The last winter I spent in New Mexico I walked to the river every morning in the pre-dawn hour. No matter how much the wind would howl later on, at this time of the day nothing stirred besides the birds. Because I traveled the same path every morning circling round one wetland listening to river songs I would find myself slipping into a light trance as my feet hit the hard unforgiving ground. Every bush, cottonwood, Russian olive, juniper was familiar, each was a friend. Although this wetland had been trimmed and paths mowed which exposed and heated up the ground, the majority of the trees and plants had been left intact and the river was still nearby. During these light trance states I had the sense that the ground beneath my feet was pulsing with some kind of light; that the earth was trying to communicate with me.
At that time I didn’t know that I was walking over of miles of mycelium, because I didn’t know whether these networks extended throughout the desert although I assumed they did. But I felt or sensed something. I knew from trying to garden in NM that the surface of most of the ground seemed quite barren except for the decaying cottonwood bark that I used as mulch, so where was the rest of the mycelium?
Later I learned that across arid soils, a thin crust often forms within the top few centimeters of the soil surface as long as that surface is not disturbed. If the land is run over by too many cattle, mined or otherwise disfigured that precious crust will disappear. It takes hundreds or thousands of years to replace that layer. Surprisingly, this mantle is not exclusively formed from excess minerals, as I first believed, but is created by microscopic and macroscopic organisms that live together – fungi and algae. Whenever it rains, cyanobacteria, formerly called blue-green algae, bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that have been dormant awaken. Released from drought, these microscopic creatures start making food and creating miniature tunnels as they move through the soil, reproducing as long as the soil is moist. The mucilage around algae filaments help the algae/fungi to thrive. As the soil dries out after rain, the threads of mycelium tightly bind all the soil grains, gluing soil particles together against wind and erosion. The value of this thin, living “skin” of the desert must not be underestimated. Mycelial fungal threads called hyphae communicate, grow every which way, exchange water and nutrients and store carbon underground. What fascinates me now is that l sensed the presence of these living networks beneath my feet although most were microscopic. Mycelial communication occurs by electrical impulses/electrolytes which emit sparks of light and something in me apparently could feel a pulsing light coming through my feet.
Fungal networks are the foundation of all life on earth. Four billion years ago alga met fungus as it crept out of the sea. Algae could photosynthesize but it needed fungi to break down nutrients like minerals from rock. The two developed a mutualistic partnership that still exists today. Between the two they create the soil that supports all terrestrial life.
In temperate forests like mine here in Maine billions of mutualistic mycorrhizal mycelial networks are quite visible often tucked under leaves or threading their way through the forest floor just below us. Pull off a dead piece of bark and you will find these threads, some patterned like trees or sunbursts. Often during the spring, summer, or fall I try to imagine the billions of mycelium that are running under my feet as I walk into my field through the pines, or step across the brook into the cool hemlock forest that is carpeted with a plethora of emerald mosses, princess pine, pyrola, and other spring ephemerals. I experience awe as I remind myself that all these underground threads are exchanging information, carbon, water and other nutrients with one another, and trees and plants (Dr. Suzanne Simard) are supporting one another. Trees even favor their own kin. Most important and worth repeating is that during this time of climate change, stabilized mycelium stores masses of carbon – about 70 percent underground.
I notice that the cold white blanket that separates me from this pulsing earth in the winter is not something I appreciate for long; winter used to be a time I loved to snowshoe, look for tracks, and watch wild animals. I still treasure the season, but not the snow, although I value the latter as a form of protection for plants and tree roots. I have no desire to fly over the snow like a skier or on some screaming machine; instead I want to sink myself into earth’s bodily wholeness.
Last summer was wet and the best mushroom year I ever remember. I spent the entire season in the forest looking for/identifying/and studying the ecological niches that abounded with mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some mycelium. There are billions, trillions of mycelium that make up these underground networks but only about twenty thousand kinds of mushrooms sprout as fruiting bodies. I noted with excitement that in my favorite forest I sometimes experienced that pulsing light under my feet while searching for mushrooms or ground covers, walking slowly and getting on my knees frequently to inspect a plant or mushroom more closely.
Reflecting upon this phenomenon it seemed to me that I had shifted my awareness from ‘thinking mind’ to ‘experiencing body’. After all it was my body that experienced this pulsating sensation. I think of this vast mycelial network as a kind of earth mother, a sentient being that lives under my feet and stretches across the entire surface of the earth, an ancient and wise earth body that might be trying to get my/our attention. It is intriguing to see pictures of mycelium and the neural pathways of the brain because visually they seem to share similarities. Perhaps these mycelial networks are the mind of the earth?