Hope, it turns out, is a mushroom

/ 04:06 AM December 24, 2019

In “Hope in the Dark,” Rebecca Solnit suggests a down-to-earth metaphor for effecting social change. “Mushroomed: after a rain mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a sometimes vast underground fungus that remains invisible and largely unknown. What we call mushrooms mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork — or underground work — often laid the foundation. Changes in ideas and values also result from work done by writers, scholars, public intellectuals, social activists and participants in social media. It seems insignificant or peripheral until very different outcomes emerge from transformed assumptions about who and what matters, who should be heard and believed, who has rights.”In other words, an invisible network built by countless small movements and tentative connections can result in the blooming of mushrooms of social change, after the rain.I find this a powerful metaphor, because it is equally organic, unexpected, realistic, as messy as life itself. It helps me, it helps us, understand the nature of hope.

Solnit describes that nature, using other metaphors.


“Cause-and-effect assumes history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal, and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.”

She also describes what it isn’t.


“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”Hope, in a word, is possibility.

Solnit wrote “Hope in the Dark” in 2003, in the cone of despair formed by the second Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq. Since then, scientific research has shown that the fungal network that bears fruit after a rain, in the shape of mushrooms, is actually part of a natural positive feedback loop. It turns out that not only does rain stimulate the fungal network to grow mushrooms, the growth of the mushrooms releases spores into the air which in turn can promote rainfall. A Newsweek report in 2015 quotes the mycologist Nicholas Money: “If you look at satellite photographs of rainforest canopies, you see that lots of small clouds form in the afternoon above the tree canopy, and these are locations where you’ve got very high densities of mushrooms and they’re releasing lots of spores. We’re not saying this is the only way in which clouds form but this could be a stimulus for cloud formation, which is a rather amazing link.”Amazing is the word. Hope, then, is not the Dickinsonian thing with feathers, which perches and sings and takes flight. Rather, it is the underground fungus, the mushroom that blooms after rain, the spores in the air, even the rain. It is a system in itself, fed on small acts; it is the accumulation of little, obscure decisions by men and women who want to make a difference.

[On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]]

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TAGS: Hope in the Dark, john Nery, mushrooms, Newsstand, Rebecca Solnit
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