocordyceps Sinensis, more commonly known in Tibetan as Yarsagumba. The first written records appear in the fifteenth century, by Tibetan Clergy who described the efficacy of Yarsagumba for human health, by the seventeenth century it was being used in China and had reached the Doctors at the Emperors Court.
Now Yarsagumba isn’t a plant, well not exactly, its more a parasite, a fungus that settles on the head of a caterpillar, the pupal stage of the Himalayan Ghost Moth. It’s a gruesome story, because this innocent little caterpillar settles into the hillside to pupate and whilst snoozing away the Himalayan winter it is eaten alive by the fungus, which first takes over control of the caterpillars brain & then the entire body. The caterpillar is basically fucked at this point, but still alive in a zombie kind of state . When spring comes the fungus somehow makes the caterpillar move towards the surface, the fungus then explodes from the caterpillars head sending up a long orange stalk above ground level. This then fruits, sending out reproductive spores to go on and eat other luckless Ghost Moths…….
That was of course, until man found out that the spore stalks were a medical whizz. This changed it all. Yarsagumba is said to be a medical cornucopia, ‘Himalayan Viagra’ improving the sex drive of men & women alike, stamina building, it is said to slow aging, help in tumour treatment, infertility, sleep regulation, liver conditions, heart ailments, the list goes on an on.
One medical study, on mice found those treated with Yarsagumba had a life expectancy double or treble those untreated.
But for centuries the fungus was harvested, with difficulty, and things changed little until in 1993 at the World Athletics Championships the Chinese ladies distance running team were put on a diet of Yarsagumba and Turtle Blood by their coach,
Yum , I hear you say, how delicious is that? Now perhaps they were just damned good runners, perhaps the diet made a difference, but whatever the reason they lifted a heap of world records somewhat unexpectedly and word spread………………..
Since 1993 this mountain fungus has become more and more sought after, by the time it reaches a Chinese Doctor or an upmarket health store in the US or Europe it is worth five times its own weight in gold. Demand has increased massively, thousands of people across the Himalayas search out these shoots and the quantities sourced have climbed and climbed, until they didn’t, supply, despite ever more people scavenging the Himalayan springtime hillsides is now falling year on year.
In Nepal, Bhutan & Tibet with some of the lowest per capita incomes on Earth people are only to happy to toil on dangerous mountainsides risking life and limb to harvest the fungus in a short six week harvesting period. The money is sorely needed. In turn there have also been numerous fights over the fungus & multiple murders. The value of the business in Yarsagumba is something like 10 Billion US dollars per year.
There are no categoric proof of the benefits of this fungus, just heresay, anecdotes & rumours along with rather sketchy research, but it really doesn’t matter, the most important thing is the human need to find something that will make us feel better. We will go to any lengths to make that happen.
This strange creation, a fungus that can only live by killing another creature has existed in the Himalayas for eons, what perplexes me most is the play of man and nature in this story, in the space of a few decades mans ability to consume nature has stripped it from some of the most inaccessible lands on earth. So much has been harvested that there is now the distinct possibility it may die out all together.
So strong our desire, so powerful our ability to consume that in search of our own wellness we begin to destroy another little part of our world, a parasitic fungus isn’t glamorous, nobody is going to set up a charity to protect it or make TV adverts that bring a tear to your eye about it, and no doubt at some point someone in a white coat in a lab somewhere will work out how to grow it in a test tube, and then nobody will care in the slightest and a little bit of fungus that once grew wild in the mountains will slip into distant memory until nobody will remember it ever existed at all. And then despite our enduring desire for richness & wellness in our lives we will all of us be just a little bit poorer and maybe we should ask ourselves the question which creature at the end of it all is the parasite?