Art and Mycelia

Angara 2, mixed media on canvas, 2014

Perhaps it is my reduced engagement with the flow of life as we knew it that has made it easy to ponder what we should be fighting to preserve, post COVID, and what we would be better off shedding. As the wiser advisors across the world have made clear, there is no returning to the way things were. We now need to craft a new normal.

The global issues in that new normal are paramount, but this is also a good time to do some accounting in the personal sphere as well. In the areas of life that matter most to us, what do we feel connected to? What feels limp and ready to discard?

Over the last 15 years of writing on Slow Muse, a few themes have been consistently present. These are the core concerns that matter most to me: authenticity, trusting your own guidance, the sacred mystery that is creativity, the power of process, the intelligence of forms, experiences that exist outside of language, “beginner’s mind,” the transgressive, the noncanonical, the transcendent. 

Thinking about those ideas, it is clear that the world I would most like to live in doesn’t resemble the one we have been sharing.

My enthusiasm for Merlin Sheldrake’s book, Entangled Life (more about that here,) is correlated with these concerns. Sheldrake describes a world that is full of possibilities for other ways to be. Mycelium is an underground network that connects the root systems of trees, plants and other mycelial webs. This network, invisible to humans, has an intelligence all its own. Information and nutrients are transferred over this network to the entire plant community, playing a key role in preserving the health and vitality of the entire ecosystem.

Learning about fungi and this “reticulate mesh” of mycelium can transform our fundamental understanding of the world.  There are so many extraordinary lessons to be learned from a whole set of life forms we have overlooked, undervalued and disrupted.

Mycelial networks are decentralized organisms, and “coordination takes place both everywhere at once and nowhere in particular.” And what strength is in the microscopic hyphae, those tiny fungal tips. They can penetrate Kevlar, and their mushrooms have broken through asphalt roads. “If I think about mycelial growth for more than a minute,” Sheldrake writes, “my mind starts to stretch.”

Stretch indeed. Reading Sheldrake’s book has filled my head with ideas about the meaning of domains that are hidden, the spellbinding intricacies of things we cannot see, the “stop the world” capacities of entities that are invisible.

He expresses this concept well:

The planet is made up of reverberating dynamic systems in which small causes can ripple into large effects. An invisibly small entity can cause human societies to grind to a halt. Are we as in control as we think? Clearly not. This isn’t news. Invisibly small organisms have been shaping life on the planet for as long as there has been life.

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Nonetheless, for our lack of control to be revealed in such vivid and painful detail does help dispel some of our delusions and challenge us to find comfort in—or just endure—uncertainty. It’s been astonishing to watch many of our social, political, and economic certainties unclamp themselves so readily. Knowing that this is possible gives me hope. When the tight grip of our dogmas and expectations are loosened we’re better able to imagine, perceive, and learn. The categories and assumptions that we use to organize our lives can become questions rather than answers known in advance.

I know there are pitfalls in taking a metaphor too far. (Donald Davidson calls metaphor “the dreamwork of language,” with its power found in how we interpret it.)  But I will still make the case that there is much an artist can glean from studying the mycelial network: about sharing resources, staying connected, contributing to the overall health and well being of an ecosystem, and the value of essential work that is hidden from view.

While military metaphors are not my go to choice, I still agree with biologist Alan Rayner:

I have increasingly come to regard the mycelium as a heterogenous army of hyphal troops, variously equipped for different roles and in varying degrees of communication with one another. Without a commander, other than the dictates of their environmental circumstances, these troops organise themselves into a beautifully open-ended or indeterminate dynamic structure that can continually respond to changing demands.

Artists, like mycelium, have been operating in a world where they are mostly hidden, undervalued and disempowered.  Like the concept of the flipped classroom—the movement to change institutionalized pedagogy by switching what happens inside the classroom and out—maybe it is time to flip the way art gets seen, experienced, acquired and valued.

On June 5 I will be part of an effort to shift these existing patterns. Pell Lucy, an artist-centric collaborative, will be launched on Artsy, SHIM Art Network and social media. Like many new enterprises, this will start as a small alternative to the existing art merchandising model that is outdated, patriarchal, nepotistic and elitist.  We are just a band of artists, but I am moving forward with the wisdom from Bucky Fuller in my ear: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” That message is coupled with the title of one of my favorite books:  The Impossible Will Take a Little While.

I hope you will stay tuned with me as this takes form.

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