An Underground Kingdom


Mycorrhizal fungi are almost entirely underground, with only their fruiting bodies – mushrooms – appearing briefly above ground to sporulate and then disappear. We may think the mushrooms are the most notable part of the Kingdom of Fungi, but that would be like thinking there is little to consider about plants other than their flowers and fruits. It turns out the underground parts of many plants – their roots – could hardly survive without the symbiotic relationship they have developed over 450 million years with the mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi.


The mycelium is made up of numerous filaments called hyphae, and it is the hyphae that interact with plant roots to facilitate the plant’s uptake of water and mineral nutrients, for which in return the hyphae receive sugar and carbohydrates from the plant’s roots. Unlike plants, fungi cannot produce their own food. Mycorrhizal fungi secure food through this mutually beneficial exchange with plants. This has been known for quite some time. But there is something else going on that scientists only recently discovered, something they call the Wood Wide Web.

Scaly Hedgehog mushrooms, Sarcodon imbricatus, found in coniferous woods in the district of Eggingen in the city of Ulm in southern Germany. Photo by H. Krisp.

Mycorrhizal network
Mycorrhizal fungi are in a symbiotic relationship with autotrophic plants. The relationship is usually mutually beneficial, the fungus providing the plant with water and minerals from the soil and the plant providing the fungus with photosynthesis products. Some fungi are parasitic, however, taking from plants without providing benefits. Conversely, some mixotrophic plants connect with mycorrhizal fungi to obtain photosynthesis products from other plants. Finally, saprotrophic fungi live on dead organic matter without establishing a symbiosis with plants. Illustration and explanation by Charlotte Roy and Salsero35.

An underground network of connected mycelia and roots can span thousands of acres, and through it plants such as trees can send chemical signals to other trees. In effect the trees in a forest can be said to be communicating with each other through their underground social network, facilitated by miles upon miles of mycorrhizal fungi mycelia and hyphae. It is not unlike the system of pipes of varying diameter underlying a city, where some pipes deliver water or water-borne materials, while others carry communications between the inhabitants above ground.

“The Wood Wide Web”, a segment of the PBS NOVA web series Gross Science, produced and presented by Anna Rothschild.

Are the trees sentient? Are mushrooms aware of their part in the bigger picture during their brief look around above ground before they produce spores and collapse back into the fecund earth? Of course not. But assemble all the parts, adding pieces as in a jigsaw puzzle, and it does indeed seem the Earth itself is a living thing called Gaia. This awareness, lost to us for centuries, is now returning dimly, though it was always there for those prepared to observe carefully the natural world, such as how a plant wrenched from its native soil and potted with great attention to its needs still rarely thrived as it would have had it been allowed to stay at home. The newly potted plant receives all it requires in water and mineral nutrients; yet in isolating the plant from its underground social network can it be said, perhaps only fancifully, to be lonely?
— Izzy


Rest Easy


The expansive, pastoral cemeteries we are familiar with today came into being in the nineteenth century when municipal officials dedicated large amounts of land in the suburbs or just outside cities to landscaped burial grounds. Church graveyards within city limits had become overcrowded, prompting worries about public health and the integrity of nearby building foundations. The rural cemetery movement took its cues from English garden design of the eighteenth century, with vast expanses of mowed grass broken up trees and shrubbery, and taking advantage of vistas where possible. Since there were no public parks when these new cemeteries were designed and built, they soon functioned as parks at a time when enjoyment of the outdoors was more restrained and dignified than it is today. No one in Victorian times was jogging past the gravestones in shorts and very little else.


Those Victorian era rural cemeteries became part of the suburbs and then eventually were swallowed up by their city when urban growth expanded to encompass them. They can still be islands for quiet contemplation within a city if they are large enough for visitors to get away from the noise and bustle of surrounding streets. Their park function has been usurped by purpose built parks that allow a greater range of activities, such as jogging or playing softball. No worries there about disrespect for the dead. Since the fine old garden cemeteries of the nineteenth century have become incorporated within cities their boundaries have been limited and now they are either full or nearly full of permanent guests.

Rest in Peace
A monument at Lowell Cemetery in Lowell, Masachusetts. Photo by Bernie Ongewe.

The serenity invoked by well tended grounds and beautiful vistas is of course for the living, not the dead, who presumably are beyond caring. The same can be said for the fine caskets and embalming services offered by funeral parlors at a fine price to the lately bereaved. Nothing but the best for the dearly departed, and by extension to the social standing of those paying for it all. Cremation offers one way out of some of the unnecessary expenses and fuss of burial in a recognized cemetery. Where people have space available at home, a family plot is often outlawed by zoning regulations, and anyway the new custom of moving from one house to another several times throughout life makes it impractical. House buyers are understandably queasy about moving into a place with a stranger’s recently interred relatives just outside the back door.

The Loved One, a 1965 film based on a satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, was directed by Tony Richardson and in this scene starred Robert Morse affecting an English accent as Dennis Barlow, who must see to the burial of his uncle while on a trip to Los Angeles, California. Liberace played Mr. Starker and Anjanette Comer played Miss Thanatogenos, both of the fictional Whispering Glades cemetery and mortuary.

There is another option, one that chucks all the trappings of the funeral industry and the land grabbing of permanent cemeteries, and that is natural burial. The dead are not embalmed nor are they buried in monstrously expensive containers that prevent or delay decomposition of the corpse and casket. The dead are buried in a cloth shroud or a simple wooden coffin which will decompose readily without contaminating the soil. Grave markers are not permanent reminders such as the headstones found at a conventional cemetery, but low key natural markers meant to degrade within a generation, or plantings such as a tree which will eventually supersede its function as a mere grave marker. The land is conserved as wild space rather than subject to continuous environmental destruction by modern landscaping practices.

Natural burial is a return to the practices of our ancestors. In some parts of the world, people have never deviated from natural burial practices. Returning to dust is inevitable, and it might as well happen in a way that preserves the economic and environmental resources of the living. Memories of the departed can be kept alive in ways other than the permanent reminders of headstones and the expensive and often environmentally destructive tending of a cemetery landscape designed to appear natural, though upon reflection it is hardly that at all, any more than the neatly clipped lawns in the suburban and city lots surrounding it.
— Izzy

Sting wrote “All This Time” in 1990 about the recent death of his father and about his memories of growing up near the shipyards of Wallsend in Northumberland, England.


A Piece of Ground


The Israel Defense Forces host anti-terrorist fantasy camps in the occupied West Bank which are apparently a big draw for tourists, among them American comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his family. Mr. Seinfeld was in Israel to perform his stand up comedy routine in Tel Aviv, and while he was there he and his family traveled into the disputed territory of the West Bank to visit a military fantasy camp where tourists can get a thrill or two by getting close to simulated military action. It’s hard to believe that fantasy camps like that exist, and even harder to understand the attraction for tourists. But they do exist, and they are thriving, and Mr. Seinfeld appears to enjoy them.


Baby in vluchtelingenkamp - Sleeping child in refugee camp (5370426971)
Sleeping child in a refugee camp in the West Bank, 1953. Palestinian? Israeli? Does it matter? Photo by Willem van de Poll.

The political situation in the West Bank is a rat’s nest, but in simple terms the Israelis should not be there. They are occupiers. There has been eye for eye terrorism going on there, and in Gaza, and radiating out to the rest of the Middle East for generations, with no end in sight. Each side, of which there are many, feels justified in its use of violence against the others. A rat’s nest. Into this steps Jerry Seinfeld with his big, toothy grin, into a military fantasy camp built in the occupied West Bank. Even if Mr. Seinfeld is oblivious to political considerations, as he may well be, what on earth is helped by his grinning endorsement of a ghoulishly perverted Disneyland? A Disneyland with guns and violence, staged for jaded idiots?

How would it be if someone opened a participatory military theme park in Wounded Knee, South Dakota? Guests would be invited to blast desperate Indians to smithereens in the snow. They had it coming, after all, since they were the terrorists of their day in the eyes of the people who would build such a theme park and those who would pay admission to it. How about Sand Creek? or the Trail of Tears? Now there was a ton of fun that could generate top dollar in admission prices! How about the internment camps built for Japanese-Americans during World War II? If any of those are still around, they could be turned into amusement parks for the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and others who missed out on witnessing suffering first hand.

5000 years old olive tree - panoramio (1)
A 5,000 year old olive tree in the West Bank of occupied Palestine. Photo by Mujaddara.

There are other ghosts of camps in Europe which everyone understands should be hallowed ground, though there some people like the idiot congressman from Louisiana who took a selfie video when he toured Auschwitz. The concentration camps of the Holocaust are rightly regarded as terrible specters from the past which must not return anywhere today or in the future. There are matters of perspective, however, and of the bias of narratives which skew ideas about whether a piece of ground is being or has been hallowed or violated, and by whom.

Pink Floyd playing “Time” in concert during the Delicate Sound of Thunder tour at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, New York, in August 1988.

Despite the objections of a few crackpots, there is a consensus of revulsion over the Holocaust of World War II. As to the other atrocities humans have visited upon each other in recent memory, it appears there are gradations in the general view, though that is no comfort to those who suffer the consequences. It doesn’t seem too much to ask at any rate for overlords of any stripe not to build amusement parks on the dry bones of the oppressed. Whether some grinning goof decides to visit such an amusement park after it has been built, without regard to good sense or consideration for the objections of others, is entirely his own concern, of course, and we are free in turn to lower our opinion of that person. Time will tell about these things eventually.
― Izzy


Heritage of Hate


The evening before the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist marchers wound their way across the Grounds of the University of Virginia (UVA) in a torchlight parade. That demonstration caught city and university officials by surprise. The “Unite the Right” rally organizers had a permit from the city for a demonstration on Saturday, August 12, at a city park, ostensibly to protest the imminent removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. They made no formal arrangements with the university for their torchlight parade the evening before, on August 11. It was at the rally on UVA grounds that the marchers showed their true colors.

German American Bund NYWTS
German American Bund parade in New York City on East 86th Street on 30 October 1939; photo by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer.


Chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jew will not replace us”, neither of which bear the slightest relationship to Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy, or the often disingenuously used slogan “Heritage not Hate”, but everything to do with Nazism, the marchers dropped any pretense they were gathered from around the country to promote a positive program of support for white culture in general, and for southern heritage in particular. They were gathered to instill fear and to vent hatred in the manner of the white supremacists of Nazi Germany before them.
The “Blood and Soil” slogan was telling because it came directly from the Nazi policy of promoting pure Aryan blood heritage over all others, and exalting ties to the native land, or soil, of which the Nazis had an expansive vision, since it included the grain fields of the Ukraine. That expansionism, seen by the Nazis as their birthright, was known as “Lebensraum”, or Living Space. All that has not even a tenuous relationship to issues of southern pride, for which the marchers were supposedly gathered. The anti-Semitic slogan speaks for itself.

The opening scene of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, introducing a farmer, Mr. Cunningham, portrayed by Crahan Denton, when he visits Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, to partially repay his debt for Mr. Finch’s legal help.

The white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville this past weekend had no business being there other than the convenient rallying point of the removal of symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces. They wanted to vent their own petty grievances and hatred against a culture that is leaving them behind. They pretend that America was and is theirs to do with as they please, and that everyone else who has other ideas is an interloper and an enemy to be intimidated, beaten, and ultimately disposed of. The Native American tribes would have something to say about who belongs here and who are the interlopers. Hitler, for whom the American theft of land and expulsion and genocide of native peoples served as a model for what he wanted to accomplish in the Ukraine and in eastern Europe, would no doubt support this past weekend’s white supremacist warriors.

Later in the film, Atticus Finch, portrayed by Gregory Peck, holds off a lynch mob intent on dragging out of jail his client, a black man named Tom Robinson accused of raping a white woman. Mr. Finch receives inadvertent but effective help from Scout, portrayed by Mary Badham, who singles out Mr. Cunningham from the crowd, talking to him about personal matters like his property entailment. Mr. Cunningham is embarrassed by Scout bringing up his financial embarrassment in public, the matter which Mr. Finch has been helping him resolve, and Mr. Cunningham can no longer remain a faceless part of the lynch mob. Unlike the white supremacist mob gathered in Charlottesville, chanting “Blood and Soil”, Mr. Cunningham was a true man of the soil, and he was tied by family blood to his entailed property in rural Alabama during the hard scrabble times of the Great Depression. He was also capable of feeling shame, and therefore capable of redemption.


Robert E. Lee, the forgotten man supposedly at the center of all this, would have been befuddled by the slogans expressed at the torchlight rally. Thomas Jefferson, whose statue in front of the Rotunda at UVA was the focal point for the end of the evening’s march, would have been disgusted by the slogans and the people expressing them. Yes, both men owned slaves and were in that sense white supremacists themselves, but they had a grander idea of the world than to shrink it down to hating others as they might have hated themselves. It would have been beyond their dignity to portray themselves as victims and whine about the erosion of their privileged position, as those people supposedly gathered in Charlottesville to worship their graven images have done. Those people have a more fitting recipient for their craven idolatry, a man who died amid the ruins of his bigotry in Berlin on 30 April 1945.
― Izzy


Good In, Good Out


Gardening starts with good soil, and container gardening is even more dependent on quality soil because the plant’s roots are constrained. The container soil has to supply all the minerals and nutrients the plant might need, though the gardener usually has to replenish them at least once during the growing season on account of the original supply leaching away. Spending a little more on quality potting soil is well worth it if quality is indeed what the product delivers. The plants will be healthier and look better if they are flowers, and they will be healthier in themselves and for you if they are vegetables.


The best commercial potting soils don’t have synthetically derived fertilizers mixed in, but instead have naturally derived fertilizers which cover a broad spectrum of a plant’s nutritional needs. The difference for plants between potting soils with naturally derived fertilizers and those with synthetically derived fertilizers is like the difference for people between a nutritionally balanced, full meal, and an energy bar or drink. A gardener shopping in the garden center of one of the big home improvement chains is most likely to see options for plain potting soil (cheap), potting soil with synthetic fertilizer mixed in (middling), and the greenwashed version from a major manufacturer such as Scotts, makers of Miracle-Gro (expensive).


Hands sifting through potting soil in a garden bed; photo by M. Tullottes.


The plain potting soil offered at the big chains is often very low quality stuff not worth the savings. The middling priced stuff is better quality soil, but it almost always has synthetic fertilizer mixed in. Paying extra for the greenwashed version is more likely than not giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t need it, but wants to crowd out honest competitors, because that is simply how big corporations operate. They’re cynically manipulating your interest in doing the right thing and your willingness to spend a little more to further that interest. It’s doubtful in that case whether spending the little extra does more for you the consumer than it does for their executives.


UNEP Stop Greenwashing Bayer
A protest sign hung over the sign announcing the 2007 International Youth Conference of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Leverkusen, Germany; photo by PhilippM2. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactures neonicotinoid pesticides which have been implicated in the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.


There are excellent potting soils available without synthetic fertilizers from honest manufacturers, but chances are you won’t find them at the big home improvement chains. Your best bet is a locally or regionally owned farmers co-operative or garden center. The price will be higher than the green-washed version available at the big chain, but it’s quality will probably be better, and there’s the satisfaction of paying that extra bit to decent people instead of fat cat executives for whom a few dollars more means nothing other than another martini on their expense account. A conscientiously managed local garden center or farmers co-operative is a gardener’s golden nugget amid the commercial tailings of the big chains. The customer service is almost always better at the mom and pop places, and that alone can be worth the higher prices.


One purchasing option that people are turning to more and more, even for bulk items like potting soil, is Amazon and other online retailers. They have the widest selection of anybody, and often the best prices even after including the cost of shipping. It’s hard to deny that combination, and then add in the convenience of shopping online and it’s completely understandable why more and more people shop for everything at Amazon. Keep in mind how they treat their employees, however, and balance that with brick and mortar stores, especially the mom and pop ones, where you can see for yourself at least part of the operation and how it is conducted. What you put into the soil shows itself in the plants which grow from it, and what you put into your community will just as surely show itself sooner or later.
― Izzy