|Photo by Steve Axford (Blue Leratiomyces)|
Mr. Axford says: "My photography has been my avenue into this world as it slows me down and allows me to look at things more closely."
All images in this post are Steve Axford’s marvelous fungi photos (VIA).
|Photo by Steve Axford|
He says, "While doing this [photography] I have developed an acute interest in the way things fit together (the ecology). Nothing exists in isolation and the more you look, the more you find. "
|Photo by Steve Axford (Blue Leratiomyces)|
|Photo by Steve Axford|
The world’s largest organism--that we know of so far-- is a thousand-acre fungal (mycelial) mat in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. It covers 2,384 acres, or 10 square km, or 4 square miles. Its age estimation is based on its current growth rate as 2,400 years old, but some place it at 8,650 years. The fungi of its genus, Armillaria, produce yellow capped and sweet mushrooms, so-called Honey Mushrooms. Unfortunately, everything I found about them discussed their pathogenicity (they kill conifers), but there are some pretty amazingly helpful (in my human opinion) fungi out there also.
In the February 2008 issue of Sun Magazine, Derrick Jensen interviews Paul Stamets, saying in his introduction:
“When we think of fungi, most of us picture mushrooms, those slightly mysterious, potentially poisonous denizens of dark, damp places. But a mushroom is just the fruit of the mycelium, which is an underground network of rootlike fibers that can stretch for miles. Stamets calls mycelia the “grand disassemblers of nature” because they break down complex substances into simpler components. For example, some fungi can take apart the hydrogen-carbon bonds that hold petroleum products together. Others have shown the potential to clean up nerve-gas agents, dioxins, and plastics. They may even be skilled enough to undo the ecological damage pollution has wrought.
Since reading Mycelium Running, I’ve begun to consider the possibility that mycelia know something we don’t. Stamets believes they have not just the ability to protect the environment but the intelligence to do so on purpose. His theory stems in part from the fact that mycelia transmit information across their huge networks using the same neurotransmitters that our brains do: the chemicals that allow us to think. In fact, recent discoveries suggest that humans are more closely related to fungi than we are to plants.
Almost since life began on earth, mycelia have performed important ecological roles: nourishing ecosystems, repairing them, and sometimes even helping create them. The fungi’s exquisitely fine filaments absorb nutrients from the soil and then trade them with the roots of plants for some of the energy that the plants produce through photosynthesis. No plant community could exist without mycelia.’
|Photo by Steve Axford (Snowball)|
Stamets talks in the interview of a type of fungus (Curvularia) that grows on certain grasses at Yellowstone’s hot springs and Lassen Volcanic Park which allow the grasses to survive contact with water up to 160 degrees (F). After a series of laboratory surprises, scientists discovered that it wasn’t just the fungus but the fungus paired with a virus which transferred this ability to withstand heat to the grasses it was symbiotically living with. This raised the question from the interviewer of where, in the three, did one organism stop and the other begin, since the abilities of one were apparently enjoyed via osmosis by another? Stamets’s response includes an intriguing idea springing from the existence of the immense Oregonian mycelial mat mentioned above:
“Well, humans aren’t just one organism. We are composites. Scientists label species as separate so we can communicate easily about the variety we see in nature. We need to be able to look at a tree and say it’s a Douglas fir and look at a mammal and say it’s a harbor seal. But, indeed, I speak to you as a unified composite of microbes. I guess you could say I am the “elected voice” of a microbial community. This is the way of life on our planet. It is all based on complex symbiotic relationships.
A mycelial “mat,” which scientists think of as one entity, can be thousands of acres in size. The largest organism in the world is a mycelial mat in eastern Oregon that covers 2,200 acres and is more than two thousand years old. Its survival strategy is somewhat mysterious. We have five or six layers of skin to protect us from infection; the mycelium has one cell wall. How is it that this vast mycelial network, which is surrounded by hundreds of millions of microbes all trying to eat it, is protected by one cell wall? I believe it’s because the mycelium is in constant biochemical communication with its ecosystem.
I think these mycelial mats are neurological networks. They’re sentient, they’re aware, and they’re highly evolved. They have external stomachs, which produce enzymes and acids to digest nutrients outside the mycelium, and then bring in those compounds that it needs for nutrition. As you walk through a forest, you break twigs underneath your feet, and the mycelium surges upward to capture those newly available nutrients as quickly as possible. I say they have “lungs,” because they are inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, just like we are. I say they are sentient, because they produce pharmacological compounds — which can activate receptor sites in our neurons — and also serotonin-like compounds, including psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in some mushrooms. This speaks to the fact that there is an evolutionary common denominator between fungi and humans. We evolved from fungi. We took an overground route. The fungi took the route of producing these underground networks that are highly resilient and extremely adaptive: if you disturb a mycelial network, it just regrows. It might even benefit from the disturbance.”
|Panus Fasciatus Photo by Steve Axford|
Where does “me” end and the Confederate Jasmine I’m inhaling begin? Is it possible that I could “bind” with another animal--say, a cat-- and somehow share, as this grass shares with that virus and that fungus, abilities and knowledges? Is that, in fact, what shamans are doing, with their animal familiars? David Abrams suggests as much in his book, Becoming Animal:
“Science has tried to push past the carnal constraints on our knowledge by joining deductive reason to the judicious application of experiment. Traditional, tribal magicians or medicine persons take a different approach. They seek to augment the limitations of their specifically human senses by binding their attention to the ways of another animal. Steadily training his focus upon the patterned behavior of another creature—observing it closely in its own terrain, following and interpreting its tracks, becoming familiar with its calls and its styles of stalking or foraging—the medicine person renders himself vulnerable to another, non-human form of experience.
The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses—thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the world, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionality. Like anything focused upon so intently, the animal ally will begin visiting the novice shaman’s dreams, imparting understandings wholly inaccessible to her waking mind. She may spend a whole night journeying as that other animal, stalking her prey and sometimes killing and devouring it, before awakening in this two-legged form. Most importantly, because the young shaman is now informed by two very different sets of senses, her allegiance to her own single species begins to loosen; she begins to catch glimpses of a shimmering, ever-shifting lattice of affiliations and filamental web that binds all beings. Now and then she may catch herself pondering matters less from a human angle than from the perspective of the forest or the river valley as a whole...”
|Panus Lecomtei, Photo by Steve Axford|
In an interview with Scott London, Abrams suggests that in our culture, we retain this ability, but only (usually) in one way--the way you are practicing right now:
“We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!
It's outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider. We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It's an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it's animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone.”
It’s a very different way to consider the act of reading-- and somehow makes it seem more possible that with the same sort of effort one put into reading a book, one could learn to see through the eyes of a cat or a bird. One could learn to look at the forest as a whole, and feel the balance or imbalance of its resources and relations. One’s brain could then press past the mere thoughts of “man” and experience something vastly different...
|Photo by Steve Axford|
But for more on the miraculous nature of mushrooms, watch this TedTalk: