Spores of the Apocalypse, Part 2: Playing For Keeps

Part 1 / Part 2

Last year I started a living archeology project while living at North House Folk School. To test my growing craft skill and explore my fascination with ancient skills, I tried to recreate as much of Ötzi the Iceman’s clothing and equipment as I could manage. As I worked, I began to internalize his intimacy with his environment, and how his craft reflected that intimacy. His shoes, for example, were stuffed with whatever dried grasses he found along his path. When this organic insulation got wet, he would simply chuck out the grass and replace it with a fresh handful. This style of slöjd-as-you-go shines in sharp contrast to our current fascination with singular durability. Ötzi made his blades from flint, a craft that takes only a few minutes. After using and sharpening the blade a couple times, he would toss it back into the rocks and keep moving.

It might be tempting to think that he would have wanted a steel blade instead of a flakey flint dagger. But, consider, how long does a steel blade really last? In a world with very little infrastructure, the knowledge of making and using flint blades can be shared and passed down, while a single steel blade is only a knife.

The imperative for a citizen of a mushroom culture is to pass down spores that will be useful and nourishing to future generations. After the cell towers rot and the internet is eaten by sharks, our children’s children will not have access to all the resources that now come out of a tube. Will our descendants start from scratch, like the protagonist gaggle of a zombie movie, trying to remember how to hunt and gather and keep warm? It doesn’t have to be that way. We can be good ancestors.

The people of Britain lived through an apocalypse when Rome withdrew from the island. The vacuum of power made plenty of space for violent conflict, and connections to the wider European world dissolved - but people and communities survived. In those communities, the ruins of Latin infrastructure were used as building materials for homesteads. The decadent marble villas were recycled because they were not useful to a continued life in the Isles. The roads, however, and religion, and language, and all sorts of other spores were left behind and thoroughly incorporated into the everyday life of the British people. Were the Romans good ancestors? Did they consider future generations when they developed their roads, their legal complexities, their military tactics?

After civilizational collapse, we are playing the long game. Songs, seeds, myths, trails, stories, techniques, and crafts are useful every day and are renewed every year. Guns, canned beans, bunkers, ammunition, and toilet paper are exhausted quickly and aren’t even very fun while they last. Real doomsday prepping doesn’t look like concrete and Costco - instead, a far-thinking prepper cultivates community.

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As a citizen of a mushroom civilization, your choice is not whether to be in or out of the fungal matrix. Rather, your responsibility lies in the variety of cultural spores, which you can choose to cultivate for posterity or to prune out of your heritage. Spores that are forgotten become mysteries, like the secret of Damascus steel, the function of the Baghdad batteries, and the brilliant recipe for Roman concrete. Spores that are kept become part of the continuing world that we all share - the English language is a spore that we keep, as are clothing styles, knitting techniques, all the myriad dog breeds for different purposes, Catholicism, doorknobs, constellations, sex positions, fairy tales, board games, soup recipes, heritage seeds, and forest stewardship.

Become a good ancestor: play for keeps.

Corn is a good example of how to cultivate and keep a spore. The closest ancestor to corn is an inedible grass, and nobody knows how anyone made such a delicious starch from such an uninspiring pedigree. To become so tasty, corn was domesticated in the far-distant past and intentionally bred towards edibility. Speedy evolution through artificial selection has been used and abused by every mushroom civilization in history to quickly select for traits in all kinds of companion species. Nearly all the lovely varieties of fruits and vegetables that we enjoy are products of directed evolution. They are heirlooms from former mushrooms, spores that we are very lucky to have.

Border collies are another example of an excellent spore that has survived and thrived. Border collies are sheep-herders. They are athletic, and smart, and able to run and run and run for hours. In a time when so many dogs are valued only for their looks, border collies are workers, and their work is absolutely crucial for anyone who wants lovely warm wool. Without herding dogs, wool would be much more difficult to harvest, and much more expensive. And what of the sheep? Our ancestors bred an amazing variety of sheep - different wools, different meats, sheep able to survive anywhere that people could go. What other beautiful creatures are yet to be evolved? What other kinds of companions could we nourish or propagate, while we still have the luxury of experimentation?

While our laboratories and workshops and insulated greenhouses and theaters and live concerts and printing presses are still here, let us evolve the heirloom spores our descendants will need. Songs and seeds last longer than guns and beans.

A question for reflection: Your descendants will sing songs and sow seeds. How can you decide which spores to keep for them?