What Lies Beneath: Of Mushrooms, Mycelia and Interconnection

On these warm, humid days of late summer, I have been walking the woods looking for mushrooms. There are so many to be found, and of such a marvelous variety!

Mushrooms mean more to me since I began to understand them as the visible fruits of the vast underground network known as the mycelium.

From Animate Earth by Stephan Harding: “Mycelia can grow at prodigious speed and explore space with phenomenal density. They can extend several centimeters a day and can infuse a mere gram of soil with over a kilometer of their intensely networked pipe-like cells….Some mycelia can be massive in both age and size. Perhaps the largest organism on Earth is a 2,200-year-old Armillaria root-rot fungus that grows in 2,400 acres of forest soil in eastern Oregon.”

FullSizeRender 3Especially fascinating to me is the symbiotic relationship that has developed between trees (and other plants) and the members of the fungi kingdom. The photo-synthesizers turn sunlight into sugar, which they share with the fungi in return for a functional extension of their roots further and wider than the plant could achieve on its own. The fungi exchange valuable minerals and water for the precious sunlight-sugar, and in a healthy environment all prosper and do well on our rich Mother Earth.

I walk the forest moodily these days, spying mushrooms and thinking about what lies beneath. It seems like an apt metaphor to be exploring in our social landscape as well.

What lies beneath the visible expressions of life that seize our attention day by day?

What lies beneath the constant eruptions of violence in the world, from Orlando to Charlottesville, from Aleppo to Barcelona, from Nice to Mosul?

What lies beneath the visible evidence of climate dysfunction—wildfires, floods—and the inexorable biological die-off known as the Sixth Great Extinction?

What lies beneath the naked greed and egotism polluting the American political system? Where is this ugly cancer of racism and hate coming from?

Humans now have the neurological equivalent of mycelia, the vast extension of our nervous system through the World Wide Web. Information is our sugar, and it seems we are quite dependent on it—even addicted, you might say.

The thing is that our Web has grown up in a spiritually impoverished time, in intellectual, technical soils that are superficial and incapable of providing us with the nourishment we need to turn the sugar of information into harmonious, beautiful, ethically strong philosophies and ways of living.

When soils are constantly bombarded with chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and anti-fungals, they produce plants that are weakly rooted and susceptible to diseases and infections.

So too, when we humans inhabit social landscapes that are constantly saturated with negativity, devoid of hope and inspiration, we are susceptible to being taken over by campaigns of hate and sloganeering. We fall prey to violence, whether self-destructive (the opioid crisis, eating disorders, depression and anxiety, physical illness) or against others (domestic violence, sexual violence, hate crimes, gangs, economic bludgeoning and the brainwashed othering that results in racial profiling).

Our World Wide Web could be, and sometimes is, a nourishing network. The places I go on the Internet are places of reflection, ethical courage, and humility. I strive to dig my roots deep into this rich soil and at times make my own thoughts visible, mushroom-style, as I do in Transition Times.

But we learned in the 2016 American election that the hateful, spiritually empty areas of the Web are growing quickly. It’s like a Roundup Ready crop, fast-growing and seemingly robust, yet devoid of true nourishment for the spirit.

What are those boys who brought hate to Charlottesville doing this week, in the aftermath of their eruption into plain view? What nastiness are they readying for the weeks and months ahead?

Harding: “When ready to reproduce, previously invisible mycelia gather their hyphae together to form fruiting bodies such as mushrooms and moulds that sprout into the air….They can emerge quickly because the underlying mycelium is immensely effective at supplying concentrated hydraulic power to a specific point in the network on very short notice. Fungal fruiting bodies release spores tiny enough to ride on swirling currents of air, and thus they find new places fit for colonization. Vast numbers of spores are released—some bracket fungi growing out of trees can release some 30 thousand million spores each day.”

These days, we who believe in equality and justice for all must work harder to make ourselves visible. We must be outspoken and forceful like never before. We must send the spores of our clear understanding of love and inclusivity far and wide, becoming beacons of hope and monuments to “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein.

The mycelium of our movement must dig down and go far and wide, creating a rich substratum of thought and practice that counters the shallow, hostile soils of hate that have been spreading on the Web.

FullSizeRender 7

It will be important, in the days and years ahead, to consciously work on building our connections in the real world, as well as in our virtual landscapes.

We have to remember, and teach our children, how to enjoy creative collaboration in real life. It can be as simple as sitting in thoughtful conversation or working together to make a good meal.

We all have the potential to create beauty in our lives, and to share what we have created with others.

As we tend to our social landscapes, we must also remember to value the often unheeded planetary systems without which none of us could survive for an instant: the plants that make our air, the clean waters we all depend on, the rich microbial soils and the vast fungal networks that provide the silent steady pulse of harmonious interconnection.

A task for these August eclipse days: pay attention to what lies beneath the surface of your life. Dig your roots down deep, and work with your neighbors, real and virtual, to build a healthy, vibrant community—for all life on Earth. Stand up tall and send out those positive spores.

Yes, we have work to do! Seizing the potential of the borderlands between what is and what is possible

“It is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counter stance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat…both are reduced to a common denominator of violence.

“The counter stance refutes the dominant culture’s views and beliefs, and for this it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counter stance stems from a problem with authority–outer as well as inner–it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life.

“At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes.

“Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. Or we might go another route. The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.”

–Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands/La frontera

 

gloria-anzalsuabWritten by a Chicana queer in 1987, Borderlands/La frontera was always ahead of its time. Or maybe it was just that as an inhabitant of the radically unsafe cultural and literal borderlands, Anzaldua was much more aware than most of her audience of what is at stake in making your home on a border—on, as she put it, “that thin edge of barbed-wire.”

I named this blog Transition Times back in 2011 because even then it felt like we were moving into the liminal, transitional space between the old cultural norms and an as-yet unclear new culture, a new way of relating with each other and our planet. Like Charles Eisenstein, I am searching for new ways of understanding what is happening in the world, and how I can be part of a movement for real, radical social change.

Yet like most everyone I know, I am still going through the motions of the old story, even while trying to get glimpses of something different.

I am still, as Anzaldua puts it, stuck in the counterstance, standing on the opposite side of the river from those I want to change, shouting futilely into the wind.

One of the peculiar challenges of our time is that “the enemy” is not easy to identify, and all too often it turns out that if we really follow the money, the “enemy” is us.

Who created the fossil fuel industry? I did, along with everyone I know, as we enjoyed the convenience of burning oil and gasoline, heedlessly using plastic, leaving the coal-fired-electric lights on.

Who created the so-called Rust Belt and killed the American workers’ unions? I did, preferring to buy my cars from Japan, and cheap goods from China.

Who created the corporate beast, now slouching insouciantly into the highest levels of American governmental power? I did, we all did, allowing corporate money to rule our politicians, allowing corporations to put short-term gain above longterm health and sustainability, rewarding those corporate leaders with ever-higher incomes and status.

Who created the military-industrial complex, along with its henchmen the pharmaceutical-petrochemical-agricultural complex? We all did, going along complacently with industrial agricultural built on chemicals, ignoring how unhealthy it made us, investing in the ever-climbing Big Pharma and Big Insurance industries that got richer in proportion to how unhealthy we became.

I could go on, but you get the drift. To really unpack Anzaldua’s image of enemies locked in a counterstance on opposite sides of the river, you have to admit that we are looking at a scenario we created.

When we look at the oh-so-real image of militarized police spraying unarmed, peaceful water protectors with huge canisters of mace, we are looking at what could be our future, as everywhere across America and the world, precious resources like water are being privatized and threatened by mining, fracking, drilling and all the dirty industries built on fossil fuels.

screenshot-2016-11-02-at-1-44-54-pm

What would it mean to follow Anzaldua’s advice of moving beyond a simple yes-no opposition, into a “new consciousness” that can see with both eagle and serpent eyes?

In our current situation, it would mean doing a lot of soul-searching as to why so many poor people in America voted against their own interests, for the aggressive, macho reality TV star that even the Republicans weren’t sure they could stand.

Our two political parties were revealed, in this election cycle, to be equally out of touch with conditions on the ground in America. Both parties are split between fat-cat corporate types and rabble-rousing throw-em-out types, and neither party, it seems, is strong enough to unite these two wings.

Neither presidential candidate this year would have had a real mandate, as in a nation united behind them. In truth, it’s the class divide that tripped up Hillary Clinton, and her inability to be convincing when she claimed she’d help the working class.

Trump was just a better liar, knowing that if he could stoke the voters’ anger against the status quo, they wouldn’t care about what specific policies he might or might not be able to enact once in office. Who cares about the fine print when you have a candidate who gives you permission to shout obscenities and have some fun?

Again, to ask where the Trump voters came from is to be led back to the mirror. I place a lot of the blame for voters’ lack of engagement and discernment at the feet of the American public education system, and beyond that, to parents who abandoned their kids to the tutelage of the internet, video games and TV—all of which are run by social elites, let us remember.

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Marx proclaimed in the 19th century. For the 20th century, and to this day, media has become the opiate of the masses. Media has moved into the place of leadership formerly held by education and individual teachers, religion and individual pastors, and even family and individual parents.

How often of late have you seen young people sitting at the table listening to the conversation of their elders? Unless they are forced to, they would much rather be off by themselves with their eyes glued to their screens. Even groups of young people will sit together each one on their own screen, occasionally commenting out loud to each other about what they are seeing on-screen.

We have begun to awaken to the power of media, especially social media, to influence reality, with Facebook now at last taking seriously the disruptive potential of “fake news.” Fake news probably won the election for Trump. And this is the mother’s milk our kids are being raised on, as they are let loose in an internet landscape they have to figure out for themselves.

The question is, now that we’re awake, what will we do about it?

Like everyone I know, I have been signing online petitions, joining online resistance groups, giving money, thinking about joining the street protests.

But this is counterstance politics. It absorbs our energy into fighting against, rather than using that precious resource, our time and energy, into developing an alternative, based on “new consciousness,” in new territory.

What would it mean to fight FOR the world we want to live in, rather than AGAINST the dying gasps of the old order? What would it mean to start telling new stories of what could be possible, rather than endlessly rehashing the fear and loathing of the past?

I’m not talking about sticking my head in the sand or pretending that the bigotry of the Trump people isn’t real and dangerous. It’s real, and it’s very dangerous. We are right to be afraid.

But we can’t afford to spend all our energy saying NO. We have to also work in our local communities to live into alternatives, and celebrating our successes loudly and happily at every opportunity.

Alliances and coalitions of all stripes—across the artificial boundaries of race, sex/gender, class, ethnicity, religion, region, nationality—these can and must get stronger, as we all agree to inhabit the borderland spaces together.

We must all be “queer” now, as is beginning when we see people promising to register themselves as Muslims, should such a national registry ever come to pass, or standing in solidarity with the Native American water protectors’ movement, in repudiation of the disgraceful settler-native relations of the past.

We can work on the local level to implement renewable energy alternatives, moving boldly into solar, wind and other democratically available resources and hitting the fossil fuel industries where it matters—their bottom line.

In so many ways, we can use our power as consumers to create the world we want to see. That means understanding the stakes involved in “cheap” Chinese goods or industrial food, and being willing to spend a bit more in the short term, to invest in the long term health of people and the planet.

Buying organic or food produced locally using permaculture agricultural practices may cost a few pennies more, but that small individual investment can have a big impact if many of us are willing to make the shift.

Same with eating less meat, or even no meat. These seemingly small personal choices really can have a big impact if enough of us are making them and talking about them and encouraging each other to see the big picture of why it’s important.

For me, as a parent and a teacher, one of the biggest areas in need of “new consciousness” has to do with rearing the next generations. We must fight the domination of the corporate media by insisting that kids remain connected to their innate creativity.

Seriously, I don’t think kids under the age of 10 should have free-range access to the internet or games. We want our kids to stay connected to the real world—the natural world, their communities, their families, their friends. We want them to develop their own creative voices and visions, to “play make-believe” and dream into the new stories their generation will need. Allowing them to stuff their minds on junk-food media is undermining their potential at the most basic level.

But we must provide exciting alternatives to those screens. School should not be boring. Communication is our greatest strength as a species, and we need to get much better about how we teach, how we parent, and what we offer our kids in the way of stimulation and opportunities for growth. Their needs are not the same as what we current adults needed in our pre-internet time. But abdicating our role to the internet is a dangerous cop-out.

jen-under-tree-big

Young people need our guidance more than ever. It will be harder to reach those who have been weaned on internet-milk, but it is possible, and we must go at it with all the creativity and love we possess—and not just for our own kids, but for all kids. Especially those from the angry, disenfranchised families, the poor kids, the Trump kids.

I agree with everyone who is talking about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work in the wake of the election disaster. But what the work is…that is the question we must ponder deeply.

Going to Washington DC to protest the inauguration of Trump the day AFTER doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, in terms of use of our precious energy and time. Why isn’t a big protest being called for December 18, the day BEFORE the Electoral College is to finalize their vote?

We need to be strategic in the coming weeks, months and years. We don’t have the luxury of time to fritter away our energy in non-effective counterstances.

As we move into this uncharted borderland between the familiar old culture and the unknown future hurtling towards us, let’s keep our faces bravely looking ahead—not like Walter Benjamin’s famous angel of history, turned backward to the destruction and disappointment of the past.

What family, what community, what world, do you want to live in? Get clear on it and then—go make it so.

For the Trees

IMG_0258 copy.jpg

For North American tree lovers, October is a special month: the time of year when the trees get dressed up in their fanciest finery and show off just how wildly beautiful they are.

I pay attention to trees in all seasons, and have ever since I was a girl who loved to climb them, as high as I could go, and drape myself over a branch to feel the wind swaying us both gently.

My very first short story, written in pencil in a nondescript notebook when I was about 8, was about a tree nymph named Estrella, who gathered the animals around her in an urgent council, and set off on a quest to try to save her forest from destruction by humans. I never finished that story, mostly because I could not imagine a solution—how could a tree nymph and some forest animals stop the men with their bulldozers and chain saws?

Estrella haunts me now, prodding me to return to her story and persevere to the ending. Since those long ago days of my childhood, the pace of forest destruction has only increased.

According to National Geographic, if the current pace of deforestation continues, the planet’s rainforests could “completely vanish in a hundred years” (italics mine).

The fate of the northern boreal forests is no less dire. The Canadian boreal forest, an area more than 14 times the size of California, is being scraped away relentlessly for tar sands oil production, as well as being steadily logged.

boreal_concessions

In the first 13 years of the 21st century, according to a report from the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch, “Canada lost more than 26 million hectares of forest, mainly in its boreal region. More than 20 percent of the boreal forest region (more than 150 million hectares) is now covered by industrial concessions for timber operations, hydrocarbon development, hydroelectric power reservoirs, and mineral extraction.”

A hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres. The scale of this deforestation boggles the mind. In fact, I think one of the reasons this vast destruction is continuing is because it’s so hard to wrap our minds around it. Outside of photos, very few of us tree lovers ever see a fresh clear-cut or a mine. We don’t see what passes for “reforestation,” the planting of millions of trees in straight lines, with herbicide sprayed below them to prevent “weeds” from growing, and not an animal or bird or butterfly in sight.

Unknown.jpeg

Yet so many of us love birds and butterflies and animals. We put out our bird feeders in the winter and ooh and ahh over a sighting of a deer or a bobcat.

How can we be so loving on the one hand, and so callous on the other? How can we allow the relentless logging and scraping and dozing and burning to go on???

We seem to live with constant cognitive dissonance, whereby we know what’s going on, but resolutely shut out the knowledge. At least, that’s what I do. I know that every time I get in my car I’m being part of the problem. But I continue driving, nevertheless. We all do.

Human beings are profoundly social animals. The more I think about our behavior, the more I see our resemblance to ants, bees and termites. Especially ants, who are also wizards at reshaping the environment to suit their own needs. But no other species on Earth destroys its own habitat—and knowingly, at that!

A long, long time ago, the Earth was an anaerobic environment; there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Then the plants came along and started turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, paving the way for all of us oxygen breathers who followed them.

Without the plants—without the algae, grasses, trees and all the other carbon-dioxide breathers—the Earth would become uninhabitable for us, just as it became uninhabitable for the anaerobic creatures millions of years ago.

So when we’re thinking about the trees, we owe them some gratitude. Some reverence and respect.

img_0160-copy

I love trees because they seem majestic and wise to me. They live a long time, far longer than humans, and they exist both above and below ground in ways I can hardly begin to fathom. They are also patient and resilient. When you cut down a tree, its roots still feed the soil, and if left alone (ie, no herbicides), it will soon regenerate, calmly sending up hundreds of new saplings to take the place of the one who fell. It has time. There is no rush.

It’s human beings who are in a rush, all the time. In a rush to “harvest biomass,” policy code for cutting down forests. In a rush to figure out how to “manage ecosystem services,” ie, learning how to cut down, replant and cut down again at the fastest possible rate.

All this rush is sending us pell-mell off the cliff of climate change. We know this, but try not to think about it. It’s so much easier to go along with the flow of our dominant, fossil-fuel-based, wood-hungry culture than to try to resist. Especially when it seems like that’s what everyone else is doing too.

Charles Eisenstein says that “enlightenment is a group activity,” meaning that it’s almost impossible for us humans, social creatures that we are, to change our mind-sets alone.

What’s truly exciting about our time is that now, we are more networked and communicative than ever before, just like our cousins the ants and the bees. Our Internet has made group enlightenment (otherwise known as social change) possible at a speed and a scale never before possible for humans.

It’s no longer possible for us to simply not know when millions of acres of forest are being clear-cut. That kind of innocence is gone, and with knowledge comes the responsibility to act, to live up to our values. Happily, there are some potent actions going on right now on behalf of the forests and the waters—the lifeblood of our planet.

img_0267-copy

Not surprisingly, it’s indigenous peoples, the ones who have stayed closest to the land throughout the whole horrendous onslaught of “Western civilization,” who are leading the way.

If you haven’t been following the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where a massive pipeline project is underway, please inform yourself. The powers that be are trying to muzzle the media there, but that always backfires in the age of social media, doesn’t it.

Amy Goodman’s video report of dogs attacking peaceful protesters (they prefer to call  themselves as “water protectors”) has gone viral with more than 14 million views in just a couple of weeks. The more the oil moguls try to stamp out resistance, the brighter the glare of public awareness and outrage shines.

I’m also heartened by the response to the Million Trees Campaign started by Treesisters, an organization inspired by the Pachamama Alliance, which was itself sparked by visits with the Amazonian Shuar people who were reaching out to northern allies to try to save their forests.

Treesisters is funding local reforestation projects, focusing on the tropical rainforests that are so essential to the stability of the climate worldwide. Currently they are half-way to their goal of funding the planting of 1 million trees in the coming year—you can join in here.

tree-copy

 

Estrella the tree nymph is never far from my mind these days, her great love for the trees and forests fueling her implacable determination to change the hearts and minds of the human beings that would destroy them.

One day I will finish her story. And I hope I can find my way to a happy ending.

 

 

 

 

Loving Earth

To save the Earth, we must fall in love with her, writes Robert Koehler, taking his inspiration from the work of Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics.

Koehler and Eisenstein say that in the trajectory of human evolution, we have been locked in the selfish adolescent phase for a long, long time, just seeking to take what we need from our Earth mother, without thought of giving much in return, or of the reality of finite limits.

When we fall in love, Eisenstein says, “perfect selfishness falls apart as the self expands to include the beloved within its bounds.”

I remember falling in love like that as an adolescent, and as a young adult too.

It’s true that when you’re in love, the boundaries between the self and other dissolve, and you exist in a harmonious utopia of mutual beneficence.

But at least for most of us fallen humans, that kind of all-encompassing love doesn’t last forever.

It can’t.  It’s too intense.  Eventually the first ecstatic glow fades and the angelic beloved assumes normal, human proportions, with all the associated warts and odors and quirks of behavior and thought that our human bodies and minds possess.

What happens to love then?

If we are compatible for the longterm, the initial heady crush transforms into a much more solid platform of respect, shared interests, and deep concern for each other.  We care about each other, we enjoy being together no matter what we’re doing, and we respect each other’s views, goals, and talents.

We become partners in the truest sense of the word.

Is it necessary to go through the romantic, boundary-dissolving “falling in love” stage to get to the mature relationship of partnership?

In our culture, we believe it to be.  Our young people, tutored by every aspect of media and pop culture, assume that being swept away with love is a pre-requisite to successful marriage.

And yet how many of their parents, who followed that same script, ended up in bitter divorce fights?

Although I understand the intent behind Koehler’s and Eisenstein’s valorization of “falling in love” as a model for the depth of passion needed to fuel successful environmental action on behalf of the Earth, I am not convinced that this is the right message to be sending.

Young people today may still harbor romantic dreams, but they live day-to-day in a casual hook-up culture that prides itself on separating sexual enjoyment from commitment.

Fifty percent of their parents have made the journey from early romance to disillusioned divorce.

Another 25% or so of adults are either unhappily married, or unhappily single.

The “falling in love” model thus hits home with too few Americans to be effective as a rallying call for environmental action, and it is too limited a metaphor for the depth and breadth of passion that we must summon now to be effective Earth stewards and activists.

Instead we must love with the unconditional devotion of a mother for her child, with the sincere, selfless wish to see that new life grow and prosper and move forward beyond us.

We must love the Earth with the intensity of devotion that recognizes that for her to thrive, it may be necessary for us to part.

Earth has loved us with this kind of pure altruism all these many years of human emergence.  Now, as in the terrifying story of The Giving Tree, she has given so much that she has practically sacrificed herself entirely.

Nothing we can do to the Earth will wreck her forever.  Forever is a long, long time, in geologic terms.

But there is still time to shift from heedless destruction to the kind of loving tending that the Earth herself has modeled for us all these years.

There is still time to develop the kind of deeply caring reciprocal partnership that will last a lifetime, and beyond.

%d bloggers like this: