Stirring the Mud by Barbara Hurd Review by Alexis Williams
This book is gooey and soupy and dreamy. The author dons hip waders to squish out metaphor and opaque imagery. It’s scientifically informed poetry. It’s about liminality, emptiness, spirituality, unknowing, death, decay, preservation and human relationships with wildness. It showcases Tamarack, Ghost Pipes, Pitcher Plants, Lady Slippers, Duck Weed, swamp gas, Bog Beacons and mud. This book was written for me.
Entangled Life By Merlin Sheldrake Reviewed by Alexis Williams, Sept 2020
Merlin Sheldrake says dreamy things like: “If I think about about mycelium for more than a minute, my mind starts to stretch.” There wasn’t time for me to present his book Entangled Life to last month’s Biophilia Book Club, which is just as well, because I wouldn’t have been able to do it without licking the cover. I love this book. It’s my new all time fave.
I just read Fungi Magazine’s bad review of this book. Their main complaint was the lack of Latin binomials. Did they ever miss the point! The distinct separation between species, as celebrated by taxonomy, is a very human construct. Sheldrake is suggesting that we are all symbiotic, composite organisms with blurred boundaries between our selves. A point he presented quite clearly. While reading this book I would see an image of a concept and for a moment I would feel like I had had the idea myself. The next page he would render the image a different way, and then again until he spelled it out plainly. Not only was he dexterous in presenting an idea, he did it with tension and style.
Life Everlasting by Bernd Heinrich Reviewed by Alexis Williams
Life Everlasting: The animal way of death is a book about wild death that should be called Decomposition: Ecological recyclers. It’s not only about animals, it talks about plants and fungi and protists and bacteria. It looks at a long list of fascinating organisms that facilitate decomposition. (with out ever using the word saprophyte)
It is a beautiful look at the mechanics and behaviors that guide nutrients through ecology. There were some details that I found obscene and plan to redact with black marker, but I give this full marks for being exciting and weird and smart and interested in all the right stuff: Dung Beetles, Vultures, mushrooms, he even explains how caterpillars turn into moths. The whole way through he manages to be insightful rather than yucky.
Thus Spoke the Plant by Monica Gagliano reviewed by Alexis Williams
Here’s a book written by a research biologist that begins by describing the visions and dreams she had while taking shamanic plant medicine in the Amazon. Monica Gagliano works with cutting edge and controversial research biologists in labs that test plant neurobiology. She engages with artists and philosophers in critical plant studies.
Although I groaned through the first few chapters; It seemed like a dream diary and that her thesis was going to be ‘why do scientific experimentation when we can get all the answers by getting high?’ (and the doodles that introduce the chapters are embarrassing, I wish she had asked a visionary artist or a botanical illustrator to make them.) But then she took what she learned in the jungle ceremonies back to the lab and designed experiments to test plant communication. She immediately found that plants are aware of which other plants are growing near them even if there is no path for light, touch or chemical communication, which were the only ways science had previously observed plants communicate with each other.
The book oscillates comfortably between visionary spiritual experiences, botanical research experiments and insight on what it all means. Each experiment is a famous one that I’ve heard described by cool scientists, but I never knew that they were all by the same botanist, like the one with the falling sensitive plants that learn not to flinch or the one where roots reach towards the sound of running water. Her accounts of very different kinds of experiences are strung together by tangential rants about how human culture views plants and our relationships to nature which I found validating.
There’s all sorts of stuff in this book that I disagree with, but in ways that are fun to disagree with. Most of it I do agree with and I enjoyed reading throughout. After finishing this book I felt happy and warm. A lot of it was abstract prose about being one with the universe but she did it without using cheesy clichés.
We have very few words in English that refer to taste. We have a few: sweet, sour, umami, salty.. Is there another? Bitter? How is that different from sour? So we generally use similes. We say something tastes like something else. I’m tasting things right now and trying to describe them. I’ve got a bowl of salad. Spinach, cheese, ham, pecans and some sesame oil and soy sauce. I’m focusing on how I experience each bite. There’s texture first, then taste, which is sometimes insignificant but sometimes specific and nostalgic and and then there’s pleasure.
Texture is complicated. I think it’s the main way I experience my food, but how do I sense texture? I’m not even feeling the food with my tongue! I’m mostly using my tongue to position the food between my teeth so I can crunch it. That’s how I know the texture, it’s a proprioception thing. Proprioception is one of the human senses that we pretend we don’t have. It’s how we know where our limbs are even with our eyes closed. It’s how dancers dance. I think feeling food texture is all about how my jaw moves against the food. How the food comes apart. I love how the pecans shatter in a stuttering slow motion explosion. It’s my favorite part. The cheese is squishy. It’s flavor is very mild, barely noticeable but the texture is distinct. It’s very familiar and comforting but the more I focus on it the more surprised I am. Its square. But I’m barely touching it. It is wet. What? Yes there is a juicyness to it. Gosh cheese must be gross to adults who try it for the first time. (Being able to digest dairy is a relatively new twist in human evolution. Lactose intolerant people are the norm, the rest of us are weirdos. much of the world doesn’t do cheese) I’m very aware of how wet the food is, but how? Its touch I think. I can feel liquid moving in my mouth. Its cold, but I also can be aware of hot liquid. It’s the movement of it seeping and sticking and making suction in my mouth.
My experience of the texture of pecans and cheese also very much comes from sound. I have ‘misophonia’ a ‘disorder’ where some sounds make me ‘feel sick’, especially sounds related to eating, but I think these words are over simplifications and only recognize the negative side of the condition. People with misophonia get irritated and angry in response to certain sounds. And yes that happens to me, but I’m also very aware of changes in my body chemistry. So rather than just being angry at sounds I intentionally and physically “feel” the stress hormones that are released in my body. But there are sounds that give me pleasure. Rhythmic high pitched noises drive me crazy but chaotic ones are great: lip smacking, clock ticking and snare drums make be supremely uncomfortable and if I hear them for long periods of time I can become emotionally exhausted. But some are very soothing and pleasurable like the swoosh of water, or someone yelling in my ear at a concert. I’ve read that potato chip manufacturers are more concerned with the sounds of their chip crunching than the flavor because crunching is more important than flavor when it comes to ‘taste’. I’ve been on a very low sugar diet for several years so am aware of how sugar gives pleasure and how quickly I get addicted to it. Oh, that ‘feeling sick’ from sounds is a simplification of a strange phenomenon. There are sounds that make me react in a way that’s half way between a gag and a yawn. It could easily be misinterpreted as a gag, but it’s that same rumbly sound you hear in your ears when you yawn and stretch. It’s like an automatic meridian sensory response. (Asmr) I think it’s the sound of a muscle inside my head. I think part of the common interpretation as sickness is from the social stigma of doing a gag gesture at the table. If you’ve ever suppressed a gag while eating something gross in polite company you can relate to some of the stress of misophonia.
I think a big part of taste is how it affects our body chemistry. If we like something it gives us a cocktail of dopamine and serotonin and pleasure endorphins. I bet this a big part of what we perceive as taste. It isn’t so much how we perceive the chemistry of food, but how we perceive the chemistry of our selves after experiencing the food.
I did some more tasting and am surprised at how many senses are involved. Vision is very important and sound and smell and temperature and all the senses that go into decoding texture. I suggest that what we call taste is not a sense but actually cognition. It’s how our brains use all these perceptions to make sense of food.