In Conversation with Dr. Patricia Kaishian: The End of Species Lines, Post-apocalypses, & Interrogating Evolution Theory

Consciousness & Spirituality, Activism & Leadership, Story-Telling & Narrative

In Conversation With Dr. Patricia Kaishian: The End of Species Lines, Post-apocalypses, & Interrogating Evolution Theory

Article with Dr. Patricia Kaishian, Tammy Gan on Tuesday 18th October 2022

In this conversation with advaya, Dr. Patricia Kaishian discusses biodiversity and colonialism; extinction and regrowth; evolution and pleasure; and wild ways of knowing. She shares from her lived experience as a member of the Armenian diaspora, and from her wisdom gained from being a trained scientist.


This is a lightly edited transcript of a recorded conversation with Dr. Patricia Kaishian, ahead of the upcoming course Rewilding Mythology, of which she is a part, as a teacher. Find out more about the course here.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Welcome everyone, who is listening to this conversation. This is a recorded conversation between us, advaya, as well as with one of the teachers on our upcoming course Rewilding Mythology, Dr. Patricia Kaishian. Dr. Patricia Kaishian is a mycologist and visiting professor of biology at Bard College in New York. Her research focuses on fungal taxonomy, diversity, evolution, symbiosis and ecology. Her work, The science underground: mycology as a queer discipline, appears in Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. Her forthcoming book, Forest Euphoria will be published by Milkweed Editions.

I just found out through reading your bio, about your forthcoming book, so I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that, or like, let us know where that is.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: Thank you for asking.

It is I would say, it’s still in the earlier phases. But I’m writing a book that will be in the realm of queer ecology, natural history, and a bit memoir, sort of, and it will be a collection of essays that explore a diversity of organisms and systems, and apply a queer ecological lens to these beings and their situated position within society—so, often, maligned beings—but doing so in a way that invites people to have a deeper relationship with those specific organisms, the ecosystems around us more broadly, and I think, hopefully, also with the reader themselves, and their relationship to nature.

So I hope to publish a few of the essays that are contained within the book, [and] trickle some of them out before. Actually, in the next couple of months, one of those essays will come out. So yeah, stay tuned, I hope to finish up in the next—I don’t want to say for sure—but hopefully within the year.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): And so I wanted to begin with you talking about your Armenian roots. And I know that on the For The Wild podcast that you were on, you shared about your work at the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists, and how it’s central to your career at the moment. And so I wanted to mention this because I think it’s been on my mind a lot—you said “biodiversity declines with colonialism”.

I think those two words, biodiversity and colonialism, aren’t usually put together, especially by people within the biodiversity space. And [you shared] about the ethic of land care being deeply embedded in Armenian culture. [That’s] something that I think echoed what Ayisha Siddiqa said about Pakistan, and Céline Semaan about Lebanon. I was thinking about the culture of war and colonial violence against the land, and about how diasporas from those lands that have suffered from oppressions think about protecting biodiversity. And for some context, I’m also thinking about the term “post-apocalyptic peoples”, which I came across via Bayo Akomolafe’s work, but also through a lot of Indigenous scholars, in talking about the mass extinction that we’re witnessing, and how that parallels with extinctions in history, histories of violence, histories of genocide. This is a broad and open question, but I wanted you to speak to how your positionality affects how you view biodiversity and conservation work and species extinction, and talk about how your roots have brought you to this work, in a way that is different from maybe other people who have had different entry points into the same space?

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: Thank you for asking about this.

So I think I’ll give a tiny bit of context about Armenia for those who may be unfamiliar with the history. I find that a lot of people are unfamiliar with Armenia’s history because it’s such a small ethnic minority group in a very, geopolitically complex region. But Armenia is a country in West Asia.

And in the late 1800s, early 1900s, began a series of ethnic cleansing events against Armenians, carried out by the Ottoman Empire, and most horrifically culminating in the Armenian Genocide, which happened around 1915, in which upwards of 1.5 million Armenians were killed, through campaigns of extermination, death marches through the Syrian desert, and so forth. And that only left behind around 200,000–300,000 Armenians, who survived.

And then subsequently, the violence crescendoed with the genocide, but there has been a sustained campaign of violence against Armenians, that transformed from the Ottoman empire into the Turkics—present-day state of Turkey, and their brother state, Azerbaijan. So throughout all of the 1900s, there were pogroms and other ethnic cleansing events in both Armenia proper, and in the colonized territory of what is now eastern Turkey, or Western Armenia. And there have been periods of relative stability, but most recently, in 2020, there was a war to reclaim the indigenous lands of Artsakh, which is also referred to as Nagorno-Karabakh, which was technically internationally recognized land that was gifted to Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that had been inhabited by Armenians for thousands of years, and 90% of the population was Armenian. And in this war, thousands of Armenians died, and thousands more were displaced.

And the war was quite brutal and activated for many of us intergenerational trauma, that I think people around my age hadn’t really experienced in such an acute way, because of the relative peace that had been in the region since the ’90s. So in response to this, living in the United States, which is where I live, I felt very powerless, but very, at the same time somatically affected and emotionally affected in this way, but felt unsure about how to leverage my training as a scientist and my relatively little amount of dollars. How do I leverage my capacity as a scientist to bring relief or bring support to my ancestral lands and my friends and colleagues who live in Armenia now?

So we formed, with a few of my friends who are all ethnically Armenian and mycologists, a group of called the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists. And our intention is explicitly political, in that we see our stewardship of the land and our care for fungi which are often the most overlooked of all of the organisms, as integral to the wellbeing of Armenia. Because of the position of constantly defending oneself against nations trying to colonize you further, Armenia has had to divert funds away from science and education and conservation, into defense. They have a tiny GDP, it’s like the size of Vermont’s. And they’re going up against some of the world’s largest militaries, [such] as Azerbaijan, for example, [which] is financed heavily by the United States. So it’s a very much a David and Goliath situation.

It’s very, very dire in many ways. It’s thought of as an existential crisis, in that politicians from the country have stated that their explicit desire is to wipe Armenia off the map. There’s a very eugenicist logic behind their hatred of Armenians, very much rooted in—it’s not just a material war for resources—a hateful, genocidal agenda. They specifically talk about continuing the work of their forefathers. So they don’t even really disguise this dimension to the conflict.

Sometimes it can feel like, what is the connection really, [between] fungi [and] war and ethnic cleansing? It seems like this could be a trivial thing compared to that, but what we in our group have come to believe in, fully, is that there is no life worth living without a biodiversity that is protected, that is flourishing, that is thriving. And part of the violence against Armenians is to claim the land, and in doing so, it’s often burned and torched and razed to the ground. And that is used by Azerbaijan as a way of scaring Armenians, but also is evidencing their own lack of connection to that land. And they’re enacting violence upon the land, knowing that it would hurt the Armenians who, in fact, have a very deep connection.

So this is where it’s working in the abstract. But in the material, we know that this is true, that with colonization, there’s a decline in biodiversity. And this plays out all over the world, whether it’s in the so-called Americas, [or] in continental Africa—it doesn’t matter where this happens.

When you have people come in and violently dispossess Indigenous peoples, of their land, there is also a decline of many other species: plants, fungi, animals. And these things are not coincidental. It’s not happenstance or a byproduct, [or a natural] net loss, it’s actually something, it’s facultative, it’s part of the process.#

To successfully alienate beings from their space requires a whole apparatus of violence that doesn’t start with just the interpersonal, but it’s dislocating through establishing new types of agricultural systems, through forcibly relocating plants from wherever you came from, into this new habitat, and severing ties that are reciprocal between the people that have lived there previously, and the species that they have, over hundreds of generations, developed very detailed care for. And also, another key logic at play in the connection between colonization, in the case of Armenia, and the resistance, is rejecting the logics that would position one organism higher than the other as worthy of saving.

So we can all get behind this idea of saving large charismatic megafauna, wild cats or big eagles, and of course, I love those animals too, and want them to be protected. But part of trying to reimagine futures in which we have maximum human vitality, we have to think about maximizing the vitality of creatures that we have often overlooked, but so deeply need. And fungi 100% are in this category of being overlooked, but yet critical to survival. So there’s a secondary messaging here too: yes, we can come in, and yes, Armenia should be conserved in all ways, we’re focusing on fungi because it’s our expertise, but also because there’s this powerful message there of the interconnectedness.

And in Armenian, there is this proverb called unity is strength, or unity is power. And I like thinking about that, in this idea of networks and connectedness that fungi so beautifully demonstrate for us.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you for sharing that. There’s a lot there. But I think that resonates very beautifully. I think the last part, especially when you were talking about using your expertise, to draw attention to what is commonly overlooked—although I think there is something to be said, and I think you’ve mentioned this before, about how fungi has been this new cool thing that everyone’s now hopping on board… It’s almost becoming charismatic species in itself. I think it’s really interesting.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: I’m having to readjust some of my thinking about it, because I’ve, for years now, just have had to make this argument. But you’re right, it is kind of starting to change.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah. And I just was reading Thom Van Dooren’s book, A World in a Shell, in which he talks about snails in Hawai’i, and how it’s going extinct really quickly. And that argument can be applied very nicely [here]—the idea of like, what’s on the ground and what’s small and what’s not seen? Previously, that was fungi, but now [they’re] more seen. I think [this is] a nice segue to the question about extinction, which is a recurring theme, here, I think, at advaya, because we’re constantly talking about spiritual ecology, and especially now, with the upcoming courses talking a lot about death, and how that’s central to life—which is a very broad statement and needs to be qualified—so I want to talk about, not so much about the typical, Anthropocene-type approach to extinction, but more of the way that Sophie talks about it.

So Sophie Strand, who said recently, that extinction events create openings, that openings draw in biological experimentation, and she talks about the “spaces that are left behind by extinction”. And I think also with Thom Van Dooren’s work, where he talks about stories about extinction being transformative and drawing us into new worlds—and he talks also about how there needs to be complexity and responsibility in that. [Here] I don’t want to romanticize extinction, but at the same time, I think there’s a need to change the way we think about it.

And I would also like to draw in Anna Tsing’s work. I was very personally inspired by her book, where she talks about mushrooms fruiting up at sites of ruin, sites of destruction, sites that have been ravaged by capitalism. And I think there’s something there also in your essay “Continuation”, which is very dense, but very thought-provoking—in which you shared, “Death is not the opposite of continuity, but rather a component structure.” I wanted you to share what comes up for you here, and how you’re thinking about extinction at the moment.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: Yeah, I love the texture of this question and these ideas, because there’s so many surfaces to it, right?

I think I’m pulled first to talk about this idea of, and this echoes Bayo Akomolafe’s discussion of, post-apocalyptic peoples. I think that as a descendant of genocide survivors, for me, I think a lot about how the end of the world has already happened for so many people. Obviously, I think genocide is one of the biggest—well, there’s no small genocide, but, I guess I’ll speak from my own lineage… which is that, just a fragment of the population remained afterwards and I think a lot about how more and more Armenians live in diaspora than they live in the actual country of Armenia. There’s only about less than 3 million Armenians [who] live in Armenia—a tiny country. And so there’s many of us in the US and Lebanon and Syria, in Palestine, in Russia, Iran, scattered, mostly in the Middle East, but also in the US.

So the experience of being Armenian is this post-apocalyptic experience, for the majority of living Armenians, it’s this: to be severed, to be deeply detached from generational knowledge, from from whole lifeworlds of the organisms you evolved with in your landscape, the language itself.

I find that to be obviously deeply sad, but also [there are] always these little spores of resilience that come up, that germinate in this pain, I think.#

And… part of me, I get a little bit frustrated with the very doomer attitude towards the current climate situation. I often find that coming from people who maybe not coincidentally, are not from a post-apocalyptic peoples.

I find that type of pessimism, in light of not even having had these cataclysmic events happen to your lineage—I just find it really inappropriate. And, I find it that, if anything, there should be more energy for you to be fighting this, and to believe in alternatives. I reject the deeply negative, deeply doomer outlook on climate change. I think it’s devastatingly scary, it’s extremely real and much suffering is in our future, but I also believe there is something in me that may be… this idea of possibilities, of regrowth, rebirth, shifting, growth, opportunities for reincarnations of past lives that maybe didn’t have a chance before. So there’s that element.

And then the real, biological fact that 99%, or more, of all of the species that have ever once existed on Earth, are now extinct. So the extinction is inherently a part of life on Earth, and it has been so for billions of years, and in and of itself, it is not necessarily something to be feared. Often when extinction occurs, it gives rise to new species, not just because new niches open up, but because the species is transformed, and that the previous species… like, it’s the chicken or the egg. A species becomes anew. I mean, of course, there are end of the lines, and maybe much is lost there, in terms of the vitality of the genetic information, and the lineage of that information. But often, extinction is speciation, of a sort.

But that’s not—again, not to romanticize mass extinction. Which is what we are in now, the throes of, what’s being considered the sixth mass extinction event. And there’s no other way of saying that this is very, very real, and potentially cataclysmic, but I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to not let the fear of that interrupt potential actions and possibilities that we could be mobilizing around now. There are, again, harms [that] have already occurred: devastating floods, droughts—all of this is happening now, it’s very material, and people die, so I’m not saying that you have to pretend that that’s not horrible.

But what should not happen is to believe that simply because you are alive now, it is the end of the world, because there’s this main character thing there that comes up that I often find coming through, in honestly, white men, the most: some of the most climate doomerist people I know, and who do the least amount of organising, frankly. And I just don’t have any tolerance for that.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, I think there’s something to be said about the lack of resilience in the doomer perspective. And also, the pessimism within academic circles, especially, who occupy positions of privilege, then having this, it’s the end of the world kind of [perspective] feels very out of touch with the deep time approach that I’m hearing from the the scholars who come from backgrounds of peoples who have already lived through apocalypses.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: Yes, I agree. I see it a lot in the academic spaces.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah. Actually, on that note, I wanted to invite you to expand on your thoughts—the idea of death not being the opposite of continuity, and also invite you to speak a little bit on deep time, which is something that I think feels very abstract to a lot of people, but is actually a very accessible and useful idea and framework to think through what we’re going through, but also to have a more grounded perspective on things.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: I think maybe I’ll start with this idea of deep time, because I think that’ll enable me to explain the first part of your question better. So deep time is an attempt to think about… I mean, our brains are really, truly not capable of grasping the fact [of] how old the Earth is. It’s billions of years old. And we can’t really grasp even a few [years]. I think even years is hard to grasp, for a person. And actually, just a quick aside, [this] is why I think prison is torture, the way time [is experienced] in prisons, [for] a person who’s restricted in this way—[even] five years is such a long time. We say, oh, a five year sentence, that’s not so long for a person to go to jail for. [But] five years is an eternity, in this way. Think about how many sensorial experiences you would fit into five years—it’s like infinite.

So we actually have trouble with time and various scales, I think. Deep time, of course, is even harder to grasp, but it’s still extremely useful to imagine our own… in the context of our biology and our relationships to other beings. So I study, for example, these fungi that live on arthropods and they are ectobionts, you could say, or some call them parasites, but they basically have had this very deep co-evolutionary relationship with their host: the insect, usually, it’s like a beetle. And these fungi have been living on these insects for we think, hundreds of millions of years, and the sensitivities that they have to one another’s bodies are really hard to grasp, unless you think about how evolution functions on this… in this… like the minutia of material, interlockings and responses.

The very, very gradual process of learning the other, which is stretched out, and the tiniest, little chemical change on the host body would maybe signal to the fungus that only could you survive here if this mutation occurs, which enables you to react to this compound. And evolution is largely driven by these random mutation events. The way this functions is that, all mutations are random, but they’re acted upon, sometimes non-randomly by the environment. So there’s this mutation [that] arises and enables, say, for example, a fungus to develop a compound that is stickier, on the spore, when it lands on the host, and by just a tiny little change in the carbon and hydrogen, it’s now just a little bit more adhesive.

And that tiny, tiny shift happened randomly, but then, because it had some benefit, then it can play out through the population differentially, so suddenly, the one that has this little mutation is able to grow faster on the fungus, produce more spores, and then the spores contain the code for that mutation. And then it can slowly move through the population, become more and more dominant, to eventually perhaps becoming the only expression of this adhesive in the population. But thinking about how… this is how evolution plays out, for every single aspect, of our entire… everything.

Everything that we have in our bodies, or that we interact with, are these tiny events.#

And I never get tired of thinking about this.

Every time I let my mind wander in this area, I’m just unable to fathom the scale, and the improbability of all of these things happening. And any given evolutionary outcome is just fantastically improbable, right? So it’s a profound intimacy that has driven our evolution. And it’s always symbiosis. Also, our cellular components being symbiotic… The organelles within our cells were former bacteria that were absorbed by other bacteria and then became component structures. So therein is an example of a partial death, where the smaller bacteria was absorbed by the larger one.

That species eventually no longer existed, but it came into a different source of energy and power, and then within that, larger cell, could survive in an entirely new way. And that’s how we have multicellularity, and multicellular organisms. So this is this idea of, sure, that lineage is extinct, and that it’s no longer a free living species, and it’s now only decipherable, or recognizable in the context of its current structure, and current reliance on the larger cell—these are our mitochondria and the chloroplasts in our cells… But this is where death is mingling with life. To be created is to give something up, or to transition, to move out of, to become anew.

So I wrote this piece, that you mentioned, “Continuation”, for an artist, Lily Cox-Richard, who invited me to collaborate with her at an exhibit at the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art. So it’s a short piece, but yeah, it’s very dense. And I’m playing around with this idea of continuation, life as this process, as a continual existence, this vitality, that is in these unbroken chains of bacterial events, essentially. So, in these cases, the existence of the category of life necessitated death. To become a living thing, in this biological, definitional sense, death was the outcome of organising cells in these particular ways—their particular complexities are a function of the fact that they’re impermanent.

And greater complexities mean that the impermanence is even, greater, right? Or even more pronounced. And so there’s this idea, that death is not such a bad thing. I mean, grief is a terrible thing. But this idea of death—[it] makes for life anew, whether that is in this very direct nutrient-giving, like [in] a nurse log, in a forest, a tree that’s fallen, and then for years and years, just seeds carbon and nitrogen into the space and habitat, and all of this.

Or whether it’s the end of a species line, or a species line taking a definitive turn, leaving behind some of the population, so the new population can become this new thing.#

I think that’s kind of where I was going with that.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you for expanding upon that. And what I’m thinking about now is just, and I don’t know if this thought will go anywhere, [but] there’s a struggle, I think, in this conversation I’m seeing, but also just generally, something that I think about… articulating thoughts around death is very difficult, [and] understandably, it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, and it’s even more difficult to map how death occurs and extinction occurs, in the ecological world onto our human world, and I’m wondering why that’s the case. I don’t know, if it’s really a question, [perhaps] it’s just a reflection.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: I always think of [this] physics idea—which oversimplifies [the] physics idea, but—for every action, there’s a reaction. Or this idea, like, for the greater complexity of evolution came all of these other trade-offs. So like, multicellularity, and obviously, we are one of these multicellular beings, with highly differentiated parts, with that, comes this incredible, incredible capacity to feel all manner of emotion and pleasure. So I think this idea of exploring pleasure as actually, this driving force in evolution… The seeking of warmth, of contact, of nutrition, of love, of connection, of play… But always, for every heightened experience, there’s another heightened experience of the same magnitude, but [in] a different direction. And always these things are pulled.

So, I like to think about pleasure driving evolution, as organisms seek these comforts, but the greater the sensitivity that you have to these comforts, the greater the elaborate mechanisms that have evolved to seek those comforts effectively, make you so vulnerable also to the pains of the world, to feel pain. A lot of people, in this Darwinian, neo-Darwinian sense, think of evolution being first driven by the pain aspect—that pain and struggle and fighting is what really drives evolution, and whatever weird byproducts we’re dabbling in as we experience the absurdity of life is just a coincidence.

But I like to invert that. I think that all organisms have some capacity for sensational positivity, something that draws them, something that makes them feel like a click in their chemistry. But then again, the pain is a byproduct of that. It’s the secondary, unintended effect. And we do lots of things to avoid that pain, but obviously, it’s not fully escapable, it can’t just be intellectualised or shifted or, whatever.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Yeah, it’s definitely… [all of these things] are very linked together. And I think that’s a very nice segue into to the question about your essay, “PURPLE, THUNDER, MUSHROOMS, DESIRE”, in which you wrote that: you knew little about the world, but you knew it was full of desire. And you saw that the capacity for pleasure and joy is fundamental to being alive, which is what [you were] talking about [just now]. And now, as a mycologist, in tune with and guided by these experiences, you see evidence for resonant cellular pleasure as a mechanism for evolution.

I think that phrase “resonant cellular pleasure”, is so evocative, which is really nice. And you were just talking about the Darwinian, as you write in that essay, the disproportionate emphasis on conflict, on fitness, competition—which [I just want to say,] I am growing increasingly tired of people telling me, [and I’m] also just upset that I [and] everyone [was] taught in biology that that was the fundamental way that life moved, is through all this competition, that you have to like fight your way to winning. Which is, such a strange way [to see it]… [and] I mean, I can see [where it comes from], but yeah, I really appreciate people who are in the science world, trying to enliven it through this perspective of pleasure, of desire, and yearning, which is something that Andreas Weber really talks about, in his work around enlivenment.

So I’m thinking about all these things, and wondering… I want you to speak to a little bit how you knew the world was full of desire. And I mean, I didn’t intuitively know that. So it’s really interesting to hear that from a young age that that was the way you looked at the world.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: I certainly didn’t have a scientific explanation for it when I was young, but there was something… So the idea that I’m exploring in that essay is like a reclamation of childlike wonder as a valid means of being a scientist, and also sharing that I don’t know that I ever lost that desire as a child. There have been periods of my life where I maybe was more or less distant to it, but there’s a pretty clear, for me, unbroken pathway between being this child that saw the world —[as] all children really do, in this very porous way, a way of [having] high excitement, high curiosity.

And this is actually going to be a large topic of my book, but the ways in which I held on to that feeling, and how it kept me safe in these particular ways, as I dealt with my own personal struggles, and my own queerness, for example. So it’s hard to give a nuanced, [and] quick explainer on [it], but there’s this feeling that in my own pursuit as a scientist, that I’m very clearly involved in this childlike pursuit. And I think that in capitalism and in these Euro-American, capitalistic dogmas, the loss of that childlike element is very intentional. It’s a forced loss.

I think this huge dichotomy we have between adult and child is over stated, more than it is a biological certainty, especially as it pertains to elements of our psyche. Certainly, your brain changes and there are measurable differences in many ways, but in terms of the capacity for wonder, I actually think that so much of it is trained—programmed obsolescence, or something [like this]… this idea in society that I think is a cultural artifact, at least; and it would be hard to measure this, but there seems to be something, forced into labor, forced into these life or death consequences, of trying to exist in late stage capitalism—and not just late stage [capitalism] honestly, children have been forced into labor for all of capitalism, really.

So there’s this idea here that I’m pulling on. But again, it’s hard to give a cursory treatment of it. But what I’m probing into is this idea [that] we were taught about evolution in this competitive framework, this idea that biodiversity comes at, despite… it’s kind of this paradox. Actually, I cite in that [essay] “PURPLE, THUNDER, [MUSHROOMS, DESIRE”], a paper that recently came out called The diversity paradox. Some ecologists were tracing the very capitalistic roots of a lot of ecological frameworks and evolutionary frameworks, that are highly deployed within ecology and evolutionary biology.

They specifically talked about this idea of double transference, which is basically this idea that capitalist thinkers who are very excitedly pro-capitalist, and who were also explicitly eugenicists, formed a lot of the foundational theories following evolution, and in ecological theory.#

And basically, this idea of double transference is that they had these biases that they were quite fond of, and they projected them onto the natural world. And then either through accident or sheer indifference, after projecting, for example, market capitalism onto species competition, they then point to the natural world, and they say: look, capitalism exists in the natural world, and that’s why it’s normal for us to do it, too. So that’s this idea of double transference.

[They’d] look to nature and [go] like, oh, see all this competition, how horrible it is, and how cut-throat it is: that’s just nature. When we do it, this is just what it’s like to be alive in the world. Pushing back against that is something that I wouldn’t say a lot of scientists are doing—some scientists are doing, and I feel very compelled to then explore, okay, so if it’s not competition, what is it? And I just want to be totally clear: competition does happen, it does exist and is a part of evolution, and it is part of the story of being alive, but the disproportionate weight we’ve placed upon that just doesn’t hold water. The amount of emphasis we’ve put on it is not accurate.

But when you really think about, if it’s not competition, what is it? And this is where you get into something about enlivenment, and vitality, and these ideas. So this is where pleasure comes in.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Amazing. Obviously, once you’ve pointed to the fact that it’s going to be in your book, I’m going to point people in the direction of your book.

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: Yeah, I’m not trying to tease it. There’s layers, so I don’t want to trip over myself too much trying to explain it here.

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Well, I think I see a lot of the conversations that we have here as laying the groundwork for people to connect, and have people probe on their own, rather than give people all the answers. So it’s nice to have all these different ideas going off at the same time, which is how I feel right now. So, I wanted to end with a final question, which is a more, I hope, light question.

In “Mycology as a queer discipline”, you end with this quote, which I really love, and I want to read: “It is past time that humans turn to the fungi to which we are bound, step into our mutual totality, and creates space and futures for our wild ways of being.” So I want you to speak about that wild way of being, and also a wild way of knowing. How are you doing that, in your life, in your work, or right now?

DR. PATRICIA KAISHIAN: I’m first thinking about just releasing the shackles of the prescribed. So certainly as a person who’s queer, as a person who’s… I’ve always felt that I’ve had this shape-shifty element to myself, as being displaced ancestrally, and then growing up in the United States, which is such a crazy project. I’ve just never had whatever currency seems to be the way that this society deals. And I just never felt like I’ve actually had it.

But just releasing myself of that desire to perform in capitalism, in these particular ways, I think, is one way of wild ways of being.#

I have to work, and I have student loans. So I certainly feel the material needs… Certainly, we can’t all, at this moment, just instantaneously, release ourselves from [this] entirely but emotionally, finding the inner part of yourself, that is a creature right? The creature parts that lives within us, and finding ways where we can nourish each other through caring for ourselves, seeing each other as animals, as beings in this world that need to be nurtured in ways that are consistent with our ecological heritage.

Meaning like, being outside, being in community, with complex community, interspecies communities. And, you don’t have to be in a pristine wilderness to be in touch with nature. Finding connections to other beings can happen in dense urban spaces. But some of that might require reassessing your judgments of other organisms, like pigeons, for example. They’re one of our greatest companions, but we look down on them. Or, various weeds and species that have been… I like thinking of again, of Bayo Akomolafe’s discussion of fugitivity here.

We are fugitives in this context of the Anthropocene, or the plantationocene, which Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing talk about, and how do we move through this, again, to think about Anna’s Tsing’s language, like the seams of empire. She talks about how biodiversity and social diversity huddle in the margins, where we’re just beyond state control. So I like this idea of tapping into that, however it feels good for you. Like for some people, that is really going off into the woods—like the woods woods. But then for other people, it could just be opening your heart to finding complexity in the relationships in the city that you live in.

So just literally wilding, increasing your species encounters, having as many species encounters as you can each day, and making them meaningful. Again, it’s not about having a thousand species encounters in a day, but it might mean deeply caring for the small interactions that you have, like the chicory sprouting through cracked asphalt, or the the morning dove that nests in your windowsill. These are the things that I think, if you keep your heart open to them, in this childlike way, the wildness creeps in, and once you’re allowing it in, it doesn’t really leave. That’s the biggest thing.

And then I guess this other aspect is specifically queer ecology, of wilding science. As a scientist, I’m teaching a seminar on queer ecology at Bard and just applying this lens to my work constantly and just thinking about how it shakes up the narrative of science.

And you realise that science, while it’s a really powerful tool, it is a collection of human endeavors, and it’s flawed, deeply in many ways, and finding the ways in which we can increase its accountability to ethics and to care, through complicating stories that have been told us in the discipline—that’s another way, [I think] of wilding.#

TAMMY (ADVAYA): Thank you so much for sharing that. And that’s a beautiful way to close.

Dr. Patricia Kaishian #

Dr. Patricia Kaishian is a mycologist and Visiting Professor of Biology at Bard College in NY. Her research focuses on fungal taxonomy, diversity, evolution, symbiosis, and ecology. Her work The science underground: mycology as a queer discipline appears in Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. Her forthcoming book, Forest Euphoria, will be published by Milkweed Editions.

Read Dr. Patricia Kaishian’s profile

Tammy Gan #

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

Read Tammy Gan’s profile