Invisible Languages Written by The Earth

August 2021 | Words and Photos by Cayte Bosler

Klean Ambassador Cayte Bosler expounds on her experiences in nature, and the invisible languages that mother earth has to share with us. For fungi and plant species in the carbon circle hold great sway for our environmental crisis.

There is a language rooted in the Earth. It's told through the most ancient kingdom fortressed in the ground. Before fungi spread as wispy fingers sending messages through our soils, they lived entirely in the sea. Their stories begin in the expanse of the ocean that once swaddled the planet. Then, plate tectonics' dramatic movement paraded land masses upward through the watery domain to embrace the air. An intense burst of evolution brought fungi to land 500 million years ago, during a period known as the Cambrian Explosion.

The largest single organism on the planet is an 8,000-year-old fungus: a 10 square km underground lattice in Oregon's Blue Mountains, peaks named for the hue they appear at a distance. Millions of species are speculated to exist today, with a mere estimate of 100,000 described to science pages. The splendor of fungi makes possible much of our world. Indeed, you can never unravel Nature. Her many bodies and stories are written in grand and imperceptible tangles.

Pointing out the fungi
Exploring the woods
A closer look

This mostly invisible kingdom holds great sway for our environmental crisis.

Mushrooms, the furtive reproductive bodies of fungi, are what we are most acquainted with, but a whole realm of great consequence lies underfoot. To begin to understand the Fungi kingdom and its place in ecosystems, we must fathom the world beneath our forests. A profound intelligence of subterranean mycelia, a network of branching, thread-thin fibers, or hyphae, exists as a "living gauze" between forest beings. Mycelia are called the "wood-wide web" for their complex ability to transfer water and soluble nutrients. These mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant species. In effect, they let trees talk to one another across distances. For example, a strong, older tree may hear a signal passed through the network from a troubled tree asking for help and receive much-needed nutrients back through the web.

Fish on!
Our catch

Our climate stability rests on the great shuffle known as the carbon cycle: carbon atoms in forests move from the air into the plants, then into the soil, and eventually decompose back into the air. When plants partner with certain fungi types, they can store up to 70 percent more carbon in the ground. Keeping it locked for longer has important implications. Our atmosphere is bloated with carbon, sequestering any bit back into the Earth's foundation counts – the longer the carbon stays in plants and in soils, the more our societies' can lower global emissions.

Without fungi, terrestrial ecosystems couldn't bear death. When plants and animals perish, fungi do the critical work to decompose and recycle the bodies back into components that become building blocks for other life forms. They join the realms of life and death.

There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. – Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words.

I wanted to see for myself how fungi shape the forests I grew up near in the Pacific Northwest. Until recently, I mostly paid attention to the ridges of old-growth trees, the crows who coat the sky flying home to the tops of soaring Douglas Firs, bugs surreptitiously maneuvering in niches.

I planned a research project to educate myself on the fungi communities hidden throughout the Olympic National Park, a rainforest with thousand-year-old giant trees on the Pacific Ocean coast in Washington State. Upwards of 2,000 species of plants savor the misty, sun-streaked atmosphere created by the glistening Olympic Mountains' snowy peaks. Varying elevations and precipitation mean lots of different habitats work together in proximity.

For a week, I took to the forest and beaches each day with the explicit mission to spy on fungi. I trained my eyes to spot them: gripped on the backs of standing trees, softening the bellies of felled ones; tangled with algae to form shields of lichen. In all shapes, colors, and sizes. Their creativity of appearance and lifestyle was endless. Nearby everywhere it seemed, one could find a fungus sprouting sturdy, comical, marvelous, and vital bodies. I learned a few handfuls of their names and habits. With over 1,400 species in this region alone, one could spend lifetimes noticing new forms and connections.

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful languages. If we listen and look, we may be able to rewrite our own story. One that melds with the many others for more prosperous, more curious places.