Originally published as a monthly digest at thekykeon.com
At the beginning of this month, squeezed in a weekend before the end of one job and the beginning of another, I trooped up to Madingley Hall in Cambridge for a two-ay course studying mushrooms and fungi with a fantastic tutor called Patrick Harding. I was told ahead of time that there would be a few other courses on at the time: Tudor Portraiture, Skeleton Keys and the Agricultural Revolution. I’m not really sure what I expected but after seeing so many keen mushroom fans in London, I suppose I assumed it would be a bunch of people much like myself.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The average age of student that filled the ancient hall was somewhere in the range of sixty to eighty years old. I panicked at first and spent a lot of time speaking as loudly and slowly as possible, but somehow ended up making the kind lady opposite me well up with tears. I told her I was going on another mushroom course with my Mum, and I perhaps triggered memories of a loved daughter, or sadness from being neglected by one.
As the weekend wore on I became keenly inspired by the conversations I had and realised I had been missing the nourishment of these transgenerational relationships since the passing of my own grandparents. Despite their age, their minds were as sharp as razors, overwhelming me with the depth of their knowledge. They all seemed to be on their fourth or fifth course to Madingley and talked of it with such warmth and wonder: it was to them a place they could go on their own, to meet and spend time with like-minded people who had the same craving for knowledge and vivacity of spirit. It made me all the more determined to do what I can now to make my life in later years as habitable as possible. I really want to spend my elderly years on courses about Holbein, learning from top-tier university professors and hanging out in beautiful houses with excellent conversationalists.
1. Community Immunity
What I began to realise after a while was that whilst the educational content and the beautiful house and gardens were deeply enjoyed by everyone, they were secondary to the enjoyment of the community and company it offered. As Octogenarians, I can imagine some had probably endured years of losing the company of their friends to senility and dementia, or even death. Regaining friendships and good conversation was everything to keeping up their positivity — but science also suggests that it probably helps to keep their minds sharper, for longer.
In a steadily growing area of research, it is understood that social isolation is responsible for triggering immune responses in the physical body (Eisenberger et al. 2017), which in turn leaves us in a heightened state of sensitivity to social rejection and causes us to withdraw from society. A vicious circle is therefore formed, which acts to make us ever more sick, and ever more isolated.
The curative potential of community has even been tested — a pilot study in Frome, Somerset, UK in 2018 looked at the impact of community-based care. The Compassionate Frome project was started by a GP who saw patients who” seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives: treated as if they were a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being who happened to have health problems. Staff at her practise were stressed and dejected by ‘silo working’”. By introducing socialisation into their care scheme, Frome saw hospital admissions fall by 14% in three years, whilst the rest of the county had them rise by 29% (Abel et al. 2018).
A meta-analysis in 2010 (Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton, 2010) which looked at the results from some 300,000 people found that having strong social relationships meant that you were 50% less likely to die within a decade compared to those who had weaker social networks — a magnitude comparable to quitting smoking.
2. Queer eye for a fungi
Our need to be around others who care for us might seem surprising in the context of traditional evolutionary theory and ‘survival of the fittest’ — it’s one individual out for himself, determined to fuck and fight as much as possible before death.
Many still tend to accept this, even though we seem to pass vast periods of time resisting the urge to murder and preventing pregnancy. It’s becoming even more problematic with our increased awareness of how interdependent ecosystems are: whilst there are many examples of organisms trying to fuck each other over for an advantage, there can be just as many cases of some working together.
This interdependence is part of the reason that finding new antibiotics is difficult these days: many bacteria can’t grow in isolation in labs because they’ve become so dependent on other species. This is known as The Black Queen Hypothesis, which explains how some species in a community shed genes when they can rely on another organism to perform that role for them. Apparently bacteria had invented the division of labour long before the Mesopotamians decided we should all start working on different things to ramp up their economic output.
A cursory look at some of the loudest people in the world right now might have you think that we ought to return to prehistoric values and their meat-eating patriarchies, where tribes beat each other down to allow for superior genes to be perpetuated. As with most things on the extreme right however, the theory seems to be at vast odds with the science. In fact, it was probably our demasculinisation that allowed for our human race to evolve complex language, live together in cities, work in teams and create intelligent culture. Science last month published How we tamed ourselves — and became modern, which looks at the phenomenon of high-testosterone being selected against with the development of community — a parallel which is noted in the domestication of a number of other animal species.
Being forced together in close quarters meant being aggressive and hostile was a dick move even in ancient times, and being ejected from the safety of the pack left you at the mercy of the brutal elements, at the mercy of wild beasts and other hostile dicks who had already been ejected and felt like taking it out on someone. Thus, the less testosterone-filled guys got laid more often, and their babies populated the relative safe communes. For fans of Queer Eye, it is probably of no surprise that more feminine males have historically been associated with sociability and cultural development. Of course, war and torture have been a cruel cornerstone of history — but they’re a prime example and inevitability of the intense tribalism, loyalty, and team-work that these human care-hubs would reinforce. Cute.
A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.
Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1875
3. Meaning, mastery and mates
Indeed, a fondness for such hubs ended up snowballing along a millennium or two to result in some of the greatest human conflict and cruelty ever seen on this planet. Back in the good old days of 341BC, a Greek named Epicurus was born into a world where slaves mopped up the hard work, and you could sit around having a think. Over his life, he moved on from prior philosophers’ preoccupations about what makes people good, onto what makes people happy. He believed that this was through living a tranquil life, characterised by peace, and freedom from fear and pain. Such a departure was scandalous, and rumours ran wild that his established school was a hot-bed of feasting and orgies. One nay-sayer claimed that he orgasmed 18 times in a single evening in a bed full of virgins. Such thinking persisted into the Middle Ages, which saw him as the patron of drunkards, whoremongers, and gluttons. We might think of the Sun’s brutal and libellous sensationalism as a modern phenomenon…but perhaps it’s just always been a part of the human condition.
The reality was far more humble — he owned just two cloaks and lived on bread and olives with an occasional cheese treat. As he saw it, the human coveting of money and wealth involved huge sacrifices and was a key route to misery. Where work became conducive to our wellbeing was when we were able to work alone or in small groups, or when we feel we are genuinely helping others or improving the world in some way. In a similar vein, Epicurus noted that people were obsessed with the idea of luxury — beautiful things and houses in serene locations. This he saw as a misinterpreted need for tranquility. As for personal relationships, he saw that whilst people embarked on sexual relationships in a bid for eternal happiness, they almost always made people jealous and miserable, and he claimed to have married philosophy instead. Friendships, he thought, were much better and turned humans into nice people, but we never got round to seeing friends nearly as much as we should.
Of the things wisdom acquires for the blessedness of life as a whole, far the greatest is the possession of friendship.
Epicurus proposed replacing these ill-fated strivings for sex, money and luxury with three new ways of living. The first was to spend loads of time with your mates. He bought a huge house and moved them all in. There were communal areas, but also private quarters so people had their own space. In this move, everyone also stopped working for others and took big pay cuts to work on creative endeavours or food cultivation. This was conducive to finding a calming replacement for luxury, which he said was to be found in your own mind through meditation, reading and writing.
Everyone living in this ‘commune’ raved about their contented lives and the idea spread extensively across the Mediterannean — at their height there was 400,000 from Spain to Palestine. With the rise of the Christian empire, these Epicurean communes were morphed into monasteries. Some millennia later, a young fellow called Karl Marx completed a PhD thesis on Epicurus, eventually evolving communes into the Communist Manifesto, later adopted by subversive revolutionaries and empire-building tyrants. Despite being rooted in a philosophy about making people happy, some of the greatest mass killings in our history were committed in the name of Communism. For example, between 1958 and 1962, it is estimated that an aggressive transformation of economy and society, resulting in political murder and famine, caused somewhere between 18 to 56 million deaths. To put that in perspective, consider that the current population of the UK is just under 65 million.
4. A thirst for communitas
Even many years after its fall, the notion of Communism instils fear and is widely used in elections around the world to tarnish election candidates — particularly so in the UK’s current one — and understandably so. But have we thrown the commune baby out with the Communist bathwater? Could we balance these prosperous, happy, self-assembled and autonomous hubs with our current Capitalist and Democratic society that accumulates wealth for only a handful of people?
Fuck knows just yet, but I recently read a paper that has made me think that a balance between individualism and collectivism could be, at least in theory, achievable. In Hive Psychology, Happiness, and Public Policy, in the Journal of Legal Studies authors Haidt, Seder and Kesebir make a fascinating case a human need to belong to commune-like hubs, or ‘hives’, as a counter-balance to our individual striving. Too much of the latter without feeling part of a greater community group can lead to greater rates of anxiety, misery and suicide.
An even stronger relatedness hypothesis is the hive hypothesis, which says that the self can be an obstacle to happiness, so people need to lose their selves occasionally by becoming part of an emergent social organism in order to reach the highest levels of human flourishing…the most effective moral communities (from a well-being perspective) are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.
It would appear that seeking states of ecstasy — a word which comes from ex stasis, ‘standing outside of oneself’ — could be more than just a driver of behaviour, but a human necessity for wellbeing and flourishing.
People collecting together into a group is only one side of the coin though — what is also important is how the individuals within it coordinate and synchronise with one another to produce group cohesion. From our very earliest days as our species, it appears that rhythm, synchronous movement and ritualistic festivals and celebrations have played this role — a phenomenon social scientist Emile Durkheim described as “collective effervescence”.
These celebrations were usually held to mark life transitions (that is, births, deaths, weddings successes) or historical or astronomical events that were practically or symbolically relevant to the group. They typically involved feasts, special costumes, masks, drumming, chanting, and dancing to the point of exhaustion. A common feature of these rituals was that some or all members of the group transcended ordinary consciousness, often achieving a trance state. A related goal was for all members of the group to merge with the group. “As the dancer loses himself in the dance,” wrote the anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown, “he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with an energy beyond his ordinary state…at the same time finding himself in complete and ecstatic harmony with all of the fellow members of his community.
Anthropologist Victor Turner (1969) described this transcendence and revitalisation of the human spirit with the Latin word communitas:
These temporally limited periods of antistructure are not just safety valves for the oppressed to vent resentment; rather, they bond and humanise all members of the group, making the structures they later return to more humane and stable.
Better introduce some Rainbow Rhythms into our communes too then. But back to our question about interfacing this with Capitalism — at what point do we put down the drums and get back to work? A glance at Instagram during Burning Man season will tell you that there are megabucks to be made providing communitas opportunities to Capitalism-weary hedonism hunters, termed the ‘ecstasy economy’ by Steven Kotler in his book Stealing Fire. But it looks good for the financial health of our entire society:
Strong social ties and mutual trust within a community, referred to as ‘social capital’ (Coleman, 1988) has many salutary societal effects. Social capital contributes to economic growth, positive health outcomes, greater subjective well-being; and lower crime and mortality rates (Folland 2007; Helliwell 2003; Putnam 2000).
Not only that, but reintroducing community as a core part of our lives could also relax the financial burden from the spiralling of mental illnesses like depression and dementia — as it did in the Frome experimental example above. The cost of these diseases to the UK has been estimated at £7.5 billion and £17 billion respectively.
What I have been reading…
The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
I’ve got a horrendous problem with collecting books on mushrooms, but I genuinely love and read them all. This particular example was stolen from my sister Aneliese, who received it for her birthday from a friend who said it was her favourite book. It looks at the global trade in Matsutake, a mushroom highly prized in Japan for its stinky deliciousness, as a microcosm to explore the tension between humans and nature, capitalism and environmentalism. It masterfully takes on a subject as fraught and terrifying as our own doom, using an elegance of language that regales the mono no aware beauty of our own uncertain future.
My favourite passage is the first few paragraphs of the book:
What do you do when your world starts to fall apart? I go for a walk, and if I’m really lucky, I find mushrooms. Mushrooms pull me back into my senses, not just — like flowers — through their riotous colours and smells but because they pop up unexpectedly, reminding me of the good fortune of just happening to be there. Then I know that there are still pleasures amidst the terrors of indeterminacy.
Terrors, of course, there are, and not just for me. The world’s climate is going haywire, and industrial progress has proved much more deadly to life on earth than anyone imagined a century ago. The economy is no longer a source of growth or optimism; any of our jobs could disappear with the next economic crisis. And it’s not just that I might fear a spurt of new disasters: I find myself without the handrails of stories that tell where everyone is going and, also, why. Precarity once seemed the fate of the less fortunate. Now it seems that all our lives are precarious — even when, for the moment, our pockets are lined. In contrast to the mid-twentieth century, when poets and philosophers of the global north felt too caged by too much stability, now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end.
This book tells of my travels with mushrooms to explore indeterminacy and the conditions of precarity, that is, life without the promise of stability. I’ve read that when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thousands of Siberians, suddenly deprived of state guarantees, ran to the woods to collect mushrooms. These are not the mushrooms I follow, but they make my point: the uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift — and a guide — when the controlled world we thought we had fails.