‘Carbon Sucking Mushrooms Will Save Us but Whisky Will Kill Us Anyway’, by Nicole Walker

Photo by Elyce Feliz. Image reproduced under the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

We here at The Lifted Brow are super-thrilled to be co-presenting, alongside our good friends at RMIT’s non/fictionLab, a public lecture by U.S.-based author Nicole Walker entitled ‘Save the Planet: Write Nonfiction!’ (part of RMIT’s Present Tense lecture series) on Monday 7th November (here’s the Facebook event). Nicole’s lecture will speak to how nonfiction writing offers a way to re-see and revise our relationship to the planet and to ourselves – an especially pressing task in an age of climate change and unfolding ecological catastrophe. In order to whet your appetites for what will be a must-attend lecture, here we publish an essay by Nicole that touches on some of the themes in the lecture.

Is there any kind of alcoholic beverage that is sustainable to drink? I mean, can you drink, sustainably, or, at some point, must you choose to a): stop drinking or b): embrace alcoholism? And, if you choose b), are you embracing a kind of suicide? If you live to be eighty and still drink bourbon in the morning like my grandmother did, are you suicidal or just committed? My dad died when he was fifty of, I believe, liver failure. He had cirrhosis. But he also had high blood pressure. Could have been a heart attack. It was dark. He was drunk. Maybe he just fell and hit his head. Either way, alcohol? Contraindicated. Implicated. Indicted. Blame the drink, not the man. The man himself was OK. Kind of self-obsessed. Told the same story about making money on an AT&T short-sell over and over again. My mom says that once, out to dinner with friends, after they paid the bill, the conversation lulled for a minute. My dad folded his napkin, stood up, and said, “I guess we’ve said everything we have to say to each other.” He picked up a book of matches, since he collected them, from the front desk, walked to his car, and my mom and he never saw the couple again. No need to keep repeating the same stories, he thought.

He had an insistence on originality. The matchbooks he collected were unique. If he found a duplicate, instead of storing it in the glass jars, he used it to light his Benson and Hedges. Before he died, he told me, “I’ve won all the awards I’m going to win.” When my dad was done, he was done, except with the stock market. It was the one place he allowed redundancy. “You know, I bought AT&T at $20. Sold it short,” he told me in the elevator at Nino’s and on the subway on our way to visit Columbia University and in the car on the way to the liquor store. He told me that story once a week even after he and my mom divorced and he lost half his 401(k) to her 401(k), after he lost his job and he started selling his stock to live on. He reminded me of the story two weeks before he died. Sold short, indeed. Life may be brief but the stock market goes on forever. Maybe its redundancy makes it unique.

In the mycorrhizal world, capital is food. Mycorrhizae have grown alongside plants since plants began to colonize land. Ninety percent of the world’s plants require fungal companions to grow. Mycelia are the vast networks of fungi that live underneath the forest floor. Mushrooms, the fruiting body that through the humus from that vast network of underlying mycelia are one time stories, “Tell it once and then let’s be done.” Mushrooms can be sustainable in a lot of ways – if you cut the stalk sharply, leaving the mycelia behind, it will grow more fruit like any procreative dining companion. But if you’re interested in the relationship between climate change and mushrooms, mushrooms themselves are not particularly useful. Mycorrhizal relationships – the relationship between fungus and plants is particularly useful, at least as far as global warming goes. Most fungus release more carbon than they take in, but not mycorrhiza. Mycorrhizae form symbiotic relationships with tree roots. The hyphae, the term for individual mycelia, draw nutrients from the soil and co-mingle with the tiny villa of the tree roots. Shaking hands, sharing germs, or, in this case, sharing food in the form of micronutrients the mycorrhiza and the root-villa are co-dependent as any alcoholic and his wife I’ve ever met. “I’m at the store, dear. Do you need beer?” is always a rhetorical question. Everyone needs beer.

The same year my dad died of complications due to alcoholism, I walked away from a logging road down a hill of moss. That moss unrolled like an emerald carpet. Looking only at the ground for the undulated yellow of a mushroom, contrasting against that floor of green, I got lost. Not lost in all-the-trees-look-the-same-and-I-can-no longer-hear-the-stream-in-the-distance lost but lost in the I’ve-never-seen-anything-like-this-is-this-the-same-planet kind of lost. Bewildered by the wildness. Branches on the Doug-firs only began at the height when most of the trees I knew had already been topped out. The trees were as wide as the stream I’d just left behind. This is Oregon. The streams would be called rivers in the rest of the west. Down the tree trunks run channels of bark into which I can sandwich my whole arm. I tried to pretend the bark warmly enveloped me but the bark scratches. Trees like these are not meant for human bodies.

I was looking for chanterelles, apricot-colored mushrooms with an otherworldly kind of sturdiness. You would look and look for them, never seeing anything but huge swaths of Irish moss and crashes of trees bleeding new dirt into the ground. And then, suddenly, you would find one. And then another. And, where you had seen nothing but decomposing tree and moss now were orange umbrella’d mushrooms everywhere. In this forest, where I had never been, a place possibly never logged before, I did find the undulating caps of mushrooms I was looking for but the ones I found were white. White chanterelles were as mythical to me as old growth forest. I gathered and gathered as if I could take the whole forest home with me. Or, maybe this was home. I could have lived there, eating chanterelles in the fall and winter, eating fiddleheads in the spring, drinking the water that collected on the fat fronds, keeping warm under the blankets of moss like the roots of the trees do, like the mycelia. The trees protect as if flying buttresses of a cathedral. The sun passes through them as if through stained glass. God could live here, if he didn’t mind the slugs and the heckling squirrels.

In Oregon, everything seems possible. The forest is full of sequestered carbon. The ferns are so big they are nearly Jurassic. And yet, the temperature is as modereate as a human-loving planet should be. Oregon is the state of moderation. Mycorrhizae even things out. A little here. A little there. Tuck the carbon away for later. It would be awesome if alcohol worked like that. Store the extra in your subcutaneous fat. Don’t make your liver work so hard to process it right now. Some of us need could use a little ecological help with our addictions. The forest does it for the driver of the Hummer. Why can’t the body figure out how to do it with Chardonnay?

My dad, who continued to go out to dinner with me and my sisters, even if he stopped joining friends for dinner, ordered wine for lunch. Sometimes a Bloody Mary, too. At the Oyster Bar, my sisters and I would order another round of oysters as my dad ordered another round of drinks. For him. We didn’t drink yet. We ate the oysters. He drank the drinks. He slid sideways onto the black vinyl bench seat. We ate our oysters. He kept sliding.

“Eat a bite of your shrimp cocktail, Dad.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

And he wasn’t. He couldn’t have been. He sucked all the calories he needed from that glass of Chardonnay. He sat up to take another sip. Never leave anything behind. That would be wasteful. Unless you’re referring to the shrimp.

Some people with functional livers can drink that much for brunch. Some people, if they eat an oyster and a slice of bread, can drink that much. Excess is only excessive when the scales have already tipped. The problem is, it’s hard to know the weight has shifted until you can’t calibrate the scale any more. Ice sheets fall into the ocean. Dad lets the vinyl seat cool his cheek.

Dad left the restaurant to lie down in the car. He left us his credit card. We paid for the oysters and the shrimp and his two glasses of wine and the Bloody Mary. We rounded up the tip to the nearest dollar amount, just as he always did. He liked things to end in zeros.

It had been thought that it was trees themselves storing the carbon in their root systems. The trees do exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen but it’s the mycorrhiza that take extra carbon out of the system, permanently storing it in the ground, sinking it. The leaves of trees bring in the carbon. The roots suck the carbon toward the ground but as Kathleen K. Treseder and Sandra R. Holden write in the March 29, 2013 issue of Science,

A portion of that carbon is then allocated to the mycorrhizal fungi, which use it to build hyphae that extend into the soil. Once these hyphae die, the carbon in their tissues could be quickly decomposed by other soil microbes, or it could remain in the soil for years to decades. The longer the mycorrhizal carbon remains in the soil, the greater the potential contribution to soil carbon sequestration.

The mycorrhizae take the carbon out of the roots, bring it into the mycelia. Imagine little hyphae, fingerlike, digging into the soil, like children trying to see how far into the sand their fingers can stretch. Press the carbon in there, tiny fingers. When the hyphae, or mycelium die, the carbon stays stuck in the dirt, like sloughed off alleles or abandoned fingernail clippings. Even if a forest fire comes and claims the squirrels, the owls, the trees, the mycorrhiza, the carbon itself is still stuck in the soil, like a 401(k) riding out the storm of a volatile but persistent stock market.

My dad never missed a day of work. 6:15 his alarm went off. In high school, I set mine for 6:20. I waited to hear him turn off the water to his shower to turn on mine. We were at breakfast. Cheerios with bananas. Two papers. Wall Street Journal and The Salt Lake Tribune. I read “Doonesbury”, he read the stocks. In 1988, he was one of the first to have access to the Internet but his morning paper still reported the stocks daily. He taught me how to read the stock prices when I was ten but by the time I was in high school, acting interested in whatever interested him wasn’t the most important thing to do in my day. I just took a cursory look to see if IBM had ticked up or not. He had some IBM stock. One stock. I could give him that. I loved him that much. I loved him that little.

In 1988, the stock market was recovering from the crash of 1987 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped twenty-two per cent on one Monday, falling from 2246 to 1738. But my dad stuck it out, not selling when everyone else panicked. By 1988, most stocks had rebounded, even increasing in value. My dad didn’t lose a dime. By 1996, the year he died, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had doubled. That October, the stock market neared six thousand. Who dies when the stock market is on an upswing? Of course, these things are hard to time. Just like someone might think the tipping point of atmospheric carbon is 380 parts per million, maybe dad thought the stock market had reached its heights. Now that the stock market is at sixteen thousand, now that researchers have measured atmospheric carbon at four hundred parts per million, who can predict? Maybe the panic can be mitigated with one more drink. To him, perhaps the vodka was a celebration. “Just one more,” he’d say as IBM shares climbed. How do you know you’re going down when everything else looks up, up, up?

Fungi and trees have a symbiotic relationship. Fungi deliver nutrients from the soil to the roots of the trees. All this nearly microscopic business of exchange. While some of the mycorrhizae do sink more carbon by storing the carbon in excess of the tree’s need in soil, fungi also help decompose leaves and pine needles and fallen logs on the forest floor, producing carbon. The more fungi the better? The more fungi the worse? Even if the fungi have the capacity to sink carbon, they live in forests. Forests are in danger. Can the fungi survive the nitrate run-off from nearby agriculture? Logging? Can I grow mycorrhiza in my backyard? I have some trees. I’ll keep them safe. As if one person can keep a vast network of mycelia safe. I have a hard time keeping the fruit tree out back alive, let alone a whole forest.

My sister got married in 1996, a month before my dad died. People who hadn’t seen my dad in years couldn’t believe how sick he looked. How he tilted to the left. How he slurred. How yellow he was. A friend in for the wedding from New York asked me and my sisters, “How could you let him get like this?” We tried to keep him safe. We kept the woman he’d been seeing from his checkbook. We took him to lunch. We wrote him letters. We asked him please, dad, stop. We never poured the vodka down the drain though. Wasted words are one thing. Wasted resources are another.

If my dad had known that in 2014 the stock market would be hovering around seventeen thousand, would he have stopped drinking? Would he have wanted to live? Would the benefit of future money outweigh the desire to be drunk right now? Aren’t you supposed to live in the moment? How much is money worth anyway? If your wife left you. If your children moved away. If your cousins avoid you. At some point, you reach balance. Maybe that’s when you die. The right amount of vodka, the right amount of money. Equlibrium is hard to gauge when the floor is tilting. It’s a tit-for-tat world. The mycelia give you nutrients, the trees give them carbon. The 401(k)’s contribute cash to IBM, IBM gives you dividends, sometimes splits, continues to grow. The vodka marks, this is a day to remember. The vodka marks, this is all forgotten.

There is sin in not counting the glasses of wine you drink – more than two is too many. There is also sin in the counting – if you have to count, it’s already too late. Both not doing and doing will be the end of you. I could no more tell my dad to stop drinking any more than I could tell the Hummer driver to stop driving his Hummer. No matter how many drink my dad dumped into his liver, no matter how many parts per million carbon atoms the Hummer driver spews into the atmosphere, it’s their planet. To each his own. Although the planet is mine too, I guess. In some ways, I have more right to tell the Hummer driver than the dad, really. My dad was a planet unto himself, at least toward the end of his life. A swiftly tilting planet. But we are all mycorrhizal in this forested planet. What I do to you, you do to me. I let him drink. I let myself drink. I let the Hummer driver drive. I drive behind him in my slightly less polluting car, flipping him mentally the hell off.

Balance isn’t easy. Maybe the Hummer driver balances out his life by planting trees in the forest, carefully tucking the roots into mycelia-covered ground, singing “Attach, little mycorrhiza.” Maybe my dad thought, I raised those kids. I made some money. I swam laps every day. I patented inventions. I bought some stock. Maybe he thought sleeping in the Oyster Bar was enough taxation on his daughters. Get out now while the going’s good, he said. Should we have skipped brunch with him? He would have sat home alone, drinking Bloody Marys without the Bloody Mary Mix.

And how am I any different? I balance my three glasses of wine with thirty minutes of running per day. I have no idea if calibration is in the sneaker or the bottle. Is “no” the only proper response? Is not drinking the only way to honor my dad? Is drinking responsibly—saying, “Look dad, I can do it.” Or is that just chastising him like chastising the Hummer driver—“I rode my bike to work, why can’t you?” But no. I don’t say no. I do what I want—the addiction to individual choice, to free will—America’s fatal flaw and its primary advantage. Does the “I” win out over “you” every time? I look for research on the health benefits of red wine. I ride my bike to work to balance out the beef bourguignon. Cows kill salmon. A herd of cattle add more greenhouse gases than a HV4. I forgive him. Maybe you will forgive me.

I keep my IBM stock. I never sell it. I keep him with me forever. My father. My mycelium. I’ve invested in the future. Leftover carbon. Leftover wine. Ship my future to me in a mushroom. I’m moving to Oregon to see how deeply I can make this carbon sink.

Nicole Walker’s books include Quench Your Thirst With Salt, which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, and the forthcoming Egg (part of the Object Lessons series) and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. She teaches in the MFA nonfiction program at Northern Arizona University.