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Dispatches from the present

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Speaking in Spores

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Last spring, during the early days of the pandemic, I was in a predicament. I needed to get my kids out of the house. But the library was closed. So was the zoo. So was McDonald’s, for crying out loud. I had to get creative. My kids needed to get outdoors, and once they were there, they needed direction.

My wife, the green thumb of our household, had an idea: we could look for mushrooms.

I began taking my kids to the parks and green spaces around where we live, in western Michigan. We hiked trails and traipsed through nature preserves, keeping our eyes to the ground. Quickly, my kids thrilled to the hunt. Here’s one! It’s orange! Look at this one, it has spots! Fungi located, we used an app on my phone that identified each species. The names of fungi sound like creatures from Magic: The Gathering: dryad’s saddle, chicken of the woods. My kids love learning the names, too. Fungus has kept them entertained.

Once my kids learn the name of a given mushroom, they do what any self-respecting child filled with wonder would do: they talk to it. They hope the mushroom is having a good day. When salutations have been exchanged, they begin taking measurements with toy rulers and magnifying glasses. Their engagement with the natural world is quick, fluid and surprisingly respectful. They make sure not to disturb the mushrooms, keeping them sturdy in their home soil. Even as they speak to the mushrooms, they don’t expect the mushrooms to respond like an anthropomorphic Disney cartoon. They engage the mushrooms with the resources they have, and expect the mushrooms to respond in kind.

I’ve also become fascinated with mushrooms, though my engagement with the natural world feels comparatively drab. I’m too timid, too adult, to speak to the mushrooms. Instead, I listen to podcasts.

There are many fungal gurus out there right now, uploading new episodes for eager fan bases. Chief among them is Paul Stamets, who looks like a hippie and talks like a CEO. Bearded, given to wearing a floppy hat woven of fungal material, he makes frequent appearances on stages and in studios, spreading the gospel. His enthusiasm is infectious, and I caught it. I read his book. I listened to his TED Talk. I watched—please forgive me—his appearance on Joe Rogan.

I am not in the habit of falling under the sway of charismatic prophets. Early exposure to evangelicalism immunized me against such figures. But something about Stamets and other such fungal optimists drew me in. Even when the mushroom talk goes over my head, which it often does, it still hits me in the gut.

Take the wood wide web, the mycological phenomenon that truly fires the imagination. Mushrooms can extend rootlike strands, called mycelium, into the ground. Mycelium can connect hundreds, even thousands, of disparate fruiting bodies. These connections can become so dense that boundaries between individual mushrooms fall away, yielding an enormous fungal superorganism. One such “humongous fungus” is the honey mushroom located in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. Thousands of metric tons in mass, the honey mushroom extends throughout the ground like a cathedral in reverse.

Mycelial connections also enable the transmission of nutrients and even information.  A famous experiment demonstrated the intricacy of the wood wide web by placing aphids on one mushroom. To protect itself against the pesky insects, the mushroom emitted a specific enzyme. Other mushrooms nearby, which had no contact with the aphids, also emitted the enzyme, thanks to the message being transmitted through mycelial networks, on the information supersporeway!

Fungi instilled a childlike wonder in me, too. But unlike my children, for whom wonder comes naturally, I remain hopelessly adult. Inevitably, I began to wonder if my enthusiasm for fungi was misdirected anxiety. Seeing the internet as preordained by nature certainly does flatter the human animal. But do we use our own web as well as fungi use theirs?

We appear far more likely to disseminate idiocy than helpful enzymes on our internet of tubes and servers. Fungi have been peacefully connecting for eons; Facebook, not even two decades old, radicalizes boomers and destabilizes elections. Perhaps seeing the wood wide web as a proto-internet assuages our own techno-anxieties rather than allowing us to appreciate fungi on their own terms.

In his recent book, Underland, Robert Macfarlane gets at the problem raised by anthropomorphizing the natural world. In one chapter, he visits mycologist Merlin Sheldrake in the Epping Forest outside London. Sheldrake has written his own mushroom volume, Entangled Life, which I also eagerly consumed (though not quite as eagerly as Sheldrake himself does in this video, where he eats oyster mushrooms growing from a copy of his own book).

Strolling through the woods, discussing the fungal networks beneath their feet, Macfarlane and Sheldrake share this exchange:

“Maybe, then, what we need to understand the forest’s underland,” I say, “is a new language altogether—one that doesn’t automatically convert it to our own use values. Our present grammar militates against animacy; our metaphors by habit and reflex subordinate and anthropomorphize the more-than-human world. Perhaps we need an entirely new language system to talk about fungi… We need to speak in spores.”

“Yes,” says Merlin with an urgency that surprises me, smacking his fist into the palm of his hand. “That’s exactly what we need to be doing—and that’s your job,” he says. “That’s the job of writers and artists and poets and all the rest of you.”

Back home, my children spill their crayons on the floor and draw picture after picture. Their drawings of mushrooms circulate throughout our house, adhering to walls, getting folded into bedsheets. Perhaps they already speak in spores more fluently than I do. Rather than look to the natural world as a mirror, one that can only show us what we already are, they treat it as a library, filled with knowledge of other ways of life. They take volumes down from the shelves. They copy out the illustrations found inside. They form connections where none existed before.

I take pictures of the mushrooms. I open my app and look up the genus and species. My children, though, are far more instinctive. They speak to the mushrooms directly. Assure them that they’re growing well. Children’s voices chirruping in the woods.