“We are a family of cells making sense of laughter, a watery collection of tireless vitality. We are a long-tongued bee lost in legume and clover and a blanketing dayscape of small biotic collisions. We are a newt-filled dawn and a mud flat packed with clams. We are a split gill with twenty thousand sexes; a termite queen basking in adulation. Knowing this will always protect you.” - Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian, “Continuation”
Welcome to the third episode of REBIRTH, a limited podcast series produced by advaya, a platform for transformative education. I am your host, Tammy Gan, and this four-part series is produced in partnership with Stella McCartney Beauty, a conscious alternative to luxury skincare.
This episode features Dr. Patricia Kaishian: a mycologist and Visiting Professor of Biology at Bard College in NY, as well as faculty with the Bard Prison Initiative. Patty writes: “It is past time that humans turn to the fungi to which we are bound, step into our mutual totality, and create space and futures for our wild ways of being.” In this conversation, we dive into mycology as a queer discipline: what do our fungi friends teach us about entanglement and interdependence in a more-than-human world? How can we, like fungi, reclaim land, bodies, and nutrients, and rebirth into the world through decomposition?
Tammy (advaya): I wanted to start with your article, “Mycology as a Queer Discipline”. In that article, you write that: “Fungi are engaged in continual processes of renewal, interfacing with death, creating life through the decomposition, nutrient reallocation, and the spectrum of symbiosis.” So for our listeners who are new to the world of fungi, would you be able to introduce to us how fungi are engaged in the ways that you write here? And linking that to how queerness is tied up in that, and utilising some of your favourite examples? And, well, I went to look at the article again, and I was drawn to the way you were talking about the complex forces that lead to a fruiting body and how there’s many different things at play, and I was thinking about how the entanglement of something leads to its queerness, in the same way that in human societies or human culture, when something is decentralised, and when something is entangled in a complex way, then they can reject control or power. So I’m just thinking about how, just beyond thinking about fungi itself, but also drawing that to how it is mirrored in human societies, and our lives as well.
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: Sure, sure. Yeah. So I guess I’ll start by saying that I approach the field of mycology sort of in these multiple ways at once. I’m a formal scientist by training, I have a PhD in mycology. So I went through a typical scientific education, and the sort of, formalities of science. But simultaneously, I also approached this study of fungi through a deep love and attraction—romance even, and certainly kinship, towards mushrooms. And, to me, those things have always been deeply intertwined. My pursuit as a scientist, my love for nature and my connection to organisms that are often overlooked, and then the feeling of love and entanglement that mushrooms activated within me. So I found in mycology, this feeling of being seen, which I think is something that all of us are always looking for, but particularly people I think, who have… ways of being that are [or] have been the subject of violence or harm or, marginalisation in some way. But truly, I think what binds us all as humans, one of the things that binds us all, is a desire to be truly understood.
And I struggled often to find that in human community, since childhood. So, since childhood, I’ve found it, at times, much easier to engage and be around the non-human—and not even really pets, I really mean like in the forest. So, I think that fungal biology to me, intuitively activated this sense of belonging that was slippery and really difficult to find, again, in human spaces. I think what I found in mushrooms was this way of being that kind of slipped through the airspace in the soil; it was a way of being multiple things at once. So fungi, in their very literal, biological sense are organisms that really defy categorisation on multiple levels. For one, just in a very, rudimentary sense, for a long time, the way—and still presently—a lot of people project this binary onto nature, like whether something’s alive or dead, or if it’s a plant or an animal; and fungi sort of… exhibit all of these qualities that sort of miss this attempt at categorisation. There’s something sort of, amphibious and plural about them.
And, of course, right now, there’s this really booming excitement around mushrooms. So I’m adjusting my way of talking about this, because it’s not so true anymore… that mycology is sort of so horrifying to people. But nonetheless, there’s still a very real material neglect that the field is suffering from. When I was doing my PhD, I found it really fascinating, why people were so confused and repulsed, by the organisms that I had found this type of unique companionship with. And looking back on it, it almost seems obvious, but at the time, it took me years to piece this together… And so midway through my PhD, I started formulating these ideas around queerness, and my own relationship as a queer person, to this feeling of companionship that was so evident to me in this relationship. So once I noticed this connection, I just saw it everywhere, within mycology, and also beyond: in my relationship with nature more broadly, and in biological systems more broadly. But there’s so much about fungal biology…
I think, at first I was seeing it as a reflection of harm that had been done, like in misunderstanding, like, thinking about how no one studies mycology in a formal way, practically, compared to botany, compared to zoology: so few mycologists exist as professionals in the United States. I’ve tried to fact check this, I did hear this from a mycologist recently, but I haven’t been able to verify, [but also] I haven’t found anything to contradict it. [So] just a little asterisk on this fact, is that I think there’s only about 200 professional mycologists active in the United States right now, compared to thousands of botanists, and zoologists, and there’s all sorts of ways in which mycology is just severely neglected, even now when there’s a boom of interest. So at first, I think what was so compelling to me about these connections between queerness and mycology, that I was fleshing out, was… a lot at first, was about the negativity, was about this rejection and this pathologisation, and this way of viewing fungi as these disordered or, diseased, deadly, degenerate creatures, which are, of course, concepts and identifiers that have been leveraged against queer people, against disabled people, against people of colour, women, etc.
So I think that that was really strong for me in the beginning, because for so long mushrooms and other fungi… most of the research on them has really just been about how they’re pathogenic, how they’re going to kill us, how they’re going to kill your crops. And of course, fungi do these things, there are deadly mushrooms that will kill you if you eat them, or that can infect your body, that can decimate a plantation, and these things are not trivial. But at the same time, this is just one very actually minority dimension of fungal biodiversity. And there’s so much about fungal biodiversity that is life-giving, generative, and there’s these multi-species, trans-species partnerships that are formed, that we entirely depend on, in this fundamental way. So I think that that negative approach, the absence of positivity was an angle that I was really kind of seeing most clearly in the beginning.
But then the more I dug into it, and the more I read about queer theory, the more I realised it was vital to also, if not more so, emphasise the life-giving properties, the communal properties, things that actually have, that really make queerness as a movement, as an ideology, one that’s really worth paying attention to and considering, which is, like these ideas, properties of mutualism, properties of the dissolution of the individual, understanding that an individual is really just largely a construct of Western philosophical thought, and one that has been leveraged to do extraordinary harm, create hierarchies, create myths of someone who’s sort of transcended their material reality and has supernatural powers, kind of like the ideas surrounding masculinity and whiteness… and these ideas, right. So queerness is this antidote to that, which is an emphasis on the communal—you are your community; which is, obviously, this idea that was articulated in the context of survivors, like surviving, but also one that promises joy and promises beauty, and desire and pleasure and all of these things.
I mean, both of these things are important, right? But shifting the focus into what fungi can literally do, and also can be metaphors for… like, I see that sort of as this kind of entangled healing process, for me as a person, seeing like, okay, I don’t have to be stay trapped in this… I mean, it’s important to move through the space and understanding how you’ve been harmed, or how society is working against your interests and your needs, but also, like, how can I lean on these beautiful elements of my life? These companions that I have, with other queer people, other people of colour, and with mushrooms, with non-human, and build something better, right? So I think the sort of pathway of seeing mycology and fungi… as so the other side of the coin, was also this transformative process for me, and these things are really bound up.
Tammy (advaya): Thank you for sharing that. I would love for you to, at this point, bring up an example maybe, of how… what kind of fungus that you’ve come across that really exemplifies the mutuality, and like, the idea that you’re not just that one individual, hero or one person, if there’s an example that’s coming up for you here…
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: Sure, sure, yeah, I can. There’s a few examples. I mean, I really love thinking about the microbiome. This is not a very creative career alternative, as a mycologist, but if I wasn’t a mycologist, I might have been a microbiologist. Because I love the microbiome, I’m totally obsessed with it, and not just mine, or [even] human microbiomes, but just microbiomes in general… this idea that…
What is the relevance of what we call the hologenome concept, which asks, what is the relevance of an isolated genome? Is there any legibility in this idea that a genome is a singular agent—the genome being your collection of DNA, your total collection of DNA? And really, I like to think of our DNA as this reciprocal engagement with the world around us and within us. This idea that nothing exists within a vacuum. You are an entangled being, you have more fungal and bacterial cells in your body than you have human cells. And there’s no understanding the evolution of homosapien, without understanding all of the myriad bacterial and fungal cells that were directly and intimately involved with the emergence of all of the traits that we have, genetically and phenotypically. Like, there is no conception of the human, like in this broad, evolutionary sense, without these fungal partnerships that are shaping the functionality, or entire physiology of our bodies.
So there’s this great humility, I think, for some people in acknowledging that, like, yes, okay, we are a human being, there is utility in that species concept, of course, but there’s also… that species concept, is also just one part of the story. It’s just one angle for understanding our biology. And I think that people confuse, very often, this idea of a tool, like the utility of science, or the utility of a way of knowing, or a tool within science, with the truth itself. So I am a taxonomist, I name and describe new species of fungi, which is super exciting to me, and I love doing that, but it’s one way of knowing, and it’s a way of trying to communicate in a standardised way about the biodiversity that we share this planet with. But a species concept is… it’s a snapshot, it’s one particular way of sort of understanding an organism. And really, the dimensionality of organisms is vast and infinite, because we’re talking about the physical properties of the universe, which are incomprehensible, basically. So this idea of the individual really starts to erode, as some sort of ultimate truth, when you consider the just thousands and thousands of other beings, that we are sharing our tissues with, right? So that’s one.
And then of course, the other common example, when people talk about mutualisms and fungi, would be the mycorrhizal fungi. We know that about 90% of terrestrial plants form fungal partnerships. And a lot of these partnerships are mutualists, in which the fungus is absorbing nitrogen and phosphorus from the habitat, and also the plant, the tree, is providing carbon in the form of sugars from photosynthesis, to the fungus, and these organisms are helping each other and relying on each other, and mutually ensuring each other’s success. Some of this information has been slightly hyperbolised in popular culture, like some people have gone on to say that like, all trees and mushrooms are sort of talking to each other, and they have these like really complex languages that [they’re] sharing. And I would say that the scientific evidence for that is very thin—but nonetheless worthy of more investigation. We need just more mycologists doing the research. So I’m not against that line of thought at all—and I think it’s really exciting. But so I just want to like, temper that slightly.
But nonetheless, we do know that these partnerships exist in abundance, it’s a common way of being for fungi, to be in these interspecies partnerships. And in fact, this is what largely facilitated the transition of plants from marine habitat, in which where they evolved onto land. And had it not been for the fungal and also bacterial organisms that like arrived first on land, and sort of made way for these plants, the planet as we know it now, just simply would not exist. Every aspect of our biodiversity has a fungal dimension, and most of it has a fungal dimension that it’s like very acutely dependent on. So of course, once fungi moved onto land and facilitated this transition of plants from the water to land, all sorts of biological cascades were made possible. This is like the cradle of so much life, the forests that we know now, the evolution of mammals, of birds, of flowering plants, like anything that you would recognise really as being like a species in your daily life, is something that was made possible directly, and not just in one way, but in numerous ways, through fungal biology.
Tammy (advaya): I think with the increasing interest in mushrooms, just generally, and also infusion of it into popular culture, it is important to step back and be like, Okay, how much of this is actually backed by like scientific evidence without raining on people’s parades, and like you said, it is exciting, and points to the fact that more people should go into mycology. But what were you going to say?
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: I was just going to agree with that. I often tell people like, you can believe whatever you want. Even as a scientist, like you can have complex belief systems that are very apart from science, as a scientist. But it’s just always important when you are either explicitly talking about science, or you’re implying that you’re speaking about science, just to be mindful about what is evidence-based and what’s not. And yeah, it’s a sort of a funny dance, because I, like you said, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, I don’t want to be like the fact-check bro, who comes in and like, you know… but at the same time, like, if you’re invoking science, it’s good to be rigorous about it, right? That’s where its power comes from. Otherwise, you might as well just make up whatever story you want. As long as you’re not claiming to be using science, then you are free to invoke other ways of knowing, and I’m very supportive of that, in fact.
I do think that some of the pushback against some of these popular cultural narratives has been one that is rooted in sort of the reification of the academy and like, who gets to create knowledge, and who gets to authorise truth. And I’m very critical of that entire power structure, so I’m not trying to, you know… it’s just a delicate thing. Pseudoscience is a problem, because it’s deceptive and can be used to manipulate, it obscures the utility of a very powerful tool, which I think is a problem, but at the same time, I’m very conscious of the fact that the power of science has been sort of absorbed into the institution, and sometimes the institution kind of does what it’s accusing other people of doing, sort of conflating its own social power with the power of science itself, and those things are different. So what I mean by that is, I often see scientists default into like, well, just trust science. Just know, this is good. Like, I’m a scientist. I’m right. And that, of course, has gotten us into real terrible places in the history of science, it can be terribly abused and is abused.
But there’s this other kind of third thing, this third space where you can be knowledgeable, scientifically literate, while also acknowledging that there are multiple ways of knowing, there are things that are far beyond our human comprehension, and that the academy has rejected because it’s counter to systems of power. So it’s a little bit tricky to locate yourself in this swirling nexus of things, where you have big institutional power, you have science as a tool that sort of, like, not good or bad, it’s just a tool, and then you have other ways of knowing, and then you have like total pseudoscience—which is also about power, frankly. It’s a soup. And to be scientifically literate is a challenge. But also one that’s really exciting… because science to me, actually, there is a magic to it. To me, learning the tools of science has not made me see the world in a more sterilised way. It’s actually like the opposite.
Like I joke to my students a lot about, because I’m teaching evolutionary biology, and this is a total joke, but like, I’ll tell them, the more I study evolution, like, the less I believe it’s real. Because it’s so crazy, it’s so crazy, right? It’s like, the infinitesimally gradual process, is just absolutely phenomenal, and incomprehensible—to the point of it being like magic. The more I know about evolution, the more it seems like magic to me. So anyway, it’s really, there’s a lot to parse, I guess. So in this new-age excitement around mycology, I just urge nuance as always, I think that’s nuance is almost always the solution.
Tammy (advaya): But I think this is a good place to move into the third question, actually, because just going with the flow of talking about epistemological conversations about how we form knowledge, I wanted to talk about, and the title of this conversation is wild ways of being, so really kind of leaning into the wildness of it all, and talking about defying categorisation, blurring understanding, the space of not knowing fully, and walking in this field of science and knowledge making, mainstream ways of going into it have been coming from this attitude of sureness, but then it’s like, there are times where this is proven to be wrong, or like, the categories that we’ve put into place are not exactly clear straight lines, they are blur, and there are things that come up in nature, that have shown that it’s not that clear cut. And here, I’m bringing in your article, “Definitions of parasites and pathogens through time”, which I would love for you to talk through with us; also going back to the topic of mutualist or parasite, which I think kind of confuses also that sense of being together isn’t always a positive and happy thing, like I think people like to think oh, like in nature, everything is working together, and everything is all nice and happy, but then the reality is that… and the process is also not necessarily like good or bad, and then the question of like, what is good and what is bad in nature, and then I think that also opens a can of worms in the whole conversation about invasive species, and what does that mean? I mean, anyway, that’s a whole other thing. But I think, the broader question here is about, like, reshaping our understanding and stepping back, as we’ve been talking about, so I’m wondering, like, what kind of comes up for you here now?
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: For sure. So I think, what’s really a big point of interest for me, as a scientist is negotiating this discomfort, and alternatively, sometimes comfort, with the unknown, with ambiguity, with amorphousness, with amphibiousness, because again, thinking about what brought me into a scientific practice was my comfort with those same qualities in mushrooms, which then helped me become comfortable with those qualities that exist in me, with regards to various aspects of my identity. So on one hand, I’m like, very comfortable, and [in] so much of my life, on so many different levels, is in this, non-categorisable way, I have, sort of these multiple overlapping identities that are all murky and difficult to classify. And so, at times I’ve really leaned into that; at times, I’ve really resisted that. And in different phases of my life, I’ve been more or less comfortable with that, although increasingly more, just on average, I spend more time comfortable with that, than uncomfortable with that, at this point in my life.
But, science does, as part of its mission, is to understand, to construct boxes, and sometimes those boxes are overly confining and negative, things that diminish the quality of, or the vibrancy of a being, or an idea, but sometimes they’re really, really powerful ways of making sense of the world. And so it just depends, to me, I don’t demonise science or that way of thinking. For example, like, getting a particular diagnosis, if you’re someone who has a health issue, can be liberating, right? To have that sort of knowledge of yourself be vindicated, to be validated, something that you knew you were struggling with, and people didn’t, maybe believe you, or something like this, right? I’m thinking of like, getting a diagnosis that you’re like, wow, so much makes sense now, but then comes to the negotiation. Do you just lean into that box, and construct your entire identity from within that box? Or do you just say, I’m going to have this box serve me, it’s going to reveal things to me, I’m going to ask things of it, and it’s going to tell me and I can make my life better, or I can make someone else’s life better. I can make the world more biodiverse, or however you want to, whatever the box is telling you. You can kind of make it work for you.
But then there is the trap that… what if that box was imposed upon me, against my will, or to my detriment? Or onto an organism, against the organism’s detriment? And that’s when it would be something that you would want to dismantle and fight against. So queer theory as an idea is something that works to deconstruct. It is about sort of asking like who made the box, how is this box serving institutions of power, and how could dismantling or deconstructing this box lead to a more like liberatory existence for those involved, human or non-human? But again, saying, for example, that you’re queer, like that’s an identity, I mean, it’s a very big and loose and floaty box, but it is nonetheless, an identity that puts a label on something. And for some people, that’s a really empowering thing, right?
Anyway, so this is… I’m always like just mulling these things over, because in science, again, as a taxonomist, I am like, Okay, this fungus, I’m going to put this fungus in a cute little box. But for me, naming and describing new species is about honouring their existence. So I study this group of fungi that are—and this is going to tie into parasites and symbiosis in a second—they live on insects, they are often called parasites. And they’re not like the cordyceps or the ophiocordyceps fungus that everyone’s been talking about with The Last of Us—it doesn’t kill the host outright, and it looks very different, but is nonetheless a group of fungi that live on insects, and other arthropods as well. And they’re so under-studied, I’m one of like five or six professional mycologists who study this entire order of life, and there’s tens of thousands of species of them estimated to be in existence. And so for me, when I do taxonomy, and I look for and name and describe the species, I’m pretty confident that other humans haven’t seen them. It requires a microscope, it requires like very intentionally looking for them. So I’m not just sort of putting a Western name on an organism that has probably been known for thousands and thousands of years.
But my approach is to be like, Okay, this species has been on this really long journey, evolutionarily, on this planet, we’re no more evolved than that fungus is, right, it’s here, now, its lineage goes back to the same place our lineage goes back to, and their lineage, of that group of fungi, we think, has been sort of generally around for hundreds of millions of years, so they’re actually way older than mammals. And, by naming it, it’s like honouring it, for me. Naming these species is a way of recognising that despite their minute habitus, they are nonetheless these companion species. But what’s interesting is they’re regarded as parasites. So I’ve thought a lot about parasitism, because technically, I study a type of parasite. And it turns out that parasitism or parasites are really hard, like, that’s a definition that’s really hard to pin down. Like, you probably think you have just the de facto definition for parasitism, but when you actually get into it, you’re like, Okay, actually what is the definition?
How does it really differ from being a herbivore, or being a predator, or being an omnivore, or something like this? And it turns out, the more you try to pin down the definition, the more just slips through your fingers. And so actually, symbiosis is a whole spectrum: on one end of the spectrum, you have mutualisms, which are organisms that are mutually benefiting each other. Then in the middle, you have commensalism, which is like when one organism is benefiting the other sort of neutral. And then at the far end, you have parasitism, in which the most coarse definition of parasitism would be that when one organism is benefiting at the expense of another, but you could probably imagine how there’s many dynamics in which organisms are benefiting at the expense of the other, in which we wouldn’t call it parasitism, like a lion eating an antelope or, a beetle munching on leaves in your garden. Right?
So symbiosis, a lot of people in popular speech, they’re referring to it in this positive, generative way, but really, it encompasses this entire… symbiosis just means like species living in interaction. Usually they’re talking about species that are phylogenetically, like in the tree of life distinct, pretty distinct, and living in some sort of intimate association. So that could be parasitism, it could be commensalism, and it could be mutualism. But really, what parasitism comes down to, one consistent thing about its definition, is that it’s usually something that’s a value judgment. It’s a way of saying that this interaction is bad, we don’t like it, people don’t like it. So originally, the word parasitism, para- + sitos means beside grain, and was actually a social term that was integrated into biology. And at first it emerged as a word to describe a person who was like a sycophant, or someone who would exchange flattery for food or meals, usually in proximity to the royalty. They would show up to royal spaces or whatever, and be like allowed in if they were like to praise the king, or something like that. And they’d be given like a meal, some crazy dynamic that seems really funny to think about.
But that’s where the word comes from. And then biologists, like, at some point in history, sort of imported that, and was like, Oh, that’s a useful word for describing, for example, a tapeworm that’s living in my colon, or something like this. So it’s this idea that it’s taking something a little bit undeservedly, right? Maybe it’s doing something in exchange, but really, it’s unseemly, it’s kind of gross, it’s considered not a proper way of like, earning your nutrition or something like this. And so of course, that’s obviously extremely loaded. And it affects how… like certain organisms are more likely to be classified as parasites than others, so like anything that’s small and like, fungal or bacterial, or, like an invertebrate, things that are just seen as not as sophisticated, as a mammal, as a vertebrate animal. Those organisms are so much more likely to be called parasites, even in moments when they’re not even causing any harm.
So there’s all sorts of nematode-type worms that live in the digestive track of ruminants, for example, and they’re not actually really parasites, because they’re not eating the body of the ruminant, or the cattle, but they’re eating actually the bacteria in their gut, so they’re not causing any harm, but nonetheless, they’re a worm living in their guts, so it’s like, that’s gross. We don’t like that. We don’t want worms in our bodies. So boom, it’s a parasite, even if it’s not causing harm. So, we find this all the time in biology, right? The history of science, and the history of biology, is just full of people being subjective. The subjective cultural experiences of human beings gets written and canonised, in biological text, and then often goes unexamined for really long periods of time. And then ironically, it’s when someone comes along and is like, Well, let’s think about that. Like, let’s think about the social context under which this term or this idea emerged, and ironically, that’s who’s then accused of maybe being too political or bringing politics into science.
But meanwhile, it’s just someone identifying being like, hey, I think politics were involved in science, when everyone still was trying to figure out how, before we knew about evolution, and we thought, humans were representations of God, or whatever, like, that’s fine, if you believe that, but that’s not a scientific fact, that could be a fact of your belief system, but not of science, right? But nonetheless, those artifacts are still around with us all the time. I mean, that’s a very obvious one, but when you get into the grittier stuff, that’s when people get a little cagey. They get a little defensive, trying to say, like, no, science is apolitical, I don’t need to be political to be a good scientist, and that’s where the harms that science has been deployed at the service have become… Like, we haven’t done enough as a field, to reflect on them adequately, and repair trust and repair the harm.
Tammy (advaya): Yeah. As you were saying those things I was thinking about double transference, right, and this is something I think you had mentioned in our previous conversation, right, which is the technical term for basically what you’re explaining—science is not apolitical and that people do transfer or try to explain and anthropomorphise, what they think is happening, onto what they’re seeing, and then what they start seeing becomes shaped according to that.
Yeah. I think the example you brought up also of how parasites are… the line is blur because you could also think about how like the beetles are eating the leaves, and then, how does that not constitute parasitism, and this whole conversation calls into question how we see relationships in nature, and how we perceive or understand those relationships in nature based on how we understand our own relationships. This conversation is inviting us to rethink how we think about our own relationships and how we think about what’s odd in terms of giving and receiving, and that, for me, reminds me a lot of that one, I think, Robin Wall Kimmerer essay about the serviceberry, and about the gift economy, and capitalism and individualistic behaviour, and what constitutes what you should give, or what society should give to each other, and how we should care for each other, and what person or what being is deserving of care and who’s not? So I feel like it opens up that whole can of worms for me…
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: There’s so many things that I’ve learned from studying biology that I think about in my daily life, but certainly one of them is that this idea of just… perspective, and relationality. There are many ways to see the same thing at a different point in time. And, often the way our brains work, and the way time works, we’re taking snapshots, and trying to make the most of our understanding of snapshots—you can only do what you can do, but just, I guess the humility of thinking about, like any interaction that you have, with another being is in this context of such unbelievably just infinite encounters that came before and that will follow. And, that your perspective on something could be seen in an opposite way by someone coming from a different circumstance, right? So just trying to have that level of humility…
One thing I like about scientists is a lot of us are like, pretty willing to reflect on the fact that we know so little. A good scientist, in my mind, is someone who like often just is like, I know nothing! And just really being willing to sit with that. But then also not letting that cause you to just, to be apathetic. In fact, just sort of the childlike wonderment of it all—that’s a reason why a lot of scientists get into science in the first place, is that childlike wonderment, and then I think, sometimes the academy or the institutions kind of squash that. But I think we’d all do well to just bask in that wonderment, and the unknown, and try to take lessons from that, in a day-to-day way.
Tammy (advaya): Yeah, and I also am thinking about the way that you said at the beginning, about how the study of science for you has imbued that sense of wonder and magic also in the world, and there are many different pathways to enchantment with the world, and science is undoubtedly one of them. And so kind of returning back to fungi I think, and thinking about how we can be inspired by them. I think a big, fascinating property of fungi, for me, is just like the ways in which they, as you said, reclaim land and bodies and nutrients, and rebirth into the world. I’m thinking about the ways in which they show up in unexpected, ungovernable places, in ways that you can’t predict and can’t expect, and the ways in which they reclaim land, in the sense of growing in spite of certain conditions, how that might inspire us to act in ways, in spite of ongoing dispossession of lands and dispossession of communities and exploitation, especially in a world where we feel increasingly disconnected. Like, how can we look at fungi and the fungal world, and think about how we may act in spite of these things, in spite of death?
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: One thing I love about fungi is this idea of ungovernability. We have a relatively tiny subset of them that we’ve learned to cultivate, or we’ve learned to grow in laboratory conditions, but most we would have no capacity to even do that. There’s millions of species that we haven’t even identified, never mind, fully understand, and even the common species in well-studied areas, like throughout North America, for example… We still can’t even predict the emergence of fruiting bodies of a lot of those species. I mean, some of them are pretty consistent. But even then, there’s mysterious elements. It’s really a minority that we feel like we have a pretty good handle on. And I just think that there’s something so powerful in that lesson of ungovernability. Not in a way that resists though community obligation and care, in their ungovernability, they’re supporting life, they’re breaking down dead or dying organic matter, they’re forming these mutualisms, and even going back to parasitism, parasitism is generative in its own way, right?
While I acknowledge not maybe wanting particular parasites in my body, the category at large is a foundational element of life. And actually, we think that some of the early symbiotic events that gave rise to elements of our multicellularity could have been ones that were parasitic that then shifted into something new, and gave rise to new combinations and new possibilities. So there’s the dynamicism to parasitism, and there’s something very much not static about these categories—they’re shifting and they’re blending, but maybe not at a timescale that we are witnessing, but one that nonetheless goes on and involves us. So I love the metaphors that fungi offer us, in terms of remediation, like cleaning up waste, and converting what is barren into something that is biodiverse.
But I also want to be cautious of not to burden fungi with our mess, with our destruction, and say, hey, look, here comes our saviour, the fungus, we can keep doing all of the shitty things we’re doing, and fungi are gonna follow along after us and clean it all up. Like that’s not true, first of all, but also that doesn’t actually take away our responsibility. To me, this excitement around fungi is only good or valuable, in my opinion, if it translates to protecting the material interests of their biodiversity, otherwise it’s just more extractivism. And that can look different, not everyone has to be a mycologist, not everyone can be. And so, I’m not trying to be overly prescriptive in how you would engage with this, but to me, it can’t just be a metaphor, it has to be like, let’s actually be working towards a world where biodiversity is thriving, and human biodiversity is thriving. And people can use their strengths to the best of their ability to advocate for that, and work for that to the best of their ability, so there’s not one way to do that. But to me, it’s not just a metaphor. It’s very real, very material.
But nonetheless, the metaphor keeps me going sometimes, because it is a source of inspiration. When I’m feeling maybe a little bit stuck, and feeling… You know, there’s just been so much damage. There’s been so much harm. You do see fungi, nonetheless, kind of persisting and growing and changing and modifying, and making habitable again. And so that is a source of inspiration for me as well.
Tammy (advaya): Yeah. Thank you for that nuance. I really appreciate that sense of, understanding that things can’t remain a metaphor. Metaphors really help get ideas across and really move people to do things, but at the same time, right, as you’ve said, that has to really be accompanied by real action and real doing and, you can’t just be enamoured with this world, this more-than-human world, as a sense of being inspired, being in awe and wonder, without realising that not doing anything actually continues to lead to their eventual destruction.
I would love to move into our final question, about your piece “Continuation”. And this time, I actually want to invite you to read the end of the contribution, before I ask the question, so…
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: “We are a family of cells making sense of laughter, a watery collection of tireless vitality. We are a long-tongued bee lost in legume and clover and a blanketing dayscape of small biotic collisions. We are a newt-filled dawn and a mud flat packed with clams. We are a split gill with twenty thousand sexes; a termite queen basking in adulation. Knowing this will always protect you.”
Tammy (advaya): Thank you. I would love for us to end, talking about this idea of life as a process of continual existence. And as you say, an unbroken chain of bacterial events. And what this made me think of is the ways in which a fallen tree and whale fall becomes something else entirely, from what it was in its own lifetime, and thinking about also how we are part of a very long line of chain of unbroken events, I guess. It’s a fairly abstract prompt, but I would love for you to talk about the theme of continuation, also noting that this podcast series is coming out in spring, and we’re really going into the seasons changing and how these themes are resonating at this point in time.
Dr. Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: So this piece, “Continuation”, I guess it’s a poem, or maybe an incantation or something. It’s not very long, but where it was coming from and what it was sort of touching on is… I guess in studying and teaching about evolution, I’ve been really transfixed by all the elements of it, and thinking about this idea… so the late evolutionary biologist Dr. Lynn Margulis, talks about this idea of bacterial memory, as this idea of, like life is all an unbroken chain. And there is the vestiges of other times in place, literally embedded, like viruses lodged in your DNA, and the exact contours of your genetic code is a reflection of… going back to any epic of planetary geologic history—the dynamics, how much oxygen was in the air, how warm the planet was, whether you were like swimming in saltwater, all of these things still exist with within us. And I think that there’s something really comforting about dissolving this notion of specialness, that I think we’re all, as human beings, even a lot of scientists, are conditioned to believe in, like this human exceptionalist idea that we are just so unique and so perfectly special, right?
And of course, we’re unique in many ways. But the premise of the species concept is that every species is demonstrably unique, right? And, of course, some have fewer living sister groups than others, and so we’re group of species that doesn’t have a lot of super close relatives that are alive and around us all the time, but nonetheless, we are part of this whole story. And I think some people have this reaction of fear or loss to acknowledge the smallness of being one part of this chain, but to me, there’s like this, freedom, and this deep, deep, deep comfort. It doesn’t scare me at all, to think of myself as just sort of this continuation of bacterial and fungal events, that is sentient right now and will disappear at some other point in time. And so I think, just for me, reflecting on that is meditative, it’s comforting, but also it informs my practices, of being a being [who] strives to be demonstrating as much care as possible towards the species that are alive, and not just the species, but the “non-living” things as well—the water, the wind, the soil, that shape us and that have shaped our bodies. And I think that if we as a culture were to lean more into that, we would be, I think, kinder, more humble, more community-centric, so… that’s sort of… those are the threads I’m pulling on there.
Haile Thomas: In episode 3, we explored wild ways of being.
As we die to new selves, forms, and futures, we actively create fertile landscapes to grow from. In this conversation, we’re challenged to expand and even polarize our view of symbiosis in order to gain a fuller context of nature’s inner workings. As we discover that not all ecological relationships are mutually beneficial—some extractive and parasitic— another dimension arises that sparks an even greater sense of kinship.
Our own human nature is multi-layered and holds a broad spectrum of experience, the “good,” “bad,” and in-between. To see this variety also reflected in the natural world, down to the tiniest of Fungi with lineage reaching back to the very beginnings of life as we know it, offers us a widened view of what wildness might actually mean.
In nature, wild ways of being defies categorization, finding expression beyond binary and boundary. And as parts of nature, even our very bodies are forged by way of entanglement. Our sentience is not a cause for separation — More than half of our bodies are made up of non-human cells. We are far more complex and wilder than we’ve been made to believe.
Here are some prompts for further exploration:
- How can I expand my definition of “natural”?
- In what ways can I embrace my wildness? What parts of me defy categorization?
- How do I turn metaphor and inspiration found in nature into meaningful action?
- What’s one plant, animal, fungi, or organism that I’m curious about or may have misunderstood? How can I learn more about them?
All things in nature live endlessly, serving infinite functions as we dissolve and find rebirth in new forms. We are never forgotten by the Earth. It carries our histories in this timeless space, cradling us in the past, present, and future. We are forever in continuation.
This might deliver a sense of ease as we are reminded that everything, every life form at every life stage, contributes something of value to the whole, even down to the most minuscule scale. Sometimes we may feel confused, misguided, and far too complex, but this is just a trait of our wildness.
So, how do we learn to trust it? To trust where we are growing, spreading, entangling, and layering?
How may we lean into these parts of us that defy definition?