October 25, 2022

PLOWE | Fungal Friendship and Expanding Reasons for Science

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You can find my good friend Havi Rojer ‘23 (they/them) squatting by a log mid summer, whispering to a blossom of gangly mushrooms. They love nature on a deeply spiritual level, and also happen to be a brilliant environmental microbiology scientist. In the lab, they study how host interactions shape bacterial genomes and communities (their lab has a neat comic about their work with bioluminescence). As their friend, I witness them working hard to personally process profound environmental concepts and issues. 

As the two of us wander down a trail, we each notice precise, seemingly random characteristics or little creatures of the forest. Years of our individual attention and refuge in nature allow us to come together and notice relationships among the local biosphere. We wonder when a tree has fallen, how the earthworms are doing, whether there will be too much erosion. 

Havi and I both connect deeply with nature because of our spiritual curiousity, and also because we are queer; neither of us identifies within the gender binary, and we do not like to be around many people. Nature offers non-judgemental, unconditional acceptance for us. In natural spaces, we reflect upon the experience of sociality using metaphors. We celebrate life growing, wings flapping, someone scuttling up a tree. My wish is for everyone to have access to this joy. 

Spending time in nature is not only beneficial for individual self-realization and mental health, but it also leads to thorough literature — scientific and poetic — with subversive power. Indigenous authors today shift the nature-as-resource paradigm in order to decolonize our Cartesian worldview. Mainstream literature which illustrates the perversion of our society’s relationship to the environment include works by Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Joy Harjo and Robin Wall Kimmerer. 

Havi advocates for utilizing innovative scientific research to shift cultural imagination for the sake of social change. “Did you know that there are intersex bears?” Havi recently asked me. They shared with me empirical research about animals’ sexual plasticity, an increasingly popular subject. If more people read research like this, sexual and gender essentialism would surely be obsolete. 

My friend thinks that we can learn about ourselves and our communities by making mycology legible to the public. Havi explained to me that fungi have thousands of sexes and mating types, contrary to the male and female reproductive systems of most trees. It is hard to categorize them, they explain. I asked them to describe how they understand fungi’s relevance to sociality. Havi responded, “I think mushrooms and fungi are inherently understudied largely because they are so weird and do not fit into categories — which is the case for many people. Lots of people don’t fit neatly into binary categories.” 

Havi continued to explain that we must understand the interdependence displayed within each layer of our social communities, including local, national, online and international relations. It is impossible to study fungi as a single unit; they support countless other species and ecologies. Fungi, therefore, facilitates the greater study of interdependence. 

We must honor the history of the land and behave respectfully as we hike or do field work in the sciences. This may look like navigating land with humility, a donation to Gayogohó:nǫ Sovereignty and Rematriation, cleaning up litter, deep listening to the woods and understanding the University’s role in environmental degradation, because it has destroyed much more than it is supporting. Study of the natural world can yield models of cooperation which have disappeared from imaginations due to colonial, greedy systems. 

Havi and I are incredibly lucky to be close to nature in Ithaca. In the throws of climate change and environmental catastrophe, loving nature and studying it closely is a privilege. Climate science research should be prioritized in the quest for more information about the natural world, and the uneven impact of climate change, nationally and internationally, should always be on our minds. 

As governments seek to repair destructive habits, they must take an interdisciplinary approach to justice, which includes the understanding of how environmental degradation is related to Indigenous displacement. Biodiversity is dwindling; we ought to understand this as an urgent matter. We ought to understand the displacement of Indigenous peoples as an urgent family matter, because we are all on this Earth together. 

Emma Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at eplowe@cornellsun.comWith Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.