The Underground Project*
The Underground Project* started in early 2020 as lockdown 0.1 started. The pace of life slowed down, everyday living became simplified even though there was a new strange world outside. With much of this last year being taken over my the Covid-19 pandemic it has slowed down the momentum some of the greatest environmental movements this planet has ever seen. A 'stop gap', 'a pause' or as someone said to me, ' once the pandemic allows us, it's an opportunity to take stock and design a different future, in the way that we want'.
Like a lot of people, I have always been fascinated by the natural world, I never really wanted to socialise too much in my younger years, I took great comfort in turning to nature for connection and enjoyment. I have always been fascinated by storytelling, I studied Theatre and Digital Arts at Dartington College of Arts. This place, wedged deep in the rolling hills of Devon was surrounded by nature; redwood forests, the moors and a sweeping river surrounded the estate. This allowed for my idea of storytelling to go outside, away from the four, five, six walls of the studios. The reason I am explaining this is that I am a producer and theatre maker first but my most visceral passion is the natural world. For me, here are the greatest and most fascinating stories that we are yet to tell.
In the last two years my practice has seen me re-shift my focus to explore the environmental crisis and how we are adapting, coping and responding in the face of environmental change.
My biggest love of 2020 (there's not many) is having the time to research how connected we are to mycelium networks and how important they are to the sustainability of human existence on this planet. I am very grateful to have had the time and space to start to learn about mycelium networks and how important they have been in the development of life on earth. This writing is a set of enquiries into future living in the face of environmental change. Environmental ecosystems are being transformed as a result of humans consuming the earth's natural resources and destroying ecosystems at an alarming rate.
I have been drawn to fungal networks and have begun trying to learn about how nature is adapting to the changes of the environment that are caused by human activity. This blog will document my thinking and process.
The narrative around environmentalism can be really hard to understand unless new ways to engage with nature on an emotional level are carved out of the landscape. How can we talk about environmental issues without feeling hopelessness, frustration, shame, guilt or disconnect?
Our environmental ecosystems are being transformed as a result of humans consuming the earth's natural resources at an alarming rate. Plastic pollution, air pollution and environmental destruction are some of the biggest threats to the future of this planet. The planet has always been incredible at repairing the damage caused by humans, but it cannot give promise to the future of humanity anymore, some leading scientists have started warning of the end of human civilisation within the next 100-200 years, that's fucked!
As the world population continues to demand more from the depleting planet, led by a capitalism, we really must act quickly and deeply listen to the minority of people who have always lived in harmony with nature and understand its inherent value when treated properly. This will allow us to see where we are going wrong and offer up solutions that we really need, because this way is clearly not working.
I have started to identify certain aspects of how the natural world can reverse the human impact. One example of this is a fungi called Aspergillus Tubingensis - a fungi that breaks down plastic. It was found in a landfill site in Islamabad, Pakistan. Mycologists - a person who studies the science of fungi - have learned that it did not need oxygen to survive meaning that it could be left underground with all the plastic waste to very slowly break it down. With an estimated 90% of the worlds plants depending on fungus to provide valuable nutrients and protection it has made me curious to find out more about types of mycelium networks that scientists say are only 7% discovered.
I have become fascinated with common mycelium networks and the way they communicate underground. All this exchange of information (e.g symbiont recognition, quorum sensing, allelopathy) is thought to be chemical in nature, and people's impression of soil is that it is dark and quiet, this is not the case.
After speaking with mycologists from The International Biodeterioration Biodegradation Society, Cranfield University, UWE and the British Mycological Society it has become clear that there are many other microorganisms that are capable of breaking down plastics (at least to some extent). My initial research has led me to try and understand how micro-plastics are impacting the communication of subterranean microorganisms and how we might capture this behaviour change.
Plastic pollution and the underground internet
My research begins by exploring land pollution, focusing on plastic pollution. Due to the unnatural form and lack of degradability of plastic, it has become a major environmental polluter and global health hazard. FYI Coca-cola is the world's worst plastic polluter! Microplastics are now to be found in the air we breathe, the produce we consume and the water we drink. Microplastics have been found on top of some of the world's highest mountains and deep in the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the ocean) which is 7 miles deep! How are living organisms adapting to this polluting intruder, and what is the impact of plastic doing to human chemical makeup and behaviour?
Plastic is made from natural gas, crude oil, coal and is found across all parts of our supply chain; from packaging our food, making household items, or fabricating vehicles, plastic is everywhere! This human-made micro-polluter is having a macro impact on all of our ecosystems, which in turn is impacting the water we drink, the food we eat, our mental and physical health and the way communities and individuals are adapting and living throughout the world. Our reliance on plastic is absolutely huge and for me this is scary.
We have all seen the heartbreaking images of animals wrapped in plastic bags, birds dying after ingesting plastic after thinking it was food. This is the awful reality that makes many of us feel guilty and helpless. This will only get worse if we carry on as we are doing right now. However, there is also another reality that even some of the world's leading scientists have described as hardly touched. Beneath our feet is a whole wood wide web of communication that we are yet to tap into and fully understand. The ground we walk on actually regulates the temperature and air quality of the planet, this is because it is a living network of insects, roots, fungus, bacteria and algae that work together in a symbiotic manner.
My inquiry has started to understand the biological aspects of common mycelium networks - the underground internet. By exploring the symbiotic relationships in this subterranean world, the aim would be to create a series of experiments to try to learn about the the language and behaviours of this network and to compare and contrast the findings with the consciousness of human connection with the natural world. Paul Staments, seen as one of the leading mycologists stated in Fantastic Fungi (AN ABSOLUTELY MIND BLOWING DOCUMENTARY) that there are strong similarities between the the design of mycelium networks and the network design of the internet in the way it carries, communicates and and stores information. Something to be learnt, something to at least try and understand because the closer we can again become to nature, the more we will learn about how to tackle the biggest single threat to human existence.
In a world of Big Data, Automation and Energy Consumption, we can only hope that the direction of the planet co-designs new ecologies which learn from pre-existing ecologies that have adapted, survived and thrived well before we became the destructive creatures we are today.
Just a thought for now.
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