Chapter 1 – Wet
In which Piglet is entirely surrounded by water
A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
They float in the ponds and ditches, and their invisible spores are carried through the atmosphere in every possible direction, even along our streets and into our dwellings, especially our cellars. Most of these decompose for want of the required nidus, but countless thousands are developed into active vitality, and bring into existence most beautiful organisms.
Thomas Brittain, Micro-Fungi, 1882
Rachel stared pensively through a glass door. On the other side: a giant, grey, feline lump of fluff – a.k.a. the neighbour's cat - a.k.a. Baldy.
Oh the dripping irony, she thought, rolling her eyes to indicate to herself just how unimpressed she was at the cat's name, as it shed an extended trail of fur in its wake. Baldy indeed.
The cat hadn't noticed her yet, so Rachel stood deathly still, poised, waiting for the cat to be completely shocked when it finally did become abruptly aware of her existence…
'No! That's not very nice,' Rachel scolded herself aloud as she walked into the next room, took a seat, and began to read a journal article on animal behaviour. Once in a while she liked to indulge in popular science to lighten the intellectual load.
This was one of those occasions.
That morning Rachel had woken up with a headache and a gaping hole in her memory the size of Antarctica. She couldn't remember much more than that her name was Rachel, she lived here, she was some kind of scientist, and she liked to eat mushrooms. She had no idea why she was suffering this memory loss, or who to ask for help. Perhaps the hole was bigger than Antarctica...a gaping hole the size of the Milky Way Galaxy. This rather concerned Rachel .
To distract herself from her worry, she read on. Something in the article piqued Rachel's interest and made her ask herself: What would the world be like if humans didn't hold a monopoly over higher intelligence?
Baldy followed a few seconds later and peered inside.
'Hey, what are you doing there?' its eyes told her as it looked around, scanning the room unsuccessfully for prey, before fixing its eyes on the potential food-provider. 'You know, I could do with some food, or milk at least, for Christ's sake, it's raining out here! I'm cold, I'm wet, and I'm a cat – you know we don't like water…meow… meow … meow,' the cat attempted to say.
Unfortunately, all that was heard by said food-provider was: '…meow… meow … meow.'
After getting no response from the residents inside, the cat decided to look for life elsewhere, and walked away.
The sky rained down like a monsoon on an alien planet on which water was as abundant as Chlamydia.
The rain made the orange Californian poppies close their petals in disgust, but the Flanders poppies were still out, scantily flaunting their scarlet folds for all the world to see like a rainy day in the red light district. They would not allow their disapproval of a small spot of precipitation ruin the opportunity for a good bout of shameless self-promotion.
Humans had come up with crazy ideas about poppies and frogs being indicators of how the earth was feeling about the way it had been treated. If this were true, the frogs and poppies certainly hadn't been told about it.
The cat, flowers and people didn't think much of the rain, but the fungi saw it differently, they knew their time to shine had arrived. A large proportion of their enormous bodies had reached the Promised Land, and lay there waiting, beneath the surface, as mycelia (underground roots), for the Source of Life to shower itself from above.
And now it was finally here! They would bask in Its glory and witness the miracle of creation, the circle of life. As an offering to the Source of Life, they would sprout their glorious vividly-coloured fruiting bodies, bursting splendidly up through the Earth's surface, then spray their spores into the great beyond. Humans would pick them to cook with ham and eggs for breakfast, oblivious to their great significance.
The snail too was content with the abundance of rain, but lived a hermit's life, keeping pretty much to him-herself (snails being hermaphroditic), so nobody noticed what he-she thought about any subject, least of all rain. He-she slithered down the drum that was used by humans to light fire. Of course, he-she didn't know what humans used it for, they didn't feature much in his life, but in any case, it looked like an eminently suitable place to hide from the approaching Indian mynah bird.
The snail simply couldn't understand the tyranny of his avian oppressors - the abject fear they put him under. He-she certainly didn't feel the need to treat other creatures with such contempt. He-she was far too busy creating silvery, slivery trails, as messages to God – The All-Feeling One.
He-she felt superior as a snail, having a sense of the creator, and His-Her (snails also conceived of a hermaphroditic God) ultimate purpose, and even more so as a modern snail, knowing that there was only one God, unlike the polytheism of the dark lunar-epochs.
It's just that they don't have the capacity for complex thought – their brains are too big and clumsy - that's why they don't understand religion or other higher cognitive processes, he-she thought to him-herself of the other creatures that inhabited the Earth.
What the snail didn't know, was that virtually all creatures held a belief in some form of creator god - it was a necessary mechanism for coping with the bizarre predicament in which they found themselves, known as life. What's more, virtually all creatures believed that their species was unique in this capacity.
There was a strange light radiating from a house at the top of the hill that enticed Rachel to go outside and investigate further. She endeavoured to take on the rain, with the aid of a Gore-Tex jacket – containing a thin layer of space-aged fibre that was designed to selectively allow air to pass through, but not water molecules.
That was only what it was designed to do - in reality, the fibre became inspired by the message on the Statue of Liberty about tired, huddled masses and let the water in too – it didn't realise that this message referred specifically to human refugees, and not droplets of water. Neither did several Presidents of the United States, evidently.
The rain drops echoed against the squared hood of Rachel's jacket, and with time, worked their way inside. She came to resent the rain, along with the makers of Gore-Tex jackets.
She tried to think of creatures that liked rain, to see if she could try to understand where they were coming from, and as a result feel a little less miserable about her current predicament.
Frogs and leeches, they like water, she mused, ducks and snails, fish and tortoises... She continued to mentally list all the creatures she could think of, glossing over the most critical one, before finally honing in on it - fungi.
Fungi…fungi were something else. She rolled over her tongue the range of possible ways to pronounce the word... 'Fun-gi, fun-gi, fu-ngi, fung-i, fung-i…' It sounded to her like the noise a spring made, but, in her present role as a typical everyday human, that just about exhausted what she could recall about fungi.
Some special humans, scientists as they were generally called, or mycologists, as they were more specifically known, discovered that fungi formed vast hidden networks that extended underground, called mycelia.
They felt superior in their understanding that how laypeople conceived of fungi, as mushrooms, were relatively tiny fruiting bodies, emanating out of a colossal life form underground.
Mushrooms, yummy... Rachel's brain began to descend into an indulgent mental adventure into the land of food porn. She pictured gooey mushrooms wrapped in eggplant, deep frying in tempura batter, and mentally drooled at the thought of it.
These mycologists travelled the world searching for the frontiers of fungal habitats, from polar climes to cavernous oceans, always finding more mushrooms: on cinders outside the dome of St Paul's Cathedral; on leather and old rags; in the depths of the ocean; even in wine cellars, carpeting with shag pile the ceiling, walls, and wine barrels.
The mycologists were fascinated by the discovery that fungi could transform lonely, rogue, reclusive trees into an invisible forest hippy-commune circle of friends. Mycelia connect a forest together by growing through tree roots across an entire forest . A kind of barter and share system then ensues, in which, should one tree run out of a nutrient, the mycelium inhabiting a tree with a surfeit of that nutrient would pass it along the underground network.
As Rachel mentally ate her plate of deep-fried mushrooms, she found herself seated at a table with her closest friends. She passed the butter to her friend Jeff who was sadly lacking in it.
The mycologists also knew that fungi are not really plants, and not really animals, but rule over a kingdom to their very own.
This is like nothing I have ever tasted before, Rachel thought to herself, still very much engaged in her culinary daydream, it is quite unique, in a class of its own.
Fungi take in nutrients by growing over the top of their food and absorbing it, sometimes while the food is still living - like one giant blobby mass of mouth...
Rachel, out of nowhere, imagined a giant mushroom monster king that looked like Jabba the Hutt had joined Super Mario Brothers, where instead of Mario jumping on. What the...? she asked herself.
But even the mycologists possessed only a tiny share of all that could be known about fungi.
Snails, (remember our molluscan friend, slithering down the drum?) knew about fungi too. They had the ingenious idea of lacerating and defecating on grass to cultivate fungi and feast on a delight of mushrooms garnished with pre-digested grass. And yet, on anything other than utilitarian instinct, snails knew even less than mycologists about fungi.
Other people, not known as scientists, had know about mushrooms for a long time. Fungi have found themselves playing an unexpected role in human cultural practices across the planet. In Europe, witches, sorcerers and magicians had e'er blended fungi into potions. Native Americans burned puffballs to ward off evil spirits, and filled their carved out insides with stones as sacred rattles for medicine men.
This flavour is almost sacred, I feel as if I am participating in some ancient folk ritual, Rachel continued.
In the forests of Lapland, Saami shaman would feed red and white spotted Amanita muscaria mushrooms to their reindeer, then harvest their urine containing purified hallucinogen without the toxic side-effects. This rarefied reindeer pee would induce out-of-body experiences, where the shaman would feel as if they were flying in the sky, then returning through the chimney hole of their house to their bodies.
Academics postulated that this ritual might have inspired the mythology of Christmas - trippy flying reindeer; a fat man in a plush red and white suit resembling a posse of red and white mushrooms; his tendency to climb down the chimney after dark; children leaving him milk and cookies for when he gets the munchies It all made sense.
I feel like a child on Christmas day, this experience is transformative, Rachel added to her train of thought, without a clue as to what was precipitating these strange thoughts.
But these shaman, wise as they were, didn't know much either, compared to fungi.
As fungi spread over their food, they learn from it, in their own way, gaining wisdom from a plethora of species, sharing the intimate secrets of each one.
Chemicals, hallucinogens, are used in this process to access certain parts of the mind to greater understand its contents. They dissolve the barriers that would otherwise deny this access. Fungi discovered through this process, that the religious, social, scientific and other 'knowledge' accumulated by these creatures all held their own species as the pinnacle of all living things.
However, the fungi failed to realise that the same applied to their own knowledge. Any fungus who disputed the superiority of fungi over all other organisms was labelled a heretic and was ostracised from fungal society.
Can mushrooms eat people? Rachel pondered silently, anxiously, earnestly. They can decompose decaying organic matter, but what about consciously controlling this process? Hunting and finding food? Rachel then wondered what was triggering these thoughts.
In her distracted state, she tripped on a giant toasted marshmallow-shaped mushroom as she embarked upon an ascent of the hill, sending an explosive mist of white powder into the air - a mushroom cloud, if you will. As its spores were released, she sneezed loudly: achoo!
What happened next, Rachel was completely oblivious to, but as she heard a great whooshing sound the world became an entirely different place and she somehow knew that she had to run.