Dandelion: Fire Bird

Dandelions became another world when I looked at them close up.

I saw the fire bird.

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Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). Illustration for  Contes de l'isba : Ivan-Tsarevich and the Firebird

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942). Illustration for Contes de l'isba: Ivan-Tsarevich and the Firebird

The discovery of shared forms and colours.


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“The discovery of shared forms” is a way to post-anthropocentric thought. It’s is about seeing repeating patterns across scales, and recognising similarities in shape of seemingly disconnected entities. It draws human and nonhuman domains together, from human imaginations to flowers, insects, and beyond, and so it provides a way out of thinking of the “human-nature divide”. If you’re interested, check out Chapter 6 of King & Page’s book on posthumanism and the graphic novel.

Music for Moss and Mushrooms

In a previous post I explored ways to tell ‘creaturely’ stories through music and moving image.

How would this work for creatures that do not move much to the human eye? Can mosses and mushrooms, who seem so static at first glance, inspire ideas about sound and image, flow and rhythm?

Various people have thought musically about these lives. Silence and the barely perceptible are important notions. Moss expert Robin Kimmerer wrote in her book Gathering Moss:

Learning to see mosses is more like listening than looking. A cursory glance will not do it. Starting to hear a faraway voice or catch a nuance in the quiet subtext of a conversation requires attentiveness, a filtering of all the noise, to catch the music. Mosses are not elevator music; they are the intertwined threads of a Beethoven quartet.

Artist/musician John Cage was very much inspired by mushrooms:

“I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom”

He explained this in the “Music Lovers’ Field Companion” (1954). The experience of finding hidden mushrooms, was for him similar to the experience of hearing quiet sounds. And of course, there is the amazing Czech mushroom composer Václav Hálek, who has transcribed thousands of melodies straight from mushrooms.

Knights Bush, near Clutha river, New Zealand

For me, it’s important to not isolate a mushroom or a moss, but notice them in interaction with others. In my audio/video experiments I look for ways to capture rhythms that can be perceived in real time, without speeding up time like in a time-lapse. I look for spontaneous and almost accidental encounters, not trying to establish a perfect match between audio and visual. Through improvisational music and multispecies interactions (a person touching a wobbly mushroom, a spidermite walking through moss), I found a way to express something about the dynamisms of a mushroom and a patch moss.

Collective Consciousness: ants, mushrooms, bees, humans

A tiny city on a branch, or is it a dragon, serpent, snake?

log in Herbert Forest, New Zealand

log in Herbert Forest, New Zealand

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…?

medieval bees. source unknown.

medieval bees. source unknown.

I do like these kind of comparisons, but let’s not forget about the individual. Even here we shouldn’t too easily assume that individuals in these societies are mere ‘cells’ that fuel the larger ‘body’. Just like mushrooms, it still makes sense to acknowledge social insects as both individuals and collectives. Social insects like bees and ants have flexible behaviours and rich experiences. For example, bees can learn unusual tasks, like recognising the difference between a Monet and Picasso painting; they recognise faces, make decisions, take lots of naps, and experience the world in multisensory ways. Who knows, they might experience some kind of sensory pleasure as they encounter a good flower. In his book Emergent Ecologies, Eben Kirksey even suggests that some ants might experience empathy for the caterpillars that they protect, as they are aware of the caterpillar’s needs. Instead of superorganisms, he writes, perhaps it’s more appropriate to think of ‘ensembles of selves’ (conscious agents). Almost humorously, this also applies to humans: “the self-as-ensemble includes one’s clothes and house, one’s ancestors and friends, one’s nail clippings and excretions, one’s body, soul, thoughts, and ways of being in the world. Actions oriented to the care of beings and things enlist them in the ensemble” 

Let’s end with something visual. Things like consciousness, minds, thoughts, decisions, imaginations, they’re all pretty hard to grasp. Could we visualise something about them to make things slightly more tangible? Are they also composed of some kind of collective structure? Well, kinda. At least when you look at ant brains. Ants keep their memories in “mushroom bodies”, structures inside their brain that are shaped like fungal caps, according to Russian biologist Zhanna Reznikova. Mushroom-brained ants. I found this example of an ant brain structure:

(Source link)

Even though creatures are all so overwhelmingly strange and different, looking at forms and shapes can bring some sweet relief, some kind of connection, pattern, a reminder of shared forms. And human consciousness? Yes, our brains are shaped like walnuts, but I like to think of our thoughts and imaginations as ensembles of abstract shapes and colours. Some are isolated, others will be connected by bridges as our thoughts make unexpected connections:

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Surely, big imaginations are born from the same structures as tiny imaginations.

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Sources:

Anna Tsing (2014). Strathern beyond the Human: Testimony of a Spore. Theory, Culture & Society. 31 (2/3), 221-241

Paul Stamets (2005). Mycelium Running. How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.

Eben Kirksey (2015). Emergent Ecologies.

How dead is dead? (with synth soundtrack)

Log life.

Unseen worlds keep appearing when I closely scrutinise rocks and dead logs. Mosses, beetles, lichen, fungi, slime moulds, springtails, mites, spiders, webs, flies, all find their own perfect and ever-changing corners. My eyes can hardly keep up.

it echoes in my head: how dead is a dead log? How inanimate is a stone?

and so I wrote a little song about it:

A log dweller that deserves more attention is the slime mould. They’re into decaying matter: bacteria, fungi, leaves; the stuff on rotting logs…. they come in many shapes, colours and sizes (see pictures below). Slime moulds are well described as animal/fungus hybrids. Like a fungus, they produce spores. Like an animal, they move to hunt for food. Ever so slowly.


But sometimes I don’t even know what I’m seeing anymore. Today, I saw a perfect mushroom-shape covering the ground like a blanket. A decaying amanita. A big beetle and a few springtails seemed to have a good time in it. Texture: slime mould-esque.

More than dead, more than a mushroom.

Flower: an insect perspective

We often appreciate flowers as still life. But they're not still.
This video captures something that may be closer to an insect perspective: the flower on the move.
Flower and wind in real time. Blow your head, poppy.

Flowers are expressive and sway. I tried to capture this with music. Insects need to consider the movements of a flower when they plan to spend some time together. Hold on tight.
This is a landscape where I’d like to spend some time, even though it’s hectic. Inviting textures and shapes, intimate internal structures, deep colour.


Below is my discovery of the day: sunflower and dandelion have spiral shapes in common.

And this: a dandelion on its way out looks like it’s about to burst into flames.

The Soil People

What it is like to live underground? I know it’s busy down there. When I close my eyes, the line between reality and imagination becomes thinner…

Springtails, nematodes and fungi are the dancers of soil. Underground parties.

Plants Dance on Water

Water rhythms — Who says that trees don't dance?

Fallen flowers like swans, curve with the shape of river flow bending around the rocks. When do fallen flowers die?

Filmed at Deep stream (1), and Leith River (2), Otago, New Zealand.

Winged Soldier Cleaning Rituals

Rituals.

a happy accident filming the soldier fly’s grooming session at the human dinner table, in harmony with the background soundtrack of daily human rituals. Mundane yet oh so satisfying. Could it be that this is what coexisting is all about?

Who is this whistler?