[Essay] Excursions: May by Clint Stevens

This piece is part of the Excursions series.

Early May is morel season. These mushrooms begin appearing when the soil temperature reaches forty-five degrees or so. They’re some of the tastiest wild mushrooms, but they’re well camouflaged, so rather than looking directly for the mushrooms, look for elms and ashes with which they live mycorrhizally. Some mushrooms are saprobic, meaning they feed on dead organic matter. Others are parasites. Mycorrhizal mushrooms live symbiotically, in partnership, with various plants. The mushroom mycelium attaches to the plant’s roots and breaks down various nutrients that the plants can’t break down or else can’t reach. The mushroom mycelium also helps the plants resist disease, and, quite astoundingly, the mycelium transmits nutrients and information from one plant to another. In return, the plants share with the mushrooms the sugars they produce through photosynthesis. Likewise, the plants, trees in particular, provide the shade and humidity most mushrooms require. Such symbiotic relationships unite various organisms into a single network, and this network would be impossible without mushroom mycelium. In Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets describes mycelium as “the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.”

The cornerstone of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is the well-known maxim “survival of the fittest”: those organisms that are most fit for their environment are more likely to pass their traits on to the next generation, thus increasing their likelihood for proliferation. Darwin describes this as the “struggle for existence.” Natural selection functions by competition: one organism struggles against others for the opportunity to reproduce. But competition, as Darwin knew, is not all there is. Yes, competition has been a central driving force in the evolution of life on earth, but so has cooperation.

Though it is not as well known as Darwin’s theory of natural selection, endosymbiotic theory is its equal for explaining the development of life on Earth. Endosymbiotic theory posits that complex life forms developed not only from descent with modification (as in Darwin’s theory) but from different organisms living together as one organism. Mycorrhizal relationships between plants and mushrooms are one example, but there are many others. Lichens are fungi that live symbiotically with algae. Mammals rely on the bacteria in their guts to break down much of their food. Even the mitochondria in our cells contain their own separate DNA. Think about that for a moment. Your body is actually a community of organisms.

The scientist most responsible for the development of endosymbiotic theory is Lynn Margulis. She first developed this theory in her 1967 article “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells.” The idea is simply that many of the organelles inside living cells were originally independent unicellular organisms that another unicellular organism ate but did not digest. They stayed alive inside their host and, by working with the host, flourished into the diverse and complex life forms of the planet Earth.

For many, it’s axiomatic that we are individuals. The moment the umbilical cord is cut, you become you. In many, if not most, religions, this “you” even has the ability to live a second life apart from its bodily manifestation. But science makes the idea of absolute individuality hard to understand. Our bodies contain trillions of bacteria. We are constantly involved in cycles of breathing and eating that take in others that become a part of us. And we ourselves are part of the collective ecosystem, which some call Gaia, the earth goddess. Many astronauts have gone into space and looked back at our beautiful planet. From there they saw no borders, no individuals. They saw one thing united inextricably: Gaia.

I believe the most important knowledge humans can have is ecological knowledge, which is to say an awareness of relationships, awareness of mutual dependence. For a few thousand years now, the civilized world has promoted a self-destructive illusion: the belief in ownership, the belief that this is here for you to do with as you please. But this does not belong to you; you belong to it. Our well-being depends on Gaia’s well-being. Gaia, who is lovely beyond reckoning, is the interdependent network of life. And so, by this we see the self beyond the self. This is transformative knowledge.

And that’s when it happens–
you see everything
through their eyes,
their joy, their necessity;
you wear their webbed fingers;
your throat swells.
And that’s when you know
you will live whether you will or not,
one way or another,
because everything is everything else,
one long muscle.
It’s no more mysterious than that.
So you relax, you don’t fight it anymore,
the darkness coming down
called water,
called spring,
called the green leaf, called
a woman’s body
as it turns into mud and leaves,
as it beats in its cage of water,
as it turns like a lonely spindle
in the moonlight, as it says


–The concluding lines are from Mary Oliver’s “Pink Moon–The Pond,” in Twelve Moons.

–One inspiration for this essay was the 2016 documentary A Beautiful Planet, directed by Toni Myers.

–If you would like to learn more about the mushrooms that grow in our area, please visit my blog: thenimrodandtheswamm.com

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