Spring and the Soil Beneath Our Feet

The path less traveled

 

Just a week ago, I gave a talk at a conservation center about mycelial networks and was delighted by the audience’s enthusiasm. There were so many questions after the talk that a one-hour presentation turned into two. It has been ten years since I taught at the University of Maine and Central Maine Community College, and I have forgotten how much I enjoy the process. It is also a relief to know that some people are genuinely interested in what goes on in the soil beneath our feet.

I am enchanted as I always am this time of year by what is happening around my house. My precious soil has been in the process of being nurtured by nature since late last summer when flowers bloomed, and plants and tree leaves began to wither and fall. With a broken hip, I had no chance in November to heap up leaves and other detritus in my wild gardens or at my side door beyond whatever fell there naturally. Thankfully, one cycle of fall/winter neglect didn’t seem to matter.

For the last four weeks, I have been tending my wild gardens, adding compost here and there to the hundreds of wildflowers that have already bloomed, are budding now, or just breaking ground. Amazed as always at how nature chooses to spread her ephemerals, I still gasp each time I peer at a new cluster that appears in the most unlikely place. Bloodroot and Solomons Seal spiking skyward between the stones of my frog pond are two such examples. With such a multitude of wildflowers at my door, I am still bewildered by the invisible complexity of the mycorrhizae beneath my steps. Every leaf, bud, or blossoming jewel is in some kind of relationship with the others around it. Oh, how I long to peer down beneath earth’s leafy-brown skin to see just how these remarkable threads are connected and what they might be saying or doing…

I feel so grateful that every ounce of soil in my garden, around and under my house (dirt floor) feeds this network that supports all life. I imagine her crocheting her way across the earth. There are holes…big holes, in that net that have been destroyed by mining, forestry practices, building, roads, agriculture, pesticides, and people who do not know that this mycelial network is literally the source of all life on land. A whole host of deadly threats are looming. When I moved here (before commercial logging began) the trees and forests were lush and vibrant, full of wildflowers and wild animals. Even in those early years, I did little but clear a small space in the woods. Later, after building my cabin, I planted a flower, vegetable, and wildflower garden and added fruit trees. In recent years I have been doing more research in other forests because most of this mountain has been cut away, so my gardens have gone wild. Apart from gardens, from the beginning, I allowed nature to lead, believing that s/he knew better than I ever could how to care for this land. Today we call this practice re-wilding. I also learned directly by paying close attention that nature will prevail as she recycles life through the process of living and dying. This planet is a miracle always in the making. It’s hard for me to realize that until I discovered the work of Suzanne Simard maybe 10 – 15 years ago I knew nothing about mycelial networks. However, I must add that I have always had the intuitive sense that all of nature is interconnected – above and below.

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What do we know about the soil beneath our feet?

We know that for about 400 million years, about 90 percent of all land plants have had a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal networks (the other 10 percent are pathogenic). Both comprise mycelial networks. I don’t include saprophytes because they are breaking down the dying or dead to create new soil. I see saprophytes as working in service to nature, and they too are connected to fungal networks.

We know that we don’t know how these incredibly complex tubular root-like systems work, but we do know that without them life would cease to exist as we know it.

“The symbiotic mycorrhizal networks formed by plants and fungi comprise an ancient life-support system that easily qualifies as one of the wonders of the living world,” states mycologist Merlin Sheldrake.

Amazingly, mycorrhizal fungi funnel and store 13 billion tons of carbon in the soil every year. 13 billion tons of carbon – a third of the world’s carbon emissions. How can we not be paying attention? Trees, plants, and mushrooms (fruiting bodies of fungi) tap into the mycorrhizal fungal network, an impossibly complex informational highway. Some do this directly, others indirectly. Some fungi have many partners, others just a few. Either way, every living thing is connected to the entire web that seems to know what is going on everywhere, at once. This idea is so mind-bending it sounds like science fiction.

The web transports carbon, water, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients using billions of root-like hyphae to reach the plants and trees that need to be fed. The networks also move in many directions at once reversing directions without warning. To witness this latter phenomenon microscopically is incomprehensible – my mind cannot take it in. I ask as Merlin Sheldrake does, “What are they doing”?

A simple example of how some fungal highways work is helping a ‘mother tree’ send nutrients to her seedlings and other species, even when s/he’s dying (Suzanne Simard et al). Only about 10 percent of the mycelial networks are being protected, although (SPUN) a scientific research organization has been founded to begin to map mycorrhizal fungal communities around the globe to advocate for their protection. Unfortunately, this kind of field work will take years and years.

What can we do in the meantime? We can allow unused fields to go wild to support pollinators, plants, native grasses and wildlife, curb mowing lawns, and large formal gardens (or any garden that becomes too big). We can change commercial logging practices and update the continued insistence (obsession?) upon using antiquated forestry techniques, which are still considered to be the ‘experts’ when ongoing field research indicates these present methods are destructive to wildlife, wildflowers, humans, and underground networks, scatter cut logs instead of piling them up, create small areas of brush so anaerobic bacteria can break down the nutrients in dead or dying trees, compost kitchen remains, use organic manure etc. I won’t restate the obvious when it comes to pesticides and herbicides or mitigating climate chaos. I don’t even know what to say about our bizarre fixation around getting rid of invasives, except that I think it should be clear by now that nature will endure. Like it or not, humans are not in control. What I have learned over a lifetime is that if we want to support the earth’s living skin, as with any other genuine conservation measure, we must learn to walk lightly over the land as Indigenous peoples once did and continue to do today. What this means practically is that bigger is not better and control is not the answer. If humans could leave the rest of nature alone S/he will eventually address the imbalances that are intensifying with each year. However, I am talking about nature redressing imbalances in Earth Time, not human time, so I don’t expect much agreement here. Another way of saying this is that we could do less, not more, to ‘improve’ and ‘help nature’, choosing to return sentience and sovereignty to the one that birthed us. Perhaps only then can we learn how critical relationships become when dealing with non-human beings. We save what we love.

To close I return to the beginning, the mystery behind mycelial networks and the glorious season of spring. Even as the wildflowers and new leaves emerge and I succumb to awe, the conservationist in me remains focused on the mysteries present in the soil beneath my feet. If only I could become a worm for even one day!

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