Mycelium as Metaphor

Mycelium as generative metaphor : some R.A.N.E. reflections                        Mat Osmond

“Our need for an ecology movement, animal rights advocacy, and a world wildlife fund begins in our dreams.”        James Hillman, Dream Animals, Chronicle Books 1997

(If you want a brief introduction to mycelium, see: )

 I decided to use the FSA research forum session last week to bring a new research project into clearer focus (appended below). To assist with that, I brought some questions that I’d taken from the 2014 R.A.N.E. Soil Cultures Forum, and from two other R.A.N.E. speakers – R.A.N.E. having been my principle FU research context since coming here in 2009.

Below are some of my own notes taken at the Soil Cultures Forum, and two short quoted passages, followed by the questions they provoked. With regard to the notes, I’m not sure, in some cases, how much of this is mine, and how much the speakers’. Either way, my selection obviously reflects a particular angle on the territory.

Discussion after the talk last week gravitated towards mycelium – as an ecological entity, and as a metaphor that might provoke some useful discussions of – and strategies for – practice.

This included the possible relevance of mycelium to considering the dynamics within image-text practices – the connective ‘third space’ evoked by their juxtaposition. So, too, within collaborative practice. The notes below don’t expand much on those ideas, but re-present some of what was covered in the talk itself.


R.A.N.E. Soil Cultures Forum 2014 : Richard Kerridge

 Around eco-criticism lurks the idea of the poem that will save the world: the artwork that will change us, that will bring about a shift in perception, one which will in turn enable us to change our behaviour. Has art, poetry, literature ever achieved this? Perhaps very rarely, possibly not at all. The general case is rather that our work is borne along by cultural trend, but in going with that current it forms a small part of it, one that contributes to it’s strength, momentum. The heroic notion of the artwork as a driver of cultural change is both a distraction, and an insupportable inflation, one that places a weight of expectation on creative practice that it can never live up to. Again, we need to set aside the notion of the artwork as monumental icon of the paradigm-shift we seek, and look instead to creative practice as a quiet turning of the soil: to the artwork, poem and story as micro-organism, as connective mycelium, as the manure that feeds and renews the myriad invisible life of that soil.


What might we make of mycelium as a generative metaphor: one that fosters new approaches to practice, and to communities of practice?

Mycelium: The subsoil fungal web which acts as a vital connective matrix sustaining communities of organisms (eg a forest) through a process of reciprocal exchange.

Eg: Isolated redwood saplings grown in light conditions equivalent to the interior of a redwood forest will invariably die. They survive in the forest only because fungal mycelium conducts nutrients from the surrounding mature trees to the young, until they are able to reach the light themselves.

Ecosystems as living communities: reciprocity vs. ‘nature red in tooth and claw’.


R.A.N.E. Soil Cultures Forum 2014 : Stefan Harding

We’ve tried an environmentalism based on information. Strangely, that didn’t work. We thought if we gave people the information about what was happening, they’d be changed. But no, they weren’t. Then we tried fear, but that didn’t work either. Frightening people doesn’t change their behaviour. What’s left? The only way that we can address these problems is through love. We have to re-learn, as a culture, to love the earth. Nothing else will do. We have to learn what it means to love the earth, because it is only if we love the earth that we will not be willing to see it destroyed.


So far, so Schumacher. Great. But if we agree with every word of that (I do), what of it?

Eg, Deep Green Resistance have framed a campaign of disruptive sabotage, one who’s stated intention is to ‘bring down civilization’, in exactly these terms. DGR‘s  version of that question: How does love behave, faced with the accelerating destruction of the loved by one’s ambient culture?

If we’re not making art in that militant spirit (my 2015 paper Us and Them: Ecocide, Empathy and the Graphic Ecofable looked at some of those who are, within graphic literature), what are we proposing instead? What do art, poetry and storytelling bring to that table besides message-dissemination and ‘awareness raising’?

If we’re persuaded that what DGR et al say about the current trajectory of our culture is broadly true, how else might art and poetry respond? And why?


 R.A.N.E \ School of Writing speaker, 2010 & 2013: Paul Kingsnorth

“I was born in 1972. In that time — less than forty years — Homo sapiens sapiens has managed to kill off between a quarter and a third of all the world’s non-human life. This bald figure takes in a quarter of all land-based species, over a quarter of all marine species and nearly a third of all freshwater species. We’ve wiped out over a third of the planet’s mangrove swamps and a fifth of its coral, over a quarter of all remaining Arctic wildlife and 600,000 square kilometres of Amazon forest. Extinction rates are currently between 100 and 1000 times higher than they would likely be were humans not around. This is before we even get to climate change. And it has all happened in less than forty years.

But what use can writing possibly be in a world like this? What can words do in response? And what, in particular, can poetry do? This tiny, specialist artform, with far more writers than readers. How can experiments in heightened language possibly have anything to say about this great Vanishing — this gathered storm beginning to break on the shores of our civilisation?

These are the wrong questions. Can poetry save the Earth? No. But then politics, economics and science are not doing a very good job either. Poetry is not here to ‘save the Earth’. But it is, perhaps, able to show us the Earth — and our relationship to it — in a way we are not used to seeing it;

The Sole Business of Poetry:


Kingsnorth, and the Dark Mountain Project which he co-founded, have sought to provoke a discussion of what the arts might have to offer in the face of ‘ecological crisis’. This has sometimes been framed in terms of disentangling from the ‘toxic myths’ of civilization endless progress, the central importance of the human etc. Its also been presented as the fostering of new stories, more suitable to navigating the inevitable process of descent – be it a series of managed contractions, or a more sudden unraveling – which DM et al propose as immanently facing industrial societies. How useful is that idea of new stories? And how might the mycelium metaphor inform an approach to the role of the arts within the cultural adaptation that DM espouse? What would that look like, beyond more do-something-before-its-too-late polemics – and what would be its value, beyond behaviour-modification?


R.A.N.E. Soil Cultures Forum 2014 : Sam Bower /

Re. Two images: 1. Totem poles outside a Haida village 2. Another, outside the British Museum: Our culture venerates the art object, but what is art, as de-contextualized object? The British Museum pole as the empty husk of absent stories that once infused and sustained a living culture of inhabitation. To the people who lived with the pole within its original context, the faces it bears were known to them by name, as part of their shared history. Those same beings, stories might appear in a tattoo, on the side of a boat, within a song sung whilst working, festival, taboo. Outside the museum at the heart of our dying culture of occupation, those faces have fallen silent – they tell only of absence. What we need is a renewal of cultural expression, rather than a renewal of artistic expression; to see that the artwork – of whatever kind – is only the visible shoot emerging from the living soil of culture. Renewing that soil is our real challenge, one that doesn’t necessarily require vast amounts of money. As with environmentalism, in our search for cultural adaptation we look in vain to charismatic mega-fauna within the arts, when in fact it’s the underlying soil that we need to attend to, to nourishing that connective culture of relationships, shared stories, communities.


Mycelium, again… or at least, it seems near at hand. Also a more specific distinction, perhaps typical of eco-art, between art-as-process, and art-as-object.

Mycelium: the ‘mushroom’ as merely the fruiting body of the larger and more complex subsoil fungal organism. But meaningless, surely, to imagine one thriving without the presence of the other? George Monbiot’s recent arguments for the central importance of mega-fauna in shaping and sustaining ecosystems, and in shaping environment, comes to mind.

The Casa de Paz project in Oakland CA, where Sam Bower lives: an experiment in socially-engaged communal living, based on what Sam referred to as giftivism. (See vimeo link.) Within the house, a pinned-up list of five principles that guide the communal space. The last one has been crossed out, and replaced:

sustainability – regeneration

Is that a good word for art might offer, in the face of the radical unsustainability of the social structures we currently inhabit? I like it for its unconditionality.


R.A.N.E. 2010 &12 (?) speaker : Jan van Boekel

“Having engaged myself in this field of combining art education and nature education for some time, I found that there is an elementary distinction between two AEE [Art as Environmental Education] orientations in the way the natural environment is approached. The center of gravity for the first nourishes a state of receptivity, of aesthetic perception and appreciation of phenomena in the natural world. Here the focus is to encourage the participant to be observant, minimally interfering, and attentive to the world around her. The other takes its point of departure in a view on artistic process as active engagement with the circumambient universe. The participant is stirred to act upon the world around and in him, and the goal is to seek a dynamic open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking.”

Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception, JvB 2015


The latter part of this passage begins to lever open a more immediate question, for me. The territory of eco-art and environmental art might be said to be – in large part – a conversation between ecological/ecosophical thought and specific threads within contemporary Fine Art. That dismissal of the ‘old currency’ of art-as-object, a familiar tenet of the latter.

… artistic process as active engagement with the circumambient universe. The participant is stirred to act upon the world around and in him, and the goal is to seek a dynamic open-ended immersion in a fundamentally improvisational undertaking

Where might that lead? It suggests a conversation with a range of art and poetry far beyond that explicitly eco-, Beuysian territory. Isn’t this exactly what Timothy Morton’s been going on about? Widening the conversation.

Where to look for that? For me, the collaborative friendship between two old mega-fauna – Ted Hughes and Leonard Baskin – comes to mind as a good place to start. So my current project is to pick up work on a paper that I had a first crack at last year, then postponed.

Looking at this particular image-word collaboration – and at the friendship it grew out of – in terms of mycelium, seems a good way to approach this, now.


This was its 2014 version:

Crow Stares Back : Our Eyes Open

Illustrating ecological recovery

In his 2010 book Becoming Animal David Abram affirms the importance of direct political activism, but suggests that another, equally necessary “work of recuperation” lies before us, fostered through our comingmore directly into felt relation with the wider, more-than-human community of beings that surrounds and sustains the human hub-bub”. Awakening to such cosmic citizenship has, Abram suggests, “real and practical implications for the way in which our collective body-politic breathes”. (1)

Abram’s notion of recuperation is one variant within a broad theme of cultural re-enchantment that has arisen in recent decades across spiritual, philosophical and artistic contexts. Some, like Jane Bennett (and to an extent, Abram) have argued against the notion that such enchantment implies a spiritual perspective (2). I wish, here, to consider the opposite position, and to ask in what sense an art practice might frame ecological recovery (3) as a spiritual dilemma?

Approaching this question as someone who works within the liminal territory of graphic literature, I will look to the example of a seminal moment within illustrated modern poetry: the collaborative friendship between the poet Ted Hughes and the sculptor-printer Leonard Baskin, which produced Crow, Cave Birds, Under a North Star and several other books.

As well as considering the specific nature of the gaze which a book of illustrated poems invites, I will discuss Hughes’ own understanding of Baskin’s art: as an irruptive encounter with mana: with the grace that rekindles the spirit in the teeth of suffering and death, and which, as a consequence, renews our gaze into the living cosmos (4).

Taking Jan Von Boekel’s 2011 essay Angels Talking Back and New Organs of Perception as a point of departure, I will consider two reciprocal functions of art and poetry at work in this collaboration: to mirror the gaze that we turn toward the world, and to mirror the gaze which we encounter there, looking back at us. It is this sense of reciprocity as a quality intrinsic to spirituality that I wish, in particular, to open up.

Principle reference points in this discussion will be Timothy Morton’s notion of depression as “the most accurate lens through which to view the current ecological disaster” (5), and the chthonic or underworld perspective that informs James Hillman’s studies of dreaming.

Proposal for ‘OF THE EARTH’ / WALK ON

Mat Osmond   8.7.14


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