Essential Reads

Over the past 30 years the foundations that have held up our increasingly globalized civilization have begun to seem like a tottery house of cards—or perhaps a prison of thought. Hierarchy, competition, separateness, the polarizing habit that makes us right and everyone else wrong—it’s tiresome, lonely, needlessly and immensely destructive. How we long for a shift that can bring our world back into balance, restore us to a way of living based in respect and cooperation, bring us back to wonder. Well, it’s happening now. Here are three books that not only show the paradigm shift in motion but suggest ways we can actively participate.

Temple Grandin’s remarkable use of her autism as a teacher has already yielded the autobiographical Thinking in Pictures, which expanded readers’ understanding of autism, while her work as a consultant to the livestock industry resulted in major upgrades in humane treatment of animals at stockyards and slaughter facilities. Animals in Translation brings the threads together to reveal animals as beings of different but not lesser intelligence than humans and with particular forms of genius we can’t begin to guess. With great patience Grandin addresses every facet of our ingrained belief in the “inferior” intelligence and emotional capacity of animals, using only facts to shift us.

My favorite story is about the prairie dogs studied by Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University. By recording every detail of prairie dog colony life, analyzing vocalizations using sonograms and correlating vocalizations with videotaped events, Dr. Slobodchikoff was able to decipher a complex prairie dog language—or at least those parts of the language relating to intruders. The prairie dogs communicated not just the approach of a predator, but what species (hawk, coyote, dog), how fast it was moving and from what direction, and whether it was a stranger or a particular animal they knew—the coyote who sits patiently by a burrow entrance waiting for dinner, or the one who strolls through the colony ready to lunge for a prairie dog too far from an entrance. They told of the size of an approaching person, the color of their clothing, and whether or not they were carrying a gun. Counter to conjecture that this language is genetically programmed rather than passed on from one generation to the next, Slobodchikoff found that different prairie dog colonies in the Flagstaff area speak different dialects, and that the prairie dogs could come up with new combinations of words to describe objects they had never before seen.

Dan Dagget’s book, Gardeners of Eden, addresses the ways environmentalists act out the old paradigm. We save land by making it off-limits to any human activities that might change it. “We treat this land outside our exploitosphere as if it were a combination art exhibit, zoo, cathedral, and adventure park. There we limit ourselves to roles as sightseers, worshipers, caretakers, and joyriders.” Granted, any land will fare better as a nature preserve than as a strip mine or a strip mall, but for restoration of already damaged land, leaving it alone has one serious drawback—it doesn’t work all that well. As Daggett says, “We humans were once a part, in some cases a very important part, of the very ecosystems we’re trying to restore by removing ourselves from them.”

With eye-opening photos by Tom Bean on almost every page, Gardeners of Eden shows example after example of habitats improved by human activities. Controlled brush fires, little rock piles meant to slow water rather than dam it, and the sort of intensive rotational grazing that mimics wild hoofed animals kept close together for protection from stalking predators—all are demonstrated to good effect. Just as important are the stories of people paying attention to the details of particular places and adjusting their actions accordingly, listening to the earth rather than to preconceived abstractions. Though Daggett’s overblown confrontational style can be irritating, the message is vibrant and vital.

Paul Stamet’s Mycelium Running is to me the most broadly inspiring of these books, even though some might call it a technical handbook on an arcane subject. Stamet’s passion for fungi is contagious, his thirty years’ experience stacks up in the book’s pages, and his vision of the planetary role of mycelium is at once stunningly surprising and self-evident. Unlike Daggett, he expends no energy arguing against the old paradigm—he’s in the new one, and he sweeps us along with him.

Mushrooms are the reproductive apparatus of fungi, while mycelium is the usually unnoticed underground part, the cobwebby strands that convert woody debris into soil and make nutrients available to plants. Mycelial mats— “vast sentient cellular membranes,” in Stamets’ words—can cover thousands of acres while retaining awareness of the differing needs of individual plants within their network. Stamets cites an experiment in which researchers covered a fir tree to simulate deep shade and found that mycelium rerouted nutrients from other trees to make up for the fir’s inability to photosynthesize. There are species of fungi that can filter bacterial pathogens and chemical toxins from water (explored in the chapter on mycofiltration) as well as those that strengthen the health of forest ecosystems (mycofroestry).

A fascinating chapter on mycoremediation focuses on fungi capable of breaking down the complex toxic chemicals that make up petroleum products, explosives, chemical weapons, and industrial metals like lead, arsenic, mercury, and radioactive cesium. These topics and quite a few more are covered in great detail, aided by scientific studies and charts showing which fungi break down which chemicals and with practical guidelines for growing the various species. While the research is high-tech, the application can be DIY.

Even more appealing are chapters on growing medicinal fungi, and on species that can be grown in garden beds with the dual purpose of producing bigger, more nutritious vegetables while providing gourmet mushrooms. By the end of the book, you’ll not only know why its subtitle is “How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World”—you’ll be ready to jump in and do your part.

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