Essay for Soft Quarterly Autumn 2022
In this essay, inspired by Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake, I attempt to draw parallels between the interdependency of fungi and mycorrhizal networks and our own politics of care, and reflect on how feeling connected and at home is not so much a physical space, but rather a space that we keep reimagining and upholding through our relationships with others and ourselves, wherever that might be.
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Feeling grounded: On the incorporeality of home
We usually know what a mushroom looks like when we see one. We spot them in different colours, shapes and sizes, and in different places; from the bark of a tree to somewhere around the schoolyard you played in as a child. How fascinating to discover then that something as familiar as a mushroom is often just the spore-producing tip of a hugely complex network of hyphal strands, also called mycelium, peaking through the surface. Just like with the seeds of plants, the fungus which is connected to the fruiting body we actually see uses its spores to spread itself out, constantly on the lookout for new homes for the organism to grow.
At first glance, it might not seem like we have a lot in common with fungi. But we’re not actually as disconnected from each other as we think: After all, fungi live everywhere inside our bodies; our guts, our ear canals, even on our skin. We are practically dwelling places for organic inhabitants such as bacteria, fungi and microbes, all of which we depend on for our health and survival.
90 percent of plants, including vegetables we consume day-to-day, also depend on mycorrhizal fungi, which are symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants that allow them to transfer resources such as water, nitrogen and minerals to each other. One such example of a symbiotic partnership between two separate organisms are lichens, made up of fungus and algae, which spread so ubiquitously, we can find them on hard surfaces such as rocks and trees in tropical rainforests as well as ice-free zones of the pole.
We might see our biological identity as separate from the world of plants, and yet - if the discourse around climate change has taught us anything - we are wholeheartedly dependent on the preservation of our communities to exist.
Even though this interplay between fungi, food and our bodies is mostly invisible to us, fungal networks and their influence are all around us at all times. Merlin Sheldrake writes in Entangled Life that “globally, the total length of mycorrhizal hyphae in the top ten centimetres of soil is around half the width of our galaxy.”
Although I’ve never left the continent, let alone embarked on a journey the width of our galaxy, I can relate to the philosophy of interdependence in mycorrhizal networks, and the ways in which mushrooms find new homes wherever they’re able to build new relationships and exchange resources.
What fungi reiterate for me is that sources of connection, safety and home are not static, but rather incorporeal, boundless spaces which I continuously get to visit and discover. I like that the word ‘ecology’, which stems from the Greek word oikos, can be translated to ‘house’, ‘household’, or ‘dwelling place’; because just like fungi have shown us, the concept of belonging and home is intimately intertwined with my relationship with others and my surroundings.
Home is a feeling I continuously return to, a relationship, an extension of who I am. Like the hyphal networks of fungi stretching out to other plants, I extend myself out into the world. Instead of a vessel floating through deep, dark space, home is a reminder that I have an influence on those around me. And just like fungi and humans need each other to preserve our environments, I rely on those around me to make me feel safe and comfortable in the spaces I call home - whatever that might look like for me at the time.
As someone who’s moved around a lot in their short time on Earth, I’ve never felt particularly tied to a physical place to call home. When my family used to go on holiday, I would ask my dad when we would go home after a day out; home in that case being the little cabin we might have been staying in. After the countless dinners and sleepovers I’ve had at my best friend’s house, not to mention her extended family’s homes, and all the places where others showed me kindness, I’ve come to realise that home is more of a series of pit stops without a travel destination; a place for rest, refuge and reciprocity.
Home can also be created in previously unknown places, like in the kitchen at a new friend’s house, or the ecstasy and catharsis I feel when listening to someone’s experience I can relate to.
I’m at home when I can slip out of my social skin and slip into a body of relief that where I am, I will be acknowledged, cared for, and seen. Home is in my partner’s arms when I go to bed at night, the sound of ground beans and smell of coffee I make when friends stay the night, and the pleasure of sharing the morning with them. It manifests in all the physical spaces where exchanges of care and tenderness are possible, and all the non-physical spaces that offer opportunities for connection, no matter how brief.
We create temporary homes when we show up for people in solidarity, when we volunteer to give up our time and energy for others. I find that home is something I can offer another person, be that through the warmth of a genuine welcome, an interest in their wellbeing, or an overall investment in their lives.
It saddens me to think that some people might have a physical space to call home, but with none of the elements which I believe truly makes it one. In addition to the necessities of food, warmth and shelter, we all deserve spaces where we can safely experience the full extent of human emotions with all the joys and sadness that might bring. We deserve spaces where we’re reminded that we’re invariably connected to each other. Home is not a constant - rather, it’s a space we must keep reimagining, and most importantly, keep building together.
Young people of our generation are perhaps the most aware of this idea: In SPACE10 and Dazed Media’s IMPERMACULTURE report on what ‘home’ means to today’s youth, it soon becomes obvious that with the cost of living and climate crisis limiting our material opportunities for creating metaphysical spaces to call our own home, many of us have extended its definition to mean a safe, shared space, which comes in various shapes and sizes. Nearly half of 18 to 24 year olds surveyed even described home as a feeling.
Interviewing a group of experts on the report, Kwame Lowe, co-founder of Kin Structures and Associate Lecturer at Central Saint Martins, argued that “recent generations have been deprived of something very fundamental that we don’t talk about, which is our connection to the land and being able to put our stake in the ground.”
“It’s become accepted that we can exist in isolation from other people and our physical environments,” he continues, “even though both are fundamental to our quality of life as human beings.”
Home is, in many ways then, a process rather than a place, which follows us from the start of life to our death. It turns out that we are not that ontologically distinct from fungi as we thought: Both build and rebuild networks around us which provide safety, care and reciprocal exchanges throughout our life and - depending on the culture and rituals of your people - even beyond it up until your death.
It may sound morbid to call graveyards our last home, but it almost feels like the natural ecosystem we belong to sent us humans a subliminal message to place our bodies deep in the ground long before we had formalised the rituals and religions which make us do so. Fungi might even interact with our bodies and welcome us back to the ground when we die, as scientists have previously found Scopulariopsis brevicaulis fungus colonising the remains of a human body, as its decay provided perfect conditions for the fungi’s growth.
In a TED Talk by artist Jae Rhim Lee, perhaps even a subconscious ambassador of fungi, she presents the crowd with a prototype of a suit embedded with spores from mushrooms she’s been training to decompose human bodies. Not only would this contribute to more environmentally friendly burials, but it also offers another opportunity for an otherwise death-phobic culture to choose their final resting place with agency.
There is a poetic quality to the fact that when we die, with or without the help of the mycelium suit, we do not simply leave what we knew as home, but rather return back to the soil which we came from and which grounded us in the first place.
In 2016, Dennis White became the first person to be buried in Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit, allowing him not only to prepare for his inevitable end but also giving him the chance to enrich the soil with his own body: one final act of reciprocity between him and the natural ecosystem so many of us call home.