“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”1Robin Wall Kimmerer
Shortly after the fall equinox, on the last day of September, I took myself for a walk in the woods—a two-mile loop around a small lake named “Heart” that I return to regularly and have grown to love. I meandered along the trail, taking my time. There were wild rose-hips, partridge berries, dogwood berries, red viburnum, hickory nuts and acorns. With each breeze a small flock of leaves swirled slowly down to the ground. I could hear acorns falling, hitting branches on their way and landing in the dry leaves. Everywhere there was a rustle of small animals moving and foraging through the brush. Fallen logs to the side of the trail were marked with piles of empty hickory nut husks and acorn caps and shells left behind by feasting squirrels. Mushrooms were often sporting the silver traces and holes left behind by snails and slugs eating their fill. I felt as if I had crashed a quiet party.
I began to notice the gorgeous diversity of mushrooms springing up from the forest floor, on the mossy standing tree trunks, clustered on wind-fallen logs and the rotting left-behind stumps. Mushrooms are the showy fruiting bodies of fungi and what we are seeing is but a tiny and ephemeral fraction of the whole organism. The bulk of the fungus is the mycelium, the underground net that spreads in some species for thousands of acres. The largest single organism that has been found in the world is an ancient honey mushroom fungus (Armillaria solidipes) that lives in Oregon. Its mycelium spreads for 3.7 square miles.2 When conditions are right, fungal mycelium will form buds that ripen into delicate fruiting bodies of various shapes, colors and composition, each species with its own type of mushroom. Within a very short time—from a few hours to a few days—they will produce and send out reproductive spores and then rot away.
For hundreds of generations the wisdom traditions of indigenous people have understood the entwined nature of life on earth and the gift of being a part of creation. In recent years scientists have been collecting a great deal of new data that tells a deep biological story of interconnectivity in the forest. They have discovered that these vast networks of fungal mycelium live in a complex, mutually beneficial relationship with trees. There are a few fungi that are considered parasitic to trees, like most honey mushrooms, but the great majority of forest fungi are beneficial and necessary to the wellbeing of the whole forest.
Fungal mycelium spreads out in a vast network of tiny branching tubes. These microscopic root-like tubes entwine with the finest roots of trees and connect them across long distances to each other. Some mycelia actually penetrate the roots and begin to grow within them. This entanglement of mycelium and tree root is known as mycorrhiza, which literally means, “fungus-root”.
In this symbiotic relationship the fungus receives sugar that the tree makes through photosynthesis. Fungi cannot photosynthesize and need sugar for energy just like every other life form on earth. In return, the fungal mycelium, which has been busy extracting important mineral nutrients like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and copper from the inorganic rock particles in the soil, gives the trees these essential nutrients enabling them to grow tall and thrive. Trees are unable to extract enough of these soil nutrients with their own naked roots and are dependent on the fungus for the quantity they need in order to become such giants on the earth.
In addition to this nutrient relationship, scientists have also established that these mycorrhizal networks spread extensively throughout the forest, intertwining with each other and providing ways for trees to communicate with each other via hormones and nutrient sharing. It has been found that trees use this network to specifically favor and care for their genetic offspring that are small and shaded by the tall trees around them and have difficulty getting enough sunlight to photosynthesize well. There are also accounts of old trees that have been injured by fire or lightning or sickness who are nursed by surrounding trees with the sugar they produce. Messages about insect invaders and other threats to survival can also be sent so that neighbors might have time to put up chemical defenses.3
All of this has been cleverly dubbed “The Wood Wide Web” and demonstrates a beautiful depth of interconnection. It illuminates the wholeness and necessity of interdependence and the idea that the forest is actually functioning like one giant living organism itself. This knowledge is a precious gift to our society that seems to be so focused on individualism, nationalism and net gain to the detriment of each other and the planet. It is an example of the unseen structures that are indelibly interconnected with the seen world, in this case “unseen” because much of what is going on is microscopic and deeply buried under the surface of the world we walk on.
Any opportunity to be amazed and full of wonder at what is quietly happening out of our normal range of physical senses, and regardless of a myopic resource-driven mentality that seeks to simply extract and use, can be an invitation to begin a process of healing the human separation from the reality of our existence as a mutually dependent organism within a much larger system of which we are a part. The Wood Wide Web may remind us that there are unseen interconnections between us that go deeper and wider than our bodies occupying common space on the surface, like trees that have been thought of as single and solitary, but living in groups. We are linked deeply with each other and with other life. We are not merely trees, we are the forest.
As I slowly discovered more and more beautiful mushrooms during my walk, I was thinking about people. I was thinking about how most of who a person is, the interior self and the soul, is under the surface and that possibly what we see in the outside world could be like a fruiting body that is made to procreate in the deepest sense of the word.4 There are powerful lessons we might learn from the fungi and the trees about being alive in a body on this earth, being in community with others and how we may be inspired and supported in ways that we cannot immediately see or measure in the outer, above-ground world or in the moment.
I also thought about generativity and offerings. In the creative process, much of what you have to offer grows from within before you can send up your own fruiting body that may generate new life and connections. That fruit may also become food for others. Your own deep network of tiny roots is intertwined with a vast network of support within the ground of your being. Through that immense interconnectivity, we touch others in ways that are unseen—sharing dreams, loves, fears and hopes. Out of that sense we may be inspired to act, to turn toward this place of collective generativity within and offer what we can out of it to bring about healing, caring and building new ways of being in the world together.
I had gone to the woods, as I often do, for inspiration, for beauty and for renewal. I am finding it difficult not to feel weighed down in this world right now and I know many are feeling that weight. Nearing the end of my loop on the Heart Lake trail, I thought again about the fungi. The most prolific times for mushrooms are spring and fall, the transitional seasons. Fungus is also particularly good at transforming dead things into valuable nutrients for the rest of the forest. That is a kind of restorative and generative work and it contributes to harmony and balance.
May we be humble enough to receive wisdom from the forest fungus and the roots of trees.
May we find hope through stories of co-creative and regenerative relationship.
May we wonder at the beauty and balance of a system of interconnection like that of the trees and the fungus.
May we each realize our deepest connections and send out our own fruit into the world.
And in so many ways and for so many reasons, may we know that we are not alone.
RadioLab: From Tree to Shining Tree -If you want to know more about the Wood Wide Web, this episode of RadioLab is a good listen.
“A forest can feel like a place of great stillness and quiet. But if you dig a little deeper, there’s a hidden world beneath your feet as busy and complicated as a city at rush hour.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013, Milkweed Editions Pub.
This is truly one of the most gorgeous and powerful books I have ever read. Her writing is deeply rooted in science and indigenous wisdom and reading this book is like a long drink of water to one who is thirsty. It is a treatise on love for the earth and all that lives upon it.
From the back of the paperback edition: “As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these lenses of knowledge together to show that the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires that acknowledgement and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings are we capable of understanding the generosity of the earth, and learning to give our own gifts in return.”
Notes and Sources:
1. Quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s, Braiding Sweetgrass. See above for more details.
2. Fleming, Nic. Nov 19, 2014. The Largest Living Thing on Earth is a Humongous Fungus. BBC Media http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141114-the-biggest-organism-in-the-world
3. In addition to the RadioLab podcast mentioned above, there are several other great sources for more details relating to the reality of the Wood Wide Web. Two that I have learned from are 1. German forester Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book, The Hidden Lives of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate–Discoveries From a Secret World (Greystone Books), and Canadian forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard’s TED talk from 2016, “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs
4. The most common use of the word “procreate” is in reference to producing genetic offspring. The Dictionary.com definition of the word is: “procreate (verb): 1. to beget or generate (offspring). 2. to produce; bring into being.” I have heard people who are engaged in creative work refer to the fruits of their labors as their “babies” and are often bringing this work into the world out of a kind of love or as the result of sense of a calling forth. Procreate seemed a fitting word to use here.
All photos are my own, taken September 30, 2019