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.

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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.

In the Shadow of an Uncertain Future

On the homestretch to the 2017 solar eclipse over America, it seems that the shadow is already falling on this beleaguered country.

Tear gas and violence in Charlottesville over the decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, racist hero of the Confederates. A president who tries to appease both sides, refusing to condemn racism and white supremacy as a failed and destructive ideology that has no place in 21st century America—no surprise, as he is busy enacting his racist anti-immigration policies and looking the other way on gender- and race-based violence.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, a trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent boy king is daring to challenge the trigger-happy, unstable and belligerent American president. The whole world watches, aghast, knowing that these two boy-men have the power to drag us all into war, and deadly nuclear war at that.

Wildfires burn in the West, floods wash out parts of New Orleans, and overhead the Perseid meteors sizzle and flash.

I can’t help but feel the portent in all of this, and to wonder why it is that most people seem oblivious.

KeyArt_LowRes_copyThe chatter in the audience this evening before Al Gore’s new film began was all about cultural doings, restaurants and vacations. Needless to say, people were more subdued after watching 100 minutes of Gore turning gray in his indefatigable efforts to wake people up to climate change and get us to fight for our future.

The movie tried to end on a hopeful note, and yet we can’t avoid the dire fact that our climate gets further out of balance year by year. This summer there are unprecedented wildfires in the previously frozen peat bogs of Greenland, releasing tons of methane, a greenhouse gas way more potent than carbon dioxide.

The writing on the bog is clear: in a relentlessly warmer world, we’d better start adapting.

51yaY7uJ07L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_In the same week as seeing Gore’s film, I also read James Lovelock’s latest book, A Rough Ride to the Future, as well as his student Stephan Harding’s marvelous book Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.

Lovelock—the pathbreaking scientist who, with Lynn Margulis, was the first to understand the Earth as Gaia, a vast interconnected biological system—is now 98, and he’s still way out in front of the pack in terms of visionary, unconventional thinking.

His book envisions the possibility of humans taking an evolutionary leap hand in hand with our computers and robots, founding a new civilization of cyborgs that no longer rely on what he calls “wet carbon life forms,” which will not be able to withstand the hotter world we are creating. He advises that we build new, sustainable cities in areas of the world likely to remain arable, and let Gaia take care of regulating the rest of the planet, as she has always done through many great climate changes in history.

Although Lovelock calls himself an optimist, the book ends on a sober note.

“I do not envision the death of Gaia, the Earth system, in the immediate future, either through human folly or otherwise. It can sustain human life for a good while yet, and human life can be the catalyst for Gaian survival in the much longer term. But there is one snag. The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. The future world may be a better place, but getting to it from here will not be easy, and we will not all make the journey.”

Watching Gore’s movie, with its dramatic footage of floods, fires and melting glaciers, as well as his reminders that the terrible violence in Syria started with a drought that destroyed more than 60% of the country’s farmland, while an increase in pandemics is inescapable on a warmer planet….well, you’d have to be pretty obtuse not to see that there are many paths to human population crash, and we’re rapidly swarming down all of them.

We are about to be the victims of our own success as a species, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot any of us can do about it. Even Al Gore seems pretty stumped by the end of the movie, after Trump’s decision to scuttle U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord.

I may not be much of an optimist, but I won’t allow myself the luxury of despair, either. I agree with Gore and Stephan Harding that we must use our power as consumers and taxpayers to push for climate-friendly changes at the local, national and international levels, including electing politicians who will represent the best interests of people and the planet.

But before that can happen, we need to wake people up to the necessity of profound, rapid, systemic change that goes beyond individual choices to the realm of national policy.

Harding’s vision is very much aligned with my own belief in the importance of starting from personal experience. The way to get people to care about the Earth is to help them remember moments when they were able to perceive the beauty and awe of our planet. This is the aim of my forthcoming online course in purposeful memoir, “Becoming Gaia,” and Harding puts it very lyrically in his conclusion to Animate Earth:

51w61ADyV4L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“To act well, we need to experience the Earth not as “nature” out there, nor as an “environment” that is distinct from us, but as a mysterious extension of our very own sensing bodies that nourishes us with an astonishing variety of intellectual and aesthetic experiences—with the roar of the sea and with the wonderful sight of the night moon reflected in a calm lake. Right action requires us to live into the body of the Earth, so that we feel just as comfortable with the air, water, rocks and living beings that are the life of that wider body as we do in our human-made environments. If we could only do this, our focus would shift from the endless fascination with human affairs to a wider, more fulfilling perception of the animate Earth in which these affairs take place. We would then encounter a broader, Earth-centered view in which every breath we take and every decision we make is a pledge of service and allegiance to the greater personhood of our planet.”

Truly, a pledge of allegiance to the planet is called for today.

To those who have been tasked with carrying out the ecocidal will of the fossil fuel cabal now in political power in the United States, I say: you have a choice.

  • If the mad president tells you to pull the trigger on a nuclear weapon that will incinerate a nation, you can say no.
  • If the energy transfer company wants you to put a gas pipeline under a river or over an aquifer, you can say no.
  • Even if you are offered a lot of money for staying silent, you always have the choice to say no.

“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” Your resistance may be vilified in the short term, but it will eventually be understood as heroic whistleblowing that saved millions of lives, in service to our shared sustainable future.

Gore compares the fight to head off climate destruction to other morally based American movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights. The climate justice fight is bigger than any of these—it’s global, and it goes way beyond humanity. We are fighting for all the beautiful members of our Earth community who came up with us through the eons, the plants, animals, birds, insects and marine life that evolved together into the complex, perfectly balanced system of water, oxygen, carbon and sunlight that makes our planet such a living wonder.

An Inconvenient Sequel ends on a defiant note. “Fight like your world depends on it,” Gore says.

Because, of course, it does.

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