Stop the steal of our story

Remember four-year-olds and how fantastic their story-making capacities are? “Where were you?” asks the mama. “I said you could be in the backyard, but when I called you didn’t come.”

“I almost comed, but then a bear came out of the woods and said, ‘get on my back and I’ll give you a ride to your mama.’ So I got on him’s back, and then he didn’t ride me to you. The bear said, ‘I has a ice cream machine in my cave and we can have chocolate-vanilla swirls and then I’ll take you to your mama.’” A look of huge satisfaction crosses the face of the child.

“Honey, you are making that up.”

“No it really happened mama, smell my breaths.”

So, indulging him, mama smells his breath—chocolate.

So what is reality?

That is the question being asked these days in a much more serious realm. In America, the storylines required to hold people to a shared concept of reality have been shattered. Deliberately. When a people can no longer agree on basic perceptions of who we are and what is occurring around us, we become vulnerable to manipulation at just the time we most need shared perceptions. A huge part of the problem is that technology has advanced its capacities to manipulate what we see and hear way beyond our capacities to discern truth, lies, or reality in a split second electronic flash.

Bernie and the “bros” on a construction site.

Chocolate or vanilla?

In this environment, it’s amusing to watch the meme of Senator Bernie Sanders, crouched in his jacket and mittens in the chilly wind of the Inauguration, get superimposed on a thousand scenes, because we know it is false. We offer it as entertainment not reality, and we did it “ourselves”—clever photoshopping, the collective imagination at play.


Bernie lands on the moon


A bear with mittens?


However, it is not amusing to watch our collective imagination get played! When parts of the multi-media industry abdicate responsibility for maintaining defined “reality,” the resulting confusion fissures people into wildly divergent storylines. The outfall of anguish and anger is tearing up the lives of ordinary families, former friends and coworkers, religious congregations, and the aisles of Congress. This is a perilous moment in which our drive for meaning makes us vulnerable to technologies and influences that have outpaced our capacities for discernment. In this story stew, the loss of a cohesive national narrative is profoundly dangerous—as January 6, and whatever comes next, makes clear.

Beyond geography and economy, a nation state is a complex narrative of identity about who we are and how our country behaves within a world of nations. Stories shape national identity and form the foundation of our actions, from the level of policy to personal behavior toward one another.

A national story requires consistent revision as the nation and its people mature. Revision in national narrative means that citizens are educated toward increased understanding of complexity and encouraged to include diverse, previously excluded experiences in how we name ourselves. We are called to revise our societal story to address issues of “white privilege,” “black lives matter,” and “land acknowledgement.”

Revision always generates blowback from folks and influences who don’t want the story to change: but blowback does not mean rampant lying is allowed. Except, it has been allowed. America’s story in the hands of Fox News, QAnon, a former president, and dark-web media have weaponized humanity’s most creative tool by provoking story’s capacity to disintegrate reality as well as weave a cohesive agreement of the world around us.

Family photos and family stories

Story is a neurological necessity. Story is the linguistic vehicle the mind uses to translate information and integrate experience into meaning-making. We are wired to make meaning; we are wired for story. Words are how we think, but story is how we link. And once we have linked ourselves to a story-line and given credence to ideas embedded in that story, it is hard to pull back and open our minds again. Possible, but difficult. We become entrenched. We filter reality through the story lens we are devoted to in attempts to make more and more meaning.

There really was a bear. This fuzz is not moss it’s fur! He was a green bear. He promised me ice cream.

Words lead to actions. A cohesive society is based on a collective social agreement that no matter how much we struggle and disagree, some boundaries will not be crossed: we will not lead, nor allow ourselves to be led, astray of commonsense reality. That social contract is currently broken. In the zero-gravity environment of ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ clicking and algorithm determined suggested links, people have come to believe that evidence is just a chosen story-line and that they are under no obligation to give it credence unless they want to. So, for example, the flat earth theory is just as credible as round earth science; both should be taught in school and children allowed to decide what they want to believe.

The green bear is real because I say he is.

In the political realm, the danger of Donald Trump is that he was granted four years of tweeting whatever served his will of the moment. He broke the contract of adherence to commonsense reality and legitimized falsehoods at a grand scale, culminating in over 30,000 “false or misleading claims.” The danger in the Republican party is that they acquiesced to the erosion of reality and some have joined the storyline to retain power and future votes. The danger in the Democratic party is that the call for unity needs to recognize what cannot be unified and to reckon with the scale of this disaster. The danger for us is that we allowed the power of story to be stolen from our mouths and minds and we need it back.

The view from Zoom

Story is oral tradition. Story is the voice of the people. In this long winter, we must speak out from our porches and Zoom rooms to re-personalize and repopulate the story-field and call each other home. By voice, email, tweet, and social media we can take charge of what storylines we perpetuate. We can raise up what is good, true, meaningful and call out what is evil, false, denigrating.

One responsibility of citizenship is to hold the story-field accountable. If we want this country back, we need to get the story back. Though the pandemic necessarily separates us, it does not necessarily divide us. We the people can hold the outer rim of cohesiveness that allows us to encompass difference, to work for justice, and to reweave our belonging to one another. It’s time for the “mama” voice to re-establish basic reality.

The bear is brown. The world is round. 

If story can transport people into such dark corners of belief: then story can retrieve people from these places. Not all people, but enough of us to carry on with the business the world calls us to at this crucial time.

May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history. We met the moment. Democracy and hope, truth and justice did not die on our watch but thrived, that America secured liberty at home and stood once again is a beacon to the world. President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021


2020—A Good Year for Fungi

Originally I was going to post this blog on January 6. But on that day the President of the United States, whose job is to protect our government, incited rioters and looters to attack the U.S. Capitol. My father, a lifelong Republican who risked his life for democracy by fighting in World War II, would be furious. My mother, who lived her life as a model citizen of democracy, would be appalled and profoundly saddened. I carry both their emotions.

 I wrote this blog to insert knowledge and hopefulness about good things that happened in the challenging year of 2020. It still does that and maybe more than ever this moment needs the story of two women scientists—one a friend and mentor, another living a short distance away—who have changed how we view the natural world, specifically the potential for fungi to be of help during this profound time in history.

When I was an undergraduate Botany major at Iowa State University (1967-71), my major professor was Dr. Lois H. Tiffany—a mycologist, an Iowa farmer’s wife, a mother, and a woman science professor in an era when women scientists were rare. She was known as “Iowa’s Mushroom Lady” because she taught and led field trips all over the state. She was a remarkable role model and teacher to me. Lately I have been thinking about her because even in a year overwhelmed by politics and pandemic, fungi, or more specifically their mycelium, have been making the news. If she were still alive, I think “Dr. T” would be gratified to see her long-held beliefs and research about soil, and mycelium in particular, validated as crucial to the health of plants.

Dr. Lois H. Tiffany, courtesy of Iowa State University special collections









Fungi are a “hot topic” right now

In the complex year of 2020, the emergence of ground-breaking understanding about the role of fungi in sustaining planetary life may contribute to our lives as much as vaccines and restorative political leadership. (The terms mushrooms and fungi are often used interchangeably, but technically mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain species of fungi.)

Early in 2020 the documentary, Fantastic Fungi  opened in independent movie theaters. (It was the last movie we saw in a real theater before COVID-19.) An LA Times review summarized the documentary this way, “Mushrooms are the new superheroes… a documentary of epic proportions.” The cinematography was superb—imagine subterranean, invisible to the naked eye, networks coming to life as we see them in action doing their work of sustaining plants and decomposing things that humans cannot figure out how to get rid of.

In December,  the New York Times magazine published an article entitled, “The Social Life of Forests” by Ferris Jabr: . The article enables us to see the very real progress being made on understanding the underground world of the soil and fungi. And it opens our minds to thinking about defining “communication” in new ways—i.e. something other than human words.

At the end of the year, I finished reading Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake (2020 Random House/New York). This brilliant book by a young scientist with its 50 pages of notes and its 44 pages of bibliography details everything from the revolutionary work around lichens(extremophiles) to the mind-altering capabilities of mushrooms to the industrial potential for these organisms to decompose everything from plastics to nuclear waste. This young scientist has synthesized profound amounts of information to further help us understand the potential of this life form.

Cover of Merlin Sheldrake’s new book on fungi, photo by Ann Linnea












Conviction/persistence by a young woman scientist

All three of these 2020 works feature the research of Dr. Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She grew up in the old growth forests of British Columbia across the border from where I live. When she decided to pursue a career in forestry in the 1990s to study what she loved, she entered a discipline that thought of trees as commodities that would produce faster profit if grown in monocultures so the desirable species had no competition. This did not make sense to a woman who knew the aliveness of an old growth forest with its variety of trees, plants, and animals.

Dr. Suzanne Simard, courtesy of Wikipedia








Despite dismissal by many colleagues, she persisted in her conviction that there is a scientific way to “prove” the interrelatedness of trees in a forest. Her 1997 PhD thesis was the first study showing that carbon passed between plants in a natural setting (not in a greenhouse). Using radioisotopes and tracking the movement of activated molecules between trees, she showed that trees are not separate entities, they are connected via mycelium. Or as Jabr writes in his article, “Trees appear to communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi.”

The tiny fungi strands (mycelium) surround tree roots forming a partnership called mycorrhiza that enables the trees to get water and nutrients from the soil while fungi utilize the sugars the tree makes through photosynthesis. The forest and all habitats are a study of cooperation and linkage.

Dr. Simard will be coming out with a new book on May 4, 2021, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The advertising for this book claims, “From the world’s leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest.” I can hardly wait to read this new book!

Changing our perceptions

Dr. Tiffany published over 100 scientific papers and looked extensively at the relationship of fungi to Iowa’s prairie soils. Dr. Simard brings a similar impeccability of scientific research on the subject of forest soils and trees. Fungi are crucial to the web of life in all habitats. It is good to see them getting some “popular press”.

Every week, my little dog and I walk our local state park with its old growth and mid-growth forest. It is winter in the Pacific Northwest. The rains have made visible a lot of mushrooms. I am keenly aware that I am seeing only the most miniscule manifestation of the mycelium beneath my feet and scattered everywhere in the rotting and downed logs. So much has been learned about fungi in my lifetime! A bow to scientists who continue to pursue the true curiosity of real scientific inquiry to open our understanding of the world around.

A jelly fungus with the common name Witch’s Butter, photo by Ann Linnea at nearby state park