FUNGAL POLITICS — Dreams from Underground

“Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what’s happening…
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden…
For every gardener knows that after the digging, after
the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes”
                                                                                  —Marge Piercy, “The Seven of Pentacles”

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Every once in a while The New York Times publishes a knockout article. This past December, the newspaper’s Sunday magazine section featured “The Social Life of Forests, a long, lusciously illustrated portrait of the Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, digging away in British Columbia’s old-growth forests. Forest ecology, ordinarily, isn’t my bag; but the subject of the piece—fungi and their secret underground world—was so utterly fascinating and suggestive that it set my mind abuzz about our above-ground human world.

For years, Simard has been thrilled by forests. As a kid, she foraged mushrooms and huckleberries, even ate handfuls of dirt, relishing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Rebeca from Hundred Years of Solitude, the taste of damp raw earth. This taste never went away. Now, as a sixty-something college professor, she’s become an authority on the forest’s undergrowth. Decades ago, she noticed how commercial logging hacked down diverse old forests, replacing them with homogeneous plantations, stripping the soil of its underbrush. The logic went that without competitors, and with more space for light and water, young saplings would thrive. But they didn’t. Frequently they withered and died, proving more vulnerable to disease and climatic stress than trees in entangled ancient forests.

Simard discovered the reason why lay in mycorrhizal networks, the threadlike fungi that envelop and fuse with trees. Here, beneath ground, something pretty amazing takes place. These fungi pass on to trees nutrients—phosphorous and nitrogen—and help extract the water required for photosynthesis. Around ninety percent of trees depend on these mysterious underground mycorrhizal networks—mykes is the Greek word for fungus and rhiza root—which link trees, even trees of different species, sharing life, knitting together the earth’s soils in a complex system of symbiosis. When we see mushrooms sprouting, this is just one part of the story, only the fruiting body of fungi, its blossom, the visible realm where spores are produced and transmitted. A lot more of the action is subterranean, occurs deep down. Carbon, water and nutrients pass from tree to tree via underground circuits, shifting resources between the oldest and the biggest to the youngest and smallest, from strongest to weakest.

While Simard says conflict in a forest is undeniable, she knows, too, that life abounds there because of negotiation and reciprocity, because of widespread mutuality. Earlier in her career, these ideas were disparaged as “girlie” by her male “growth and yield” forest colleagues. Nowadays, Simard’s vision of a forest ecology based on cooperation and selflessness has seeped into the mainstream, even gotten written into college textbooks. Hers isn’t so much a critique of Darwin—who, remember, stressed contest and self-interest in the evolutionary process; it’s more a little caveat, a modest rejoinder: When we think about sustaining life on earth, fungi teach us that real resilience comes about through cooperation not die-hard competition. [1]

***
Loggers replacing diverse forests with homogeneous plantations sounds uncannily like the dynamics of today’s urban environments, where developers similarly create homogeneous plantations out of messy old human woodland. Our cities likewise wither from frailty, stripped bare of human undersoil, devoid of any selfless life. There, only the richest survive. There, willy-nilly, people are forced to compete with one another, compete in labour markets, pit themselves against each other in housing markets. In a way, Simard’s studies of fungi provoke us to reevaluate the whole notion of cooperation in human life.

Cooperation, after all, lies at the core of Marx’s vision of democracy, yet it’s dealt with in perhaps the strangest chapter of Volume One of Capital. If we listen to Marx’s voice there, it is schizoid, dualistic, sounding a bit like Nick Carraway’s in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, both fascinated and repelled by his subject matter. Marx, too, is a great advocate of cooperation, fascinated by the sheer power of human beings pooling their will and their wits. When people work together, he says, they “have hands and eyes both in front and behind, and can be said to be to a certain extent omnipresent.” This is a rather lovely, if odd, way to describe things. Marx thinks that when people “cooperate in a planned way with others,” we strip off the fetters of our individuality, “and develop the capabilities of our species.” “Not only do we have here an increase in the productive power of the individual,” he says, “but the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.”

The problem with this kind of cooperation, of course, is that it’s phoney: it’s controlled exclusively by the bourgeoisie, by the ruling class, who use it for their own commercial ends, as a means to boost relative surplus value. This is why Marx is repelled by cooperation, because it has been subverted, converted into an alien force, thrown back in people’s faces. Human omnipresence gets transformed into capital’s omnipotence; a collective power, in other words, not mobilised for the common good but used to exploit social labour, creamed-off as value-added. Marx calls it a “free gift” for business, an associative force that costs capital nothing. And “as cooperation extends its scale,” Marx says, “the despotism of capital extends.” That’s the bad news. The good news is this is “an unavoidable antagonism,” somehow dialectically necessary, perversely progressive. Indeed, “as the numbers of cooperating workers increases,” says Marx, “so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.”

Our technologically advanced society might realise human needs and desires—if only production could be wrested from private gain, put to cooperative public use; if only cooperation could lead to resources becoming common property rather than Intellectual Property. This vision of cooperation is one of the most hopeful things dramatised in Capital, and it’s there lying undeveloped, getting pushed and pulled by capital, and pushed and pulled by Marx. Marx gives us an ideal of humanity rich and expansive, generous in its affirmation of people as fundamentally cooperative beings. Much as he admires Darwin, he never accepts human life as intrinsically competitive. “It’s remarkable,” Marx says, “how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’ It is Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes.”

Darwin’s biggest stumbling block is Malthus, the quack theorist of overpopulation. Darwin’s natural selection took from Malthus the belief that life is a battle over dwindling resources. The world is crowded out by species jostling each other for survival. Only by shoving an inhabitant out can a new species flourish. Darwin used the “wedge” metaphor to highlight how any new species had to create their own little chink by displacing another. Success came from bullying out a rival, making space for oneself at their expense. Which pretty much runs counter to what Suzanne Simard found in her packed old-growth forests, running counter to Marx’s own ecological vision as well. Only through cooperation, he says, can people develop a fuller sense of individuality, as well as a “higher form” of collective coexistence—like trees. Ironically—or perhaps dialectically—it’s a higher form of existence that emanates from Marx’s underground imagination. For he, too, has a trusty digger in the subsoil: the mole.

Moles, like mushrooms, regulate soil and plant ecosystems. True, their tunnels are a gardeners’ curse, pushing up great mounds of earth that wreck pristine lawns. Yet, in the bigger ecological scheme of things, all that is cosmetic, rather superficial. For moles eat earthworms and soil-inhabiting insects, aerate the earth, turn it over, and thereby serve a vital function within the soil’s natural food chain. Marx’s mole has his own special laws of underground motion. Propelled by a tough head and powerful shovel-like paws, packing a digging power forty-times their own bodyweight, moles’ tunnelling represents nothing less than the revolution itself, the incessant spade work needed to loosen capitalism’s foundations, the underground agitation and cooperation required to make fixed capital crumble underfoot.

We first encounter Marx’s “old mole” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father, no longer living but transformed into some strange underground “pioneer”:

“Well said, old mole. Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!”

These are cryptic, somewhat inexplicable lines, yet Marx, the irrepressible reader of Shakespeare, plainly loved the symbolism. Perhaps he knew that even after he was long gone, dead and buried in London’s Highgate Cemetery, where mushrooms would sprout out of the decay, the moles would still be digging away at the earth, creating tunnels everywhere in society’s infrastructure, pioneering the revolution in Marx’s worthy name.

The figure of “old mole” crops up in 1852, in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. “The revolution,” Marx says in his polemic against Napoleon III, “is thorough-going. It is still in the process of passing through purgatory. It does its work methodically.” There’s still much cooperative spade work to be done, Marx says, much digging, much to bring down to earth the ideological superstructure of capitalism. Yet when the foundational groundwork is put in place, Marx declares, paraphrasing his great hero Shakespeare, “Europe will leap from her seat and exultantly exclaim: Well-grubbed, old mole!” Four years on, Marx’s old mole was still at it. In a speech given in 1856, celebrating the anniversary of the Chartists’ People’s Paper, Marx redoubles his furry, well-grubbed imaginary. In the steady work of political agitation and organisation, he says, we’ll recognise “our brave friend . . . the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer—the Revolution.”

***
There’s a memorable moment in “The Social Life of Forests,” when Suzanne Simard digs beneath British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. After working the earth for a long while, near the roots of a whitebark pine, she suddenly uncovers a delicate gossamer web of tiny threads. “Holy shit!” she exclaims, “it’s a mycorrhizal network!” “So cool, heh?” What Simard held were the material filaments of what mycologists and ecologists now refer to as the “Wood Wide Web,” nature’s very own broadband, traversing humous subsoil everywhere. Channels for resource exchange and communication are here always open without tariff or subscription. In this other-worldly kingdom, the “internet of things” is nothing new: “smart” forests have been around for thousands of years.

Stitched together by this connective tissue is much life on earth. Its constitutive ingredient is a mystical and magical substance called mycelium. Mycelium operates more as a process than a thing, possessing an innate directional memory that spreads outwards radially, forming a white spidery circle of filaments in all directions. Mycelium expands until it touches something, finds something to latch on to, to feed on and nourish, anything dead or alive, organic or inorganic, decaying and decomposing—not only tree roots and plants but old books and carpets, bits of wood and floorboards, trash and food waste, mouldy wallpaper and even cigarette butts.

The British biologist Merlin Sheldrake says that if you teased apart the mycelium found in a teaspoon of soil, laid it out end to end, “it could stretch anywhere from a hundred metres to ten kilometres.” It’s impossible, Sheldrake reckons, to measure the extent to which mycelium connects the Earth’s structures and systems—“its weave is too tight. Mycelium is a way of life that challenges our animal imaginations.” Mycelium is how fungi feed, how they digest the world, absorb matter and grow. Fungi draw sugars from a tree or plant’s photosynthetic activity, fuelling themselves, at the same time as trees and plants benefit from mycelium’s ability to extract nutrients from the soil. It seems like a marriage made in heaven.

Sheldrake marvels at how fungi like truffles produce tastes commanding thousands of dollars per kilo; how is it, too, he asks, that delicate cap mushrooms push through asphalt? Some fungi are the hardiest organisms on earth; others—like puffballs—are the most fragile, things you can literally blow over. At calamitous moments in human history, fungi have not only survived but thrived. After the atom bomb incinerated Hiroshima, the first living thing to sprout was a matsutake mushroom. Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor exploded; yet amid the devastation and contamination a large population of fungi spawned, flourishing in hot radioactive particles, harnessing radiation as a source of life-giving energy, blooming into gorgeous benign fruit.

“Radical mycologists” have been most vociferous in arguing that fungi can be active agents in environmental clean-up and detox programmes. They call this “mycoremediation,” stressing the enormous appetites fungi have for breaking down and gobbling up hazardous toxins, for degrading chemicals and crude oil, happily digesting plastics and other man-made pathogens that contaminate our soils and waterways. Some fungi also have a knack for bypassing termites’ defence systems and have been deployed to wipe out entire pest colonies; the mould metarhizium has proved particularly effective against malarial mosquitoes. Fungi, radical mycologists say, are amongst the ablest organisms for environmental remediation. [2]

In reality, though, the shady underworld of mycelium remains mysterious. A lot is darkly inexplicable. Why do mushrooms reveal themselves above ground, popping up as lonely protuberances, whereas others blossom beautifully in packs? Are mushrooms spontaneously generated by lightening strikes, as ancients thought? By thunder claps, by things that go bump in the night? They seem only to flower nocturnally, spookily in blackness, as we mortals sleep. They haunt like weird surreal dreams—remember Alice, in her wonderland, meets a caterpillar siting on a mushroom, smoking a hookah. And near the end of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce has Anna Livia muse, as she “lies as quiet as a moss”: “Why, them’s the muchrooms, come up during the might.”

Finnegans Wake is Joyce’s dream book of the night, whose underground isn’t so much buried deep in the soil as hidden in the human mind, in its unconscious; in “underground heaven,” Joyce calls it, “a mole’s paradise.” It’s a dream that even gets punctuated by shuddering claps of thunder. Aficionados are torn about whether the mind of Finnegans Wake reflects the dream-thoughts of a single man—the Dublin publican H.C. Earwicker—or whether the book’s dream is too vast to be a condensed solo night flight. Is it more our collective unconscious working itself through, “humble indivisibles in this grand continuum” tossing and turning in sleep?

Joyce’s friend and benefactor Harriet Weaver said Finnegans Wake was never intended to be the dream of one character, but that the “dream-form” gave the writer the greatest freedom to explore “a night-piece,” the multiple layers of our personality, revealed in broken and stuttering language. It was Joyce’s own version of civilisation and its discontents. While he mocked Jung and Freud—“Jungfraud’s Messongebook,” “freudful mistake,” “when they were yung and easily freudened”—and never let himself or his bipolar daughter Lucia be psychoanalysed by Jung, Joyce nonetheless absorbed the psychoanalysis of his age.

The dream in Finnegans Wake, then, isn’t only the domestic torment and anxieties of Earwicker and wife Anna Livia, those between husband and wife, between father and mother and their two twin sons, Shem and Shaun, between father and mother and daughter Issy—the love and hostility that Freud labelled “Family Romances”—but it’s also a dream about Ireland, about the history of the world, about mythology and folklore, about reoccurring all-too-human themes like birth and death, family and sexuality, guilt and judgement. These are dreams that incorporate sixty languages; sleep thoughts, its “langscape.” When Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake he had only around ten percent sight. For a ninety percent blind man, it made perfect “soundsense” that his book prioritised hearing: Earwicker isn’t called that for nothing. His is an “eartalk”; he’s an “earwitness” to things; a “paradigmatic ear.” And so Joyce gives us the sloshing sounds of a somnolent underground, better heard with others than read alone. [3]

What we can hear here is Joyce’s “fermented language,” the puns and portmanteaus that push up like mushrooms on the page. One of the active agents in fermentation—vital for the ale and spirit production so prominent in the Irish psyche (“Ireland sober is Ireland stiff”) and which flows liberally in Finnegans Wake—is yeast, a type of fungi. In fact, it’s no surprise that the Wake should be full of fungi and mushroom symbolism. Earwicker himself, in his raving night sweats, is “sitting on a twoodstool on the verge of selfabyss.” Had Joyce been eating hallucinogenic magic mushrooms? Fried in butter, they’d complement the Swiss white wine he loved to tipple. Finnegans Wake lets us enter the “museyroom,” visit Phoenix Park, whose fate doesn’t rise out of burnt ashes: it spawns in a damp “fungopark,” with its “many warts, slummy patches, halfsinister wrinkles.” The Earwicker household has made its “hoom” on “limpidy marge,” on the banks of the Liffey where them muchrooms grow and where life looks a lot clearer. We find people there “as gentle as a mushroom,” which, quite possibly, is the nicest mycological sentence in all English literature. Joyce’s wordplay even sounds like fungal spores, onomatopoeias of soil stirring:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild.

If Joyce’s other great work, Ulysses, adopted Homeric punctuation to its eighteen episodes, Finnegans Wake’s four-part ring cycle takes Vico to heart, Giambattista Vico, the eighteenth-century humanist author of New Science. Joyce borrowed Vico’s “poetic wisdom,” the belief that humans alone create the world: we recreate our own creations, inherit and reinvent them from other men and women—not from gods. [4] Another Viconian inflection in the Wake is very Marxian: the notion that civilisations pass through definitive phases, cycles when, for Vico, we’ve imagined divine gods, invented myths about great heroes, only to later, in another cycle, come to recognise things in explicitly human terms, as a life comprising real men and women. That said, Vico was no believer in progress, never seeing each cycle as advancement, as an improvement in our lot. The all-too-human phase spelt dread as much as democracy.

Joyce has his Viconian cycles interrupted by loud thunderclaps, noise that rattles the earth, that signals the end of one epoch and the birth of another. But just as those mushrooms push up gently in Fungopark, he veers away from Vico: the riverrun of Finnegans Wake circulates like capital for Marx, taking us forwards, dialectically towards progression, metamorphosing into something vaster, more open, fuller of human possibility, an act of detoxification. Our night sweats are shrugged off by morning; we awake refreshed, brought back to life, cleansed, in conscious life, in broad daylight. “Soft morning, city,” says Anna Livia in the closing sequences of Finnegans Wake. “Rise up, man of hooths,” she urges her husband, “you have slept so long…rise up now and aruse!”

All of which bodes the question what might that “wake” in Finnegans Wake really mean? The obvious response is one Joyce mobilises himself, without an apostrophe: the actual “wake” of Tim Finnegan, recounted in the Irish ballad of the eponymous “hod” carrier, a bricklayer who, drunk one morning up a ladder, falls and is thought dead. At his wake, somebody splashes whisky—the “water of life” in Gaelic—on Tim’s head, only to have him suddenly leap up, bawling, “D’ye think I’m dead?” The ballad’s theme of death and resurrection appealed to Joyce’s scatological imagination, which, like Marx’s, remained darkly optimistic. Forever fascinated by the potencies of fermentation, Joyce has Earwicker transfigure and resurrect into Tim Finnegan. There’s something fungal about all this, too, about how putrefaction can be fecund, about how decomposition means rejuvenation; rot and decay, even death, can somehow be glorious, a miracle of mycelium: out of trash heap of the past emerges new life. “He dumptied the wholeborrow of rubbages on to soil here.”

Without that apostrophe in Finnegans Wake maybe there’s another sense to who might be waking. A clue comes from Joyce’s own allegiances, that he was drawn to outsiders and the downtrodden, to déclassé middle-class (like himself) and working-class people; they tend to populate his creative universe and command his political sympathies. Maria Jolas, who knew Joyce intimately at the time of his writing Finnegans Wake, says that those Finnegans were “the small men of the world,” the unsung heroes of his Wake, little insignificant people, a nameless working-class, who, as the ballad goes, “to rise in the world carry a hod.”

This is the Bildungsroman of an aspiring working-class everywhere, common people who graft hard, hoping to become upwardly mobile, that their graft might eventually pay off, especially for their children. Failing that, of course, this rising up might also spell judgement day for the ruling class. When hopes of respectable mobility are dashed, when the inevitably of the fall under bourgeois society becomes apparent, then we might see those Finnegans wake, wake up collectively, cooperate to awaken as a class-conscious working-class. Which is why Anna, like so many women the world-over, initiates the rally cry of socialists, mimicking the refrain from The International: “Arise ye workers from your slumber.” “Come! Step out of your shell!” says Anna to Earwicker. “Hold up you free fing! Yes. We’ve light enough.”

Joyce, like Marx, believed in the world, thought of it in terms of progress, that those seventeen years he spent cagily calling his Wake “work in progress” also affirmed a human progress, that the world itself could be a work in progress. In that sense, his book is radical, expressive of an underground that went to the root of things. Mycologists say fungi’s existence brings about “change from the roots,” and getting to the root of things, remember, was always Marx’s notion of radicality, of being radical. Maybe, one day, we can dream of a “mycorrhizal Marxism,” as cooperative roots push up and nourish the overground, ripen into gorgeous benign fruit. “Connections are made slowly,” Marge Piercy reminds us, “sometimes they grow underground.” And “after the long season of tending and growth,” she says, “the harvest comes.”

Time mulches hope. What we have before us is similarly a work in progress, albeit a desperately flawed one. At the close of “The Social Life of Forests,” Ferris Jabr talks about eons, “the eons, through the compound effects of symbiosis and coevolution, that forests developed a kind of circulatory system. Trees and fungi were once small,” he says, “unacquainted ocean expats, still slick with seawater, searching for new opportunities. Together, they became a collective life form of unprecedented might and magnanimity.” Could we ever imagine social history rising up to such magnanimous heights?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This essay was conceived through two Zoom talks given at the The University of Orange, in a seminar series entitled “Mushrooms and Marx.” Since 2007, The University of Orange, rooted in Orange, New Jersey, has been a non-profit community organisation, “a free people’s urbanism school that builds collective capacity to create more equitable cities.” I am especially grateful to Mindy, Molly and Doug for inviting me, and for their encouragement and inspiration.

ENDNOTES:

[1] Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Overstory, loosely brings Suzanne Simard’s story to fictional life as the pariah forest scientist “Patty” Westerford. The hearing and speech impaired Westerford, with “all the intuition of a girl who grew up playing in the forest litter,” recognises early on that trees talk to one another. Powers’ is the best tree narrative since 1953, when Jean Giono dazzled readers with The Man Who Planted Trees, the French shepherd who over four decades disseminated hundreds of acorns, turning a Provençale wilderness into a wooded Garden of Eden. The account was so compelling that people actually believed the selfless shepherd’s existed. Giono’s novel was a genius of simplicity; Powers’ novelistic skills are more self-conscious, more strained. But the overall performance in The Overstory is rewarding: the lives of eight individuals entwine around trees, infusing a forest epic so tight that, like fungi and tree roots, it’s hard to say where one organism leaves off and another begins. 

[2] An early pioneering radical mycologist, nowadays something of a mushroom rockstar, as well as a crowdsourcing fungi entrepreneur, is Paul Stamets. Stamets cultivates mycelium en masse at his hangar sheds along Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. Over past decades, he has secured environmental contracts with assorted US universities and federal government agencies. In 2008, Stamets did a remarkable TED talk, viewed over three million times, called Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, presenting a half-dozen “mycological solutions” to how fungi can prevent species extinction, our own included.

[3] This is one reason why Finnegans Wake is best read in a group, or listened to, at least initially, because its musicality is more instinctively understandable. There many abridged audio recordings of the Wake; the sole complete is Patrick Horgan’s admirable effort from 1985. The former Star Trek actor, a Finnegans Wake addict since his college days, realised this full recording in less than a month. After forty years of poring over Joyce’s masterpiece, Horgan thought it about time he fulfilled his life-long ambition. Little wonder, too, that another Wake enthusiast, the avant-garde composer and musicologist John Cage, would want to put Joyce’s great “Irish Circus” to music. In 1979, Cage composed Roaratorio, a strangely lulling yet cacophonous mix of Irish pub ballads and streaming water, chattering and clangings from Dublin’s everyday life, all blended together with Joyce’s own garbled words. As it happened, Cage was also a fanatical mushroom forager, a fungi expert in his own right, author of A Mycological Foray (1972), a text that lets us glimpse, through writings, compositions, photos and art work, the composer’s long fascination with mushrooms and fungi. Atelier Editions rereleased the book in 2020. 

[4] The idea might sound obvious; but Marx himself, discussing Darwin in Capital (chapter 15, footnote 4), also invokes Vico to remind us.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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