This piece is part of the Excursions series.
One book we know Shakespeare read with relish is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was the Roman poet’s retelling of the many ancient myths of his ancestors. The title strikes at the heart of what those old tales had in common: metamorphosis, change. Tales of transformation were not unique to the ancestors of the Romans. Across the world we see similar tales. Here in North America, all the native peoples told tales of the trickster-transformer. He is a fascinating figure who never stays in one place long, wandering here and there, transforming into this and that, breaking through categories and norms, a creature driven by food and sex; always finding trouble, an inhabitor of the liminal, he is both the trickster and the tricked. All humans have heard his stories. His stories may be some of the first stories humans ever told.
I was thinking of the trickster and Ovid’s Metamorphoses the other day when I was walking along a dry creek bed and came across a fallen log upon which was Fuligo septica, a myxomycete. These are known commonly as slime molds, this one with the inelegant name of “dog vomit slime.” These things are fairly common, but most people don’t often notice them. The one I saw was a few inches across, a bright earthy yellow, soft and not quite sticky, with a faint and not entirely unpleasant sulphur smell. Indeed, it might have been mistaken for dog vomit or for some remnant slime or for mold or simply something that you might see without ever really seeing.
I’ve studied the myxomycetes a little, and for me they seem, perhaps better than any other living thing, to embody what life is at its heart. Life is transformation. It will not sit still, and it will not obey the categories we place it in. Slime molds are commonly thought to be fungi, and indeed at one point in their life cycle they are spores, just like what we see wafting from a mushroom, but these spores might better be described as eggs, for something crawls out of them, an amoeba-like thing too small to be seen with the naked eye. These amoeba-like things are sometimes born with tails, sometimes without, and those without tails may later develop them if submerged in water, for the slime mold is at home on earth and in water. In the early stage of its life cycle, it moves about dividing and growing. And if the environment is inhospitable, it can enter a death-like stasis. This dormant phase can last a long time. I don’t think anyone knows how long. But when conditions change, the slime mold can pick up where it left off, searching for a compatible mate with whom it will fuse to form a zygote. I don’t know what they look for in a mate, but once they’ve become one flesh, they/it move(s) about eating bacteria, algae, various other tidbits, and even others of its kind. I wonder how much difference there is between one eating another and one mating with another. Do they differentiate the acts? However it goes, the thing grows but not by the common process of cell division. I don’t fully understand it, so I will quote from Myxomycetes: A Handbook of Slime Molds:
Growth of the zygote and the plasmodium that develops from it is accompanied by a series of synchronous nuclear divisions; as a result, the plasmodium becomes a multinucleate structure. Since individual cells are never delimited, however, the plasmodium remains acellular, that is, it is essentially a single giant cell. (17)
During this stage, the slime mold can once again enter a dormant phase if conditions are too dry or too cold, but when the world changes again to their liking, not too hot, not too cold, a little shady and a little moist, they can live for a very, very long time. In fact, they are fairly hard to kill, for such a little creature: tear them apart and their separate parts will go their separate merry ways and may perhaps reunite down the line. But eventually they will reach the final phase of their life cycle, the fruiting phase. As I understand it, this is also another kind of death. Perhaps the slime mold knows it has no hope for survival in its present habitat, so it grows a stalk, like a mushroom, with a little ball on top filled with spores that are released on the wind to travel far and wide to begin a new life in a new world. Recent genetic testing suggests that slime molds have been doing this for over a billion years. That’s about eight hundred million years before the first flower.
What are these things? A creature that crawls, a fish that swims, at times mushroom-like, and sometimes simply glob-like, sometimes soft, sometimes crusty, a large yet still single-celled organism that has, somehow, intelligence. In “What Slime Knows,” a recent article from Orion, Lacy Johnson shares some research conducted on slime molds. Slime molds not only retract when blasted with cold air but can learn to anticipate the blast. They can figure out the shortest way through a maze to reach an oat flake and can remember the path they took to get to there. As Johnson writes, “As long as it has an adequate food supply and is comfortable in its environment, it doesn’t age and it doesn’t die.” It is an immortal, intelligent creature that, so it seems, is also at home in death, for resurrection is a part of its life.
I spend a lot of time walking in wild places, paying attention, trying to learn from them. Much of what I learn out here is quite different from the lessons I’ve learned in my formal education. And much of what I think I know about existence out here has needed to be unlearned. It’s taken a long time to learn that there is no line between yellow and green and that an idea about a thing is not the thing. The way modern humans think, especially we of European descent, can be traced back to Plato who gave us the primacy of the idea over the fact. Or, at least that’s one way to tell the story. I would push the origin of this kind of thinking much further back, to the origin of the State, those early walled cities, and their greatest invention, writing. Writing, some may be surprised to learn, was not originally for recording stories or history; it was merely an extremely useful tool for disambiguation. Instead of a general mass of humans living here and there, willy nilly, doing and making various things, we could by means of writing keep track of them: count how many people produced what kinds of foodstuff and in what quantities. Thus, writing developed for the purposes of taxation and conscription; writing was a tool for managing human subjects: in a word, writing meant control. Control requires delineated structures, unambiguous knowledge, set categories and procedures, life cut and dried, no longer mud but earth and water clearly separated. No more nomads, but a people set in place registered to Selective Service. And as the humans, so their food: grains have always been the foodstuff of the State for a few reasons, but one of the chief reasons is their countability. It is much harder to count potatoes buried under the ground or nuts hidden among the leaves or fish in the sea or wild game in the woods. Grains, conversely, are quite easy to estimate, and a good estimate leads to a good tax.
Oh, the blessed rage for order, for clear boundaries, for the unequivocal. Our lives, as our birth and death certificates tell us, are measured to the minute. We, living in this bureaucratic technocracy, know this all too well. And while it works so-so for the human world, it is a poor way to translate the other-than-human world, which never has clear-cut boundaries. But we are wrong to think of this simply as the human world against the natural: Humans lived before the State, before civilization; we were once at home in the muck. We were once a wild species. We became what we were in all that mucky wildness. We looked at everything that was going on around us and in us and between us and we saw the trickster in his many transformations. Yes, the State has come to dominate all human life – and most of the non-human realm as well (at least as we know it) – but we should not ignore this ancient pedigree.
You are not one thing, and your boundaries, your identity, is not as your ID would lead you to believe. You are fluid, fickle, transformable, a miracle through and through. You are “the true and perfect image of life indeed.”
About the Author
Clint Stevens lives and writes outside of Centralia, IL.