Monday, March 26, 2018

A Really Fungi

I mentioned in my last post that I have been studying mycology, which is the study of fungi.  (Here's a joke from the book, Radical Mycology: “Why did the mushroom go to the party?  Because he was a fungi.”) Most people, when they think of fungi, think of mushrooms, but mushrooms are just a small (but very visible) part of the fungal world.

There are single celled fungi, including yeasts and ‘chytrids’, but many fungi form long strands of cells called ‘hyphae’ (singular: hypha) which join together to form a network called mycelium. These are the white threads that you can find in the earth, in compost, and in rotting wood. These are also the many colored molds you see on decaying foods. One of the largest mycelium ever found is a fungus in Oregon that is 3.4 miles in diameter and thought to be more 2,400 years old!

Mushrooms turn out to be the ‘fruiting bodies’ of the mycelium. Basically, when the mycelium decides that it is time to reproduce, it forms a mushroom, which contains spores that germinate to start new fungi.

Fungi are divided (by mycologists and other scientists) into several phyla. The various books that I looked at disagreed as to what many of these were, but there were two that all the books agreed on. These are the ones that produce some of the more visible fruiting bodies, the Ascomycota (which produces, among other things, truffles, morels, and cup fungi) and the Basidiomycota (which produces most of your standard mushrooms).

A different way of looking at fungi is to understand how they nourish themselves.   Fungi can be put into four categories: saprophytes, parasites, mycorrhizal, and endophytes.  

Saprophytes are the decomposers of the fungal world. They live off of dead matter: dead plants, dead animals, even dead fungi, as well as fecal material.  They (along with the bacteria) are the reason the world isn't filled with dead bodies (and leaves and logs and plants). The saprophytes recycle organic matter--especially wood, which is hard for bacteria to break down.

The parasites go after living tissue.  These are the fungi that cause diseases in plants and animals (including people).  And sometimes the lines are blurry between the saprophytic and parasitic fungi--especially when a creature or plant is old, weak, and/or dying.   Some saprophytes get a head start, so to speak, before the tree, or whatever, is truly dead.

The mycorrhizal fungi are extremely important for the soil.  Their mycelium are connected with plant roots and feed the roots minerals and other nutrients in exchange for the sugars that the plant provides. They are a huge part of the ‘soil food web’ that I mentioned in my piece about Elaine Ingham.

Finally, the endophytes actually live inside plants, mostly in a mutualistic manner, protecting the plant while the plant nurtures them.

Some books that I have found useful in my study of mycology include:
  • A 1963 British text, Soil Fungi and Soil Fertility, by S.D. Garrett
  • My 2002 old standby, Biology, by Campbell and Reece
  • Another old favorite, Teaming with Microbes, by Lowenfels and Lewis (2010)
  • The book that I mentioned in my last post and at the beginning of this one, Radical Mycology, by Peter McCoy (2016)
  • And the well known book by Paul Stamets (the real person, not the Star Trek: Discovery character), Mycelium Running (2005)
(Incidentally,  Jeff Lowenfels has a new book out called Teaming with Fungi that I haven't gotten to look at yet.)

Next, Radical Lichenology.

Quote of the Day: “Imagine yourself as a fungus!... Where do you live? What do you like to eat? What do you observe in the environment around you?” - Mitra Sticklen and Maya Elson

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Three Pillars of Social Change

I'm currently studying a bunch of different things, including mycology, which is the study of fungi.  I was reading a book on Radical Mycology (by Peter McCoy) where I read the first description outside of my writing or Joanna Macy’s of what I think of as the best strategy for social change.  Peter McCoy briefly talks about what he refers as ‘the three major pillars of social change’: “education and awareness building around important issues; resisting, slowing, and stopping ineffective or disastrous social systems; and designing functional and appropriate alternative systems that increase quality of life.”  He then goes on to other things, but I was surprised.

If I have any long term readers left, they probably have heard all this several times, most recently with my essay on Strategy.  The short version, for recent readers, is that I believe that for social change to happen, you need three things: Analysis (that is, a clear understanding of what is currently going on), Vision (knowing where you want to go to), and Strategy (figuring out how you can get there).  

I think there is a lot of good analysis and vision around but for a long while I felt there wasn't much in the way of clear strategy. Then I heard Joanna Macy talk about what she called The Great Turning. She said that there were three dimensions to it: actions to stop or slow down harm, creation of ‘structural alternatives’, and a shift in consciousness.  I immediately related it to a chant that I heard many years ago in Detroit: “Agitate, Educate, Organize!” Her point is that we need to do all three of these to create change.

Yes, the order shifts around between her version, Peter McCoy’s version, and the labor organizing chant, but the same pieces are in each: the need for ‘holding actions’, for building alternatives,  and for getting information out that can change people's perspectives. We need folks out there agitating--marching, demonstrating, and doing civil disobedience--to buy time for us to not only create those alternatives, but get them up and running and make sure that they work, and then networking them together to put something in place that can replace the current, oppressive system.   (I love what the International Workers of the World say in their ‘Preamble’ : “...we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.”) But all this alternative creation doesn't mean much unless people know about it and understand why it is necessary.

I truly appreciate all those folks out there, putting their bodies on the front lines.  For my part, I have been working on creating communes as well as various sustainable structures, and supporting others as they built stuff.   I plan to talk more about what I’m currently up to in a post soon. And I think of this blog, as well as the one on Commune Life that I managed until recently, as educational work, letting folks know about alternative ways of living.

And I want anyone reading this to think about what you can do to help make a better world. Which of these is the better strategy?  The one that calls to you.

Quote of the Day: “The first dimension of the Great Turning is… heroic work… It serves to save some lives, and some ecosystems, species, and cultures… for the sustainable society to come. It is, however, insufficient to bring that society about.
“The second dimension of the Great Turning is equally crucial….We are … creating structural alternatives. … They may be hard to see at first, because they are seldom featured in the media,  but if you keep your eyes open… they come into view… The actions that burgeon from our hands and minds may look marginal, but they hold the seeds for the future.
“These nascent institutions cannot take root and survive without deeply ingrained values to sustain them.  … They require… a profound shift in our perception of reality… It is the third, most basic dimension of the Great Turning.” - Joanna Macy

Sunday, March 11, 2018

All-American Communes

I’m far from patriotic and so it seems wild to me to label anything,  “All-American”, but I also realize that at the beginning of this blog, I spent four months (from a post labeled “US History 1:Why?” on January 1st, 2009, to “USH30: What About Now?”  posted on April 27th) focusing on American history.   

In fact, the most popular post on this blog, by far, is one of the history posts,  “USH25:Social Movements in the Eighties” It's had over three thousand page views, which isn't a lot for a blog, I know, but the next most popular post has only five hundred something page views.   My guess is that the reason it's so popular is that it shows up in searches, and it may be one of the few pieces on eighties social movements, and it's being used by high school and college students for writing papers.

I’ve talked extensively here about communes and communities as laboratories for social change and, in my history posts, I also talked about communal histories, especially the utopian communities of the nineteenth century.  I have thought about that as the beginning of the communal movement in the US.

Finally, I have a Google newsfeed set up to flag any articles on “Communes" or “Intentional Communities”.  Recently this showed up.
It's a promotional piece for a talk on the Oneida community.  I’ve always been fascinated by this community, but what grabbed my attention was the beginning of the piece.   

The author mentions the communes of the sixties and how ‘counter-culture’ and, for some people, ‘un-American’ they were.   He then goes on to say: “In reality, though, they were as American as apple pie.  We often miss the fact that the English colonies in America started out as experimental utopian societies: the Pilgrims with their communism and commitment to the simple life; Massachusetts and the other Puritan colonies, with their austerity and a commitment to self-examination and self-criticism that would make Chairman Mao cheer; Rhode Island, with its commitment to anarchy; the Pennsylvania Quakers, with their pacifism and their mysticism; the pacifist anabaptist sects, with their semi-closed communities; Georgia, where the rulers imported misfits and criminals so as to reprogram them after isolating them in the wilderness.

“Our pioneer settlers were the lunatic fringe, and when they sailed away, folks back in Europe were delighted to wave goodbye.”

It’s a very different view of American history, and one that makes me appreciate that the communal experiments that a bunch of us are engaging in, go a long way back.

Quote of the Day: “We got another burst of utopian communities in the middle of the 19th century, as the world was turning toward the modern age, away from lifestyles that had endured for a thousand years. … While dozens of such communities speckled the American landscape, they lay especially thick in a band then ran from Boston to Buffalo. “ - Kirk House

Monday, March 5, 2018

Four Scientific Minds

As I’ve been saying, I have been reading a lot of science over the past few years. Not just soil science and chemistry and biology, but mycology and nutrition and microbiology and social science and, of course, system theory.   While I have learned a lot from a lot of different people, I realized recently that I have had four major influences.  As I said at the end of my last post, they are all women and I don't think that is an accident.

I am not opposed to ‘reductionist science’.  I think there are a lot of things that can be learned from it.  But there is only so far that you can go with it, before you need to connect the dots.  System thinking is essential to understanding the world and system thinking is all about relationships.   And, no surprise, women are a lot better at thinking about relationships than men.

So,here are four women who have strongly influenced my thinking.

And the first, since I’ve been talking about soil science and ended my last post with a quote from her, is Elaine Ingham.

Elaine Ingham is a soil microbiologist who has studied and popularized the interactions of the inhabitants of the soil.   She uses the term ‘soil food web’ to describe these complex relationships that support the health of the soil, the plants living in it, and the food we eat from those plants. While a bunch of it concerns who eats who in this subterranean ecosystem, a lot of it is also about how plants interact with bacteria and fungi, trading with each other and literally feeding each other.   I love how she uses the term ‘soil food web’, rather than ‘food chain’, to point out that it is not a linear process.   It’s about relationships and interactions and, of course, systems. She has gotten many people to rethink how they garden and grow plants and treat the soil.

A second microbiologist who has had an influence on me, is Lynn MargulisI think of her as a microbiologist because of all of her work with bacteria but, like many important thinkers, she would hardly stay in one category.  She studied genetics and zoology, taught in the Biology department at Boston University, the Botany department at the University of Massachusetts, and the department of Geosciences at Amherst College.  She came up with the theory of endosymbiosis (that mitochondria and chloroplasts were independent organisms that were incorporated into eukaryotic cells), and then spent decades fighting all the opposition to it.  By the 1980s, it was generally accepted science. She (along with James Lovelock) was one of the originators of the Gaia Hypothesis. She was an opponent of Neo-Darwinism, believing that life moved forward by cooperation rather than competition. I love the quote from her and her son, Dorion Sagan, “Life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”  Sadly, she died in 2011.

My third influence is Donella Meadows,  who I have written about  several times here.  I’ve promised a few times to do a full fledged review of her book, Thinking in Systems, but have never done it.  It’s been an influence on me, nonetheless, especially her chapter on 'Leverage Points'. She was the principal co-author of Limits to Growth which was a major warning that capitalist growth couldn't continue indefinitely.  It seems obvious, but in 1972 it was a shock to many leaders and routinely criticized by people who couldn't believe it.  Now it seems prescient.  She left MIT and their computers and moved to Vermont where she founded the Sustainability Institute along with an ecovillage and an organic farm.  Unfortunately, she has died as well, in 2001.

Finally, I have recently grown to appreciate Elinor Ostrom, a political economist, who, ironically, was rejected from UCLA’s economics department (getting a PhD in political science, instead) and went on to become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics.  She directly challenged the idea that a shared commons would always end in tragedy, doing research and field studies that showed examples of societies that successfully managed natural resources together.   She championed multifaceted, grassroots approaches, arguing against any single answer for social and ecological problems.  She outlined the basic principles involved in these sharing systems and you can actually watch her explain how to get beyond the tragedy of the commons.   And, while doing the research for this post, found out that she, too, died, in 2012.

In honor of these wonderful women, all of whom taught the benefits of cooperation and relationships, I would like to request that anyone who reads this, further explore the work of any or all of them.  Their ideas and thinking deserve to be spread. They were true pioneers and I think we can all learn from them.

Quote of the Day: “... communities of individuals have relied on institutions resembling neither the state nor the market to govern some resource systems with reasonable degrees of success over long periods of time.” - Elinor Ostrom