Fungal Fabulation

January 2019 reflections compiled by Narda Nelson

The educators and children in one of the programs with our CAN inquiry have been attending to mushrooms for many months now. In January they hosted one of our CAN educator conversations and led us through an evening of fungal fabulations!

With our inquiry work of late, the children have taken very clearly to know not to touch mushrooms in the forest. In fact, today when a child was looking at a mushroom identification book he told me, “I am looking at a mushroom book.” I said, “oh yes, what can you tell me about mushrooms?” “No touch-a mushroom!” The thought that came to me, as I heard his very definitive answer was “but there is so much more to know about mushrooms!” And what if we touch the mushrooms (that are purchased at the grocery store or market) the ones that are deemed “safe” to touch? What can we learn? What if we touch them and explore them and eat them? What else can we teach children to fully know about mushrooms? By not touching them exclusively what are we excluding? We can give the mushrooms in the forest space and room to be as we do other living and non-living things in the forest and still consume and be present with the offerings that mushrooms have. What can we learn as educators and co-learners and what can we share about mushrooms? I know from a mushroom workshop that fungi grow toward harmful toxins in contaminated soil, grow toward and consume the toxins to the point of the mushrooms still being edible afterwards. I know that mushrooms are full of umami.  “Umami is the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning “delicious,’ umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is described as a savory, brothy, rich or meaty taste sensation. … Cured meats, soy sauce, aged cheese and mushrooms are rich in it.”  Mushrooms are full of potential health benefits that are numerous, including one of the only non-animal sources of vitamin D

Anna Tsing (2015) is helpful to think with about mushrooms within the context of climate change and our intra-relationships with Haro Woods trees and other forest inhabitants, including the children.  In trying to come to a fuller understanding of ‘mushroom-ness’ (umami-ness, fleshiness, gills, spore tracks, etc.) can we do it in a way that also opens up understandings of them, their mycelium and diverse fruiting bodies, as fellow co-respondents to constantly changing conditions, that is: expressions of how they respond to trees, moisture levels, weather, drought as they respond to climate change?  We have chosen to focus on trees through our CAN research project, but as Tsing says,  

rather than limit our analyses to one creature at a time (including humans), or even one relationship, if we want to know what makes places livable we should be studying polyphonic assemblages, gatherings of ways of being.  Assemblages are performances of livability.  Matsutake stories draw us into pine stories and nematode stories: in their moment of coordination with each other they create livable-or killing-situations…Matsutake is nothing without the rhythms of the matsutake forest…Organisms don’t have to show their human equivalence (as conscious agents, intentional communicators, or ethical subjects) to count.  If we are interested in liveability, impermanence, and emergence, we should be watching the action of landscape assemblages.  Assemblages coalesce, change, and dissolve: this is the story.   

(Tsing, 2015, pp. 157-158) 

Paying attention to the story of mushrooms also draws attention to the histories of this place and the way death cap mushrooms arrived here in the first place.  Agnes Lynn with the Victoria Natural History Society (VNHS) gave a guided tour of a park next to the experimental farm along the Pat Bay Hwy and talked about all of the beautiful trees that were imported by colonial settlers which brought death cap mushrooms with them, which laid dormant for decades before emerging.  How has the experience of encountering mushrooms in Haro Woods been shaped by these histories?  What about the experiences and relationships of the Lekwungen peoples in this place?  

Fabulous fungi

Thinking with mushrooms spore tracks (something one of the educators has been doing with the children) moves mushrooms into the realm of something we tend to associate with animals: leaving tracks.  Spore tracks can invite new reimaginings then of these beings, as we talk about them “helping trees to talk with each other, eat, etc.”.  Yet picking them in the forest for the sole purpose of examining their spore tracks can also bring us closer to “instrumentalizing” them (i.e., picking them for children’s intellectual growth).  How might we navigate these tensions?  Makes me think back to that moment of finding spore tracks on an ivy leaf in the forest with one of the educators, and one child’s response upon seeing it: Do you want to see ‘our’ tracks?”. This could be an interesting direction to take the conversation too.  What does it mean to think about mushrooms outside of their forest context?  Does knowing an oyster mushroom, for example, bring us closer to knowing the mushrooms we encounter in Haro Woods?  Perhaps it does both: simultaneously does and doesn’t bring us closer.  What do we risk by doing this with the children?  What might we risk if we don’t? 

Fungal flesh

In our coming together, two educators shared their knowledge and cultural perspectives on mushroom relations, including what they see as a very different approach to “living with” mushrooms in this part of the world as compared to their experiences growing up in China.  We learned about fungi medicinal properties, trace mineral and vitamin nutrients, and speculated on why children do not seem to eat them here as much.  Another educator talked about her personal experience sorting, grading, buying, selling and eating mushrooms in her family’s mushroom business and the way she carries those experiences and memories with her in educational practice (re-emerge through this inquiry).  

Cleaning gills

What is it about mushrooms that creates such a draw for the toddlers? How can we navigate the tensions between honouring these interests and mushrooms as co-inhabitants while being cautious to not minimize the risk of encountering poisonous bodies?  Is it possible to follow spore track curiosities (pick mushrooms for this purpose) while not instrumentalizing them?  Conversely, can we engage with mushrooms without perpetuating the Euro-Western “nature vs. culture” binary and terra nullius, which suggest nature exists somewhere “out there” devoid of human contact (similar notion used by colonizers to steal so-called “empty and under-utilized” Indigenous lands).  Many perspectives from other centres were shared as well, including reading from the illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees describing the oldest (2,400 yr old fungus in an Oregon forest!) and largest living (3.8kms!) organism in the world:  One humungous fungus!!! 

Medicinal mass

Examining more closely mushrooms and the worlds they co-create makes visible children’s desires to be taken seriously in the wider community.  Encountering a senior’s walking group in the forest while looking for mushrooms, one of the children corrected a woman’s comment that the children were “playing in the forest.” “We are looking for mushrooms!”  Children seem proud of their mushroom discoveries and photo-documentation and want to share their own knowledges as well as engage with “adult” field guides in identifying mushrooms and other fungi in Haro Woods. 

Thinking wall

Taking it to the Streets

By Narda Nelson – January 29, 2019

Three centres were scheduled for ‘atrium time’ this morning.  Children, educators, and pedagogists meet regularly here to review documentation, experiment, draw, and speculate together.  Closet doors become de facto display space for posting pedagogical narrations. Sticking pieces of paper to closet doors is part of an ongoing intention to make inquiry work visible to families, educators, students and children passing through: “Something is happening here!”

This is a public space. Iris Berger (2010) tells us about the emphasis feminist philosopher, Hannah Arendt, places on public spaces wherein “[s]he described the public realm as a ‘place of appearances’; a place for ‘being seen and heard’…and, most importantly, a place where stories are told and relations between narratives occur” (p. 59):

Being seen and being heard by others derive their significance from the fact that everybody sees and hears from a different position.  This is the meaning of public life…Each time we talk about things that can be experienced only in privacy or intimacy, we bring them out into a sphere where they will assume a kind of reality…The presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves.

Arendt (1998) in Berger (2010, p. 60)

Low-flow toilets are also part of the new reality in this public space.  They matter here in more ways than most people care to know.  Sewage pipes clog regularly since their installation, backing up onto floors as rubber-gloved educators deal with young bodies and bathroom mess, part of the unintended consequence of trying to do ‘what’s best’ in uncertain times. I had planned to project video clips and photos from the previous week’s forest inquiry time onto atrium walls this morning to hear what the children thought about the footage… 

What was happening in this video? What story were we trying to tell?  Did our experiment ‘work’?  Do these images tell us anything different about trees?

But the grind of metal against porcelain and a plumbing snake sticking out from the bathroom greet me as I walk in the atrium.  Childhood centre doors are closed to the room.  Two toddlers watch with fascination through an atrium-classroom window as the plumber starts the now weekly ritual of feeding the snake down into the pipes to clear whatever is clogging them.  

New toilets.  Less water. Old pipes.

Low-flow toilets satisfy new building codes aimed at bringing more sustainable structures into existence. Except.  We cannot seem to flush our excess away.  Excrement and wads of toilet paper, clay, dirt, and bits of food haunt the centres’ pipes, in the same way increased street run-off haunts tree roots in Haro Woods, and hormones and chemical toxins haunt clam beds, fish, and orca bodies in the Salish Sea.  These haunting inheritances contribute to an increasing sense of urgency around local sewage politics.  Climate change lives here.

It also lives on the street where six Garry oak trees are slated to be cut down to make room for more bike lanes, buses, and sidewalks.  Some of us noticed yellow tree removal notifications tacked to trees along the road leading into the centre this morning.  “I saw the yellow sign with my Dad when we got here!”  Rather than waiting around for the plumber to finish, the decision is made to walk outside and see what the signs on the trees say.   

Discussion ripples throughout the hallway and centres as children and educators react to the news and prepare to walk across the street to take a closer look:

  • Oh!!  This is aterrible thing!  It makes me so mad. Why??! Honestly. 
  • They build roundabouts to slow everyone down.  Why can’t they leave the trees to slow everyone down too?  Do we need perfectly straight lines on the street?
  • If there are signs I think they’ll cut them down.
  • It’s completely unnecessary!! 
  • Why don’t they just make a tunnel underneath for the sewer?  Like cut ½ the roots.” (one child holds her nose at her friend’s mention of sewage)
  • I heard it might be for bikes.  They’re going to plant more trees.

Our conversation continues out into the street. One of the educators reading the sign to children:

“This tree will be removed to accommodate the construction of the Finnerty Rd. upgrades. At least 22 replacement trees to be planted in the nearby community.”  Huh. What do you think about it?  You know, we also read about it that they’re going to build bike paths here, that’s why they’ll cut the trees down.  How do you feel about it?

Tree Removal Notice
  • Child: I feel like the bark is sad that they’re gonna get trimmed.
  • Child: Yeah.  You think they’re gonna get trimmed.  I think they’ll do more than trimming.
  • Child: I thinking that this one is gonna get trimmed!
  • Child: The replacement trees will be in the forest.  Or maybe they’ll put them in the community garden.
  • Educator: I heard about children in Vancouver tying their stuffies to trees to save them and you know what?  They did not cut the trees down.  But I don’t know, I associate that more with someone dying in an accident.  But really, I mean I guess the same thing is basically going to happen to these trees. 
  • Narda: I heard about people who were upset that trees were being cut down in Mumbai, India so they held a funeral march for a tree.  They put the tree trunk in a coffin and marched it through the streets.  How old do you think these trees are?  
  • Child: I know!  It’s 100years old.

One of the educators on her break happens by and stops to talk to us about her thoughts, does as a regular bike commuter on this road: “I don’t know why they are cutting them down.  It’s wide enough. I have never felt unsafe biking along here.  It’s a fairly quiet street and it connects to a bike lane right there and then the round-about and more bike lanes.”  Educator in response: “This particular spot is not a problem. You know we always tell children growing up to ‘respect their elders’, is this how we respect our elders?” (referring to the trees)

Passengers in passing cars seem curious about what we are doing and a few people walking by engage us in conversation.  A woman in a stroller with two children says,“Oh yeah! Yes, but they’re going to plant a bunch more.  And we get to tell them where we want the new trees.”

This sounds positive. But, as one of the educators says, “Do they think that planting new trees replaces those big old ones?  Like they are just inter-changeable ‘things’?” Someone brings up German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees, and how he referred to trees in concrete as ‘street children’, ‘orphans’ who are raised without parents or a community to help them grow.

Noticing trees

One child says “they can do whatever they want with the trees.” “Hmmm” replies one of the educators: “Interesting.  Yes, this may very well be true.  Do you think it is okay to do whatever they want?”  I am reminded of Peter Moss’ discussion of the “dictatorship of no alternatives” in market-driven societies. The question of whether it is ‘necessary’ to remove these trees dominates our conversations between ourselves and with strangers.  

We look closely at the trees on the streets and see worms in the leaves at the base of the Garry Oaks, a spider in the crack of the bark, and neighbouring trees who undoubtedly communicate via subterranean networks (‘wood-wide-web’) with the help of fungi. Children notice that one of Garry Oaks is “hugging the telephone pole!” and our discussion turns to the way these trees have been able to exist by yielding to our needs.

“Hugging the telephone pole”

We talk about what, if anything, we should do for the trees.  What can we do?  “I want to tell the tree: ‘I will save you’” One child suggests bringing water and a gift of artwork to them “before they are cut down.” Arbutus Place children draw pictures and ask educators to write messages for the tree and Saanich officials.  The next day one of the educators and a group of three- to five-year-olds cross the street again to gift them to one of the trees.

Gifts for the trees
Our notices wrapped to the tree

Notices tacked to trees reflect a growing trend in the Greater Victoria Area to densify, update infrastructure, accommodate bike lanes and new sewage treatment facilities, but public outrage at community trees being cut down is causing political upheaval in local municipalities and delaying projects (Campbell, 2019). One of our substitute educators, and a co-founder of a new advocacy group called Community Trees Matter Network, alerted us to the proposed tree removal plan (in the fine print of a large construction sign at the end of the street) a few weeks ago.  What once sounded like a good idea – increasing bike lanes and sidewalks along the street – is complicated by the Saanich municipal engineering department’s proposal to remove a row of large trees in the process.  We are not alone in voicing serious concerns over what is happening on Finnerty Road.  A petition is circulating and public meetings are being held.  We decide to write a letter to Saanich mayor and council to express our concerns.  Narda calls the Saanich engineering department and the project manager agrees to come on-site to discuss the matter in person with us.

Educators in Conversation

In February, educators in our CAN inquiry came together in conversation and shared much ‘food for thought’ about how we come to think deeply about materials and sustainability (sustain-ability) and how this inquiry entangles into our daily practice in our centre, yard, garden, and personal lives, even when we are not in the forest directly thinking or engaged with trees.  For example, the materials we think with, the way we consume or try not to, and the challenges and tensions that exist within all of the consequent actions and descisions.

Why do these materials end up in our centres?

Where do they come from and how to they live in our centres? 

Where do they go? 

Why do we continue using them the way we do? 

What else can (must?) we do? 

Paper towels, snack sheet reminders, paper, pencil crayons, clay, tape, food waste and plastics were discussed as part of the everyday (often unconscious) go-to’s in ECE spaces.  We also discussed some of the tensions of extracting clay from Haro Woods [the small urban forest that borders our child care centres] and of drawing pictures on (albeit recycled) paper to gift to a tree scheduled for cutting down on the street.  In light of the global challenges at hand, we talked about interrupting the habits and established patterns of thinking and doing together that got us into this condition as part of the collective responsibility as educators, in an effort to create new ways of everyday worlding.  

Clay from the forest.
Message to the trees

What is the impact of rethinking our consumption?

How might sometimes promote or encourage disconnection in pedagogy and practice with young children? 

How are the children involved in these thinkings and doings?

Are we creating conditions for expressing their ideas? 

What would it be like to live with heightened sensitivity to the lives given for ours?  To consider the tree in the Kleenex, the algae in the toothpaste, the oaks in the floor, the grapes in the wine; to follow back the thread of life in everything and pay it respect?  Once you start, it’s hard to stop, and you begin to feel yourself awash in gifts. I open the cupboard, a likely place for gifts.  I think, “I greet you, dojar of jam.  You glass who once was sand upon the beach, washed back and forth and bathed in foam and seagull cries, but who are formed into glass until you once again return to the sea.  And you, berries, plump in your June-ness, now in my February pantry.  And you, sugar, so far from your Caribbean home-thanks for making the trip. In that awareness, looking over the objects on my desk-the basked, the candle, the paper-I delight in following their origins back to the ground.  I twirl a pencil-a magic wand lathed from incense cedar-between my fingers.  The willow bark in the aspirin.  Even the metal of my lamp asks me to consider its roots in the strata of the earth.  But I notice that my eyes and my thoughts pass quickly over the plastic on my desk.  I hardly give the computer a second glance.  I can muster no reflective moment for plastic.  It is so far removed from the natural world.  I wonder if that’s a place where the disconnection began, the loss of respect, when we could no longer easily see the life within the object. And yet I mean to disrespect for the diatoms and marine invertebrates who two hundred million years ago lived well and feel to the bottom of an ancient sea, where under great pressure of a shifting earth they became oil that was pumped from the ground to a refinery where it was broken down and then polymerized to make the case of my laptop or the cap of the aspirin bottle-but being mindful in the vast network of hyperindustrialized goods really gives me a headache.  We weren’t made for that sort of constant awareness.  We’ve got work to do. But every once in a while, with a basket in hard, or a peach or a pencil, there is that moment when the mind and spirit open to all the connections, to all the lives and our responsibility to use them well.  And just in that moment, I can hear John Pigeon say, “Slow down-it’s thirty years of a tree’s life you’ve got in your hands there.  Don’t you owe it a few minutes to think about what you’ll do with it?”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013, pp. 154-155