By Ivan Espinosa
Recently, I went to the famed Union Square Greenmarket for the first time and was blown away (albeit shoved aside several times) by the sheer grandness of the place. I somehow managed to wobble my way through the thousands of market shoppers and hundreds of farm stands to a quaint mushroom vendor towards the middle of the square. Portobello, crimini, shiitake, white button, oyster — the fresh bounty was more than enough to make any shroom aficionado drool. I ended up buying a pound of each.
Since childhood, mushrooms have worked their magic on me. I practically lived on them for over a decade whilst following a vegan diet. Back in preschool, I was frightened by them because I truly believed that there were swarms of little mushroom beings living inside of those huge portabella caps. Perhaps that was a consequence of watching too many episodes of The Smurfs. Still today, these fascinating fungal creatures continue to captivate my consciousness. And it’s not just the taste. All it takes is one deep whiff of those subtle, tantalizing, aromas to enchant both my senses and imagination. Meanwhile, the vibrant, multi-patterned, intricate textures offer an ocular odyssey that can rival any kaleidoscope. Take the famed morel mushroom, for example. A gift of the spring woods, morels are one of the most expensive mushrooms in North America, highly sought-after by foodies and gourmet chefs all over. But it’s not the monetary value of morels that enchants me; it’s their sculptural beauty. With widely pitted and ridged caps, morels look almost brain-like in appearance. They’re closely related to the Gyromitra Esculenta species of mushrooms, which look even more like a wrinkly cerebrum. So strong is the cerebral resemblance that they’ve been nicknamed the brain mushroom. When I was kid, I used to fantasize about shrinking myself so tiny that I could travel inside these brain-like mushrooms and explore the worlds within those fungi caps. I wanted to be like Ms. Frizzle and her students from The Magic School Bus. Magically transforming into a plane, submarine, spaceship or surfboard, I fell in love with that magic yellow bus that carried Ms. Frizzle’s class on all kinds of super adventures. I can still remember my favorite episode in which the class shrunk to microscopic size so that they could travel inside the human body. The bloodstreams and stomach juices became turbulent waters that had to be navigated by the school-bus-turned-submarine. The landscape was dynamic and ferocious; it was a universe that had to be physically confronted.
Mushrooms also come from universes that are beaming with life. Except they’re underground, deep within the Earth’s soil. They’re called the Mycelia: colossal, underground fungal networks, some larger than football fields, that connect the roots of thousands of plants and trees. They are a universe within a universe. Once thought to be a simple means of nutrient exchange, they are actually complex systems of inter-plant communication: a “collective fungal consciousness,” according to leading mycologist Paul Stamets.(1) In a TED talk called 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World, Stamets tells us that “the mycelium is sentient, it knows that you are there. When you walk across landscapes it leaps up in the aftermath of your footsteps trying to grab debris. They are highly branched, and if one branch breaks, alternative pathways, through the nodes of crossing, immediately begin to form for channeling nutrients and information.”(1) After decades of intense research, Stamets and other top mycologists have come to view the mycelium “as the Earth’s natural Internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate. And because these externalized neurological nets sense any impression upon them, from footsteps to falling tree branches, they could relay enormous amounts of data regarding the movements of all organisms through the landscape.”(1)
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that morel (and other) mushrooms look like the brain. These conscious creatures are highly sentient and possess a unique, earthly intelligence that we are still trying to wrap our heads around. Recent scientific studies, for example, demonstrate that many types of fungi and plants communicate with each other in ways that strongly point towards self-awareness. A 2013 article in Quanta Magazine entitled “The Secret Language of Plants” highlights how many different types of plants use the vascular system to send messages across meters-long distances. Another study published by a team of molecular biologists in Switzerland demonstrates that the genes that trees use to send, receive and interpret messages are extremely similar to receptors that animal bodies use every day.(2) According to Dr. Richard Karban, a professor of ecology at U.C. Davis, the debate is no longer whether plants communicate with one another — they can — but about why and how they do it.(2)
So, the trees and bushes that surround us, the land that we walk on (and the fungal networks beneath us) are likely much more sentient, aware, and intelligent than we have allowed ourselves to believe. Yet, modern capitalism seeks to convince us otherwise. Novelist Paul Kingsnorth writes that post-Enlightenment, industrial, Western society still clings to the “notion that only humans possess consciousness – or souls – and that this gives us the right, or the duty, to run the world.”(3) And the right to ravage it. “We’ll be fine with the environment,” says President Trump. “We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy business.”(4) Since protecting the financial interests of the business sector is of the utmost importance, this would explain the Trump administration’s recently announced plans to potentially open up over two dozen national forests and parks to corporate activity — from California’s 2000-year-old giant sequoias to the iconic Grand Canyon.(5) That’s right, some of the most ancient and tallest trees on Earth may soon hit the chopping block as Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress are all but poised to roll back regulations that protect national parks from mining, logging and other forms of harmful commercial industry. But, as audacious as this environmental policy may seem, Trump’s views are actually in perfect alignment with the prevailing ontology that dominates Western society (we run the world, remember?!). To modern Americans, the Earth is not a sentient being or a living presence. To us, the Earth is a “resource” to be exploited. But with ever-increasing ecological destruction — deforestation, soil depletion, acidified oceans, melting ice, species extinctions, climate change (and the hurricanes, earthquakes and superstorms that come with it) — there won’t be any resources left for us to exploit. Not even that “little bit” that Trump promises to leave us.
Living in New York City, I find myself immersed in a culture that regards humankind as the central and most important element of existence. To our urban, concrete metropolis the “world” — Wall Street, Broadway, Times Square, The Fashion District — consists only of humans engaging with humans, with “nature” no more than a passive backdrop to draw on as we please. We may acknowledge, intellectually, our reliance upon some plants and animals we consume for food, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, even superior to nature. This separation is reinforced by our total absorption in representations of reality derived from corporate media, encouraging us to view the Earth as a spectacle that takes place outside the bubble of our existence. In Kingsnorth’s words, “we tell a story that the world is a machine that can be programmed to serve our purposes. We tell a story that humans are the measure of all things…that we can mold the world to the needs of the self, rather than molding the self to the needs of the world.”(5)
As a theater artist and choreographer of stage performance, I find myself constantly thinking about how the theater can begin to tell a new story, one in which the Earth is a living being. Artists have often been the revolutionary iconoclasts that challenge the status quo, the ones that rise up and, through innovative creation and wild artistry, shift the paradigm. The old story, the one in which the Earth is simply a resource to be exploited, is beginning to break down. I believe we need a new story, one that resists anthropocentrism. And I believe that artists can help lead the way. So far, nearly all of the classic theater performances in the Western canon are rooted in anthropocentric human narratives: they’re plays written by humans about human characters, plays about the relationships between groups of people and their human societies; they’re explorations of the human mind. But Western theater too quickly and too easily neglects the mind of the Earth; we forget all of those mushroom brains and signal-sending trees. For if consciousness, intelligence, and aliveness extend far beyond the human domain, why does Broadway continue to behave as if humans were the only actors?
Granted, there are some (though I bet not that many) Western theater performances in which the landscape has played a central role. Artists like the avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson and the late playwright Antonin Artaud immediately come to mind. Both of them have created work that de-emphasizes narrative text in order to create a theater of dynamic images in which landscape and space, rather than being passive, bears nearly equal weight to the human actors. But a prominent landscape is one thing; a sentient, breathing landscape is quite another. What would a theater performance look like if the Earth was not just scenery but an actual living character in the drama, perhaps even the star of the show? How can we manifest and experience the intelligence and consciousness of the more-than-human world, the mind of the Earth, on stage?
I want to see those morel mushroom brains take over the theater! Imagine a performance at the Skirball Center for Performing Arts or some other fancy New York venue in which one of those huge neural networks of mycelium is actually brought on stage, fully alive, forming a massive, jungle-like universe of fungi with hundreds of fruiting bodies and blooming mushrooms dancing on stage. Perhaps this “mushroom show” could be the beginning of a new kind of eco-centric theater for the 21st century. Perhaps human bodies could be invited to enter into this fungal universe and witness the animate landscape, exchanging possibilities with every cap and stem, with each textured surface and vibrating entity, emanating songs from the worlds of soil and stone. To do that might require a little bit of shifting, a shift in our perception of reality, a shift in our understanding of consciousness. I think the mushrooms can help with that. The emerging science might help us too — especially if some of these scientists decide to join forces with innovative, eco-centric artists. After all, Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus was a science teacher. But she was also a bold, creative thinker who encouraged her students to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!” Her enchanting field trips were literally out-of-this-world, beyond the cars, cubicles, and concrete skyscrapers we see every day. Shrinking small enough to voyage through the complex tunnels inside of anthills or the crashing waves of the stomach’s digestive juices, Ms. Frizzle took us to other realms (some of them right below our feet) that are just as connected, dynamic, and alive than the one we spend most of our waking hours in. Fortunately, we don’t need a magic school bus to enchant us. Art can remind us that “nature” and the “environment” are not just “things” to be used. Art continues to remind me that those morel mushrooms that I buy from the farmer’s market are emissaries from other realms of intelligence, the offspring of a highly complex, integrated, creative, mysterious biosphere and ecosphere that are older than time.
The playwright Bertolt Brecht once talked about theater being “not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Surely then, a new generation of reality-shifting artists and performance makers, determined not to tell the same anthropocentric stories over and over again, can really help us to see the Earth differently. “If we were,” as Kingsnorth suggests, “to see that great complex of roots connected to all of the other trees in the woodland by networks of mycelium, connecting up communities of living beings, sending and receiving signals. If we were to understand that when we tug on one leaf it is connected to everything else in the world. If we were to see this network, this community, as alive… If we saw the Earth as living, conscious, aware — would that change us?”(6)
I’m going to climb a tree and dance with the mushrooms to find out. A magic ride awaits.
(Author) Ivan Espinosa is a Latino experimental theater artist based in New York City. Primarily inspired by eco-poetics, Deep Ecology, and Japanese Butoh dance, Ivan’s work explores how the intelligence of the Earth can be manifested and experienced on stage. As a director and choreographer of stage performance, Ivan has produced dozens of original works from feature-length stage performances to site-specific installations, including multiple performances at the Seattle International Butoh Festival and the Houston Fringe Festival. Ivan is currently completing his Master of Arts in Performance Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he is researching theories of embodiment, object theory, and performative ethnography, particularly the eco-centric performance of living landscapes. Learn more about Ivan and his work at www.IvanEspinosa.org
(Artist) Isaac VanCuren is an interdisciplinary artist exploring imagination and expression through mediums such as graphic design, performance art, and sculpture. He received a B.A. in Theatre Studies from Ithaca College and is now a Master’s candidate in Performance Studies at NYU. www.isaacvancuren.com
1. Stamets, Paul. “6 ways mushrooms can save the world.” Lecture, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. March 2008. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world.
2. McGowan, Kat. “HOW PLANTS SECRETLY TALK TO EACH OTHER.” December 20, 2013. Accessed September 18, 2017. https://www.wired.com/2013/12/secret-language-of-plants/.
3. Kingsnorth, Paul. “Paul Kingsnorth: ‘We imagine how it feels to be a character, why can’t we imagine how the land feels?'” The Guardian, July 23, 2016. Accessed September 20, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/23/paul-kingsnorth-imagine-how-land-feels.
4. “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.” Interview by Chris Wallace. Donald Trump Full Interview w/Chris Wallace. October 18, 2015. Accessed September 20, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vjq1I-gnf4A.
5. Milman, Oliver. “Trump plan could open Giant Sequoia monument to logging” The Guardian, July 26, 2017. Accessed October 21, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/26/public-land-sequoia-national-monument-wildfires-logging
6. Kingsnorth, Paul. “The Axis and the Sycamore.” Orion Magazine, April 14, 2017. Accessed September 19, 2017. https://orionmagazine.org/article/the-axis-and-the-sycamore/.