Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Mycology and Human Networking

While we're hip-deep in projects in Montana, I thought I'd share this essay that I started in late winter.  (What a gift this year's birthday inspiration has been!) 

Where we are weak or broken, 

there is our best chance to connect with a greater whole

I'm writing this post in March, but scheduling it for May. I hope you are smelling those intoxicating healthy-dirt smells as you work in your garden, hugel-kultur, or start hiking the back woods.

Paul Stamets has a lot to say about mycelial networks (the hidden webs and channels that support fungi and soil health, transporting nutrients long distances to feed mushrooms, trees, plants, and healthy soils).  See Mycelium Running if you want a truly geek-out version of that story.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The image from those lessons that's resonating for me this week is the weird, observable fact that individual mycelial cells, in those networks, are busted open.

Most plant cells, animal cells, and single-celled organisms are little sealed bags of carefully-portioned living matter, guarding their "guts" and nutrients from a presumably-hostile outside world.

A diatom, amoeba, bacterium... in fact most living cells ... have a carefully-guarded perimeter.  Symmetrical shells, cell walls (sometimes multiple layers and armor, in the case of woody plants and diatoms), and/or additional defences like chemical-detecting cilia or toxic slime coatings.  Yet the amoeba can just about give us dysentery, and requires pretty cushy watery conditions for active survival.

Our own cells - muscle cells, blood cells, nerve cells - maintain a pretty good perimeter despite all the specialized ports and exchanges they make for vital nutrients and waste.  It's not a bad recipe for staying alive.  Much of life on earth goes with it.

But what about alternatives?

Mycelial cells have wide-open gaps at both ends, and their nuclei and organelles may flow back and forth along with nutrients and fluids.  One mycelial cell alone would be a blue-plate special, spilling its guts into the cannibalistic micro-ecological void.

But a mycelial cell is almost never alone.  The mycelial networks of underground fungi can support whole forests, overcoming mineral and water shortages that would kill a crop-farmer attempting to raise the same biomass on chemically-sterilized soils.  Some species can convert "dark, dank, and stinky" toxic petro-chemical dead zones into food for bugs, birds, and new life.  Other specialists can turn the most rot-resistant trees into long-lasting nurse logs for huckleberries, mushroom soup, and wild honey.

Mycelial Network, Electron Micrograph
Image Credit:
Fungi Perfecti blog, fungi.com
What you can do with a network of "broken" individual cells is pretty darn amazing.  The more selfless each cell, the more the whole network can speed the flow of goodness.  A mycelial network (or similar self-organizing networks like the Internet) is a pretty great way to combine limited organisms into a meta-structure.
We animals require specialized channels (veins and arteries) to carry blood and nutrients to individual cell areas, and when our oxygen and waste removal can't keep u with our activity we definitely feel the burn.  Worse, we are highly susceptible to arterial bleed-out or heart attacks when one area gets damaged or blocked.  With vast webs of cooperating cells, mycelial networks can bypass unproductive channels and grow new 'main routes'. 

It sounds like a pretty effective way to handle "drinking from the fire hose" rates of transfer - both of vital fluids, and of vital information.  The Internet functions in a similar way, with many self-developing channels of information instead of a single, centralized broadcast system.

I'm using the power of mycelial networks as a metaphor for dealing with my own weak points.  Where I have a weak point, like procrastinating my bookkeeping, or letting bedtime routines slide to finish "one more thing," it's not healthy to sit alone with it.

I've been more or less trying to hide those weak spots, or use "willpower" to overcome them.  Press that weak spot up against a wall, beat myself up about it, worry that all my business "guts" might spill out and show that I'm not perfect.

Instead, lately I'm learning to show my weak points to trusted friends.  To watch others' strengths and weaknesses, and to ask people for help in areas where they really shine.  Or even just to ask.

Barbara Greene recommended an excellent local accountant from Brewster, WA (a few hours south of us in the same county).  Skirko Business Services helped me learn the WA state sales tax system for destination-based sales.

Mariah recommended a helpful young lady as a potential virtual assistant.

Our new neighbor gave our Facebook page a makeover, with some edited graphics so you can see our whole logo:

During my February sleepless-euphoria experience, I even broke down on the "grownups go to sleep on their own" myth, and asked my sisters, mom, and favorite aunties to take turns calling me at 9pm and "put me to bed."
(See earlier posts from February 2017, such as "Erica Turns 40 and Levels Up.")

My wonderful sister Teresa reported feeling a series of emotional reactions when she saw that email:
"What?  You can't do that... grown-ups can do that?
"How come she gets to do that?
"Why can't I do that?"

Such personal coddling is NOT a long-term substitute for basic adulting.
After about 8 days of much-needed sisterly support and advice, I'm now back to a self-managed sleep cycle that is better than my old 'normal'.  Because when I need to, I'm using all my sisters' tricks: everything from mindfulness, physical activity, serotonin-boosters like Vitamin D3 and melotonin, and just plain regularizing my schedule with 9-6 office hours and a 10pm bedtime.

I notice that I didn't get here by toughing it out, or by making it Ernie's job to cover for me.  For a health or mental crisis, it's a pretty good practice to let trusted friends know what's going on.  It's part of the adult, responsibile communication skills package, you might say it's "reaching out instead of burning out."

And I think this sort of reaching out could be good for everyday business, too.  I'm watching for ways to build a team, where each person has good lines of communication, connection, and support at their weak points.

So is your main ambition in life to be an "I got mine" giardia cyst, or are you ready to open up and become part of something larger?
... one link in acres of mycelial soil networks..
... a sensitive eye with a whole glowing jellyfish to call upon for response
... a connected link in a larger community of co-creative intelligent life?

I should be clear that I'm using "you" very loosely there. 
Because this is probably not news to YOU, personally.

This feels like an insight that I'm finally articulating after experiencing it most of my life.  I have the good fortunate to have a LOT of inspiring collaborators - family, friends, and on-the-same-wavelength "strangers".

We have always been part of this larger collaboration. 
We just forget sometimes.

Hope your week brings you plenty of wonderful reminders!


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