April Diary 8: talking mushrooms, Utnapishtim, dead poet society

This entry is part 9 of 31 in the series April Diary


8:30 am. Dear April this is pushing the definition of “showers” rather far don’t you think? But we need the rain and I probably need to give my walking muscles a rest… at least until mid afternoon

Previous research has suggested that fungi conduct electrical impulses through long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae – similar to how nerve cells transmit information in humans.

It has even shown that the firing rate of these impulses increases when the hyphae of wood-digesting fungi come into contact with wooden blocks, raising the possibility that fungi use this electrical “language” to share information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves, or with hyphae-connected partners such as trees.

But do these trains of electrical activity have anything in common with human language?

Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims

half an hour before I saw this article in my Twitter feed believe it or not I had just been wondering whether fungal communication could be considered a language, and thinking how vital it is regardless for anyone trying to write ecopoetry to grapple with the role of fungi in an ecosystem

“the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic” says University of Exeter professor Dan Bebber about the new research. what an absolutely classic British put-down

whether language can exist without the sort of consciousness that members of the animal kingdom possess seems more a question for philosophers than for scientists

but “hey, let’s ask a philosopher about this!” is about as common a reaction as “let’s send a poet into space!” — something that would’ve seemed dead obvious under any past civilization, but, you know…

fungi are not just algae farmers (forming lichens) and essential partners for most plants (forming the wood-wide web) they are also the planet’s main engines (along with some bacteria) for fermentation, digestion, and decomposition

and you can’t have composition without decomposition. for one thing there’d be no room

last night as I was heading for bed an amusing concept for a sci-fi novel occurred to me: organisms in the human microbiome become sentient and start going on strike, demanding that everyone eat as much as physically possible

don’t think i’ll ever write a novel but if i do, it would probably start out as satire and just get successively stranger with each chapter until eventually it switches to cuneiform and the reader hurls it across the room in disgust

and now the sun is shining through the pouring rain

April why are you torturing me

speaking of cuneiform I did some quality wool-gathering earlier while sitting on the porch watching the rain come down. here’s the seedy fleece:

introducing Utnapishtim Press: distilling the world’s great literature onto clay tablets before everything goes kabloobie!

Utnapishtim Press makes essential collectibles for any cultured survivalist — priceless artifacts of human civilization that could survive for millions of years and delight alien archaeologists

porcelain isn’t indestructible but manufactured in sufficient quantities and spread around the globe, the chances are good that something would survive

its major project would be an open-ended, multilingual Book of Life with a poem for every known species with whom we’ve shared the planet

a decentralized network of potter-printers could work independently, downloading whichever portions of the vast, Creative Commons-licensed corpus would be appropriate to their bioregion

this is one of those big ideas i can’t quite seem to banish despite my commitment to dilettantism. i ain’t no Utnapishtim (Babylonian Moses) and if human civilization is going to collapse under the weight of our greed, hubris and brutality, maybe we need to just let all of it go. let decomposition take place… so completely new compositions can arise

after all such total erasure of cultures is nothing new, even without genocide. “oral literature” sounds oxymoronic with the way literocentrism is baked right into the word literature, but at least 99% of all works of oral literature that have ever existed are lost. whole languages are winking out all over the globe under the pressure of colonial, consumerist monoculture

so why would poets want to contribute to that monoculture by in effect creating a new canon in the form of a potential new sacred text, spread in differing versions all over the globe? just what the world fucking needs

I finally got out for a walk around 3:00 when the rain slackened into mist with occasional sprinkles. Other than when i scramble up a steep slope, it’s no trouble to hike with an umbrella. that makes it much easier to stop and jot down thoughts

though today nothing much came and i suspect that’s because i have only so much creative energy in a given day and i’d already shot it on two erasure poems not to mention all the B.S. above

a fellow former student of my original poetry mentor, Jack McManis, happened across my 2004 blog post about him and emailed me with some of his own recollections. he took a couple of Jack’s classes back during the period when I was regularly hanging out in his office as a high school student. i asked permission to quote from the email:

Jack got assigned — against his will — to teach a freshman English comp course in 1980. By luck of the draw, I ended up in his section. As a rebellion, he threw out all of the required BS essays freshmen were supposed to write and let us write whatever we wanted. I’ll never forget him saying “Writing is writing.” So I turned in poetry, short stories, rants about things that bothered me, song lyrics. 

I got an A, and took his poetry writing class after that.

He loved one of my poems I submitted in the poetry class. It was about the shallowness of my classmates. At first they didn’t get it, but he had me read it a couple of times. And he asked the class questions. As people got it, it made some folks angry and others uncomfortable. He was delighted. I was proud. And scared. He labeled it as “powerful.”

He had me submit it to the Central PA Festival of the Arts (or something like that), where he was a judge along with two other people. He recused himself from voting since he knew me. He later told me one judge said it was shit. The other judge said it should win first place. He worked out a compromise and I got an honorable mention.

He made a great impression on me, as here I am 40 years later thinking about him and writing to you.

Chuck Hall

my friends who are teachers will appreciate that sentiment i’m sure. though it does seem like a bygone era indeed when professors could actually get away with letting students feel uncomfortable in class. the horror!

here are some lines by Jack (from my original post; go there for more samples of his work)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!

Jack McManis, from “Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”

four decades on and i think we can still say Amen to that!

Series Navigation← April Diary 9: sapsuckers, beginner’s mind, and Phoebe GiannisiApril Diary 10: on not following myself →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.