No matter the circumstances of a life–whether being lived indoors under quarantine or in that effortlessly privileged expansiveness of our world before it closed—the mind is on. It is relentlessly weaving a slew of meanings, patterns, stories. Some days it feels slow and heavy, overwhelmed by the hyperobjectival complexity of considering a common future, one that is safe, productive and equitable. That challenge is, in Winston Churchill’s famous phrase, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
But an unstoppable cascade of ideas, insights, and possible narratives keep appearing. The mind just keeps at it, no matter what.
In a prior essay I quoted a Hopi elder who described how our future could be viewed as either a portal or a hole.
Portals. Ah, how I love the very word. I also resonate with its connotations of transformation, journeys, transcendence. (Can someone drawn to all those concepts be described as a portalist?) And why would anyone choose a hole over its glorious and trippy twin?
And yet. The two may be inextricably linked. It is now believed that black holes in space could be wormholes leading to other universes. These wormholes are able to mimic a black hole so well that it would be virtually impossible to tell the difference.
If this is actually true, the idea that “space-time is not the fundamental backdrop against which the universe plays out but is itself woven from the interconnections between particles described by quantum entanglement” (Philip Ball) pulls it all into a complex knot of unknowableness.
Which brings us right back to the ever present Ouroboros and to the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
So yes, I return to the words of Fanny Howe (as referenced in In the Bewilder) that bewilderment is not an attitude but more of an approach, a way to “settle with the unresolvable.” It allows us to befriend mystery and actually feel some sense of safety and sanity in doing so.
My current favorite companion for the state of glorious bewilderment: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. What an amazing, amazing book. It is, along with David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, one of the most powerful books for changing the way I perceive this world.
Written by the biologist son of one of my favorite “scientist gone galactic,” Rupert Sheldrake, Entangled Life brings you into yet another kind of complexity. Where Quammen is dealing with the conundrum of molecular biology, evolution and HGT—horizontal gene transfer, a mind blowing concept—Sheldrake’s entanglement is in a different sphere.
As described by Sheldrake in a conversation with the formidable Robert Macfarlane:
Entangled Life is a book about fungi, most of which live their lives as branching, fusing networks of tubular cells known as mycelium. Mycelium is how fungi feed. Animals tend to find food in the world and put it in their bodies; fungi put their bodies in the food. To do so, they must ceaselessly remodel themselves, weaving their bodies into relation with their surroundings. This entanglement—with themselves, with their physical surroundings, and with other organisms—is their staple mode of existence. On a very literal level, then, I use the word entangle to refer to the ancient growth habit of this little-understood kingdom of life.
But fungi don’t keep to themselves. Mycelium is the living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulphurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the bustling wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks. Tug on strand of mycelium and you’ll find it hitched to something else. Fungi embody the most basic principle of ecology: that of the relationships between organisms. This is another sense in which I use the word entangled. Fungi form literal connections between organisms and in doing so remind us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.
Some call this network that connects plants the “wood wide web.” In the prize winning novel, The Overstory, Richard Powers illuminates how trees are connected. The mycelium is part of a hidden communications system that travels underground and connects the roots of different plants, even different species. For some scientists these life forms are so interconnected it is almost meaningless to consider them as individual entities.
Just one clump of soil can be holding miles of mycelia, invisible to our eye. There are over a millions species of fungus, most of them undocumented. The largest living organism on earth today is in Oregon, an underground fungus that covers 3.7 square miles and probably weighs 35,000 tons.
Sheldrake’s passion is so palpable and utterly infectious. Yes of course I saw the film, Fantastic Fungi, celebrating, inter alia, the stunningly beautiful and mind altering qualities of mushrooms and fungi in general. But this book has the luxury of taking you very deep into a world mostly underground, hidden from view, that is so astounding and fascinating.
This world that Sheldrake knows so well is full of models that could and should be useful to us, especially at this moment in time. Like many scientists, he has reimagined the metaphor of the evolutionary tree of life as more of a reticulated mesh, where lineages branch but can also fuse and merge with others. This vision, similar in spirit to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatic model of knowledge outlined in A Thousand Plateaus, has value on so many levels.
Sheldrake once again:
Mycelial coordination takes place both everywhere at once, and nowhere in particular; a fragment of mycelium can regenerate an entire network, meaning that a single mycelial individual—if you’re brave enough to use that word—is potentially immortal; mycelial networks are indeterminate shape-shifters, living maybes that fuse and branch, decanting themselves into their surroundings.
Mycelium used to feel like a kōan, unintelligible to my mammalian mind. But I’ve come to think of our minds as the most mycelial parts of ourselves. Mycelium is a living, growing, opportunistic investigation—speculation in bodily form. A portrait of someone’s mind might look something like a mycelial network; mind maps certainly do.
As I read those words, I envision the mycelialistic nature of my thinking system coming up with a whole variety of ways that these mycelial models can be put to good use in our human lived lives. This is connectivity at a completely different level. Mind blowing, really.
My mind is on.