I have been working on a drawing of a mycorrhizal meditation that I developed earlier this year, for inclusion in a publication. Initially I wrote this meditation for a workshop, which was part of a project with Katriona Beales on internet addiction and our ever increasing digital connectivity. My role in this project has mostly been curatorial, but for the workshop I enjoyed devising ‘offline’ versions/games/exercises of some of the topics we were discussing (some of which involved homemade playdough, hurrah!) But this meditation has seemed to gather force, and keeps being requested. I have since performed/led it several times, and I am developing it as a full artwork for exhibition in September, at which point it may also become available as an MP3.
The meditation takes you slowly down through your body, and into the soil beneath you, your feet becoming roots, which become ever finer, and then meet with the fine filaments of other beings, and meet and intertwine with them, exchanging nutrients, and information, and strength. Although its clearly imaginative, the interchange of nutrients and information under the soil is based on solid science. Some people like to call it the Wood Wide Web.
Mycorrhizal fungi connect to and penetrate the fine roots of trees and plants, and connect one organism to another like this across wide distances. Perhaps a whole woodland is connected in this way! The relationship is mutually beneficial – the plants share their sugars (made via photosynthesis) with the chlorophyll-lacking fungi, while the fungi’s superfine filaments – hyphae – can reach into the nooks and crannies that the roots cannot access, to retrieve important minerals like nitrogen, which they pass to the plants and trees. And there’s more. The mycorrhizae, (also known as mycelium) also acts as an information system, much like our own interweb – where messages of danger such as aphid attack can travel swiftly underground, so the trees can raise their chemical defenses long before the aphids get across to them.
More surprising to me was the news that via this connectivity, trees can (and do) choose to support an ailing neighbour, or a young shaded sapling, or choose to keep feeding a cut tree, or choose to die. Why they might do these things raises the kinds of questions that science ordinarily sneers at, but I’m yet to be convinced that sneering at anthropomorphism gets us anywhere as interesting as engaging (if critically) with anthropomorphism. The decisions that trees are making, to send or withdraw support, look like they could be emotional or moral. Why continue to support a cut tree?
I’ve been reading about all this for some time, but was grateful for a link to this New Yorker article, because Dr Merlin Sheldrake (what a name) has a deeply scientific and quirky and imaginative take on the subject. And I learned something new – ‘In addition to penetrating the tree roots, the hyphae also interpenetrate each other—mycorrhizal fungi on the whole don’t have divisions between their cells. “This interpenetration permits the wildly promiscuous horizontal transfer of genetic material: fungi don’t have to have sex to pass things on.”‘
Sheldrake also goes on to describe the way the relational behaviour he observes in the ‘wood wide web’ should alter our partisan moral models of nature. He proffers “the socialist forest, in which trees act as caregivers to one another, with the well-off supporting the needy… [as opposed to] the capitalist forest, in which all entities are acting out of self-interest within a competitive system”.
Which is food for thought, as Trump accedes to office