I submit to you a handful of dirt. It is yours, of you. You of it. That lowly stuff you walk upon, across. Bulldoze, blast, move, tunnel through, pave over, drive on, park on. That dirt you plant your gardens in, kneeling on as if in prayer as you push your seeds into it. Dirt from which you reap your harvest. Dirt you bury your treasures and your dog and your horse and your mother in, dirt to which we’ll all return.
That hard earth against which you fall, skin your knees, scuff your palms—how many times, as a child, is it ground into us, or us into it? Each time’s like a small awakening; I watch the surprise in the eyes of the children on the playground where I teach school, in the moments just after falling, the act of getting up again like some kind of little-noticed rebirth. Getting to your feet after a fall is re-entering the world you never left but must learn again and again how to see it, to watch where you’re going. Soft earth which catches us. Faithful dirt, there just beneath us. And us so faithless. We bumble across this earth, forgetting it.
It is the foundation, common to everyone. (Common means both ordinary and also belonging to or shared by all.) This ordinary dirt, whose expanse we love to traverse, to travel over and through: I am trying to stand still and dig into it.
Here’s what I want to show you: these tiny white hyphae, no thicker than a strand of sewing thread. These make up the vast web of mycelium that lies just below the ground’s surface. Nearly everything that grows on earth is supported by this web of fungus; of the plants and trees that scientists have looked at so far, 95 percent of them have a mutualistic relationship with it. This means that all of our food—everything we eat, including the animals that eat grasses and grains grown from the soil—as well as the trees that produce the oxygen we breathe (trees that made the chair on which I sit, table on which I am writing this, sheet of paper onto which I scrawl these words, the floorboards under my feet, the walls that surround me now, and the roof over my head) is supported by this web, which essentially means that it is at the basis of our very own existence on the planet, though it remains largely invisible to us.
America, in our myth of ourselves, we survive because we are fittest, work hardest, stand on our own two feet, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps—not because we are part of a web of interdependence or because the ground holds us up. Not because anyone ever helped us.
The story told even now in grade school is of the brave and hardy pilgrims who settled the continent, not the story of how, when the pilgrims were starving in the winter of 1610, many of them defected from the independent-minded English colonies, recognizing that they needed help, and ran off to join the Indians, who fed them. The natives taught the pilgrims to work the soil in that already settled place in which fruits and vegetables, peanuts, maize, and tobacco were being cultivated, and gave them the seeds to grow. Maize (which is even now the cornerstone of the American diet—though through pesticide-dependent monoculture, genetic modification, and high-tech processing it has become less and less a fortifying food, more and more of the poison known as corn syrup), sacred to Native Americans, was the result of a mutualism between a grain and a human, as it cannot grow by itself but must be husked, shelled, and planted by an animal with opposable thumbs.
Maize, too, is mycorrhizal, dependent on the web. Myco- means fungus and rhiz- means root, in Greek. Fungus-roots. Nothing is a thing unto itself, no one goes it alone. Plants join their root systems with the hyphae of mycelium, which provide protection from pathogens and disease and have a higher absorbtive capacity for water and nutrients; in turn, the mycelium receives glucose and sucrose that vascular plants are able to produce through photosynthesis, in that other mutualism with a faraway star, the light and warmth of which make life on this planet possible.
Radical independence is our old myth: the settlers and the pilgrims, self-reliance and self-made men (women are not self-made in this myth but always need help from men, this myth that neglects to tell that every man was made in a woman’s womb first). We are learning the new-old story that we are radically interdependent—down to the roots, from the beginning, in every direction.
If we need a story now, America, I believe it’s this one. Interdependence is the story that will point us back toward the responsibility we have to take care of one another and the places we live, the story that will remind us that our own survival is dependent on that of so many other beings.
In another layer of relationship and complexity, plants and trees also use the mycelium network to share resources, funneling more nutrients and water to those that are sick or weak. For instance, a tree that receives a large share of sunlight due to its placement might decide to send a relative that lives in the shade, or in poor soil, some of its extra water and nutrients. The goal seems to be the overall health of the forest.
In his inquiry into the origins of things (origin being synonymous with root, both of them the point from which something rises), Darwin was highly interested in the mutualistic relationships he saw everywhere around him. After he published On the Origin of Species, he went on to publish a book on “The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects,” setting forth the concept of coevolution, that things arise together. We now know, too, that in addition to its highly specialized relationships with pollinators, the Orchidaceae family of flowering plants does not grow apart from its mycorrhizal pairings. In America, Darwin’s studies were put in service to the capitalist narrative, his findings on cooperation in nature overshadowed, if not kept in total darkness, by the fearful story that competition is the primary force that drives us.
All of us begin our lives totally joined with another, breathing with gills as a fish in her ocean of fluids, receiving all of our sustenance from her through a tube. Even her heart at first beats for us, before ours grows and develops enough strength to beat in time to hers. As we make our way at birth through that tunnel that leads to a world that at first sears our lungs and makes us cry with the pain of breathing, we are coated—just before the umbilical cord is cut—in a thick protective layer of bacteria from our mother’s vagina.
This bacteria begins to work immediately to keep us safe from illness. The very first suckle of the nipple delivers to us colostrum, which contains the Lactobacilli and other bacteria, such as Bifidobacterium infantis, that will colonize our gut, without which we cannot digest even breast milk. In our bodies, the cells of these protector bacteria outnumber our own 10 to 1. This is why the microbiologist Lynn Margulis proposed that we are not one organism but rather a collective of organisms working together. Without bacteria, we would have no immune system to speak of. Without bacteria, we could not digest the fruits, grains, and vegetables that grow from the web of mycelia.
This brings us back to the dirt again. My dictionary says that dirt can mean excrement, a filthy or soiling substance, scandalous or malicious gossip, or something worthless, all of which suggest a long-standing disdain for that very ground that supports us and gives us life, rooted as we have been in our ignorance and misunderstandings, in an anthropocentric ideological tradition. As an extension of this idea, or another version of it, our president asserts the American government’s dominance over the rest of the world (because we have the means to destroy it with our life-destroying technologies), without acknowledging that we depend on it entirely. Science tells us now that our skin is not a border wall that keeps out the world but rather our point of contact with it, where a necessary exchange takes place.
Another word for the dirt that I have not yet used is humus, the Latin word for earth, related to the word humble. The story of interdependence humbles us and brings us closer to the earth, closer together. The story of the mycelial network reminds us that our own survival is dependent on the life of everything else: fungus, bacteria, trees, plants, animals, that an invisible web supports us. The endless stories of cooperation and mutualisms in nature (the nature that we are not separate from) tell us that our health, our thriving, our vibrancy and uniqueness, do not require dominance over other beings or the exploitation of others but rather that those life-giving qualities require the thriving uniqueness of everything else.
That is how life on this planet works, has worked for four billion years. Wolves do not extirpate ungulate populations; they minimize diseases, keep their populations from exhausting their resources. The Angraecum sesquipedale orchid, with its long, green nectaries, is nothing without the Xanthopan morganii praedicta pollinating moth’s foot-long proboscis. The birdwing pearlymussel cannot live without the banded darter that carries its larvae upstream.
We like to think of our nation as one that is characterized by diversity, but when Columbus arrived, there were hundreds of cultures thriving throughout the vast continent, rich in art and agriculture, astronomy and medicine, oral poetry and engineering, who spoke some two thousand or so different languages. Yes, there was war and death, but there was assurance that even those human dramas, those human follies, would go on in the fertile company of the dramas of everything else around us. (Humble, in the dictionary, is on the same page as the humpback whale, and includes an illustration of that miraculous creature that speaks in a language we cannot understand, the humpback whale whose populations were reduced by 90 percent due to overfishing in the 20th century, whose songs are silenced by our nation’s war-making technology.)
Human culture is shaped by words. Societies are built and burnt on the foundations of the stories they tell. In the age of globalism, the stories we tell in America impact the whole world. Stories have the power to shape and alter our fates. And more and more we are learning that while each of our stories is unique—which makes them beautiful—there are no human fates not dependent on the fate of humanity as a whole. If extinction and total doom are to be avoided, it will be by changing our story, by telling this new one, which is also old. Not the story of competition, survival of the fittest apart from the whole, and fear of the Other, but the story that diversity is not only wondrous but necessary, the story of cooperation and interdependence. The story that forests provide the oxygen we breathe and the medicines that heal us, that bacteria digest our food for us, and the mycelial network makes the plants we eat grow. This humbling story that comes from the dirt is why I will keep standing here, digging in the humus.
Holly Haworth’s work also appears at the Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, Earth Island Journal, Parabola, the On Being radio program blog, and Orion. She earned an MFA at Hollins University, where she was a Jackson Fellow. She is a certified naturalist and a recipient of the Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism.
Header photo of forest floor with mushrooms by mikezwei, courtesy Pixabay.