One of the great things about being on vacation is the ability to follow research wherever it leads. Recently, that meant a lecture by a Nobel laureate and an article about the sex lives of mushrooms.
I never took much note of mushrooms before a lecturer spoke fondly of her membership in an edible mushroom foraging club, a fact I remember finding unusual enough to be both interesting and memorable. I never pursued the subject, though it did prompt a visit to the Art Institute during the restaurant’s “White Truffle Week.” Despite the usual suspicions I have with anything over which a fuss is made, I was intrigued at the fanfare the truffles were receiving. The little, blobby mushrooms arrived at the table on a fancy plate like gold nuggets in a treasure chest, carefully shaved onto any food you wished. Only about a half hour later, when we were so zenned out with a restful, “everything is right and well with the world…meh, it’s late…let’s order another hot chocolate” attitude that I began to appreciate them emotionally.
Whether the calming effect was induced by the truffles or something else [there was no alcohol involved], since that time they’ve forever been associated with a peaceful worldview, along with memories of frantically running through the streets of Chicago in ridiculously high-heeled boots, worried that we’d miss the start of the Nutcracker ballet thanks to an unusually laid-back attitude toward my timepiece. Fortunately, we did not miss the opening. I’ve rarely worn high heels since that day and now see mushrooms as something to appreciate.
In Newlands Forest, they’re my favorite thing to photograph.
(As I am not a member of a foraging club and therefore cannot identify between poisonous and edible fungus, I neither pick nor eat them.)
Another December rolled around, and with it, a well-full of memories, rom-coms and Nutcracker adverts, along with more walks through Newlands Forest and an article about the exotic sex lives of mushrooms in my social media feed. Just like a standard rom-com, the article made the whole process of fungal sex sound really emotionally dramatic, even ending with a “their love life is way better than yours” punch. I probably would have overlooked the boast if the next article I’d found hadn’t been about the bacteria and fungus inside and on our bodies. No matter how content or discontented I may be with my relationship status, thinking about things getting frisky in my space while I’m engaged in less exciting work is kind of an annoying thought.
But back to science. A few days before Christmas a feisty, old chemist visited the university I attend to speak on chemistry, life and the work that a few decades ago earned him and two other scientists a Nobel prize. It was an interesting lecture, filled with lots of really insightful tidbits and socially-controversial things, which he delivered with an exasperated edge kind of like pit bull readying to charge. GMO’s, for instance… If I were to argue their case I’d probably pick a delicate, so-obviously-positive example to promote the subject, but not him. He went right for the mutated butterflies with legs growing where antennae should be. Ballsy.
Or maybe not. The attendees were far more respectfully docile than I’m used to seeing at guest lectures, with all topics concerned. The talk came and went with a surprisingly mellow Q&A, but ideas lingered, as they usually do. One of the most memorable was his repeated insistence on the self-ordering of the universe, that everything exists as a sort of residual build-up from smaller, simpler events. It’s a common argument for atheism, but I was more interested in how it personally affected my life, or more specifically, how exactly two weeks later, self-ordering had determined my outfit.
It’s weird but true. We were walking at Seapoint. Mr. Omar snapped a photo, and I, upon returning home and viewing the image, laughed when I realized I looked kind of like a 1920s flapper. If the photo had been given to me in an art class, I would have analyzed it using connotations like “carefree, unbridled expression, consumption, rebelliousness, enjoyment, etc.” All characteristic of the twenties but absolutely none of which was accurate. In actual fact, I was having a bad day, felt stifled and hungry, and was caring too much about things.
So how had this surprise come to pass?
Well, firstly, my closet had been a disaster zone and needed cleaning. Upon doing so I’d found a shirt that didn’t fit right, so I re-purposed it into a skirt and wore it, as one usually does with new items. I also found a necklace (a gift) that I hadn’t worn in a while and the only one, I felt, that adequately matched the shirt. I stepped out feeling beachy, but it was, as usual (though I had forgotten), super windy at Seapoint, so I borrowed Mr. Omar’s headscarf to cover my ears, which are prone to hurt after an onslaught of wind.
In other words, the outfit was a result of a lot of simple, little decisions about everyday things, a self-ordering of flapperdom that culminated with a surprise photograph and an even more surprising showing on television… a mediocre film about determinism and self-ordering, aired about two hours after I had wondered about my self-ordering fashion experience. Creepy.
I could use the incident as a parable with which to start exploring determinism or the atheism argument, but that would require a lot of opinionated analysis about information, archetypes, relevance and a whole host of other topics that I’d prefer not to get into right now. At the moment, I’d much rather talk about mushroom sex.
Or rather mushrooms and sex.
Or more accurately, mushrooms and relationships that may or may not have a sexual component.
So let’s “get into it.”
Even before the lecture I had wondered about how much I’ve really ‘chosen’ my life. I don’t think I really have the capacity to make big decisions, and now when I look at it, it doesn’t seem like I’ve ever done so. I’ve thought of making “big” decisions, wrestled with desires and scenarios and dramatic plans for the future, but I can’t really think of a time that any of those things actually became a decision to be made. Maybe some people are more ballsy, but personally, pretty much everything I think I’ve ever done seems to come from a small, (albeit often carefully considered) solution related to a present problem, and resulted, like the outfit, into something I hadn’t planned for.
My mushroom experience follows a similar pattern of little desires and problems. It started with a small hint (well, foraging sounds entertainingly unusual… a possible new interest?) to a restaurant experience (it’s something fun to do with my sister), to a photograph (that’s interesting), to an article (that’s related) to now (this post). I didn’t pinpoint mushrooms as a subject with which to make up an allegory for a blog post. The allegory made the post. My partner, my move, my studying, it all seems similarly to be some sort of self-ordering or (mutated?) butterfly effect, or a whisper to Elijah (depending on your perspective). In other words, things just sort of happened.
This “sort of happening” idea is, I think, quite a hopeful thing at its heart. It would seem to mean that many of the nastier things in life, relationship issues, rejections, abhorrent social systems, the “how can there be so much evil in the world?” concerns, might often be a lot less dramatic than we make them, perhaps the products of a lot of little, less intimidating things, not all of which concerned us. We like to write stories of superheros and evil masterminds with clear intentions and absolute control, of times past and present when the world seems unspeakably awful. It looks like we often attribute the magnitude of the system to the followers that support it, with questions like “How can you be so stupid or evil or mean?” We get frustrated when systems don’t change as quickly as we like. We create huge marriage celebrations and proclaim it the greatest day of our lives. We say dramatic social changes have occurred and then write a year later bemoaning how things “haven’t actually changed.” When really, lots is changing, (mostly little by little) all the time.
And yes, I think people can be stupid, evil and mean but I think more likely we’re just really simple, and that, to me is a powerful thought. That no matter how terrible things may seem, we’re all still just a bunch of pollen grains belonging to a tiny, teenage planet which might be trying to survive and reproduce. It means we don’t ever have to be the victim. A single-celled organism can evolve into bigger things, so a little love, a little hope, a little desire, can still affect change.
Perhaps it’s all best described by the mushroom in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A little bit (despite may or may not having intentional? or accidental? meaning) causes Alice to grow into something (inconveniently or helpfully) big. Questions remain, but she changes just the same, so long as you keep reading.
And, it’s almost certainly interesting.