We have been considering fungus recently. Reading books like Mycelium Running and An Entangled Life. A mycelial revolution begins to fruit here and there in the world, in places where it has always been, but where we have maybe failed to previously notice. Isn’t that wonderful when that happens?
Conversations with many folks we may have never expected seem to return to fungus. Like a hyphae turning back onto itself, again and again. Hyphae are the vegetative aspect of the fungus, like stem cells, but, like many things with fungus, also not that. Fungus appears to be fruiting all around us these days, popping its mysterious and varied caps into everyday conversations. For some reason it appears to be heaving into the physical world more too. Have those white rot fungi always been on fallen logs? Have those mycorrhizal Amanitas and Russulas been circling our Colorado ponderosa pines all along? We know they have been, but now we are noticing it, literally, everywhere. Some cultures never lost that lens, like the Zapotec communities in the Sierra Madre of Oaxaca, where this post is (finally) posted. “The eyes will only see what the mind has prepared them for,” or something like that. We notice more of the turkey tails on the rotting rainforest logs, or the other saprophytes growing on the local docks on Lake Atitlan.
We eat them more: porcinis from Lefthand Canyon, yeasts in our recent relationship with the pineapple ferment known as tepache here in Mexico and Guatemala, the cultivating ginger bug for ginger beer that sat on our refrigerator in Guatemala. Oh, and let’s not forget the adaptogenic or the entheogenic (psychedelic) kinds, which have always been bursting forth in my personal relationship with fungus as an adult, but which seem to be exploding into and out of the minds of just about everyone these days.
More than a curiosity, food, or consciousness expansion, I (Tim) have also been contemplating fungus as literal mentors and guides as well. Here is how:
Fungus is comprised of hyphae, which grows and moves in ways that help me to understand human wandering, or the wandering of consciousness. Fungus is a wandering organism, at least in their exploratory phase. Hyphae are explorers and together they form the mycelium that sprawls through the organic world, often unseen. Hyphae are specific cells, yet collectively they are also the organism itself. They communicate, digest, and grow. They then form mushrooms when the time is right, and these odd and eclectic fruits are full of fun, wise and important, but they are not necessarily the purpose of the fungus anymore than a mango is the purpose of the tree (in defiance of The Selfish Gene hypothesis)..
As hyphae explore, they actually can’t seem to tell up from down, or maybe it’s just not important to them, and so they must explore all three (or four?) dimensions. Yet they are focused and disciplined, seeking nourishment, and incredibly sensitive to the environment.
Considering hyphae in these ways gives a new lens on human wandering, of which our family is prone. If the ideal archetype of a modern family is a tree – which it obviously is, with no offense intend to that magnificent kingdom – I have been considering the ways in which we may also behave like a fungus. More than just the modern family, modern life can be envisioned as a tree – almost mechanical in its function, with defined vascular tissue pushing resources here and there, rigid, straight, strong, dependable, and predictable. Fixed and noticeable, as in, the goal is to be noticed in one’s strength and productive capability. Yet many of us also wander, like hyphae. Perhaps our family wanders more than many modern families, but this is not unusual in human history. Humans as stationary beings that need “roots” is actually quite a recent phenomenon, perhaps only in the last 4,000-8,000 years, and only in areas where agriculture came to prominence. More of human history was given to both nomadic and wandering patterns.
Rebecca Solnit contrasts wandering to nomadism. Nomads have fairly fixed patterns based on seasons, ecology, and agriculture. Wandering is not necessarily a nomadic trait, though it can be. It is definitely an innately human trait. The distinction is not ethical, simply clarifying. Wandering involves flexibility and openness, yet it is not aimless, at least not always. When we “hunt” for mushrooms, we typically wander. Sure, there are patterns of mushroom growth, kind of like probabilities, especially for the famous mycorrhizal fungi, such as porcinis, truffles, and morels, but there is also an equal amount of uncertainty. The patterns are not guaranteed, and the mushroom’s fruiting is far from certain. As we move on a wander, we take in information about moisture, aspect, vegetation, and things far less tangible such as the possibility that the organism has a desire to be seen, or to remain hidden, depending on the circumstances.
The past two years have been a very tree-like for many – the “3 P’s” of pandemic, politics, and pyrogenics (at least in Colorado). I picture an image of Floridian palms battered by hurricanes, to carry the tree metaphor. Limbs have been pruned, leaves have fallen, storms have battered, pests have invaded; yet the goal for many has been to remain firm and, with any luck, survive and bounce back with strong(er) trunks. Maybe the stress will be seen in a lean growth ring in 400 years.
What if, instead, we take our cues from fungus? Hyphae appear to be everywhere and nowhere. They nearly resemble air, or ether. They are opportunistic, and seek out new relationships, once old ones have worn thin, creating nodes of connection rather than rigid roads of routine. Yet they are also generous, working on the projects that other organisms cannot, such as rot – which is an important trait in a deteriorating world. They are competitive or downright violent and colonial in their intentions but also enthusiastic in cohabitation, creating the most synergistic symbiotic relationships such as those found in lichen, or kombucha.
When I consider wandering in this way, two years of Hare family pandemic living starts to pop in a different light. What is the goal of doing Tibetan infinity signs along the highways and backroads of North and Central America? Downeast Maine, Appalachia, Red River, Deep South, The Ozarks, Rockies, Punta Conejo, Cabo Pulmo, Playa Coyote, Yellowstone, The Giants of the Northwest, Boulder, Chiapas, Lago Atitlan, El Peten, Sierra Madre del Sur, Huatulco. Porque?
The patterns begin to resemble a hyphae as it explores in four dimensions. Because this doesn’t seem to be the ideal time to stand still and wait for things to get better, or to push the same combination of water and sugar, fed passively by sunlight, through a vascular network, like a tree.
It seems like the ideal time to morph into microscopic hyphae, invisible in movement and in growth, yet capable of breaking concrete when the time is right. It gives me comfort to think of our route as taking the form of expanding hyphae, with fungus as our guide. We are compelled to remember that the radical roots (each from the Latin radix) of a tree are forever entangled with mycelium.