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Taking Action // Being like mushrooms

Originally published 8th Feb 2020

This years’ first term of workshops and courses kicked off powerfully last weekend with one of our communities’ favourites, a session on mushroom growing and identification delivered by the fantastic forager Amy Rankine from Hipsters and Hobos. After some time of reflection and reorganization over the festive period, it was invigorating to start feeling the buzz of the term again – for me every day has something unpredictable in it, some unexpected insight from the thought-provoking conversations with folks who come for workshops, new knowledge through sharing of skills, some magic that unfolds when people come together over shared principles and a common cause.

Being involved in environmental education and climate activism teaches me this lesson again and again. Thinking about the complexity of tackling climate change, and truly grasping all the work that needs to be done on all levels of society, can be paralyzing and lead to responses of fear, denial, rage or anxiety. I’ve found, and verified this experience with lots of folk in conversations, that one way to feel better is to simply start taking action.

Sometimes when one is in a state of paralysis and denial, it’s like a self-reinforcing negative loop. Being in it makes it hard to act, which makes it even harder to then come out of it. Acting, on the other hand, can produce a self-reinforcing motivational loop. When I first started cycling for my commute many years ago, for example, I had an awareness of the ecological implications but it was also because I couldn’t afford the bus. This led me to become curious about how to fix my bike, from where I properly became part of the cycling community, which enabled me to be part of actions to campaign for better bike lanes and safety for cyclists on roads.

The earths’ climate is, and has been for a long time, in a state of crisis, and human and most other species’ life on earth is in danger. It’s important and urgent to take action in whatever form is accessible to people, and for folks who come down to have a look around the Croft or join a workshop I hope it might be a spring board to take bigger and wider actions. In doing this, in figuring out where we all can start doing our bit (and then all the massive far-reaching system-change coal-and-oil blocking bits) for the environment, it might be helpful to look to nature for some answers. And what we’re learning about mushrooms and tree networks in forests is one of those mind-boggling and inspiring pieces of mystery that we’re only just starting to understand.

I was working as a forester in Oxfordshire in winter 2018, and because of our shared love for trees and forests my grandma gave me an incredible book that has been with me ever since. The book has since experienced a bit of an international hype, so you might have heard of it, but it’s still worth pointing out here. It’s called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and in it the German forester explores all he’s learned during decades of roaming and researching forests about the intricate web of activity, life and communication that enables the resilience of ancient woodlands. His findings are part of our constantly growing and but still infinitesimal knowledge of the way plants coexist.

One key finding described in the book is the idea that forests are not an array of independent trees, but more of an interdependent, mutually supporting community maintained by continuous exchange. This exchange happens through gigantic networks of fungus underground, which join up with root-tips of trees to form a “wood-wide web”. This helps older trees support young saplings with sugars, it enables century-old tree stump elders to remain alive through nutrient supplies, it helps the forest ward off dangers like leaf-eating caterpillars through releasing pheromones that attract parasitic wasps, which kill off the caterpillars. The largest organism alive is a mycelium network in Oregon which spans over 2300 hectares, and we’re only at the beginning of understanding the complex way in which trees and fungi communicate. Apparently, they send electric shocks and low-resonance sound through these massive webs. Wow.

I think we should think of ourselves, and of climate action, in this way. Too often the climate discourse puts the responsibility of saving us from ecological catastrophe on individuals, without taking into account the larger-scale political, business and systemic changes that need to occur. At the same time, we all collectively reinforce the system we live in through our complicity in it, and through all the small actions that affirm that every day. I think we need to understand our individual actions, the small impact of our isolated existence that can sometimes feel so inconsequential, as connected to a large, invisible web of change, much like the enormous fungal networks, that can enable us to be as resilient, as strong and interdependent, as ancient woodlands. Every time we cycle instead of driving, we support some young sapling with a burst of sugar. Every time we achieve a big win over the fossil fuel industry, we fend off some dangerous intruder that could have endangered the whole woodland. In this way, every step sustains a healthy, holistic ecosystem, a movement that knows no boundaries. One can only hope that one day, this network will become so strong as to make the forms of living, trading, scheming and relating that have created the climate crisis in the first place become obsolete.


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