Interview with Sophie Strand: ecological storytelling, rerooting ourselves, and becoming supracellular

Consciousness & Spirituality, Story-Telling & Narrative

Interview With Sophie Strand: Ecological Storytelling, Rerooting Ourselves, and Becoming Supracellular

Article with Sophie Strand, Tammy Gan on Sunday 10th July 2022

We sit down virtually with Sophie Strand, a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, and ecology, for a conversation about ecological storytelling, more than human communities, rooting in our local ecosystems, becoming supracellular and more.

Alice Crawford collage

This is a lightly edited transcript of an Instagram live conversation with Sophie Strand, ahead of the upcoming course Myth & Mycelium, of which Sophie is the host and curator. Register to join the course here.

Header image by Alice Crawford, via Sophie Strand.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Today, we will be diving deep into ecological storytelling in conversation with Sophie Strand, who is the host and curator of our upcoming course, Myth & Mycelium. We’ll be talking about our local ecosystems, as well as more than human communities, about telling stories, and about the process of becoming supracellular, which is a term from Sophie.

Sophie, shall we just introduce the course for people who are listening in for the first time? We will be starting Myth & Mycelium with Sophie, on 19th July, which is in nine days now. Sophie, do you want to tell us, since you’re preparing the course, what the course is about?

SOPHIE STRAND: The course is about exploring the animist, wild, multi species, root system below contemporary myths of progress and domination, and in particular Christianity. So we’re really trying to plant Yeshua back in his Galilean social, political and ecological context. We can see how Christianity has become a tool of empire and patriarchy. And that that was actually the most violent thing you could possibly do to this Galilean storyteller, attempting to address the empire that was oppressing and killing his fellow Jews in Second Temple period Palestine.

So but we’re gonna do this with a lot of contemporary biology and science, and also with a lot of very ecologically specific exercises. Because we’re not trying to apologise or resurrect Christianity, we’re trying to compost it, to see if we can fruit something up that’s specifically adapted to the climate crisis right now to extractive capitalism and to decolonising our ways of telling stories.

I’m really excited. And I’ve been so deep in the research that I just feel I’m ready to pop. There’s too much, people are gonna be overwhelmed.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I know, I’m also really excited for the course. So to begin today’s conversation, I wanted to start with the first question about your essay, “A Household of Stories”, and in that essay you write, “Ecological storytelling is storytelling that prizes questions over answers, conversations over monologues, relationships over individuals. It is storytelling that rejects the idea of singular authorship. […] It roots human beings back into the home of our ecosystem- our wider family of furry, fungal, vegetal kin.”

So I wanted to start with this idea of ecological storytelling as a multi-authored process, about relationships and rooting us into our own home. But could you first talk about how you came to this definition of ecological storytelling, because not many people understand it in this way? And also, I know that you see ecological storytelling and relational, oral cultures as a path forward in these times, so talk us through how you see it as a key process and activity for us to survive and thrive moving forward.

SOPHIE STRAND: I think a great way into this is to think about charismatic species conservation, and the problem with that. It’s this hyper focus on saving one species from extinction.

But species are dependent on delicate phenological cascades of events and relationships, the timing of certain flowers blooming, the droppings of migrating pigeons nourishing the soil, the angle of the sun at a certain time of year to the leaves. You have to save all of that.#

It’s not just about going in and trying to prize a panda because it’s cute and macroscopic and very visible.

A great example of this is watching how sulfur makes its way, from way, way out in the ocean, far inland into the soil in the Pacific Northwest. You’re like, how does that happen? It happens because life tends to leak past individuals, it tends to weave us into webs of exchange. We now know that salmon carry the sulfur in their bodies from the ocean, [when] they migrate upstream.

[Loud noise in the background] I just had a dove fly into my window, which is really intense. Speaking of which, we’re going to get to this later on, about how beings announce themselves… but that was a very loud announcement.

So the sulfur and the dove, interjecting make make their way upstream in the salmon’s body where they spawn, then bear eat the salmon. And then they deposit their own dung into the soil, and begin to nourish the microbial and fungal communities in the soil. So wide ellipses of relationality [are] drawn between the ocean and the dirt and the bear and the salmon, and all the other countless beings that constitute that food web. And so you can say, who authored that food web? It’s perfectly made. Its story is fluid and dynamic, but it rejects the external author, the individual crafting, many episodes into a stable linear trajectory, this food web is knotty and involuted, it has multiple doors of entry.

So the root of ecology is Greek for household and I think it’s important to remember that we live in households, but we are also households. And I’m going to summon that word “holobiont”. So a “holon” refers to something that is a whole, in and of itself, but also belongs and constitutes a larger whole. And I really love biologist Lynn Margulis’ explanation of it: to explain hosts and symbionts, like lichen, which are multiple species that make a larger body.

And we can think of our own bodies as being holobionts. We have more bacterial and fungal cells than we do human cells. We’re breathing in the microbiome of our area all the time.

And we are, sometimes I say, we’re swarms in suits, skin-silhouetted towers of Babel.#

So in some sense, all storytelling is ecological in that it is told by bodies that are themselves composed of other bodies. But on a deeper level, storytelling, as it’s existed for 99% of human history, has always been ecological in a very practical way, in that it is a tried and true durable way of transmitting ecological and agricultural information that you can’t store in a book.

It was a way of sustaining relationships between your ancestors and newer generations. How would you transmit those stories, if you didn’t have writing or books? You transmitted them through compelling enough narratives that you would want to be able to constantly be telling them, and they also sustain relationships between populations and their environmental contexts.

And this relationality is also further underlined by the fact that it’s oral. Oral traditions always require a speaker and an audience, and an infusion of breath that is shared between the speaker, the audience and the environment. And because these stories are spoken into, and with community, they’re not liable to become obscure and didactic, they’re available to interruptions, like that dove. They’re always responding to extra-textual information and circumstances. It is a type of information that is useful, in that it is flexible and up to date, and always changing.

I think the way I’ll round off what ecological storytelling is coming to mean for me is, there’s this amazing study of geomythology, that allies science with myth, and shows that compelling oral myths are often highly reliable ways of sending real geological data and environmental information, through cataclysm, thousands of years, and cultural breakdown. There’s an Aboriginal myth about four giants still told to this day, that has been directly correlated to a series of volcanic eruptions by Budj Bim nearly 37,000 years ago, making it simultaneously the oldest continuous human story and the oldest historical record of a real geological event.

Even the stories of the flood that occured in multiple different religious and cultural histories across the Mediterranean are probably real data about the Black Sea Deluge 9,400 years ago when due to melting glacier and rising sea levels, the landlocked Black Sea suddenly was reconnected with the Mediterranean, flooding massive areas of population density.

And this is important because it shows us that indigenous folklore and myth precedes science in their accurate documentation of ecological phenomena. The Pit River Nation have a cosmology that dates the universe to 10,000 billion years old. Turns out this is almost pretty much correct. And this totally predated the material reductionist estimation.

But why is this type of storytelling important? We’re facing real cataclysm, and change. And we can actually look at this amazing moment, in 2004, when there was this giant earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, that sent tsunamis to the ocean. And the Moken Tribe of the Andaman islands knew exactly what to do, not because they had science or data, they had a myth, a Laboon mythic wave that gave certain signs and that you had to run as soon as you saw the signs, to higher land. And when disaster workers came in to estimate the death tolls, it was really, really radical, the myth-educated Moken all survived. And all of the people in the industrial population who didn’t have the myth died. And so you can see that myth is a really serious way of helping you survive massive environmental shifts.

I think ecological storytelling is really high stakes.#

It’s a deep reclaiming that storytelling is relational, and if we want our tangled relational ecosystems to survive, we have to begin to affirm this in all the ways that we communicate artistically, creatively, politically. Maybe these stories will survive the catastrophes that are to come.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): It’s really interesting how you talk about ecological storytelling, as something that we all need in our lives now, that will help us survive, coming from a culture that’s hyper-modernised, like where I’m from, in a lot of hyper-industrialised cities, we don’t have a practice of ecological storytelling. and I haven’t grown up with ecological storytelling. And so I think that’s why I also feel so much at a loss when it comes to [figuring out] what do I do in these times, I [know] no wisdom that has been passed down through generations, and no stories that have been passed down. So I’m excited to be on the course and figure out what that looks like for me, because I think everyone can, even though they don’t have a precedent of [a storytelling culture], figure out how they can start to tap into that.

And also something that came up for me, at the beginning, I was thinking about how we define our selves, and rejecting that individual authorship and leaning into multi-authorship, with other species and other kin… I was just thinking and reading, because of our upcoming course [on] Spiritual Ecology, which will be coming out in the fall, I was reading The Cry of the Earth, the introduction to spiritual ecology, and I was reading Joanna Macy’s chapter about the metaphorical self, and how we choose to define and select the boundaries of the self, and so for us, because of science, because of our cultures, we define our selves based on our skin and our person or our family, and our organization, our species, but then, that’s just a construct, right?

Because what if the self was an interconnected self, that’s interdependent with the whole earth? And that’s what Joanna Macy calls the greeting of the self, which is what I thought of when you spoke about multi-authorship.

SOPHIE STRAND: I was just reading this very technical research about these anthropologists who went out I think, in the early 20th century, inspired by the work of this man, Milman Parry, who proved that Homer was multiple people, and that Homeric tradition was oral before it got written down… And a bunch of anthropologists went into these high oral residue communities, I think somewhere in Russia… where oral culture was still dominant. And they would ask these questions.

They would [ask] how do you define yourself? Who are you? And in oral cultures, where people hadn’t had a lot of exposure to writing, they never gave information about themselves when asked that question. They would always say, I do this, these are my people, this is how I am useful to the fields around me. I have carried on the stories of my great grandfather… They would never give information about an individual self. It was always relational. In the shift from oral culture to written culture, the self emerges, because you can transmit information onto the page by yourself, And then when you read that information, you read it by yourself. There’s no relationality. So suddenly, alphabetic printed culture isolates us all into these individual cells.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I love the idea of learning about how Homer, and other authors of these grand tales… obviously makes sense that it’s not just one person. These grand stories are like written and rewritten over time, and it’s attributed [to one author because] we think of authorship as necessarily one person writing the story. But even, I’m sure as you write your books, you recognise that even though your name is attached to the title, it’s so crazy how so many people go into one book.

SOPHIE STRAND: I think queer, femme, non-white people slip out of the footnotes so much, that it’s really important for me to be a compost heap when I produce work and [to] be super thorough about all of the people who have inflected themselves on me. [I’m really] inspired by how adrienne maree brown is so careful to attribute every idea, tying all those things, to complicate and interrupt the idea of a charismatic individual.

I also have been thinking a lot lately about, [how] the times are urgent, [so] don’t hold an idea for too long. Give it away, because someone might think it better than you. Lately, [I’ve been realising,] curiously, the internet is an incredible vehicle for that. You could spend five years writing this perfect book by yourself, [but] the world is on fire, [so] if you have a really good idea, put it down fast and push it out into your web of kin. Because someone else might think that idea better.

Let it sporulate. Don’t get too attached to it as belonging to you.#

And so for me, social media has become a really interesting way of risking giving away my ideas and just seeing what happens.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, I love that. And I think this is a good point to also skip ahead to the third question, which is about ecological storytelling and decentreing the human and decentreing ourselves, and recognising that we are part of a story that is already unfolding, that has been unfolding [and] this is part of the essay that you wrote, “MYCO, ECO, MYTHO”, where you wrote “Let’s enter back into the complex, tangled work of letting go of authorship and letting ourselves be told.”

How do we, and bringing this back in relation also to the land and to ecology and situating ourselves as part of our ecosystems, how do we lean into the story that is being told and how do we be conduits and mediums through which the story is being told?

SOPHIE STRAND: So I have this [more] practical way I’ve been thinking about it, and then I’ll go into more of the philosophical side of it. This practical metaphor that I’ve been working on lately, so think of a bird building a nest, and that perhaps it can cover a relatively wide radius, but it still needs to return to a specific spot in a tree where it will construct the nest. So it keeps looping back to that nest nucleus, and its peregrinations and it gathers its material from its context. So pieces of string, nylon twine, grass puffs … like an artistic holograph of its wider ecological context. So it represents this interwoven complexity, this specific circle of existence.

And if we look at folklore and mythology and fairytales, we see that they’re also assembled from the material that was within their radius. This is why [in] the parables of Jesus, you don’t see coyotes and hydrangeas and buffaloes, he’s building his nest from the distance he can walk in a day. And because he’s tapping into the oral tradition, and speaking aloud, these stories also inhabit this radius, he knows that his big messages will be most easily absorbed [by his audience], if they call on familiarity. So we see fishing metaphors, farming metaphors, we see lilies and foxes, and lions.

So I have been relating this to cooking. For most of human history, when you made soup, it was with the herbs, the mushrooms, the birds, you could gather and catch within your context.

And so the flavor of that soup, then is an alchemical ode to a particular microbiome, so all the living beings that are breathing and growing from a certain soil matrix. Now, when you go to grocery store, you don’t have to honor your wingspan or the distance from your nest.#

You can have olive oil that’s spun together from three different countries. And the same is true for our stories. And for our environmentalism. We can tap into this big global exchange without ever being accountable to the distance we can walk in a day, the beings that we actually can face to face, ask if they want to be part of our nest.

So just to offer something practical, I’ve been saying to people literally what would it mean to cook a meal with the materials you can only find within a 10 mile radius, and [what would it mean to] become the conduit for this nest of beings just right around you, and what if you compose your poems and your art and your stories only from the beings that occur within your orbit? I’m disabled, and that can affect my mobility. So I always want to complicate the idea that you can walk or travel.

So you could also do this from the feral sit spot of your own body. You have enough viral and microbial inhabitants in you to start doing nest building in your own body, and thinking about what that means. So I do want to say within this course, we’re going to be highly conscious of what it means to be disabled, and making sure that that never gets ignored.

But to then to go to a slightly more philosophical idea of, what does it mean to be told? So, the idea of the human hero, and the human story, as told by humans, about humans, is recent. I want to point to the inheritance of thousands of years of cave paintings, of polyphonic iconography of many different animals screaming across the stones. And the interesting thing is, the animals are all incredibly artistically mature. They’re really structured and textured and accurate. And the humans are always stick figures, which is fascinating. It’s not that they didn’t know how to draw humans, they obviously know how to draw animals with incredible detail.

It’s that the humans are just only one small piece of a map of relationships, rather than a lord of subjects.#

I think one of my favourite, favourite examples is… So we have beings that begin to shout at us. And we each have different beings that are going to shout at us, each person is going to be a vehicle to something else, like maybe black bears for you, maybe it’ll be bodies of water for someone else, rivers, mountains, marshes, For me, it was very specifically mycorrhizal fungi that started to show up, and I was like, oh, I think I’m going to become a vehicle, a mouthpiece for you.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the example in Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Life, of this fungi, called Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, that infects and effectively takes over carpenter ants; and it coordinates their behaviour so they climb up plants, bite into a stalk, freeze, and then sporulate a fruiting body out of their head. But maybe that’s what is asked of us right now: body sharing, story sharing, lending my body as a narrative prosthetic to another species, how can I become the instrument for another […] in a way that’s not entirely safe, or about my own survival?

And I think that noticing about what being wants you to be its mouthpiece happens really softly. And it really happens with what you love. I oftentimes say what you love loves you back, what you notice is noticing you. You’re noticing it because it’s putting out its a little feeler, it wants your attention. So it’s about the slow beginning to be aware of what you care about. And begin to ask what it would mean to make yourself into an instrument for it.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I was thinking about, because I was going back to look at the [recordings from the KINSHIP course]… And it was really interesting, what Gavin Van Horn was talking about. He was sharing the story of the Winnemem Wintu people of Northern California, [and] in [their] story of how all beings were created, humans were created last. And then every other animal had their gift. And the humans were sort of wandering around, and had nothing to offer. And […] when the creators saw this, they gestured towards the human and they said, “This one is going to need some help.” [And in that story,] the salmon offered up his voice so that the humans could speak, and it was understood then that the humans would speak for the salmon’s wellbeing.

And Gavin said, “That’s what kin do: offer their gifts to one another.” So that’s the anecdote that what you were saying made me think of; and also thinking about the stick figures […] humbling ourselves, and not to say that we should be speaking for other creatures, but to see ourselves as the conduit for something else that is being spoken, And how do we let our bodies be porous in that way?

[And] to return to the practice that you were giving us about the soup, this is where I wanted to complicate it and ask you a little bit off the script… I live in a city that’s really disconnected; it’s an island, and we don’t have much access to land and food that’s grown like locally, any food that that we have is grown regionally. And so what does it mean, when people are living in cities, where because of globalisation, and because of urban development… we cannot create that soup with ingredients within a 10 mile radius, because that just wouldn’t be possible. There is nothing within a 10 mile radius, that grows, that I can make soup out of.

SOPHIE STRAND: My biggest belief is there’s no purity, we’re threaded through with microplastics. We’re breathing in the ancestors of Mesozoic ferns that have been turned into gas.

We are these contaminated complexities.#

And there’s something very interesting about that. [The 10 mile radius] is more metaphoric. An interesting thing I was thinking about, because I have medical conditions—I can only eat a very small amount of food that I get from the grocery store, and it’s shipped from super far away from me… [and the thing] is, what if you drew a relational ontology, like a map of how all of these different parts of your meal came into being? You go to the grocery store, you make what you’re going to make. And you force yourself: sit down and look at every ingredient, its packaging, and think about where it came from, all the people and beings that it passed through, go into deep time—where did this plastic come from?

It’s not about feeling guilty. It’s about feeling related, and understanding the complexities of how food, and nourishment comes to you. And then think about—this is the really interesting thing—that food moving through you, disappearing into your toilet. Think about where it goes, track the waste. I was just reading in this book, An Immense World by Ed Yong, about how elephants talk. So biosemiotics is the idea that talking happens a lot [through] other materials, other than voices. With smells, chemicals, pheromones and, elephants track and send messages to each other through their urine and their faeces.

So I’ve been thinking about like sacred scatologies, like scatology [is] the studying of scat, tracking animals with scat, But also scatomancy was a big thing across many different cultures: reading animal scat, or human poop, for information about health and wellbeing and oncoming prophetic events. I think we’re so abstracted from waste, but waste is what weaves food webs together. One being’s waste becomes the perfect nourishment for another being. And because we’re abstracted from our waste, we don’t know how to make it back into food. And so suddenly, we’re interrupting all of this food webs because we’re not taking responsibility for alchemising our waste. And this is metaphorical but also deeply practical.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah. And I think the whole idea, of waste, of contamination, and about us moving away from purity politics, is something that, gets talked about within the environmental space as an issue on its own, but we don’t really take the time to relate that back to ourselves and [figure out] what that means for how we define ourselves, in relation to our ecosystems.

So we’ll now reference your other essay, “Becoming Supracellular”, in the conclusion of that essay, you write: “If a cursory study of somatics shows that we think with our entire body, then how much better could we think, if we thought with our entire web of wild kin? I want to think and feel and weep and grieve with my whole multi-species, poly-nucleated mind.” Tell us what you meant and how you came up with the term “supracellular”, and where that comes from, what bodies of work that you’re leaning into when you came up with that term, and then also, what does it mean to think with our entire web, and is ecological storytelling, a way to access thinking with our entire web?

So here, I also wanted to bring in a few concepts that I’ve been thinking about recently, the “noosphere”, which is the idea of the thinking there of the earth, and James Lovelock’s living Gaia, the Gaia hypothesis, the idea of the consciousness that we are a part of. So I was wondering, how becoming and being supracellular ties into all of that theoretical work.

SOPHIE STRAND: So my use of supracellular comes from thinking through this idea of “umwelt”. “Umwelt” is this German phrase that was coined by this German biologist Jakob von Uexküll, to describe that each being has a very different concept of world based on their specific sensory apparatus. And I’m going to share this great quote from him in describing that.

“[…] we must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions, which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles, the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being.”

So you can ask: what is it like to be a bee? That’s a world where lilacs and forget me nots are more than just beautiful. They’re the dominant nourishing magnet. They also have complex mouths that fold up when they’re out of use, composed of glossa surrounded by labial palps keyed for taste, and a proboscis that can curve into a straw to suck nectar. So then taste, the experience of tasting is a complex dance movement of unfurling the mouth apparatus and curling it into the proboscis so that it forms a straw, so taste happens on the sides of the mouth, rather than on the tongue. And it happens when the proboscis enters into the flower, so tastes becomes a penetrative act.

And there are so many other ways that you can begin to complexify… it’s very sensual, and interesting to begin to imagine these bubbles of experience. So as I was thinking about what it means to try and inhabit these different senses, I was thinking about discrete cells, so instead of Jakob von Uexküll’s bubbles, I was thinking about cells, and I was thinking about how the concept of a cell is as a stable and foundational unit, while it’s generally true, is not universally true.

And that filamentous fungi actually employ a type of cellularity that is much closer to verb than it is to interconnected nouns. So while hyphae, while single hypha are referred to as fungal cells, this isn’t true. A classical cell is envisioned as a discrete bundle of protoplasm, with one nucleus, neatly bounded. But fungi create supracellular networks where they have these things called septa, which are pores that open and close, and create a fluid passageway through all of these different hyphal threads that form the mycelial mats in the soil. And a single hypha can at one time house multiple nuclei and organelles.

And given fungi’s proclivity for promiscuity, these nuclei might not even carry the same genome as their […] […] every time we eat, every time we breathe in a biome-laced breath… And what if we, like fungi, could send a nuclei of our consciousness out into different umwelts, different bubbles of sensory experience?

I think we need to strengthen the muscle of otherness, and the exercise will fail, but the muscle needs to get stronger. Better thinking and better worlds may be possible only from the vantage point of other species.#

And I have a real hunch that it’s from this cognitive diversity approach that encompasses other species, that we’re going to think better about climate change and combating capitalism. So in the Rupert Sheldrake course, you guys are dealing with ideas of extended cognition, that brain and mind have been conflated, but the truth is that, octopi have distributed cognition through their whole bodies. Somatics shows us that memory lives in our body that we think with our body, feel with our body, in ways that are much more complex than a standard material reductionist approach.

[So with the] noosphere, I was really into Teilhard de Chardin, but I’ve been worried about how his work has been adapted by social Darwinism and by ascension narratives, and it’s been tied to an idea of human progress. And I’m much more interested in involution and stories that fall apart, that stepping to the side and symbiosis. And so for me, the noosphere is a little too tied to a social evolutionary narrative that tends to leave behind a lot of people in a lot of nuance. While I’ve really benefited from Teilhard de Chardin’s work…

On the other hand, I really like Gaia theory, because it seems to include a patchwork of differences, that are all intimately working together to create all the different gradients that create the flow and the energy exchanges that constitute a living holobiont, that constitute a living Earth. So Gaia theory, for me enhances the nutritive and necessary qualities of difference, that we need many different types of landscapes, peoples and ecosystems in order to compose the complexity of a living, breathing place. In particular, I’ve been really inspired by how Steven Harding has inherited Gaia theory from Lovelock and expanded it.

And he’s written some incredible pieces and books about painting the deep time cycles that create this homeostatic feedback system. And when you put a human lifespan against those geological restorations, you suddenly feel that you’re just one stick figure, in a giant polyphonic meshwork of aliveness, many, many different songs, some happening on a giant scale, our technology is never going to be big enough to hold that or to encompass and predict it. So it feels like, for me, Gaia theory has been a really fertile place to think inside of.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I want to pick into just that the deep time part. I would love for you to elaborate a little bit on that, and how that is in conversation with your work and how your exploration of deep time and your understanding of it has complicated your understanding of what you talk about?

SOPHIE STRAND: So first, I want to really recommend a book that just came out that I think everyone should read. This is like one of the best books I’ve read that embodies ecological storytelling: it’s called Otherlands by Thomas Halliday. And it’s going to be part of the course, I’m going to recommend it. It’s a very incredible book in that it’s an almost an unbecoming, a complication of evolution and progress, because it moves backwards through time, and humans disappear inside the story so quickly, like they’re a blip. And you realise that human existence and human sense and meaning making has just been such a short experience.

David George Haskell in his other book, that’s a very good look at deep time shows that, for millions of years, there were no organisms on Earth that made sound, that sound was actually an evolutionarily dangerous thing to do, because it alerted something else, perhaps to your existence. Beings could hear for many, many, many millions of years longer than they could speak, or make noise, which is fascinating, we began listening, and only started talking very later on.

So I think deep time narratives help interrupt certain ideas of human supremacy.#

Another great example is [how] our bodies are materialised odes to lost ecosystems. Your body is love song to […] a place that no longer exists. Evolution happens at such a slow pace that adaptions come into being out of pace with the environment they were originally moulded from. Your eyes were first developed in the penumbra of the Cambrian explosion, fitting into a seawater niche that you can no longer blink through, and that your eyes were crafted to see beings that no longer exist. Is the inky iris at the centre of your sight an ode to those extinct witnesses? Does your sight, like the spokes and hubs around a wheel, depend on absence? I think [that there are] ways of calling on ancestors that are way bigger than just humans.

There’s something about lineage and bloodline and ancestry, that for me has become way too anthropocentric. Our cells are cannibalistic fusion of bacteria, our body is the ancestor altar to bacteria, to the viruses that taught us how to develop placentas. It’s all conceptual, of course; we can’t actually take a time machine and go backwards. But I also think that there are different ways of knowing. Dreaming is a type of technology. If all of these indigenous folktales tell us anything, [it’s that] we can do science without mechanical apparatuses.

There are ways that we can access our whole bodies and our whole webs of kin to ask really big questions. And that’s what I’m excited to try and do together this summer.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, I love this not anti-science, but reinvigorating, and opening and pluralising science in this way, and getting everyone involved in democratising the process of making knowledge, and then citing everyone and what does that look like? That kind of conversation really excites me.

And I think that’s also a nice place to tie in to the last question, which is: One of the learning outcomes of the course, is writing a communal compost gospel. So could you give us a little bit of a preview into what to expect with this compost gospel, and share about how you came up with this practice that we will be doing together, and what that will look like?

SOPHIE STRAND: So in my study of Yeshua, as a Mediterranean peasant, in second temple period Palestine, what’s really fascinating about the sayings and stories that are probably most closely attributed to him, and in this course, we’re going to be really carefully untangling later political biases, Roman interpretations and trying to see what might be earliest. There’s no truth to arrive at but there are ways that we can refract around this person in an interesting way.

If we look at the things that are probably most closely attributed to him, he tends to draw his fishing net through the metaphors available to him, and pulls back the rejects of society and the things that were considered most spiritually, physically or culturally impure. And these have lost their pith, and their bite, through mistranslation, and through being taken out of their context, but this was not like saying the kingdom is like a dirty shoe. It was like saying the kingdom is like a drug addict who will not get clean. The kingdom is like a virus catching a ride on microplastic in the Hudson River. These were really radical and hard to understand and intense.

And so impurity, I think, for me is a really interesting place to to dwell.#

So a lot of the exercises we’re going to do are like going on a walk, wearing a wool sweater, and seeing what pollen and weird stuff you can pick up. Maybe you’re going to pick up a butterfly wing, but you [might also] pick up a used tampon or the musty smoke from a chemical fire…

The Gospel of Thomas, which is the earliest version of Jesus we probably get is a series of sayings that are unanswerable riddles. They draw on real ecological beings. They’re not abstract, but they’re also not very satisfying or happy making. They’re weird. And I think that, if ecological storytelling is interrogative, I want our final gospel that we put together to be all of our unanswered questions, all of the beings that showed up for us that we didn’t know how to handle; and maybe that weirdness will act like a compost heap. Where things that aren’t supposed to meld, meld and leak and rot and create the soil for very, very unexpected inquiries.

So we’re actually going to compose a text at the end that’s based on the Gospel of Thomas, that will be each member bringing their koan, which is like their riddle, with them. And we’re going to put this together with no expectation of what it’s going to look like. Because of the very end of the day, the best thing it can do is trouble us, because if we trouble, then we will marvel, as the Gospel of Thomas tells us.

And speaking of complicating individual authorship, the gospels were probably written by many, many different people. So this will be a really good way of practically, in practice, realising what goes into the making of a text like this. It’s never by a single person.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): I love that. And I think that’s such a great way to also end off on this conversation, and remind people that the course is definitely not going to be a one way [process where] Sophie [teaches] us everything… Every week [there’s] going to be a session with a lecture that is more formalised. But also, there will be discussion, there will be Q&A, and it’s going to be a very multi-authored course. I am sure all of the insights that come out of the course will be a result of what [Sophie has] learned and what [Sophie will] be bringing to the course but also the culmination of everyone’s experiences and their stories and minds, and it’s going to be a beautiful compost heap. So I’m really excited.

Thank you so much, Sophie, for joining us today, and with all these glitches, I will let you go.

SOPHIE STRAND: And the dove! That was so crazy. I’m going to go make sure it didn’t die actually, I’m going to run outside.

Tammy, thank you so much. Thank you advaya, and thank you everyone who came here today. I will see you guys soon. Yes, see you on the course. Bye!

Sophie Strand is the host and curator of our upcoming course, Myth & Mycelium, a six-week course, which offers five live lectures firmly rooted in historical, ecological, and anthropological research, a synthesis session, balanced against practice and discussion that locates us in our bodies and in our local ecosystems.

Covering aspects of ecological myth analysis, rewriting myths of the oppressed and asking ancient vegetal gods of revolt for lessons on dismantling empire, oral cultures and ecological storytelling, listening for “parables” in our own ecosystems, we will embark on a journey of interrogating, living, storytelling, culminating in, among other things, a communal “compost gospel” including riddles, spores, seeds, and uncertainties from everyone included in the course.

Reroot and Rewild the Gospels with us. Get your tickets here, and concessions and bursaries are always available.

Sophie Strand #

Sophie is a writer based in the Hudson Valley who focuses on the intersection of spirituality, storytelling, & ecology. But it would probably be more authentic to call her a neo-troubadour animist with a propensity to spin yarns that inevitably turn into love stories. Her first book of essays The Flowering Wand: Lunar Kings, Lichenized Lovers, Transpecies Magicians, and Rhizomatic Harpists Heal the Masculine is forthcoming in 2022. She is currently researching a mythopoetic exploration of ecology and queerness in the medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Read Sophie Strand’s profile

Tammy Gan #

Tammy Gan is the Head of Content and Storytelling at Advaya.

Read Tammy Gan’s profile