Text of a sermon delivered at Saskatoon Unitarians January 12, 2020
Rev. Karen Fraser Gitlitz
A reading from the essay “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom” by Anna Tsing
Next time you walk through a forest, look down. A city lies under your feet. If you were somehow to descend into the earth, you would find yourself surrounded by the city’s architecture of webs and filaments. Fungi make those webs as they interact with the roots of trees, forming joint structures of fungus and root called ‘mycohrriza’. Mycorhhizal webs connect not just root and fungus, but, by way of fungal filaments, tree and tree, connecting up the forest in entanglements.
Anna Tsing for the Matsutake Worlds Research Group “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom” Australian Humanities Review (Issue 50, May 2011). Accessed online http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2011/05/01/arts-of-inclusion-or-how-to-love-a-mushroom/
Introduction to the “Interdependence” Sermon Series
Exploring the bonds that bind each to all is the purview of religion, says Mark Morrison Read in an oft used quotation in our hymnal. And it is one that Unitarians have taken to heart, from philosophical, theological and scientific perspectives throughout the 20th century and into this one.
Most recently, the Canadian Unitarian Council, our national association of congregations, chose a vision statement: our interdependence calls us to love and justice. Our interdependence calls us to love and justice.
Lovely statement. But what exactly does it mean? How does it work? This seemed worth investigating further, and so this series of services – of which this is the third, were planned for this year.
This month, we are in the deep of winter.
The ground is frozen and so is much of the water.
It seemed time to turn inward.
Inward to our own beings,
And inward to this planet which is our home.
By which I mean, the world underground.
“Wisdom from the Web Underfoot” part 1
Several centuries ago, Charles Darwin of evolution fame had a hobby — watching earthworms. He spent enough time with them to notice that they made choices about which leaves to move toward and how to drag an unfamiliar type of leaf — by carefully feeling its entire surface. Darwin thought this was more than instinct, it suggested the presence of “mind” in some sense.
(Griffiths, “Dwelling on Earth” Emergence Magazine, No. 6 – Food https://emergencemagazine.org/story/dwelling-on-earth/).
There is much happening in the earth below our feet.
For most of the 20th century, foresters thought that in order to help replanted trees survive, they needed to get rid of any other species of seedlings that popped up, because the other species would compete for precious resources. Ecologist Suzanne Simard was one of those who noticed that Douglas fir seedlings actually did worse when the birch seedlings were removed, not better.
As Simard looked for ways that the trees might be connected, she and her colleagues unearthed the fungi that wove connections between the trees, tapping into tree roots at a cellular level. The fungi formed a non-hierarchical network between the fir the birch and many other plants.
Wanting to see the paths of communication this network made possible, they injected radioactive isotopes into the trees. What they found went far beyond what they had imagined: The isotopes moved down the trees to the roots, along the fungal network and up into other trees. The relationships were much more complex than they first imagined — all the trees within the thirty square metre plot were connected. And the Fir saplings were receiving more from birch trees than they gave into the system (Robert MacFarlane Underland: A Deep Time Journey, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2019, p. 90).
Before Simard and company, the language used to describe forest interactions came mostly from terms developed to describe 18th century free market economies: the forest was an array of individuals, competing for resources.
As new discoveries emerged about the relationships under the forest floor the language changed. We learned how the fungi have enzymes that make phosphorous and nitrogen available to trees, and the trees have chlorophyll which makes glucose available to the fungi. Other communications along the mycorrhizal network could carry more complex information, tagging the source and the recipient, alerting other species to problems in the ecosystem, such as beetles. To capture these new understandings of relationship, authors turned to a more socialist language of mutuality and the language of caring — speaking of old logs as nurse trees, drawing on kinship relationships among mammals – mother, father, parent, sibling, child.
Depending on your relationship to these various spheres of human activity, some ways of speaking were more ideologically resonant than others. And some — especially the relations of parent and child — more affective and affecting.
Each of these bodies of metaphors — economic and familial — carries with a whole trove of associations that have nothing to do with trees or forests and everything to do with human politics and worldview.
Biologist Merlin Sheldrake, author of a soon-to-be-published book about fungi, says “I’m tired of .. these stories. The forest is always more complicated than we can ever dream of. . . . walking through a wood is like taking a tiny part in a mystery play run across multiple timescales.” (MacFarlane, p. 110).
The attempt to put words to what we see is always only partially successful: we’re trying to use what we know well to describe what we are just coming to understand.
Just as we might encourage a young adult to go live in a different city or travel to another continent, just as we encourage the learning of other languages — because these experiences open up new ways of being, new ways of thinking and imagining — there is value in trying to do the impossible, to try to understand the forest on its own terms, to settle our minds into the soil and bring ourselves as close as possible to the experiences of other species.
Perhaps if we look closely, and let the words come to us, we might learn something from the web beneath our feet.
A second reading, from the Essay “Dwelling on Earth” by Jay Griffiths
In the soil of my garden, under a rock, one of my cats is buried, the cat whose death left me inconsolable. Soil is the dark forever where we go after death, earth to earth and ashes to ashes: where our existence ends. It is also where we come from, creatures of earth and fed by it, our brief lives poised between two long eternities of soil.
I have watched eternity happening, rolling and unrolling time, turning it forwards. I have heard the little rattles of dead leaves, light as rain, as earthworms eat and cast leaf litter to create soil, acting in sweet complicity with both life and death. I have seen roundworms pass for shooting stars in shimmering slowness in the other dark beneath me.
Life moves like this: creating, linking, making, and turning. It is soil that turns the Earth’s barren rock into the riotous life we know. Wheels on wheels of life in this unique planet wheeling its green-blue feast through the starving blackness. Soil that turns past into future, turns age into youth. Viriditas, the force of green life, grows out of the dark and turning earth, and worms are the artists of the turning world, returning vitality to it. Worm-shine licks the earth, tickling it to harvests and intricately re-thinking the soil into a different cast.
Griffiths, “Dwelling on Earth” Emergence Magazine, No. 6 – Food https://emergencemagazine.org/story/dwelling-on-earth/
I invite you now into a time of meditation, contemplation or prayer, following my words. After the words, there will be a time of silence, and then, after I close, Liz will lead us into song.
I so rarely send my mind under the ground.
I trust it is there,
That my feet are supported,
That life springs up.
As I walk, I notice when the surface of the earth changes –
The slick of ice under snow,
The firm packed earth of a well-used path,
The extra work caused by the movement of sand,
The spring-like response of a matted bed of grasses and lichens.
But what is below that doesn’t come to mind
Unless I am in a garden, planting,
Noticing the feel of the earth between my fingers:
Dry or damp
Or riddled with air-filled pores
The dark places
Where worms live by feel,
With a capacity for touch as
Sensitive as a human tongue,
The dark places where seeds live
Biding their time
Waiting for the warmth to return.
Dreaming of life to be.
“Wisdom from the Web Underfoot” part 2
The damp dark earth, filled with humus, invites us into a relationship of humility.
Fungi are difficult to figure out. They don’t really fit into our neat description of what an organism or a species is. It’s not clear when they start, and where there edges are (MacFarlane, 102), and when it comes to sex they are the most promiscuous crossers of boundaries on the planet (MacFarlane, 93).
They are also incredibly old. There is a honey fungus in Oregon that is about two miles wide. It is estimated to be between 1900 and 8650 years old (MacFarlane, 102), it’s hard to tell. Under the ground, the colony looks like black laces from a boot, continually moving, searching for new hosts, which it will kill, and for other branches of the colony, with which it fuses back in on itself.
The sheer variety of underground relationships is overwhelming. The mutuality. The predation. There are fungi that release enzymes that digest surrounding matter — like an external stomach — and there are fungi that capture nematodes with lasso-like filaments.
(Anna Tsing for the Matsutake Worlds Research Group “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom” Australian Humanities Review (Issue 50, May 2011). Accessed online http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/2011/05/01/arts-of-inclusion-or-how-to-love-a-mushroom/)
It is a riot of life. Searching, fusing, digesting and entangled.
It makes our obsession with separateness and independence look like a passing weakness.
To this riot of life, Anna Tsing brings an anthropological lens to the study of cross-species relationships.
Looking at the matsutake mushroom, a species that has refused cultivation and so must be foraged by hand, Tsing investigated relationships below ground and above ground — the relationship between the mushroom, the pine tree, the surrounding forest, and between the mushroom, the forest and the humans who shape the forest and the humans hunt the mushrooms — often, in North America, people who are themselves living one the edge in some way.
Initially Tsing assumed that she would need a microscope to understand the relationship of mushroom and pine — to see the mycorrhizal filaments. But a sense of smell is also useful, and careful observation – because humans are intimiately a part of it all. And humans who prize the mushrooms have learned that they fruit mostly after rainfall — and in the same places they have fruited before. If the pine disappears, so will the mushrooms.
Tsing is now looking at the various mycorrhizal networks formed with lodge-pole pine at the site of an abandoned mine in Denmark. The soil is sandy, which is ideal, because the roots can be pulled up and seen clearly with just a dip in a bucket of water. Each fungal species that interacts with a lodgepole results in a very different mycorrhizal network — different colour, shape, and texture. Each relationship brings its own distinct advantages. The different species modify each other in different ways.
This ‘conversation’ in the web underground varies according to its constituent filaments — who is present, who is talking to whom, the nature of their interactions.
This soil community is fragile — the weight of logging equipment destroys the mycorrhizal network.
Even as we study it, it is disappearing.
We are learning of the amazing abilities of the soil mind and its fragility at the same time as the dramatic results of human action are becoming more fully known.
Anna Tsing calls it learning to love in a time of extinction.
Part of her work is to identify and lift up the practices that help us move into love.
Noticing is one of the practices prized most. Noticing and attending to the particularities. But the cost of noticing can be high.
Vance Vredenburg is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at San Francisco State University. He studies amphibians.
(Story from Laura van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, Oakland, CA: Berrett Koehler, 2009, pp. 52-58.)
When he went to graduate school, he wanted to be a part of preserving the beauty and wonder of the natural world. So he deliberately chose to study a species at risk — mountain yellow-legged frogs in the Sierra Nevada. No one knew why these frogs were disappearing — there were no roads for miles and miles and the frogs spent their whole lives in an area not more than a few hundred square meters.
Vredenburg’s study found the problem: it was the introduction of a completely new species — trout, for stocked ponds — which was changing the ecosystem and causing problems for the frogs.
Vredenburg had the good fortune to see the Parks Service and multiple government agencies take action based on his Ph.D. findings. New policies were implemented and things began to turn around for the yellow-legged frog.
And then Vredenburg and his colleagues started to find dead frogs. At first a few, then many.
It was a new disease. Seven years of study, a short time of seeming turn around and rebound. Then without warning the population was decimated and the ecosystem unravelling.
Vredenburg says “I remember sitting on the shoreline just crying my heart out amidst hundreds of dead frogs. I had gone from this positive position of feeling that we had the power to turn things around to realizing that I was absolutely powerless.”
A hard, painful awareness, a pain of the spirit.
Eventually, he looked around, found some people who also wanted to figure this out, and did what he did best — start new investigations to figure out what was going on with this new disease.
But his world had changed. There was a sadness, not just in him. It showed up at scientific gatherings. The older generation talks about going for night walks and hearing the amphibians, and the younger students and professors going out to those same places now hear nothing — silence. They didn’t want to talk about feelings — it’s not what scientists do, at least in a crowd — but the truth is sad. People are in mourning.
It is hard to live with, but Vredenburg also noticed positive changes in the culture — the amphibian catastrophe resulted in a stronger commitment to working together. A sense of purpose beyond one’s individual career or celebrating the wonder of the natural world. This commitment to saving what species we could from extinction brought with it a new flexibility, a willingness to take more risks.
We are not as powerful as we might believe.
Nor are we as powerless as our worst despair.
Opening up to the possibilities of collaboration requires us to learn to live with the sadness in a way to live with the sadness so that it doesn’t get in the way of doing the work.
Because there are ways of living with the sadness that shut us down.
Trauma is when we ourselves experience a deeply distressing or disturbing event. Trauma exposure is when we watch someone else — or another species — experience such an event. (Lipsky, pp. 52-57)
We might not notice it at first, but over time, trauma exposure can change us. Exposure to the suffering of other beings or our planet causes our world to look and feel different (Lipsky, 41). We in turn might begin to respond differently: to be less interested in complexity. More prone to taking sides. More likely to say ‘no.’ (Lipsky, 70). We may lose touch with our feelings, becoming surprised to discover that we are crying (Lipsky, 43).
Feelings of helplessness make it worse — and feeling helpless is a common response to climate change, whether we are a professional biologist or simply a person affected by the images and reports all around us (Lipsky, 50-51).
To truly take in the reality of extinction is to experience the grief of species loneliness — the sense that we are creating our own aloneness on this planet (MacFarlane, p. 113).
Vredenburg shares his story in Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship, Lipsky gives many examples of trauma exposure, in the conservation sciences as well as in the helping professions.
But this is not just limited to professionals: by virtue of television and internet reporting, we are all brought to the scene o fires and other disasters. We can have our hearts torn open the injured and deceased koala bears. We too can feel overwhelmed by our grief.
Part of being a responsible steward of one’s own mind and body lies in noticing our own responses. In finding places to be present to the grief, to name it, and to be in our bodies through song and movement so that we can keep ourselves open and available to do what we can.
We gather as community, to share what weighs our hearts, to hear what touches others,
To lift up the precious filaments of the web, to cherish them.
I invite you in this space, now, to name aloud, or in the silence of your heart, those places or beings that you are worried about, that lie heavily on your heart.
It might at times be too much for one person, but it’s not too much for a community. By naming our grief when we gather, we give shape and form to the sadness. We can share with one another the threads of possibility, however small. We can make connections and find new avenues to pursue.
In naming our grief we also bring it to the surface, feel it in our bodies. We can sing with it, walk with it, dance with it.
Being in our physical bodies is a healthy response to trauma — walking, dancing, singing, running, anything that requires movement and increases oxygen intake. Anything that gets us outside, in nature, with our feet on the earth.
In her studies of the human communities that form around the matsutake mushrooms, Anna Tsing finds people who are living Lipsky’s recommendation for stewardship of their own trauma. People who are following their love of mushrooms into the forest. People who are doing what they can to share what they are learning, through conversations at the table and through websites. People who are cherishing the web underfoot, removing invasive species, noticing and responding to the changes, as attentive as a parent with a newborn child.
The Potawatomi language, spoken by several First Nations in Ontario and in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas and Oklahoma has a word “puhpowee” which means “the force which causes the mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” (MacFarlane, 111)
Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is of the Potawatomi peoples, says that it is important to distinguish the language of plants — the language the plants themselves speak — from the language OF plants — the language used to describe those plants (MacFarlane, 111). Both are needed.
Hearing Merlin Sheldrake’s cry for new language to describe the forest relationships, Robert MacFarlane wondered about the language of spores. It’s not that we to invent new words: we – or some of our neighbour humans – may already have good words, we just need to open our ears to them.
At the level of grammar and syntax, as well as in its’ nouns, First Nations languages grant life to the non-human world. Plains Cree distinguishes between animate and inanimate in a way that is completely different to our notions. Many items that we would call ‘things’ — which is to say non-animate — are understood to be living in the Cree worldview.
If we accept that there is a world beneath our feet, a world that is filled with living communities, how does that change our actions? How might it change our sense of ourselves to learn that mushrooms have ways of being that we can learn from? That learning the language of spores might give us new insights into our kinship with other beings? Might we have more have more respect for the web of the world underfoot, might we spend more time with our feet on the ground, letting our mind sink down to the soil beneath our feet.
Amen. Blessed be.