If Only We Were Greener Things
"All the ways you imagine us—bewitched mangroves up on stilts, a nutmeg’s inverted spade, gnarled baja elephant trunks, the straight-up missile of a sal—are always amputations. Your kind never sees us whole. You miss the half of it, and more. There’s always as much belowground as above."
From The Overstory, by Richard Powers.
If you grew up in northern Michigan, you know the annual madness for morel mushrooms. If you are savvy, you know there is a lookalike false morel out there that looks and tastes similar. If you are also really unlucky, you know it will make you throw up your pilaf so fiercely it will be fifteen years before you can eat rice again. Regardless of your experience with morels, you are probably familiar with the various fungi that spring up after a rain, or you have gleefully kicked a puffball mushroom to release the spores into the wind. For me, it was the everyday magic of growing up in Michigan.
I didn’t know it, but kicking the puffball made me a part of the unending cycle of regeneration and destruction that is nature. In recent decades, science has been looking more closely at how closely woven all our threads really are and made a mind-spinning discovery: the wood wide web. This is the network of fungal threads, called hyphae, that runs just under the surface of the forest. What is so incredible is that this network includes the trees, their roots so thickly entwined with hyphae that it can be difficult to tell which is which. This network, known scientifically as the mycelia, is all but invisible to the naked eye and trees use it to share nutrients, warn of insect attack and probably much more. While some of us have always believed that the trees speak to each other—and have even heard them—this proof has shaken everything we thought we understood about a forest.
British author Robert MacFarlane visited botanist Merlin Sheldrake in Epping Forest to learn about the wood wide web and recounts the experience in a chapter of his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Most striking to me, he writes about his struggle to adequately describe what happens there where we can’t see it:
I glance down, try to trance the soil into transparency such that I can see its hidden infrastructure: millions of fungal skeins suspended between tapering tree roots, their prolific liaisons creating a gossamer web at least as intricate as the cables and fibres that hang beneath our cities. What’s the haunting phrase I’ve heard used to describe the realm of fungi? The kingdom of the grey. It speaks of fungi’s utter otherness—the challenges they issue to our usual models of time, space, and species.
“You look at the network,” says Merlin, “and then it starts to look back at you” (MacFarlane 100-101).
This passage speaks to me in so many ways. Specifically, it makes me think of the moment during breathwork with Michele Lussky when she encourages us to “send down [our] roots into Mother Earth.” What a profound union that would if we had hyphae like the fungi! But this is about more than simple communion. MacFarlane wants to penetrate and see into the network, as if to really see it is to then understand it.
Sheldrake posits a different perspective: that the network is, at least for now, impenetrable. You look at the network and then it starts to look back at you. You may have heard the Nietzsche quote about looking into the abyss and it’s accompanying caution: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. If you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (brainyquotes.com).
Nietzsche is warning his readers to be wary of studying something so closely that you become the thing you seek to understand, particularly when studying “monsters.” Sheldrake, however, makes a different word choice. He does not suggest we can look into the network; we can only look at it. We can stare at it as long as we like but we are not capable just now of seeing into it. We can’t sprout hyphae from our tailbones, after all. We are limited by both body and language to only imagine, as MacFarlane does, hearing the forest say to us “if your mind were only a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning” (Powers 4).
We can’t green our minds to communicate with the wood wide web, not in the way we wish we could. On Star Trek: Discovery, the crew of the science ship encounters a giant tardigrade. Through it, they are able to engineer a ‘mycelium’ drive that allows them to use the mycelial network to ‘jump’ from place to place across space without ever understanding why or how. It is only when the chief engineer accidentally ingests spores from the tardigrade that he comprehends the effect of humans on the mycelial network. It amounts to torture of the ailing tardigrade and near destruction of the overall network. Even when the mycelial network is writ large across the universe, it is only when we somehow take in the spores that we can even connect in a meaningful way.
MacFarlane dwells on our linguistic limitations when it comes to translating its lessons to humanity. He posits that “’we need . . . a new language altogether—one that doesn’t automatically convert it to our own use values . . . we need to speak in spores’” (110) aloud to Sheldrake.
Sheldrake agrees whole-heartedly. “That’s exactly what we need to be doing—and that’s your job . . . That’s the job of the writers and artists and poets and all the rest of you’” (111). The job of writers and artists and poets. My job. As a writer, as a native-born Michigander, it is my to find the right words and learn to speak in spores. In short, to go outside and learn to tap in.
Indeed, Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Potawatomi, insists that “[t]o be native to a place we must learn to speak its language” (Kimmerer 48). She doesn’t mean language about a place, which is what we have, but language of place, of the plants and trees, of everything that lives in and on and around us. “We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species,” she writes, “let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us . . . Imagine how less lonely the world would be” (58). If our minds were only greener things…
Michigan calls loudly to those of her natives who try to send down their roots, their spiritual hyphae, in other places. She calls with the voice of the planet to all her lost children who tread heavily and understand so lightly. Both Kimmerer and MacFarlane agree that whatever the wood wide web is, it is community. Like any human community, it allows for the exchange of information and goods and news. It makes every living thing it touches part of the collective whole. It is, writes Kimmerer, “the power of unity. What happens to one happens to us all. We can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual” (15).
I returned to Michigan this summer after almost 30 years away. I had to travel, join the Navy, marry, raise my children, all in places too far from my own native soil. In this first Michigan summer since my childhood, I grew tomatoes, basil, rosemary, thyme, lavender. I dug in the earth for the first time as a willing gardener. I met a worm who, when I unearthed him, I called him ‘icky.’ When informed by a much wiser gardener that I’d hurt his feelings, I made a sincere apology and gave him back a little of his soil. When I failed to water often enough, I lost flowers. When I did well, I had tomatoes and basil to eat with fresh mozzarella and rosemary to lay on my Thanksgiving turkey. It satisfied me on a primal level. I grew food. I got dirt under my fingernails. I began to heal from 30 years of not listening when the land I call home was calling me to come back. What a precious, precious gift to have insulted a worm and then made up with it! For just a second, I felt like I’d maybe learned to speak a greener language and that’s something we can all do.
Just watch out for those false morels.
 Yep. That’s really his name. He’s done fascinating research into the mycelial network in Central America, too.
 Don’t inhale spores. It didn’t end well for the Star Trek guy and it’s usually bad for you.
 I assume we made up. I speak worm about as well as I speak fungus.
VICKIE ANDRESEN SEDILLO is back to her Michigan roots after teaching college writing and raising her children all over the country--most recently in Arizona. Her works have been published in The Great Lakes Cultural Review and One Door Closes (ed. Terri Spahr Nelson). Vickie, a writing coach, will be co-facilitating our next memoir workshop, if you'd like to meet her in the flesh--or maybe get some help "fleshing something out".
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the
Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions. 2013.
MacFarlane, Robert. Underland: A Deep Time Journey. W.W. Norton
Nietzsche, Friederich. “Friederich Nietzsche Quotes.” Brainy Quotes. BrainyMedia Inc, 2022.
12 February 2022. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/friedrich_nietzsche_124387.
Powers, Richard. The Overstory. W.W. Norton & Co. 2018.
Wikipedia contributors. "Star Trek: Discovery (season 2)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Feb. 2022.