Peter Warshall

a presentation of the Maniacal Naturalist Society

“It’s the hunter gatherer tradition of sitting around at night, and sometimes there’s a fire, hopefully there’s enough wood for a fire, and just telling the day’s events. So were just talking through the day’s events, they’re just kind of ‘just so stories,’ like Kipling’s stories. In this case we are going to be sitting around the sun, and the stories will be about the suchness of the planet.”

She was born in a pompous and prejudiced Victorian society. Because she was a girl she was not sent to school. And she snuck out of her house with a little pad and went to the Natural History Museum in London, which was right in her neighborhood. She drew everything. She became shyer, she became more retiring. She drew the gills of mushrooms, the gills of fish, she drew anything she could draw in that museum. And then she was given a watercolor set and started to do it all over gain, this time in watercolors.

In the summers she was taken up to the Lake District and she met a postman and the postman was in love with fungus and mosses. And they became the greatest friends. And so she showed her pictures to the postman, who criticized her and told her how she could make better pictures of fungi and mushrooms, and her uncle noticed that she really loved natural history. Her uncle was Sir Henry Roscoe, one of the great chemists of England at that time, and gave her for her birthday a microscope. She started to do even more drawings. And she confirmed a suggestion by a very ridiculed and weird Swiss botanist that lichen was not a lowly plant but instead a fusion of two fully evolved beings, an algae and a fungus that had merged into a third being.

After she found out that this was actually two distinct beings fused together, Sir Henry said she should give this as a paper at the Linnaean Society, which is where Darwin had given his paper. There was one small problem, women were barred from the Linnaean Society, and they were even barred from open meetings, they couldn’t even go and listen. Well Sir Henry, this is a real Dickensian story, this is the period of Dickens, and Sir Henry Roscoe says, “I will go and give the paper myself and they can’t say no because I’ve been knighted.” So he won the right to give her paper, and oddly the proceedings of the time he gave that paper completely disappeared and no one has any record of what he said. But Beatrix in her journal, which has become encrypted, so that the Victorian scientific community can’t read it, discusses what Sir Henry had told her, which is that most people in the audience went “tut-tut,” and smirked, and said that lichen could not possibly be two different creatures because, and this reflects Gay Liberation and you’ve heard it before, “Lichen was an unnatural union, and therefore couldn’t possibly exist.”

Well, Sir Henry, the good uncle, would not give up and took her beautiful drawings, and I couldn’t get any pictures of them, which is in itself interesting, to the Royal Gardens at Kew, where the head of the Royal Gardens had another great Dickensian name, W.H. Thistleton Dire. The dire thistles in great quantity. Well, he took Beatrix over there, and Beatrix writes in her journal, again this is where we get all this information, she was a very good journal keeper. She was suspicious that anything good was going to happen because all the women who worked in Kew were required not to wear dresses, not to wear blouses, but only to wear knickerbockers. And every woman was required to wear the same knickerbockers. And so she writes that she thinks this isn’t going to work out. Well, she goes in and W.H. Thistleton Dire is puffing cigarettes and won’t even look at her. And he won’t look at the portfolio. And he talks looking straight at her uncle, and boasts that his hyacinths are more beautiful than the hyacinths you can fin in Holland, and doesn’t that prove that the Royal Gardens are better than any other place. And finally her uncle points to the beautiful drawings she does and he says, “ Well maybe Cambridge would like to look at this.” And he never opens it. Well she leaves, and she writes in her journal that this will be the end of her encounter with grown-up science. And that’s what she calls it. And she leaves that and moves finally to the Lake Country where instead we get Peter Rabbit.

So she ends up in the Lake Country writing about Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck and Squirrel Nutkin, and they took the place of her becoming a famous lichenologist. Finally in 1929, H.G. Wells and Julian Huxley get together and write a book called The Science Of Life, where they cite Beatrix Potter and agree with her that indeed this isn’t a lowly plant, on a lower echelon of the chain of being, but it is actually a fusion of two. This is the triumph of symbiosis, led by her. Although it took until 1967 when William Findlay, another guy, big scientist, finally took her paintings and drawings, which again I could not get hold of, but seventy years after being rejected by the Kew Gardens, publishes The Lichens Of England with her pictures in it. One hundred years later in 1997, the Linnaean Society issued a formal apology. It’s really not so bad if you consider how long it took the Vatican to apologize to Galileo for his house arrest. So the Linnaean Society might be liberal from that point of view.

What was interesting is that when she did her drawings for her children’s books she put lichens on all the trees, but because it was so controversial, this unnatural union she was talking about, all of her printers took the lichens off the trees. There has never been a republication of Peter Rabbit with the lichens on it. There is only one picture I could find which has shreds of lichens in the corners and lying around that they allowed to be left in any of her twenty-four stories that she ever wrote.

I’m just trying to give you a feeling of how resistant people were to the intimate love of the algae and the fungus. The fungus envelops the algae, or sometimes green bacteria, and keeps it hydrated. Fungi are really great at holding water in, unlike us more evolved beings, we leak our water. It also helps shield it from ultraviolet light which would otherwise break apart and bust up the algae or the green bacteria inside. And this fungus is so sensitive that it crawls all over the trees till it finds the right algae. And it tests the algae, it touches the algae. Sometimes even entering into the algae a little bit to make sure it’s the right species. And if it’s not it says “No, no, I’ve had this affair before,” and goes on and the fungus keeps crawling the tree until it finds the right algae.

The algae supplies the fungus with sugar, to get high, because fungi can’t make sugars. And it does that of course by trapping light and converting water and CO2 into sugar. So close is this turn-on of each other that if you separated out the algae and the fungus you’d have a green blob and a brownish blob with no form at all. The two come together and create new forms. This has occurred not once, but 15,000 times on the planet. Now remember that these are not species, these are two different creatures. Only 300 of the 15,000 fungi have had their bacteria and algae identified. So there’s a little work to be done there.

The interesting part about this symbiosis, this living together, is it protected itself all over the planet. Here we’re looking at watermelon snow, pink snow in the Antarctic. Here again the fungi is protecting the green bacteria, which are hidden under the red bacteria, from being blown up by UV and from getting too cold by creating a warm water blanket around it, the red part is the bacteria living inside the fungus. What’s interesting is that this is the way that plants gained a hold on the earth. I’m going to quote Lynn Margulis here, who is kind of the inventor and modern heir of Beatrix Potter, and she says “Symbiogenesis was the moon that pulled the tide of life from the oceanic depths to dry land and up into the air.” Really for a scientist, that’s a pretty nice sentence. And what happened is that out of the sea came these two creatures together, not separate, and they started to cover the earth. And they kept the ocean with them inside. The salinity of a fungus is about the salinity of the ocean. You may know also that the salinity of our eyeball is about the same salinity as the ocean. We keep the ocean in our eye because that’s where we first receive light and so we already developed the filtering mechanism, the apparatus to deal with light in the ocean. So when you come out of the ocean you just keep the ocean inside your eyeball.

Well, the fungus did the same thing and it created this net, this huge net across the planet. I mean this is the first real World Wide Web. And this web of animated water, for instance just one was discovered in Michigan, to give you an idea of this web of fungus, and it is the same fungus and covers thirty-one miles. It’s the biggest creature on the planet. Not the blue whale or the elephant or anything like that but this fungal mat, and they took DNA from one end to the other to make sure it was the same critter. And so, we see as this is happening we have this one first symbiosis that is creating more life on the planet and beginning to infect the planet and become a great Gaian physiology, which I’ll get to. I want to say that this is for me part of the Maniacal Natural History Society Commentary, really worked up with Kafka, who wrote that the real sin of human beings was not that they ate an apple from the tree of knowledge, but that they ignored an apple from the tree of life. And had they eaten an apple from the tree of life they would have gotten immortality, which would have given them lots of time to think about and learn things.

But he didn’t look underneath the ocean, he didn’t look underneath the trees. And if you looked underneath it, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are connected by a mycorrhizal mat, by a mat of fungi, that connect all trees together, in fact without it, they wouldn’t live. If you hurt one tree it communicates to the next tree so that it can prepare for an attack of insects. If you break the connection by just taking a bulldozer between two trees, both trees go into stress mode because they are no longer in communication.

The fungal mat actually connects those trees, and what you have is not the image of all the Abrahamic religions, that things come out as the tree of life, with branches that go further and further apart with humans over here and elephants and frogs over there, but you actually have the image that symbiosis teaches, that life is a braided river. That things come apart, like an algae and a fungus and then come back together again. And then they spread out and come back together again. So the whole imagery of symbiosis is contrary to the prevailing religions all over the world in not thinking of life as a tree but more or less as a braided river.

So what I’m saying here is that this symbiosis is not just something to throw away or not think about. The Kafka, by the way, is in Parables and Paradoxes, which is one of the great books of all times, where he goes through the Bible and re-does almost every story in it.

The fungus lives inside the root of a tree, too. The fungus does the same thing, it provides a moist environment around the root. It actually breaks down some of the soil particles, takes phosphorus and calcium, the minerals you need, and gives it to the plant. The plant pumps out all these sugars and sends it down to the fungus. And together, if they are one organism or two, or however you want to look at it, that’s how they feed each other. Over the billions of years, the fungus has turned into a kind of nerve net for forests so that the forests are completely communicating between the trees.

from a lecture enititled Symbiosis given by Peter Warshall at Naropa University on June 13, 2003 and transcribed in the incredible collection Civil Disobediences: Poetics And Politics In Action

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