web ecology

Witch Thoughts: relict plants, the ghosts of a vanished age

So, as a woods wandering, botany loving witch, I have often thought about the magical and otherworldly significance of certain species of native plants that one finds here in the woods and hedges of the Midwestern U.S.

Paw Paw. Osage Orange. Honey Locust, to name a few.

The honey locust is a tree absolutely covered in branching, vicious thorns. The ones that cluster on the trunk can be over a foot long. What on earth does a North American forest tree need thorns that big for? Is it just a pointless quirk of evolution without purpose?


The thorns are there for the same reason that many other Acacia species (the family of which honey locust is a part) are thick with them: to keep elephants from breaking the branches or pushing the trees over when they are eating the leaves and fruit.

But that’s stupid, you say. There aren’t any elephants in North America!!!

Not now, no. But there were. Great tusked shaggy ones, so the locust trees would need gigantic thorns to prick through all that hair.

(They are ten thousand years dead of course, their race long vanished from the earth.

But the Honey Locust is still here).

What pollinates a Paw Paw, the northernmost member of the otherwise tropical Custard Apple family? Almost nothing. The flowers are black and smell faintly foul (so there is one witchly association to be put to good use) and bloom very, very early in the spring. Sexual reproduction by these trees is low. They have been mostly spread for the past several millenia by people, because the fruit is tasty and worthy of eating.

But I bet in the before-time, some now extinct carrion beetle would hibernate beneath the leaves of lowland woods through the long winters, emerging at first spring to feast on winter’s thawing victims, and perhaps sip from the rot-black flowers of the Paw Paw.

Nothing eats osage orange fruits either, though sometimes squirrels will pick at them. Before Europeans brought them east from their original Oklahoman range to be planted as hedge-trees (at which they are excellent, more witchly symbolism), the big alien-pod looking seed clusters were mostly carried to new sites by water.

Perhaps the ground sloths liked to eat them, or the camels did.

These trees remain in our natural and cultivated landscapes although they have long since been irrevocably cut from the web of their original ecology.

They remain - shades, curios, signposts, ghosts - half in this world, half in the next - perhaps emblematic of the strength of survival, or a reminder that trees move at a different pace in time from that of us, even in the evolving and the extinguishing of their kinds.

Are we seeing an afterimage on the verge of fading out forever? Or a survival across the gulf of aeons?

How could we know? We are only here for such a little while.

The archive of the day is #mycelium

Click the gif to learn about how this root-like portion of fungal anatomy symbiotically connects vascular plants (and allows them to communicate and share chemical information, like a sub-soil natural internet), creates water and nutrient-retentive soils, supports the health of organisms like bees, and how mycelium can be “run” to cultivate mushrooms!

I put together a reading group with some of my fellow organizers, thinking about how we organize post-Trump. Here’s the list of books:

We are reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in chunks, meeting monthly, and reading one other book besides. This is a list long enough to keep us meeting for five years, which is not the intention - but we’re randomly generating five books each month and voting on which one of those we’d like to read. 

  • Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), Jane McAlevey
  • The Invention of the White Race, Theodore Allen
  • The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border, David Bacon
  • Rise of the Warrior Cop, Radley Balko
  • My Face is Black Is True: Callie House and the Ex-Slave Pensions Movement, Mary Frances Berry
  • Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, Jose Miguez Bonino
  • The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years 1868-1936, Murray Bookchin 
  • Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, Jules Boykoff
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown
  • In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s, Clayborne Carson
  • Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, William Connolly
  • Languages of the Unheard: Why Militant Protest is Good for Democracy, Stephen D'Arcy
  • Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto, Osha Gray Davidson 
  • Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall St’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, David Dayen
  • Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi, John Dittmer
  • Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, Mark Dowie
  • John Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois
  • This Is An Uprising, Mark & Paul Engler
  • Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, Stephen Fisher
  • Four Futures, Peter Frase
  • Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, Eduardo Galeano
  • Gods of Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, Mattias Gardell
  • Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations, Al Gedick
  • The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene V. Debs, Ray Ginger
  • The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America, Lawrence Goodwyn
  • Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci
  • Migra! A History of the US Border Patrol, Kelly Hernández
  • Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Hochschild
  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Richard Hofstadter
  • The Long Haul: An Autobiography, Myles Horton
  • How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev
  • The Black Jacobins, CLR James
  • Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression, Robin D. G. Kelley
  • Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South, Robert Korstad
  • The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg
  • Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, Staughton Lynd
  • Active Hope: How to Change the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy, Joanna Macy
  • Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, Peter Mair
  • Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm
  • They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45, Milton Mayer
  • At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape and Resistance, Danielle McGuire
  • Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, Timothy Mitchell
  • The Fall of the House of Labor, David Montgomery
  • Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Jason Moore
  • The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Naomi Murakawa
  • Unreal City: Las Vegas, Black Mesa, and the Fate of the West, Judith Nies
  • Governing the Commons, Elinor Ostrom
  • I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle, Charles M. Payne
  • Nixonland, Rick Perlstein
  • Poor People’s Movements, Frances Fox Piven & Richard Cloward
  • Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, Barbara Ransby
  • Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Gene Sharp
  • Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South, Neal Shirley
  • First Majority Last Minority: The Transforming of Rural Life in America, John Shover
  • Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times, Amy Sonnie
  • Poor Workers’ Unions: Rebuilding Labor from Below, Annie Tait
  • Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, Kristian Williams (ed.)
  • The Gilded Rage: A Wild Ride through Donald Trump’s America, Alexander Zaitchik
Plants talk to each other using an internet of fungus

It’s an information superhighway that speeds up interactions between a large, diverse population of individuals. It allows individuals who may be widely separated to communicate and help each other out. But it also allows them to commit new forms of crime.

No, we’re not talking about the internet, we’re talking about fungi. While mushrooms might be the most familiar part of a fungus, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium. We now know that these threads act as a kind of underground internet, linking the roots of different plants. That tree in your garden is probably hooked up to a bush several metres away, thanks to mycelia.

As a result of this growing body of evidence, many biologists have started using the term “wood wide web” to describe the communications services that fungi provide to plants and other organisms.

“These fungal networks make communication between plants, including those of different species, faster, and more effective,” says Morris. “We don’t think about it because we can usually only see what is above ground. But most of the plants you can see are connected below ground, not directly through their roots but via their mycelial connections.”

The fungal internet exemplifies one of the great lessons of ecology: seemingly separate organisms are often connected, and may depend on each other. “Ecologists have known for some time that organisms are more interconnected and interdependent,” says Boddy. The wood wide web seems to be a crucial part of how these connections form.

Kawsak Sacha (The Living Forest) is a proposal for living together with the natural world that grows out of the millennial knowledge of the Indigenous Peoples who inhabit the Amazonian rainforest, and it is one that is also buttressed by recent scientific studies.  Whereas the western world treats nature as an undemanding source of raw materials destined exclusively for human use, Kawsak Sacha recognizes that the forest is made up entirely of living selves and the communicative relations they have with each other.  These selves, from the smallest plants to the supreme beings who protect the forest, are persons (runa) who inhabit the waterfalls, lagoons, swamps, mountains, and rivers, and who, in turn, compose the Living Forest as a whole.  These persons live together in community (llakta) and carry out their lives in a manner that is similar to human beings.  To summarize, in the Living Forest the economic system is an ecological web; the natural world is also a social world.

Kawsak Sacha –The Living Forest: An Indigenous Proposal for Confronting Climate Change

Presented by the Amazonian Kichwa People of Sarayaku

COP 21, Paris, November 30 –December 11, 2015