KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Composer, creative alchemist, mycologist—Gabrielle Cerberville wears many hats. Her fungal forays in the forest earned her influencer status on TikTok as the Chaotic Forager, peeling puffball mushrooms for pizza crust or baring bounties beneath bark. But at heart, Cerberville is still a kid running barefoot through the woods of the Pocono Mountains where she grew up.
"I just love being outdoors. And the more I get to know what I'm surrounded by, the more connected I am to it and the more I feel a deeper understanding of everything that's going on," says Cerberville, a music composition master's student at Western Michigan University. "Foraging has always been part of my life. I don't think of it as a lifestyle—it's often styled that way on things like Instagram and TikTok where you see people who forage and it's kind of an aesthetic. For me, it's just a way to exist in the world."
At Western, Cerberville found a way to nurture the intersectionality of her passions with a campus surrounded by lush natural areas and a program supportive of exploration and innovation.
"My work isn't very traditional, and (when I was looking at graduate programs) I felt safe to grow here," Cerberville says. "Programs like this—that do a good job—work because they are consistently supportive. And I have definitely found that. Dr. (Lisa) Coons has really helped me to give my practice more useful language and more useful tools, and the other students I spend time with, that I work with, have also really helped to challenge me and to open up my ideas a bit more."
Cerberville's creative journey at Western will culminate in a partnership with the Kalamazoo Nature Center, which is presenting her thesis work: biodata sonification of mushrooms. The project involves hooking up sensors to fungal networks to make music.
"If I were to take a couple electrodes and put them on your skin, I would get an electrical signal," she says. "And that will work with any living thing. You can do it on your dog, you can do it to a house plant, you can do it to a mushroom. As long as it is alive, it will produce an electrical signal."
Cerberville is currently growing mushrooms in the center's greenhouse for an auditory installation as well as gathering objects found on the property to build a sculpture. The "Fungal Chapel" installation will also incorporate electronic devices so visitors can play their own duets with the mushrooms. It's expected to open sometime in March.
In all of her work, Cerberville's ultimate goal is to better connect people with the spaces around them—not only to visitors at the Kalamazoo Nature Center but to the millions of people following the Chaotic Forager's adventures on social media as well.
"It's about showing there is value in your forest. There is value in green space, in ponds, in wetlands and that value extends both to us and beyond us," she says. "When I am showing somebody a berry that's growing in their backyard or a mushroom that's growing on a telephone pole, that is infusing that place with value. So next time a bank wants to buy a beautiful plot of heavily wooded land and build there, it's not just pointless woods; it's the place where blueberries grow, and that means it's more valuable and more likely to be protected."
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