“Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling. Simplicity is an affect that motors the cultural imaginary of whiteness, an interpretive strategy." — Billy-Ray Belcourt1
“Mycelium is conceptually slippery. From the point of view of the network, mycelium is a single interconnected entity. From the point of view of a hyphen tip, mycelium is a multitude.”
— Merlin Sheldrake2
I am going to do something which makes me feel deeply uncertain. In fact, I have already done it by pairing these quotes together on this page. The authors are writing about wildly different things and coming from significantly different subjectivities. But I am reading them both right now and they came together for me this morning after I walked to the river and returned to my writing desk to spend time with modes of writing about being in a world.
It makes me feel uncertain because I do not want to misrepresent or misquote Belcourt’s words, his writing “against the trauma of description.” I am moved by his words to be differently, and do not want to take up “the position of the enemy, the vampire, the one who describes, the settler.” Being both settler and also having been raised by a mother who is of unclear Indigenous decent, who raised us in connection with her own displaced cultural practices, I am always working within/against a cultural imaginary of whiteness living on unceded Gitxsan land, as I seek to be and write in relationship with land and with the communities of people whose stolen land I live on.
Billy-Ray Belcourt is writing about NDN being in a world that he describes as “the wasteland of the human,” the “many-headed hydra that is white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.” Merlin Sheldrake is writing about fungi as “the living seam by which much of the world is stitched into relation.” The world Sheldrake is writing about is and is not the same world Belcourt is writing about. It is not the same world because fungal worlds operate according to their own logics of hyphae, not those of the many-headed hydra (i.e. white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy). Fungal worlds have been doing this for millions of years, far longer than humans have been living, and then at some point, adopting modes of living that have created “wastelands of humanity.” It is the same world because the lands all living beings live in relation to have been shaped and exist in relation to the lives and doings of fungi, which are an integral component to all life and death processes. And all lands living beings are in relation to on this earth are currently under threat from the many-headed hydra.
Fungal worlds continue to create the conditions for life and precipitate deaths of other forms of life that humans rely on.
I notice this as I walk to the river.
But Merlin Sheldrake is a also a white British scientist enmeshed in white structures of feeling, seeking expanded knowledge, granted to him through his relationships with and study of fungi, relationships which he writes about in Entangled Life, as “conceptually slippery.” He offers me a kind of knowledge I lack, ways of seeing into fungal worlds I wish to learn about. A certain kind of knowledge that I feel might help me understand life’s complexity. The complexity that lies beyond what I can see. He is also keenly aware that he is writing about fungi from the point of view of what he describes as “human language,” but which is, in fact, English, Latin, scientific human language. He writes: “Our descriptions warp and deform the phenomena we describe, but sometimes this is the only way to talk about features of the world: to say what they are like but are not.”3
I can’t help but feel unmoored in reading this by the way Belcourt writes about this type of description and categorization of the world as part of the interpretive strategy of whiteness. Sheldrake knows that his descriptions “warp and deform the phenomena we describe,” but does it anyway. Belcourt writes about how this same tendency towards description, when applied to NDNs has been an ongoing part of the colonial project — this breaking apart into constituent parts of complex othernesses, rendering them simple in order to approach them conceptually.
I am trying to avoid vampirism, to write of the beauty of moving outside of white structures of feeling and encountering a sentient world with these affects disrupted by a vast communicative otherness beyond self, beyond the “wastelands of humanity.” A song my body knows from somewhere. This feels uncertain because settler ways of knowing tend so easily toward vampirism, even if the vampirism is unintentional.
I am trying to learn about fungi, and trying to learn about how to move beyond white structures of feeling in approaching a world I seek to be in relationship with differently through story. I walk amongst fungi and turn towards a scientist (who deeply loves fungi) as a means towards understanding, because I have learned how to learn from books, and my forms of relating directly with the more-than-human world often feel so much less certain. Fungi interpenetrate all my daily doings this time of year, maybe they always do, but this time of year I am keenly aware of them. Sheldrake’s writing also yearns towards this beauty, to move towards the complexity of fungal life and how it interrelates with all other life, aware of the limitations of his language to approach the complexity. Aware that he moves towards beauty with lack. Writing towards beauty with lack. Is this vampiric hunger or does it emerge from some other place, some embodied sense of the beauty of complexity, being affected beyond the normalized body of the many-headed hydra?
When I walked to the river this morning, there were fungi fruiting everywhere. Most of them are utterly unknown to me. I put my hands to the earth and closed my eyes, seeking to feel the communicative networks, the “ecological connective tissue, the living seam by which much of the world is stitched in relation”.4 It is a type of relation that makes sense to me when I lift myself up from the forest floor and see how complexly intertwined everything is. How unseperate. I notice the dying aspens, plagued by ongoing leaf-miner infestations that weaken their ability to photosynthesize and store energy to survive the winter. The suffering pines infected with a kind of fungus — Dothistroma needle blight — killing off the needles, also reducing their ability to photosynthesize and store energy. Forests responding to the many-headed hydra of exploitative capitalist growth and the burning of stores of carbon produced from decaying processes of past life, creating rapidly accelerating climatic changes. And the mycelium below ground weaving these relationships between the various tree and plant communities as chemicals, energetic impulses, and fluids are carried and transported intentionally from organism to organism according to modes scientists like Sheldrake are trying to understand the patterns of, which remain poorly understood with this human/scientific way of knowing. The way this knowing always leans towards simplicity to break complexity into constituent parts. How Indigenous people have always known everything is interconnected in the worlds they have lived in relationship to over millenia.
Amidst the dying trees, I am also struck by the layers upon layers of thriving life — how the dying interrelate with the living. I eat low bush blueberries, which used to grow here in abundance before settlers came, when Gitxsan people routinely burned the forest for their gardens to flourish, also creating open foraging habitat for caribou. When the settlers came they started making rules around fires and what could be burned, but clearly after months of raging wildfires in the dying pine forests of British Columbia, fire misunderstands rules. Now the burning doesn’t have a purpose, it’s just out of control. The caribou have been gone for a while now, moose moving in amongst the thick brush, though their numbers are dwindling now too, the locals say. Where the brush has grown in I forage for hazelnuts that the squirrels haven’t gotten yet, creating caches that the bears will come and dig up if they can find them, before bedding down for the winter. I make sure not to take more than my share.
Down at the river the sun is shining, an unusually warm September day. Despite the river’s coldness, I brave myself to swim. To submerge myself into the coldness of the world. I spend time outside of time near grandmother cedar, affects reorganizing in relation.
Walking back up the path, home begins to reorganize itself in me, questions about how to write about these complexities without simplifying, how the damage is interrelated with these otherworldly worlds always in various stages of fruition and hiding. The mixed affects in me, inherited from those who have taught me how to know, who go on teaching me.
1. Billy-Ray Belcourt “Fatal Naming Rituals,” in A History of My Brief Body (Penguin Random House/ Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2020),144.
2. Merlin Sheldrake “Living Labyrinths” in Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds, and Shape our Futures (Penguin Random House, 2020), 47.
3. Sheldrake, 44.
4. Sheldrake, 46.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Angélique Lalonde was the recipient of the 2019 Journey Prize, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and was awarded an Emerging Writer’s residency at the Banff Centre. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Victoria. Lalonde is the second-eldest of four daughters. She dwells on Gitxsan Territory in Northern British Columbia with her partner, two small children, and many non-human beings.