All these tiny mushrooms are in fact the reproductive organs of a bigger underlying body, the mycelium. They are what apples are to the tree. In a previous post, I asked the question if we better think of mushrooms as one larger organism, or if each mushroom still contains a sense of self. Today, I look at a range of examples of collective organisms that can remind us of the blurry line between individual and collective, with implications for even human identities.
Mushroom enthusiast Paul Stamets speaks of “collective fungal consciousness”. And this collective notices you as you walk across them:
The mycelium is an exposed sentient membrane, aware and responsive to changes in its environment. As hikers, deer, or insects walk across these sensitive filamentous nets, they leave impressions, and mycelia sense and respond to these movements. A complex and resourceful structure for sharing information, mycelium can adapt and evolve through the ever-changing forces of nature… These sensitive mycelial membranes act as a collective fungal consciousness.
At the same time, a mushroom is a spore, a fruiting body. Fungi trouble the distinction between singular and plural. This is exactly what the entertaining writing experiments of Anna Tsing get at: she takes the voice of a spore, and constantly shifts between ‘I’ and ‘we’.
“…I hung precariously in the gills of a mushroom, waiting for the breeze to lift me. What a sense of anticipation! What longing I felt to fly. But before that, I was the mushroom, or, at least, a part of it, feeling the tension and joy of our great expansion as we coiled together, filled out, and at last emerged from underground shelter to the bright world all sharp and vast. [.…] For the moment just consider that the ‘I’ that tunnels, erupts, and flies is neither singular nor plural, so don’t assume you have my number”.
No matter how we look at it, we don’t know what it feels like to be a mushroom. What kind of ‘I’ or ‘we’-ness they experience. It’s all so completely alien to humans. Or, is it?
These foreign intimacies can somehow still feel familiar, remind us of our own lives. They raise bigger questions of identity. Mushrooms can help us to think about what it means to be an individual, human or otherwise, and can inspire us to remember that all bodies participate in the macro and the micro. Individuals are composed of smaller parts; larger structures are only possible by the smaller components. Humans and the microbiome; cities and citizens; bees and beehives; mushrooms, spores, and mycelia. Fungi and plants. They need one another. Hybrid. And, as Anna Tsing’s spore reminds, mycelia grow and change their whole lives, a kind of freedom, as they literally grow into new situations. Us humans might not be that flexible with our bodies, but at least we can let fungi flex our imaginations. Who could we become? We could learn from a mushroom.
The illusion of individuality is also discussed by author David Haskell in his book The Forest Unseen. Just like trees grow better when they exchange nutrients with fungi in underground “conversations”; so do human minds do better when they are “feeding from a pool of shared resources”. Let yourself be inspired and fuelled by others, rather than (impossibly) figuring things out all on your own.
“Our minds are like trees — they are stunted if grown without the nourishing fungus of culture.”
The idea that humans could learn from other collective structures in the natural world has been around for a long, long time. Typically, the beehive is given as an example: like the collective ‘hive mind’, could human societies also work better as a more coherent larger organism…?