Our lives are in the soil. Mycorrhizal networks in the soil exist throughout the earth—from arctic to tropical biomes and running through the soil of the grasslands and tundra. This forms a nearly contiguous network very similar to the neural network of connections within the human brain.
Stanley Kubrick’s character from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave Bowman’s last words as he entered the monolith were, “My God, it’s full of stars.” I’ve got no idea what this meant, nor do I recall if Kubrick revealed this to us, but I wonder if it is the same thing—everything is connected.
The soil fungi bind all life together making earth into, if not one, then a few vast superorganisms made up of a variety of interconnected species. This single, or maybe a few, superorganisms evolve collectively to survive, while being made up of individual species also evolving to best fit into their ecosystem and therefore that superorganism. They cannot be separated or truly understood in isolation.
While we often worship the notion of individuals and self-sufficiency, now often to a point of hyper-individualism of extreme competition, maybe this is not accurate. Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” This is, it appears, also the case for ecosystems and the individual species living in that ecosystem. And why wouldn’t this be the case for use humans too? Our survival is linked to the health of the other species as we are just another component of that superorganism.
Consider a seedling planted in an open, clear-cut field formerly an old growth forest. One would think the seedling would thrive since not competing with other plants for nutrients and water from the soil or shaded from sunlight. But this is not the case. Seedlings in such a setting do not thrive as well or have the survival rate as seedlings sprouting in a dense, old-growth forest. The seedling in the clear-cut space does not have the vast support network connecting it to the mother trees funneling nutrients crucial to growth to the vulnerable new life via the mycorrhizal network.
Can’t you see that this is us? We have turned away from this network. We have shifted our paradigm of society away from one that was modeled on this interconnection of support to one of winner-take-all, zero-sum-game hyper individualism. The result is we are floundering, withering, consuming ourselves like that ill-fated seedling. Some survive, but many don’t, and none do as well as they could.
We have turned away from a reciprocal relationship with the natural world, the superorganism, and even each other despite the fact that we are a part of that superorganism. We because of the soil. We depend on that network. A recent study in the journal Nature, reports the earth now consists of more man-made abiotic mass (concrete, plastic, etc.) than living, biotic mass. Our betrayal is complete.
We truly do live in the Anthropocene. Traditional cultures are filled with stories and mythology highlighting this interconnection and cautionary tales of living with such hubris as to think that we do not need one another, do not need the other species, are not alive because of the network of connections down deep. But we have failed to listen.
We must start listening to the wisdom of the trees, the wisdom of the traditional ecological knowledge of the indigenous peoples throughout the world who understood this interconnection long before Western science began to finally listen and name and categorize this interconnection as a superorganism.
My God, it’s full of fungi.