Category Archives: metastuff

Question continued

I’m finding Sheldrake’s Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures to be another of those mind-bending immersive reads, right up there with Powers’ Overstory and Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind and Popova’s Figuring and Macfarlane’s Underland in sheer power as a mind expander. I’m reading and listening both (Kindle and Audacity), and finding the two modes of access to the text to be synergistic. Yesterday I read the chapter about lichens, and wrote down some thoughts not-irrelevant to the Question of Questions that Puzzle and Inspire:

We habitually take some things to be stable, to be established fact: the Big Dipper is a Structure in the Firmament, a north-pointing icon for humanity throughout the northern hemisphere … and likewise we have the conviction (from high school biology) that a lichen is “a fungus and an alga” in simple symbiosis. These are both ‘true’ and ‘untrue’ when examined/questioned beyond the simple versions.

The Big Dipper is only a “structure” in our collective Mind’s Eye, as viewed from our terrestrial perspective. The component Stars (Alioth, Dubhe, Merak, Alkaid, Phecda, Megrez, and Mizar) are vast 3-D and 4-D distances apart, and are, as we experience their placement, only temporarily conjoined as a part of the “constellation” we name as Ursa Major (in a few million years they will seem to drift off in different directions).

And research in the last 5 years or so has established that lichens are far more complex than that cartoon of a ‘simple’ fungus/alga symbiosis, and involve co-symbiont bacteria and viruses as essential components. “We have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga” is how one lichenologist summarizes the current thinking.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, given the common knowledge that our own bodies contain symbiont bacteria (and viruses, come to that), and the insight usually ascribed to Lynn Margulis [who was married to Carl Sagan, once upon a time (1957-1964)] that eukaryotic cells are the evolutionary product of symbiotic mergers of bacteria (“…the theory that cell organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independent bacteria…”). Once a Heresy (“Your research is crap, do not bother to apply again”), this idea is now regarded as Fundamental, having been conclusively demonstrated in the early 1980s via DNA evidence.

Some highlighted passages from Sheldrake:

Page 93
LICHENS ARE PLACES where an organism unravels into an ecosystem and where an ecosystem congeals into an organism. They flicker between “wholes” and “collections of parts.” …
Lichens are a product less of their parts than of the exchanges between those parts. Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns …
lichens don’t contain microbiomes. They are microbiomes, packed with fungi and bacteria besides the two established players.

Page 95
“The human binary view has made it difficult to ask questions that aren’t binary,” he explained. “Our strictures about sexuality make it difficult to ask questions about sexuality , and so on. We ask questions from the perspective of our cultural context. And this makes it extremely difficult to ask questions about complex symbioses like lichens because we think of ourselves as autonomous individuals and so find it hard to relate .”

…it is no longer possible to conceive of any organism—humans included—as distinct from the microbial communities they share a body with. The biological identity of most organisms can’t be pried apart from the life of their microbial symbionts.

Page 109
the study of symbiosis reveals that life is full of hybrid life-forms, such as lichens, which are composed of several different organisms Indeed, all plants, fungi, and animals, including ourselves, are composite beings to some extent : Eukaryotic cells are hybrids, and we all inhabit bodies that we share with a multitude of microbes without which we could not grow, behave, and reproduce as we do.

Continuing some of those thoughts, and encountering others:

The world with which we are entangled is not and has never been STABLE, nor has it been on some Whiggish trajectory toward improvement, let alone progressing toward any goal that we can conceive. And we are not the “Crown of Creation” except in our own Narcissistic reflected vision. So how shall we come to see ourselves as part of, as actors within, the vast terrestrial webs of Life? Our prime relationship to that complexity seems to be HUBRIS, acting on the basis of a tacit conviction that we are the Crown of Creation, and that the rest of Life is somehow our servant, subject to our command.

Via science, we’ve sought to unravel the complexities, to learn how Life works. And the further into the mysteries we proceed, the greater are the complexities we encounter. And the greater are the consequences of our hubris.

Sometimes Life deals out corrective lessons, and COVID-19 is a current example, the personal and societal and global consequences of which are only beginning to unfold—and it’s just a dress rehersal for The Big One, which will surely arrive but in what guise we can only guess.

So a perennial question for me concerns Entanglement, its complexities, dimensions, opportunities: how to map, engage with, appreciate, enjoy, traverse…

With respect to activities of the moment, but metaphorically extendable: we put seeds into the ground and await germination, but really it’s much more than that. The plant has to develop relationships with mycorrhizal fungi IN the soil in order to thrive. Mutualisms emerge which we neither see nor control.

Convivial Question

What are the Questions that puzzle and inspire?

This doesn’t need an answer so much as it focuses one’s attention on what the Mind is doing, is working upon in the background of consciousness. Thus, it makes a good Question for each of us to consider and perhaps respond to in the familiar idiosyncratic and free-associative fashion. Consciousness is always busy processing sensory input, appreciating the seen and heard and felt and tasted. But what’s going on beneath? Are the three wonderments described below the SAME in some sense? Are they all entangled in the perennial Question of how complexity and dynamical systems work, perhaps? We are clearly off the fairway, into the weeds, the rough, the unknown. Where I love to be wandering, if the truth be told.

So here’s a sketch of my own current state, made up of Questions emerging from the stimuli that have drifted across the bow in the last few days. We can begin with the observation of many many thousands of tiny orange ants in the soil I’ve been sifting from the sod that was stripped from the garden space. What, we wonder, are they doing? Where do they fit in? Is there some mutualism with the co-occurring worms, and/or with unseen other somethings? How could we learn more? [partial answer: a soon-to-arrive Field Guide to the Ants of New England].

A second element is this video of “7 levels of jazz harmony”:

which may at first blush seem to have nothing to do with orange ants, but addresses elegantly and most provocatively a [very] long-running puzzlement over just what happens in jazz, and spawns various hatchings of plans to explore further.

And a third element in temporal conjunction with the two above is the just-published and just-arrived (via Kindle and Audible) Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake [who is, remarkably and synchronistically enough, the son of Rupert Sheldrake, of Morphic Resonance fame], which I started to read this morning.

Here are the passages I highlighted as I read the Introduction, to illustrate my habitual process of collecting bits of aide mémoire, breadcrumbs along the pathway:

Introduction: What Is It Like to Be a Fungus?

Page 10
…[mycelia] weave themselves through the gaps between plant cells in an intimate brocade and help to defend plants against disease .

Page 11
Mushrooms are a fungus’s way to entreat the more-than-fungal world, from wind to squirrel, to assist with the dispersal of spores, or to prevent it from interfering with this process.

Page 12
Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing but as a process: an exploratory, irregular tendency.

Page 14
Unsustainable agricultural practices reduce the ability of plants to form relationships with the beneficial fungi on which they depend. The widespread use of antifungal chemicals has led to an unprecedented rise in new fungal superbugs that threaten both human and plant health. As humans disperse disease-causing fungi , we create new opportunities for their evolution.

Page 18
…many fungi can live within the roots of a single plant, and many plants can connect with a single fungal network. In this way a variety of substances , from nutrients to signaling compounds, can pass between plants via fungal connections.

Page 20
Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses. What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.

Page 23
Many scientific concepts—from time to chemical bonds to genes to species—lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with.

Page 25
There was something embarrassing about admitting that the tangle of our unfounded conjectures, fantasies, and metaphors might have helped shape our research. Regardless, imagination forms part of the everyday business of inquiring.

Page 27
…wondered what it was like to be a fungus. I found myself underground, surrounded by growing tips surging across one another. Schools of globular animals grazing—plant roots and their hustle—the Wild West of the soil—all those bandits, brigands, loners, crapshooters. The soil was a horizonless external gut—digestion and salvage everywhere—flocks of bacteria surfing on waves of electrical charge—chemical weather systems—subterranean highways—slimy infective embrace—seething intimate contact on all sides.

I’ll also point to an article in this week’s New Yorker, The Secret Lives of Fungi by Hua Hsu, which references Sheldrake and also Anna Haupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I read with great pleasure last summer.


Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature rolled in yesterday and transfixed me from the very first page:

I’ve known of OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, ‘Workshop for Potential Literature’) in a desultory sort of way for years, mostly via the work of Georges Perec (see Georges Perec provokes and Convivial Question and another genius) and largely thanks to my many years of friendship with Daniel Heïkalo, Oulipian avant la lettre. Becker introduces me to OuPhoPo, a Photographic avatar of the original institution, and a company of rats (“rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”) in which I feel I belong. “Cette association a pour de promouvoir la ‘Pataphysique de la photographie…”



morning egg duo


insect horror

are 3 examples of invocations of the playful, provocations to the literal and the staid.

And then in comes this bit of reality:

(from What Viral Shedding Looks Like During a Covid-19 Infection)

Much to think about. See Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules from The Guardian.

Convivial Question

Back in the day when I had classroom audiences, I’d tell them ahead of time what the “essay question” would be on the (still compulsory) exam, so that they could prepare something artful and interesting, and so that I wouldn’t have to read scores of bluebooks of blather. It sort of worked, because some took the opportunity to think about the question and actually tried to make a coherent response.

In crafting today’s Question for the Convivium, it’s been useful to me to explore how I find and explicate the idea. The starting place (Georges Perec in this case), the cross-connections, the contributions of others (Kate, in this instance, in response to my blog post), the influence of new input streams (reading the morning’s array of blog postings on my RSS feed), the writing down of passing thoughts for later consideration and integration… all very worthwhile to observe and recognize. Maria Popova’s relation of Ernst Haeckel’s tragedy and response is a glowing entrée to thinking about what Popova denominates elsewhere in today’s harvest as “…this intricate tessellation of being…”

Last night, Kate followed up the jigsaw puzzle line of thought with the observation that we are accustomed to the pieces of our lives fitting together, making patterns that we understand. But what’s now afoot for many is a disruption of the understood, the puzzle pieces unmoored and scattered, and many are now going nuts not being able to do the familiar, and with perspectives altered: twisted, fractured, adrift…

So what’s a constructive, healthy, satisfying response to such disorientation? For me I recognize that it’s finding something outside the inner selves (noting that, for some, the Inner is echoing, scary, empty, where the personal demons are), something that links with others. In my own case it’s turning out to be making stuff: the “word books” blogging project, the sending of links to various friends and relations, exploration and amelioration of various bits of long-standing disorganization.

What’s your response? Commence filling your bluebooks…

Much to chew upon

From Brian Greene
Until the End of Time: Mind, Matter, and Our Search for Meaning in an Evolving Universe (also just cited today by Andy Ilachinski)

We emerge from laws that, as far as we can tell, are timeless, and yet we exist for the briefest moment of time. We are guided by laws that operate without concern for destination, and yet we constantly ask ourselves where we are headed. We are shaped by laws that seem not to require an underlying rationale, and yet we persistently seek meaning and purpose.

Whereas most life, miraculous in its own right, is tethered to the immediate, we can step outside of time. We can think about the past, we can imagine the future. We can take in the universe, we can process it, we can explore it with mind and body, with reason and emotion. From our lonely corner of the cosmos we have used creativity and imagination to shape words and images and structures and sounds to express our longings and frustrations, our confusions and revelations, our failures and triumphs. We have used ingenuity and perseverance to touch the very limits of outer and inner space, determining fundamental laws that govern how stars shine and light travels, how time elapses and space expands—laws that allow us to peer back to the briefest moment after the universe began and then shift our gaze and contemplate its end.

As we hurtle toward a cold and barren cosmos, we must accept that there is no grand design. Particles are not endowed with purpose. There is no final answer hovering in the depths of space awaiting discovery. Instead, certain special collections of particles can think and feel and reflect, and within these subjective worlds they can create purpose. And so, in our quest to fathom the human condition, the only direction to look is inward. That is the noble direction to look. It is a direction that forgoes ready-made answers and turns to the highly personal journey of constructing our own meaning. It is a direction that leads to the very heart of creative expression and the source of our most resonant narratives. Science is a powerful, exquisite tool for grasping an external reality. But within that rubric, within that understanding, everything else is the human species contemplating itself, grasping what it needs to carry on, and telling a story that reverberates into the darkness, a story carved of sound and etched into silence, a story that, at its best, stirs the soul.

(quoted in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings today)

of Ot

This little story is complicated and digressive, but well worth trying to put together. It begins maybe a dozen years ago, in a taxi in Providence RI, a city that has a lot of public sculpture and other art stuff to look at. We passed by a particularly arresting sculptural creation and one of us said “What’s that?” and the taxi driver said “That? That’s ot” and thus the term ot was implanted into the Lexicon.

So yesterday morning one of the blogs I follow pointed to another tumblr with the stark message

2019 is almost over and all I gotta say is what the fuck was that

which expresses succinctly one of the mental states into which I occasionally stumble.

And the next though that coursed through my mind was

I take refuge in Ot

Where do these things come from? What imp instantiates them, sends them into Consciousness, which then offers them up to me to play with, these illusions and allusions that connect things to improbable other things?

The next thought was

hmmm. “take refuge in”…

which of course is a formula in Buddhist practice (one takes refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha), and that led to the realization that I was a bit less clear about this Dharma thing than I thought I should be, so a brief Wikipedia digression happened, and that led to an article on the Vedic concept of Ṛta (“the order that makes life and universe possible”, which seems to be nothing more or less than the Tao, innit?). That Sanskrit Ṛ phoneme is “a vocalist r, like that in pert or dirt, when pronounced with a rhotic r, e.g. as in American…”, but in Providence or Boston dialect would be non-rhotic [caa, paak, ot…]. And /Ṛta/ can be glossed as ‘Truth’.

And so on.

This Ot in which I claim to take refuge is well known to whatever readers of this blog there may be out there. Yesterday produced several more examples:

admonishing the young

punk sensibilities

(name it and you can keep it)


I’ve spent this week in a Maine Media workshop on InDesign, super-intensive because there were just two students, and the other has been away for the last two days. Today is the last day, and I’m trying to wrap my mind around what the upshot will be. In short, I seem to be deciding that I’m too old to do this: too old to learn my way around complex software (I can bumble through but can’t retain everything I’m told), too old to find it character-building to feel frustration with my own limitations, too old to revel in challenges. It’s akin to how I feel about physical challenges. Only a few years ago I’d leap from rock to rock while hiking, but now I go much more carefully. And I find that I’m using my reading glasses more and more, where I used to pride myself on uncorrected visual acuity.

So I’m beginning to wonder whether more InDesign Blurb books are the right presentation medium for the hoard of photographs I’m sitting on. The photographs themselves give me as much joy as ever, and certainly keep coming. This being appeared on a stump just outside the Maine Media classroom, and I had the wit to capture it:


I expect to have more to say about this general subject.

Rocks from whom one learns




Last night I took this specimen along on a visit and our hostess said “oooh is this a gift?” and I was immediately protective. “Certainly not!” I said, and immediately regretted my vehemence in defense of my rock, as I hadn’t even photographed it yet. I did make its portrait today, and thus recognized a Lesson in Attachment—one I might have learned (but had clearly forgotten) with the Bodhidharma example cited at the end of the Morphic Resonance post. In what wise is this rock my rock? Why should I wish to hold on to it? Wouldn’t it be better to appreciate it and pass it on so that others could enjoy its verisimilitude? Isn’t it enough to have discovered its several personalities and felt its agency? Yes, yes, 10,000 times yes.

of Morphic Resonance

It’s been months since the last post here, almost 3 quite busy months since our return home from this year’s cross-continent trip. The last six weeks included a very successful gallery show for Broot and a one-day pop-up show for me, and we’re now in Nova Scotia, just finishing another 3-week trip, this one a 55th anniversary circumtransit of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (four nights by freight boat from Rimouski to Blanc Sablon PQ; ferry from Labrador to St. Barbe, Newfoundland; north to L’Anse aux Meadows, then down the west coast to Gros Morne National Park, then ferry to North Sydney NS, and finally to Horton Landing; home to Maine by the weekend).


The usual welter of thoughts and reading and explorations of this’n’that accompanied, of course, so there’s much to get caught up.

The Flickr photostream tells many tales but also leaves out happenings that didn’t happen to get photographed. I’m just uploading the bountiful harvest of our week in Newfoundland, and thinking through What It All Means. And wondering what’s next. There are Flickr Albums of faces, surfaces and abstracts, and landscapes as a first stab at sorting the hundreds of images.

The perennial puzzlement of how to think about and what to do with the vast array of anthropo- and zoomorphic images of rocks and wood and water seems to be heading toward a resolution, but the complexities and leaps of association that underlie will take some explication. The cut-to-the-chase of the moment is an evolving scheme for a multimedia gallery presentation next summer, the provisional title for which is

Morphic Resonance:
Portraits in Stone, Wood, and Water

but the emergence of that title takes us back more than 3 million years, to the Makapansgat Pebble, which is surely an anthropomorphic form.:

The hominin ancestor who picked up and carried the pebble some 20 miles from its geological origin seems to me to represent an early (I’m tempted to claim the earliest) instance of aesthetic Consciousness in our own evolutionary branch [“possibly the earliest example of symbolic thinking or aesthetic sense in the human heritage”]). My own pursuit of wholly imaginary faces in various materials seems a direct descendant. I’ve been chewing over the deeper significance of this for the last year or so (since I learned of the Makapansgat Pebble). A couple of weeks ago the phrase “morphic resonance” drifted through my mind, and seemed somehow portentious (though I can’t remember when/where I first encountered it). It turned out to be a coinage of Rupert Sheldrake:

Morphic resonance is a process whereby self-organising systems inherit a memory from previous similar systems. In its most general formulation, morphic resonance means that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits. The hypothesis of morphic resonance also leads to a radically new interpretation of memory storage in the brain and of biological inheritance. Memory need not be stored in material traces inside brains, which are more like TV receivers than video recorders, tuning into influences from the past. And biological inheritance need not all be coded in the genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes; much of it depends on morphic resonance from previous members of the species. Thus each individual inherits a collective memory from past members of the species, and also contributes to the collective memory, affecting other members of the species in the future.

This seems akin to notions of ‘distributed consciousness’ with which I’ve been toying in the last year or so, and surely skates on the rim of mystical hoo-hah. I direct your attention to the Bodhidharma posts of February 2018 for earlier instances, and of course to the Just a Rock: a lithic menagerie book; see also Form Finds Form and Just Another Rock and Allegories and Agglomerations for more kindred threads.

fruits of the morning’s beachcombing


Stuff keeps washing up along my personal tidelines, some of it simple flotsam or jetsam, some of it elements in evolving sculpture and macramé, some of it of indeterminate utility. It All Counts, as my mentor Allen Smith said of the work of the Reference Librarian.

Two cases in point, the first an enduring puzzlement reeled in and partly digested a few months ago, the second a new discovery this morning, via a posting to The WELL’s State of the World (Paulina Borsook) which seems to make sense of the first:

  1. Timothy Morton’s
    Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

    “…Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls ‘hyperobjects’—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place… concepts such as world, nature, and even environment are no longer a meaningful horizon against which human events take place. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of reasoning.Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to comprehend the world we now live in, Hyperobjects takes the first steps, outlining a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action…”

  2. Force Majeure at UC Santa Cruz

    Five Understandings

    First understanding

    Nature’s economic system stores the energy that it does not immediately need
    mostly in carbon formations

    Second understanding

    Nature does not charge a profit as do culture’s economic systems

    Third understanding

    All natural systems are dissipative structures with individuals that form them living,
    reproducing then dying with indeterminacy as a norm

    Fourth understanding

    All natural systems have learned to nest within each other, and, within a context of
    symbiosis contribute to collective systems survival, sometimes with abundance

    Fifth understanding

    Human constructed artifacts particularly legal, political, economic as well as
    production and consumption systems seek constancy but are often in violation of the
    laws of conservation of energy pointing toward systems entropy

Working out the implications, awaiting the next tide…