The Joy of Perplexity

Andreas Weber’s essay, reminded me of the lichen chapter (“The Intimacy of Strangers”) in biologist Merlin Sheldrake’s amazing Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (my favorite book of 2020!).

This week, when I picked up Entangled Life to reread the part about lichen, I laughed to see that I’d stuck ca. 20 small post-it markers in spots throughout the book, each labeled T for Trickster! During my first read through about fungi & lichen, I’d kept seeing the Trickster Spirit poking through, at work in these tiny beings, confounding and subverting — as Sheldrake so beautifully points out — the rigid boxes of our scientific thought.

I wish I could adequately express my delight in Entangled Life ! Actually, a blurb by Helen MacDonald (H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights) says it all:

“One of those rare books that can truly change the way you see the world around you. Entangled Life is a mercurial, revelatory, impassioned, urgent, astounding, and necessary read. It’s fearless in scope, analytically astute, and brimming with infectious joy.”

In other words, the book itself as well as its subject (fungus) is enlivened by Trickster Spirit through and through!

Sheldrake’s book is full of so many words/sentences/paragraphs/pages that imply similarities between fungus/lichen and Trickster that I’ve dithered all week about which ones to include. At this moment, here are a few that rise to the surface:

Like Trickster, [p.71] “Lichens are living riddles. ….. The closer we get to lichens, the stranger they seem.” Like Trickster, fungus and lichens dwell in, leap across, and dissolve boundaries. For example, as they [p.75] “weather” rock, lichens break it up physically and also dissolve and digest it: “Lichens’ ability to weather makes them a geological force…” So, too, Trickster Spirit “weathers” human beings and their cultures, becoming — through our human actions — a geological force: Think, for example, climate change!

Boundary dancers like Trickster, [p.75]”…lichens are go-betweens that inhabit the boundary dividing life and nonlife.” Like Trickster & like all living things, [p.83] “…lichens are an emergent phenomena, entirely more than the sum of their parts.” Not thing, but process. And like Trickster, lichen seem to defy definitive pronouncements. [p.90] Lichen expert Toby Spribille “seems unperturbed by the fact that isn’t possible to provide a single, stable definition of what a lichen actually is. It is a point that Goward often turns to, relishing the absurdity: ‘There is an entire discipline that can’t define what it is that they study?'” Trickster!

[p.88] “Lichens are stabilized networks of relationships; they never stop lichenizing; they are verbs as well as nouns.” And so it is with Trickster: Within traditional cultures, each Trickster tale contains a network of relationships & the cycles of Trickster tales form even larger “stabilized networks of relationships” that help create a stable but flexible whole. Trickster never stops “Tricksterizing”. And certainly he is better considered a verb than a noun!

What Spribille says of lichens [p.89] is exactly had I’d say about Trickster: “Every time we go in and try to find out who’s doing what we are confounded. …. The deeper we dig, the more we find.” What better place can there be to play, to learn, to dance among shifting perspectives & perhaps to revise one’s cherished (and overly rigid) paradigms?!


Here are some of my favorite roots from the street where I live. I love the way the roots of this ancient oak have simply grown calluses over the much younger, invasive sidewalk and steps. Lots of lovely Lichen & Moss. […more about Moss at another time…]

lichen and moss on oak roots

POST SCRIPT: While looking through the book, I came across the epigraph to Sheldrake’s final chapter, which would have been the perfect epigraph for last week’s post:

“Our hands imbibe like roots, so I place them on what is beautiful in this world.”

— Saint Francis of Assisi

And the September Reflection sent out by the Center for Education, Imagination, and the Natural World [ ] fits so well with last week’s discussion of Beholding that I include it here for your enjoyment & contemplation. I wish I could include the gorgeous mushroom photo that was part of the Reflection — Fungus again! I can’t seem to copy & paste their note, so I’ll type in their full quote by Thomas Berry, “Contemplation and World Order.”

One of the great achievements of humanity during the early period of awakened consciousness was its capacity for subjective communion with the totality of things and with each particular thing. Each fragment of matter had its own subjectivity, its own interiority, its own spirit presence. It was to this spirit presence that humans addressed themselves. So with the trees and flowers, birds and animals,so with the wind and the sea and the stars, so with the sun and the moon. In all things there was a self, a subjectivity, a center; humans communed with this center with a profound intimacy.

That contemplation whereby humans sink deep into the subjectivity of their own beings is a primary way of experiencing the totality of things and of so constituting a truly functional world order. This is the order of interior communion, not the order of external manipulation or compulsion. Each aspect of reality is discovered in a mutual in-dwelling which is the supreme art of life. Nothing can be itself without being in communion with everything else, nor can anything truly be the other without first acquiting a capacity for interior presence to itself. These come together in some mysterious way. Since all things gravitate toward each other, a person has only to permit the inner movements of his own being to establish his universal presence to all earth.

[My emphasis added]

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