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Prayers for the God of Fungal Disease
On the proximity of fungi and spirits.
It’s summertime, which means I’ve been thinking about fungus almost all the time. It’s not only because I’m researching them, for my underworld project. And it’s not only because there are hundreds of mushrooms that sprout in the marshy wetland that is my neighborhood, every time it rains. And it’s not only because my husband has been pulling things from the garden, so that he can collaborate with yeasts and create ferments. It’s also because I use fungi as a way to scare my daughter into wearing her shoes.
I know, it’s a terrible thing to do. Part of me really loves and respects the fact that my seven year old kid hates to wear her shoes. It’s because of her that we no longer wear shoes inside the house. When she was about two or three, she started to demand it! In the early winter, and late fall, she has this weekend ritual she calls “morning dancies.” She gets up, and wears her pajamas downstairs. While I’m making coffee or breakfast she runs outside, in her bare feet, into the frost-covered grass, and dances. Every time we get into the car (even if it’s just for a five-minute drive) she takes her shoes off. And she tries to run barefoot through the grass every chance she gets. It’s beautiful. It’s whimsical. I love it.
But it also itches at my nerves. Unlike my daughter, who loves to dig in the dirt and get as messy as she can, I am a bit fussy. I like the house to be clean. At one point, years ago, when I was trying to get her to wash paint off of her hands so that it would stop dripping all over the house, she looked at me and shook her head and said with utter disdain, “mama, you’re not a real artist.” It’s true. I’m a writer. An undercover rationalist. And I’m a bit fussy.
So in the summer, when we go to the splash pad at one of the local parks, or to the pool, I always tell her to wear her shoes. When she asks me for a reason, I tell her it’s because I don’t want her to pick up a fungal infection.
It’s partly true. Public pools can be a great place to pick up a fungal infection. But I recognize that her flip flops may not protect her. The deeper reasons are a little more complicated. I don’t want her to lose track of her shoes (which often happens). I don’t want her to get cuts on her feet (which also often happens). And I wish that, just once in a while, she would bother to do the things I ask her to do. “Fungus” sounds a little scary, and mysterious. Even the word has a kind of haunting quality. So when my daughter asks me why she has to wear her shoes, I always invoke the fungus.
I guess you could say that I try to put the fear of fungus in her. I should know better, of course. I should know that, when you put the fear of a spirit into to someone they always start to ask skeptical questions. I think it’s a natural side-effect of our relationship with things unseen. We have to test that boundary line, in order to determine where the unseen relation begins and ends. Maybe I do know better, but I just act against my own best advice. It wouldn’t be the first time.
But now, she’s starting to learn more about fungus. And she’s on to me.
Last week, at a splash pad where her friends had not been obligated by their parents to wear their flip-flops in the water, my daughter approached me with her friend. “Beatrice, what’s fungus?,” she asked, as my daughter glared at me.
It was a decision point. My daughter had obviously been complaining about the shoes. And perhaps, in the process, her friend had caught a bit of that fear of fungus. Part of me wanted to keep up the farce, and to be a little terrifying just to make sure that there was no more pushback. But if this was the poor kid’s first exposure to the fascinating world of fungi, I didn’t want to scare her. There’s enough out there to scare her away from fungi.
“Well,” I said, “fungi are part of a whole kingdom of life that shares some features with plants and other features with animals...” I didn’t get much further, and they both ran off to play in the water. Boredom functions as its own sort of repellent, I suppose.
I’ve been thinking, lately, about some of the strange proximities between spirits and fungi. This story about the fungi and the shoes offers a kind of parallel between fear of the lord and fear of the fungi as spiritual “inspirations” toward right behavior. You invoke forces that are unseen, in order to generate a sense of immanent threat, for acting against “the good.” It’s a loose analogy. But I think it works, don’t you?
I was inspired to think, in these directions, by a little discovery I made in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. Apparently there was a minor Roman deity who was the god of mildew, and fungal disease: Robigus. Technically Robigus was the god of rust, which is a fungal disease that destroys agriculturally essential plant crops. There was an annual festival hosted in his honor, Robigalia, during which a sheep was sacrificed in the hopes that the harvest might be spared. Sheldrake describes Robigus as the god of mildew, which sounds a little more poetic to me. It also seems to extend the deity’s power beyond crop blight.
In all my years of studying the gods, I’ve never heard of Robigus. Funny to think that I discovered him in a book written by a scientist, right? I’m sure that there are people who read about gods like this and think, “wow, they really just made a deity for every unexplained thing.” But that’s not how my mind works. Whenever I learn about functions and forces that have been divinized, I start to think obsessively about how that thing functions in the manner of a spirit: an unseen, more than human, force that exercises power over us in some discernible way.
If you’ve ever moved into a new house where the bathroom tiles, and the bathtub, are perfectly clean and caulked, then you know the haunting powers that mildew can have. The first signs are mere traces, barely discernible. It feels manageable. A simple swipe of a sponge soaked in vinegar can keep the mildew at bay. But soon, you forget about it, and these traces layer upon one another. The mildew thickens, and sets in. It can feel a little frightening.
Pesky bathroom mold wasn’t the issue, for ancient Romans, of course. They were concerned about the complete and total devastation of their food sources. Lacking practical techniques to stop this potential fungal devastation, the best they could do was pray to the god of fungal disease for a bit of respite. This is what people will be forced to do, without science!, some of you will no doubt be thinking. But what if their divination of fungi actually points to a form of ecological wisdom that we lack?
Ancient Romans were also noticing that fungi were part of the invisible, unseen world. They developed a form of engaging with it—offering respect, fear, admiration, awe—that our culture has lost. It’s arguably a form of respect that people who study fungi (people like Sheldrake) are trying to convince us to re-adapt.
Fungi are spoken about as almost incidental, in our culture; almost as if they are mere annoyances to be gotten rid of, or nice things to eat. But they are a force. They are a more than human power that structures and determines our world. They have incredible power over our lives, in ways that often go unacknowledged. We are powerfully impacted by fungal life. We are deeply dependent upon fungal life. Fungi can easily decimate us. And fungi can just as easily help us to build new worlds.
Voices like Sheldrake’s—voices that inform of us our entanglement with fungi—go against the grain of a general anti-fungal sentiment in American culture. Voices like this remind me of the praises and warnings of ancient prophets, who testified to their people about the nature of things unseen, and the perils of ignoring them.
I think there’s something there, don’t you, in the weird resonance between spirits and fungi?
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