By Alex Tone, Community Fellow
While it looked like the rest of the woods were governed by shades of green, I turned over a log last summer to find a shock of ghostly white threading through and across it: mycelium, or the living root-like systems of fungi. For months, Charlie, John, and Merlin Sheldrake were telling me how nearly every living plant works in mycorrhizal partnerships with fungi who search, break down, and share nutrients with them through their roots, but my brain was about as open to the idea as Copernicus’s friends were to his newfangled claim about the solar system. Rather than seeing organisms as distinct entities within a plant ecosystem, it meant I had to understand a plant ecosystem as an organism, connected at its most fundamental parts by a living force I’d never heard of. But while my biological understanding of the world was being turned on its head, life went on, and I had to continue to work with plants while being continually gobsmacked by them.
To me, and maybe to you, this feels like an apt way to understand what the process of growing up is like. When I was younger and a lot less wiser, I could reduce the world to what I thought was knowable, and assume it was possible for a person to wrap their head around everything significant (whatever that means). Further down the road, most - if not all - of my growth has meant unraveling what I’d previously thought to be indisputable truths, and making room and grace for the nuances that the world seems to keep turning up. To grow food and build community over the last year and half, this has meant going deeper beneath what I assume I understand to find how everything is a lot more complex, contradictory, and connected than I thought before.
The first log that got turned over was my understanding of good farming itself. Starting the Fellowship, I think I carried with me a lot of mainstream environmentalist perceptions about farming: namely, that making a living from farming a piece of land was inherently harmful to the surrounding environment, and that the most sustainable food system was one in which we could concentrate such harmful relationships to small, intensively farmed areas. This assumption quickly evaporated as I found it impossible to separate where our farm ended and the surrounding ecosystem began. My current supervisor, Julia, reminds me that a healthy farm is a healthy ecosystem, and much of my farming education has meant figuring out how to work within - rather than against - our surroundings, from creating a welcoming habitat for pollinators to carving channels along the natural contours of a hillside. Learning how to grow food has been teaching me what Indigenous agricultural communities have understood for a long time: people are part of the world, and to imagine anything we do - especially something as fundamental as farming - as a separate process from the ecosystems around us is to ignore our most basic relationships with other living and non-living things.
Living in community with other people on the mountain and in Augusta County has nudged over some logs that I thought were a lot sturdier. Before last summer, I was coming from military bases and universities where many of the people with whom I surrounded myself had similar life experiences to mine. I’ve talked about this in a previous blog post, but I entered our space assuming that connection and community were merely questions of time and effort, and that anyone could be chummy with each other with the right attitude. Learning from the other members of my cohort and some fantastic facilitators, I’ve come to understand that conflicts from our differences are not something to avoid, but rather to be embraced as paths toward deeper understanding of one another. I’m still working on untangling what I’ve been taught - that conflict stems from disconnection - but taking a closer look at what conflict is, and how it can be done well, has expanded the possibilities of communication and learning for me in ways I’d never imagined before.
Some logs are going to take a long time to look under. This year in particular - with the political and ecological instabilities of my country and others showing their cracks a little wider - it’s tempting for me to call it quits and shut myself off from what scares and angers me. But to write these systems off as nothing but lost causes is to refuse to acknowledge that other possibilities might exist underneath such darkness. I often catch myself falling into what Rebecca Solnit refers to as “naïve cynicism,” or “a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither… [and] shoot[s] down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of a situation.” It might be easy for me to point to one crisis after another and say we’re doomed, but that ignores the entire root systems of community, knowledge, and resistance that have been working to solve these problems the whole time. I need to understand that to take the naïve cynicist route, and focus solely on what keeps us down, is to miss out on how the awe, wonder, and strengths that a complicated and loving world offers gives us power.
For every drop of what I think I understand, there is an ocean of that which I don’t, and even more of which I’ll never really be able to. Living and working within ecosystems over the Fellowship has taught me how to accept and embrace that, and trust myself while still being okay with having my world flipped upside down every now and then. Looking back on this year, I’m coming to realize that a big part of growing up is knowing when and how to look deeper beneath what I think I understand, and finding a more rich, interconnected, and meaningful world than I thought possible. Until I get there, no log in the woods is safe from me.
1. His book, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020), is a wild and fascinating ride.
2. From “Naïve Cynicism” in Call Them By Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) (2018, p. 52-53).