8th November 2018
So, now I’m trying to pull all the strands together – into some kind of hyphal knot. Or maybe not pull them together – but get an overview, see what the patterns are.
I started this piece wanting to make a mycorrhizal artwork – with mushrooms – and my first vision was of a network of “villages” – settlements – made of towers of mushrooms, each with their own fairisle pattern. And these would be on/in a landscape of – earth? Sawdust? Straw? Somehow connected up. And some of the towers would be 4 metres tall. Yep that’d be great although logistically tricky – how do you transport a 4-metre-tall fungal tower?
But also, this was outside-in thinking, jumping to the end point without doing the preliminary investigations. Usually when I make work it is my way of understanding more about a subject, whether that is the Earth’s climatic history, the development of the global financial system, the road to Brexit, or how Facebook advertising works. Plus I like making things, I love materials and the visual. Ideally but not always I can combine all that.
So going back to the starting point, to the mycorrhizal fungus/plant mutual aid, required reading, talking to scientists, getting my head round the subsoil world – and at the same time, the requirements and timescale of growing mushrooms meant that I had to start experimenting with different varieties, early on, to see what could fruit in time for or during the exhibition. Not wanting to stick with oyster mushrooms, which aren’t mycorrhizal and which can even inhibit the growth of plants, although their decomposition of dead wood does give them a role in mutual benefit within woodlands.
And obviously, with hindsight, everything took three times as long as expected; setting up multiple experiments, using different varieties and substrates, took till the end of September. Getting carried away with ideas – growing mushrooms so I could harvest the spores for using with tempera – a great idea but not for this project. Plus organising the Mycorrhizal Gathering – which may turn out to be the heart of this work and the most important outcome.
Leaving – not enough time to immerse myself in understanding the mycorrhizal domain. But still some. So having this uncomfortable experience of weaving between immersion in a topic and immersion in the practicalities of growing, the excitement of fruiting, but not being able to give the fungus the attention it really deserved because god help me I set up 69 different growing experiments.
But for process-based work all you can do is set up the initial conditions and respond to what transpires; when dealing with living actors, my control is limited. I can provide warmth, moisture, shelter, I can decide when to try and shock the fungus into the next stage of its growth cycle, but there are so many variables and there is the fungus itself, a living being with its own needs and responses to subtle changes in conditions. I can do my best and I can live with the uncertainty. However this was not initially envisaged as a process-based work, and that I think has been my weakness all along, or my omission. How could it not be process-based, and why didn’t I factor that in from the start?
The varieties that are new to me – some of my trials are fruiting now, too early for the exhibition, which previews in a week, and too slow for me to grow more in time for the preview (although not too early to grow to restock during the exhibition’s 11-week run). The oysters I can be confident of having fruiting for the preview. Reasonably confident.
So, mutual aid and process/uncertainty.
Going back to the mycorrhizal, I’ve used a diagram from Soil bacterial networks are less stable underdrought than fungal networks, a paper co-written by the ecologist Richard Bardgett at Manchester University on the stability of soil bacterial and fungal networks under drought. Interestingly, one of the findings is that the bacterial networks’ stronger connections make it less stable, in that if one of the connection nodes is knocked out, the whole network is weakened. The fungal connections, being more dispersed, provide greater stability. A bit like the internet, but the bacterial/fungal contrast also makes me think of the role of key political organisers, and how they are a target in times of repression. Organising is not everyone’s cup of tea or talent, and an effective organiser is a good and rare thing. The diagram shows the strength of relationship between different parameters such as soil moisture, photosynthesis, the plant, bacterial and fungal communities, two genes involved in the nitrogen cycle, and nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, two greenhouse gases given off by the action of soil micro-organisms.
Backing out from the micro to the macro, from the subsoil to the above-ground realm, in search of a way to incorporate human mutual aid, I’ve mapped the structure of the UK Camps for Climate Action (2006 to 2010) onto the soil ecology diagram. The Climate Camps were volunteer-run, admittedly with some logistical support from NGOs, and mobilised large numbers of resources and people to take direct action against targets such as the proposed third runway at Heathrow airport and the building of a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent. One of the most important things they did was to put climate change onto the media agenda – for a few years, climate change was in people’s consciousness in a way that it hasn’t been since, as we slide towards and over the climate feedback precipice.
The Camps were originally intended to be a starting point for local campaigns rather than an end in themselves; burnout and the strain of dealing with large-scale police response (and to an extent, the emotional toll on some key organisers of finding out that a trusted and influential participant was an undercover cop) meant that the last UK Camp for Climate Action took place in 2010; however since then there have been a series of Climate Camps globally, including one that gave rise to the successful land occupation against a proposed airport at La Zad in Brittany, and in the UK there has been a succession of camps as focuses for direct action against fracking and further coal extraction, the most recent being September 2018 in the Pont Valley in County Durham.
I’ve added two elements to the diagram; the animal realm, which maps onto the Climate Camp Neighbourhoods (geographically themed camping areas so that people can camp with the people they’re likely to work with back home); and phosphorus, which is required for all known forms of life and alongside nitrogen is one of the key nutrients made available to plants by mycorrhizal fungi. Phosphorus could map onto the Facilitation working group – an essential but often unseen or uncomprehended function/group which provided the decision-making infrastructure for the camps, enabling them to function both logistically (in terms of the practical meetings and decisions needed to organise and run the camps) and politically (in terms of the meetings which made key decisions about targets, tactics and the political direction of the Camps). It’s inapt but tickles me to mention that phosphorus was first isolated by evaporating urine. Phosphorus is also used as a weapon.
So far so semiliteral. While this gives me some satisfaction and structure, and some tools to think about the relationships between the different elements of the Climate Camp, the flows of energy and resources between Site and Gate, or Kitchens and Site, or Power and Legal Support, there is a range of more nebulous or inexact – neither of these is the right word – considerations and elements that are not yet satisfactorily integrated.
Fungus as agent
An important question is – what are the mushrooms to me? In the past I incorporated (used?) oyster mushrooms as agents, detoxifying neoliberal texts. But detoxification isn’t what I’m looking at this time. The mycorrhizal fungi in this work are morels and a mycorrhizal preparation that I bought online. It turns out that morels aren’t able to fight off competitor moulds, and so two of my three morel growing trials succumbed to green mould and have been planted out in the garden. The third has been mixed in with compost and planted with an ash sapling, ash being one of the tree species that morels associate with.
Morels belong to the Ascomycota, one of three of the seven fungi phyla that contain mycorrhizal fungi. Being Ascomycota, they disperse their spores by firing them out of little tubes (asco means flask).
Morels are ectomycorrhizal, meaning that rather than penetrating their host’s cell walls their hyphae form a lattice between their host’s epidermal and cortical root cells, known as the Hartig net.
Ectomycorrhizal fungi form associations with around 2% of plant species – typically woody plants, including species from the birch, dipterocarp, eucalyptus, myrtle, beech, oak, willow, pine and rose families. Ectomycorrhizal fungi include chanterelles, truffles, milkcaps, boletes, death caps and destroying angels. Ecosystems dominated by ectomycorrhizal plants contain 70% more carbon per unit of nitrogen than ecosystems dominated by endomycorrhizal plants; so far I haven’t been able to ascertain whether this is because ectomycorrhizal fungi are particularly good at sequestering carbon or other factors.
Endomycorrhizal fungi form associations with 80% of plant species – most food crops, grasses, herbs, trees such as apple, cherry, maple and juniper.)
So, back to the morels
If I’d made a truly mycorrhizal system for the gallery – well one thing I’ve learned in this research is that mycorrhizal associations don’t exist in isolation. Crashingly obvious once stated, but I started by considering them in that way. Mycorrhizal systems need all the rest of it – soil, water, micro-organisms, bacteria. So a truly mycorrhizal system would have incorporated all these elements, and also one thing I haven’t had enough of – time. It takes time for relationships to establish and grow; it takes a lot of time for a mycorrhizal fungus to establish and fruit – decades rather than weeks. The best I could do, in two months, was an approximation which contains some of the necessary elements – or, a starting point; who knows what my (? the) ash/morel combo will go on to do.
If I’d started with a tight focus on the morels, and worked outwards, I’d have something different now. And the fungus might have been more of an actor, rather than a material. It’s hard to know where the line falls – all the fungus that I’ve inoculated seems to want to grow, it can all be said to be pursuing its own agenda of colonising, fruiting, dispersing spores. It can all be said to be inhabiting the larger realm of mutual aid – I’ve provided substrate, shelter, moisture, and the fungus provides me with food and medicine, an artwork, possibly some gifts.
I didn’t start with a tight focus, but a dispersed one. Does this give me something differently good? For example, having set up some initial conditions – an intention for the work, growing multiple fungi, experimenting with knitted copper sheaths for the growing fungus – I can attempt to direct matters, but once the fungus is underway I can mainly pay attention and allow it to develop as it will. If I lose the fungus to green mould, if it starts to form fruit and then stops, if the fungus refuses my wants – that is how it is.
Likewise, crudely put, the Camps were also an exercise in setting up the conditions for people to take direct action, the conditions that could lead to a mass movement against fossil fuel infrastructure – but once 2,000 people were on site, most of whom had had nothing to do with the development and direction of the Camp, their further actions couldn’t be controlled or monitored. It’s impossible to know everything that the Camps led to, all the knock-on effects and all the failures or counterproductive actions. So there’s something about letting go, but without abnegating responsibility. Letting go of desire for a particular outcome, while setting up the conditions as well as possible for that desired outcome – and being able to respond to events taking a different turn, rather than forcing them into a preplanned shape. No one at Drax Climate Camp in 2006 was thinking about impacts in Brittany in 2018, when the airport that La Zad prevented was finally cancelled, I am pretty damn sure.
Where does that leave things? Soil carbon, carbon and soil…
Mycorrhizal fungi both sequester carbon, as they decompose, and play a part in releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Adding charcoal to soil helps to incorporate phosphorus and potassium; it is part of the terra preta soils of the Amazon, soils with enhanced fertility and levels of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and calcium due to the incorporation of organic material, manure and potsherds over millennia. These have remained fertile for over 2,000 years, thanks to human intervention – it’s rare that we can say that.
Carbon and soil info dump
Soil is the third largest carbon sink in the world, after the oceans and deep fossil fuel deposits. But there is a danger that soils will become carbon sources as soil organisms get stimulated, by the knock-on effects of climate change, to break down organic matter more quickly. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide and one of its main sources is inorganic fertilisers and manures. Soil is important. An annual growth rate of 0.4% in the soil carbon stocks would halt the increase in the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere related to human activities. So a turn away from industrial agriculture and synthetic fertilisers, and a focus on incorporating organic matter in the soil, not ploughing, and letting fungus do its thing, is very much called for).
And another thing, to come back to later
I only have the energy to write this in brief, but neoliberalism seeks to scale up and homogenise, for “efficiency”. Soil populations are specific to their location – globally and inescapably heterogenous. The groundedness of the soil populations is in opposition to the deterritorialised nature of capital. Is there something about a deep connection with, and attention to, location that can be kept separate from nationalism? Gary Snyder said
“The real work is becoming native in your heart, coming to understand we really live here, that this is really the continent we’re on, and that our loyalties are here, to these mountains and rivers, to these plant zones, to these creatures. The real work involves a loyalty that goes back…billions of years. The real work is accepting citizenship in the earth itself.”
And yet another
Artists vary in their relationship with materials; mine has always been dialogue-based – I am interested in what materials want to do, how they respond, how they surprise me. I’ve got the best results when I’ve been mindful, when I’ve allowed materials to act rather than trying to force them. This means paying enough attention to let go of a fixed goal and allow something different to emerge. Are materials co-producers? I would say, very often, yes, and certainly when they’re alive.
From The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing:
“Indeterminacy is not the end of history but rather that node in which many beginnings lie in wait. To listen politically is to detect the traces of not-yet-articulated common agendas…We need many kinds of alertness to spot potential allies.”
Tsing also mentions the intriguing possibility of the latent commons.
Going back to my conversation with Richard Bardgett, Professor of Ecology at Manchester University
The most important factors in determining carbon storage are rainfall and temperature – cold and wet is good. If lots of sugars are exuded into the soil, everything happens too quickly. Pine needles are good as they are slow release. The more diverse the soil ecology, the better.
Plant communities are homogenising globally, coming to be dominated by fast-growing species (ruderals) which use lots of resources quickly. This is the opposite to most fungal growing strategies. (interesting that he uses the word strategy, which to me implies some kind of intent). Soils are becoming less fungi-dominated and more homogenous – we need to shift back to natural systems, and soil with more fungi and bacteria.
According to my notes, the savannah around Kilimanjaro is dead. 30% of the world’s soils are degraded, and 50% are degrading (this is from the 2015 report The State of the World’s Soils).
How does this link? In obvious ways, we want – I want – human communities as well to be less homogenous, not standardised, not dominated by fast actors who can commandeer all the resources. Donna Haraway talks about making kin – encompassing the non-human, down to and beyond the microscopic level – which can provide a way of talking about connection to place.
We talked about how complex networks are more stable – although some say they are more unstable because a few dominant individuals create the connections. He thinks that on balance greater complexity correlates with greater stability.
I love using the word correlate, it makes me feel brainy.
Interestingly, bacterial communities are dominated by 500 different species globally; the same with fungi. According to the ecologist Francis Brearley, there are core fungal species that the majority of trees will associate with, plus each tree has its particular species. The 500 dominant species are themselves dominated by a smaller proportion – or rather, within the 500 dominant species is a smaller number of even more dominant species. A bit like the 20/80 hypothesis (that in any group, 20 % of the people do 80% of the work/activity). Nice to know that fungi act like social clubs!
Where does all this leave me?
Mutual aid in nature – plant/fungal co-development – co productions – different forms of mutual aid. Anna Tsing writes about neighbourliness, political listening, social relations across difference. A half-remembered saying – if your movement has no conflict, it’s not diverse enough.
How does this all link back to climate change, carbon, deep adaptation…? Climate Camp as a way of sequestering – action? Energy? Agency? Sequestering in terms of keeping safe from malign forces – or for harnessing and releasing energy and agency. The role of mycorrhizals in storing carbon – how a mutual aid partner can transfer the carbon from the tree into the soil. How does this map onto Climate Camp? The idea of having the Kitchens being the tree is then too literal – or maybe not – the Kitchens provide the carbon which the humans convert into carbon dioxide and excreta, dealt with by the Waste team/bacteria…
How does this link to indeterminacy, polyphony, transformative social encounters and sympoiesis versus globalisation, homogeneity, scalability and autopoiesis? Relationship vs individualism? Thinking versus logic? I like the Bohr quote – No, no, you are not thinking, you are just being logical.
If nature does select for relationships rather than individuals or genomes, then that is encouraging and holds some possibility of a future. (I don’t want to use the word hope!)
I haven’t written anything here about solidarity with non-human nature.
Some random phrases that resonate…
Progress has stopped making sense (but there is still company)
Progress has stopped making sense (but there is still neighbourliness)
A forest is only as strong as the weakest tree
The difference between soil and dirt
Becoming native in your heart
Quotes from The Dispossessed by Ursula le Guin – that could be used on the sleeves
It’s …our common nature to be Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom
Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes.
We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association.
Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for, though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice – the power of change, the essential function of life.
His hands were empty, as they had always been.
Mutual Aid quotes
Mutual aid is the idea that we all have a stake in one another’s liberation, and that when we can act from that interdependence, we can share with one another as equals.
Original Zine: Ain’t no PC Gonna Fix it, Baby. 2013.
Featured in: A Critique of Ally Politics. Taking Sides.”
what really takes away liberty and makes initiative impossible is. the isolation which renders one powerless. “Freedom is not an abstract right but the possibility of acting: this is true among ourselves as well as in society as a whole. And it is by cooperation with his fellows that man finds the means to express his activity and his power of initiative.”
“Social solidarity is a fact from which no one can escape.”
― Errico Malatesta, Malatesta: Life & Ideas
Notes from conversation with Fiona MacDonald, 5th November
Can I articulate those relations? In the nature of making art how the object asserts itself – has own agency – element of uncertainty, dialogue, refusal within materials – repeat, differ, modify, assess, try again – core to artist production. Added complication of using living materials – can enact refusal, unpredictability – have to be responsive – something about emergence, setting up initial conditions – co-producers as participants – consent from a mushroom?
Design – artist thinking through what can work, how participants might interact with that situation – but written into it is the uncertainty – can’t have set outcomes – variables, different wills and requirements
A popular theory proposed by Read postulates that habitat type and the distinct functions of different mycorrhizas help determine the particular symbiosis that will become predominant. In this theory, EcM symbioses evolved in relatively productive ecosystems, such as boreal forests, but in which nutrient cycling could still be limiting. In this scenario, ectomycorrhizas are a somewhat intermediate form, having greater mineralization capacities than arbuscular mycorrhizas and less so than types such as ericoid mycorrhizas. This is supported by several studies, some of which also purport arbuscular mycorrhizas to be the ancestral trait. According to this data, many non-mycorrhizal and other mycorrhizal forms represent evolutionary specializations.