Mushrooms carry an almost unintelligible magic. One minute they’re seemingly not there. The next, after a rain, they have taken over the world—coming up in every shape, size, and color in every corner of forests and neighborhoods. Once they’re out, they seem to disappear almost as quickly, spoiling like the rotting wood or decaying tree roots from which they grow, just at an astonishing speed. Even what we call them hints at wrapping our minds around something just out of reach of full comprehension: toadstools, puffballs, stinkhorns, death caps, fairy rings.
Of course even what we think of as mushrooms, are really just the flashiest part of much larger underground networks. These fruiting bodies (sporocarps) sprout from a tangled mass of threads (hyphae) collectively called the mycelium, which lives on long after the mushroom we see rots. What grows in the dark is the real life of the organism, and nothing visible would exist without it.
Even these types of networks represent only a tiny fraction of the species we call fungi. Mycologists and other scientists are still figuring out ways this mysterious branch of life on earth—no longer thought of as plants like they were, even as recently as my high school biology textbooks, but as a whole kingdom unto themselves—interact with the rest of life.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the way fungal strands embedded in the roots of some nut trees function as an underground superhighway for information, nutrients, and more. These symbiotic mycorrhizae, she says, enable “the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates.” Beyond that, they “may form fungal bridges between individual trees so that all the trees in a forest are connected” transferring nutrients from healthy trees to struggling ones and allowing the trees to co-regulate nut production and set the tempo for the life of the whole forest. “All flourishing is mutual.”
I’m thinking of this wondrous mystery because I’ve witnessed a metaphorical mycorrhizal network among some friends on Instagram this summer, as we share photos of mushrooms we’ve found, writing poetry or other reflections on these tiny miracles, and basking in the joy of creation together at whatever level we’ve dived in to amateur mycology. We didn’t set out individually to create an Internet mushroom cabal, but the manmade mycorrhizae we call algorithms brought a snowballing cascade of vibrant photos into our shared feeds.
But is it just an algorithm? Though I’ve learned not to underestimate the power social media exercises in our lives, I won’t cede this—the symbiosis of mushrooms popping up simultaneously in Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia and the call to bask in wonder that my friends and I felt—to some artificial intelligence. If all flourishing is mutual, that is by design. God speaks in beauty as well as words, and calls us to attend to the world for our own good and the good of others. The interconnectedness we experienced over these posts is a gift.
The depth and breadth of our neural networks, as vast and complex as any mycelium and carrying a flow of information that none of us fully comprehend, is also still being researched, continually astonishing us with the web of knowing God has sewn into each of us. Absorbing the delicacy and grandeur of the world around us can attune us to God’s peace. Circulating ever-present reminders of creation can also attune us to each other. Networked loveliness can co-regulate us just as surely as fungi facilitate the health of the forest.
We share wonder with others as a way to stay alive together. Beauty springing forth to be observed by one of us can be shared to nourish others struggling to see the goodness of life at the same time. When one of us is strengthened, that gift is not for us alone, but for the strengthening of others as well. Art—even sharing phone photos of mushrooms on a social platform—is a response to something true and good and beautiful that can’t help but invite others to come and see.
As part of her story, Kimmerer writes of the wonder she uncovered by struggling to recover the Potawatomi language of her people. One of the first words that sparked her desire to find out what was hidden in her then-missing language was puhpowee—which could be translated as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” She writes, “As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed….In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent.”
The mystery behind this word born of gazing at wonder sticks with me. The same God who pushes forth mushrooms after a rain is working out grace in the hidden places of our lives. The encouragement of new life from old that he nudges me to notice in my backyard or on a hike are worth meditating on. The sunrises and sunsets that paint the world every day are worth staring at and writing poems and prayers about. The glint of light on a fish’s scales or a rainbow in a waterfall or the ripples on a desert dune deserve all the attention we can spare.
The flashes of beauty in this world are as fleeting as the life and death of a mushroom. They’re easy to miss. But they are so frequently given, it’s never too late to look up. I pray I will never stop straining to see or stopping to say “look at this!,” because the wonder that others want to (need to!) see it too will never stop amazing me.
Featured Image: Mushrooms in the golden hour, Hamilton County, Tennessee.