This morning I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He writes about walking through Epping Forest and talking to Merlin Sheldrake about fungi. Sheldrake describes how whole networks of fungi live in symbiosis with the trees: transmitting information and nutrients from one tree to the next, even across different species of trees. He calls it the ‘wood wide web.’
Macfarlane describes a visit to Boulby Mine, speaking about testing out the rock-face, sending probes forwards, falling back, ‘questing in the dark’. Sheldrake responds:
‘It’s so similar to the way fungi work,’ [he] says, ‘always prospecting for the most resource-rich or beneficial region, pushing on where they sense benefit. The fan out and if they find a decent seam in one place they die back from the poor areas and concentrate their efforts elsewhere.’ He takes my notebook and pen and draws a diagram of the classic hyphal structure: a branching fan in which it is hard to speak of a main or originary stem, only of shots and offshoots.Robert Macfarlane, Underland (Hamish Hamilton, 2019), 160
I couldn’t help thinking of my own journeying forward; reflecting on the time since leaving the Amida Order when I have tried on, in my mind, this future or that future, or this identity or that identity. When I have probed into the dark corners of my imagination and asked is this the right seam to be mining? Is this where the most nutrients are?
Looking back we might trace a single route through the web of choices, and we might make sense of the journey based on where we end up, yet the experience of journeying is more complex and more hidden in the dark.
Some of my probings and testings and imaginings happened consciously in the waking hours. Some of them happened away from my awareness making themselves known through dreams, or the edges of feelings or ideas.
If I am one miner, there is whole community of miners around me testing out other rock-faces. If I am the growing tip of a thin strand of fungi there is a whole community of fungi around me probing for nutrients.
Some of the miners talk to each other and build maps of the mine in their minds. Some only know their own routes in and out, to the face they are working on. It’s hard to see the whole thing.
Histories are like this. Both our own personal histories where we only manage to catch sight of some of the choices we make, and the histories of our communities where it is just as difficult to see the whole.
You might use this argument for undermining personal accounts of the truth. You might use it to justify fake-news. The Buddha said that every idea can be misused. If you want to use snake venom for medicine make sure you hold the right end of the snake or you may get bitten.
You might take this as an invitation to forgo investigating the darkness. If it is all so complex, and so many of the choices we make happen out of sight, what is the value of looking?
The dark tunnels of the mine are where the gold is. The dark rich soil is where the fungi find essential nutrients to feed the forest.
There are important truths in the dark. There is value in tracing and appreciating the webs of connection and of the choices we find ourselves making.
This is an invitation to honour complexity.