I began to work with mushroom kits in 2018 and displayed them as readymades in my thesis show, curious about mail-order mycology and the paradox of a network confined by a plastic bag; meanwhile, I was also collecting tumbleweeds, an abundant resource on the outskirts of LA county. The following text will appear in the catalog for our 2018 degree show, Rattlesnake Bells in the Desert.
Scroll to the end to watch the video included in the exhibition.
Two approaches to root systems
A few weeks ago I read about the radioactive tumbleweed, and watched the film Tumbleweeds starring William S. Hart. I was thinking casually in bed this morning that maybe the best option would be to include that screen-cap of my conversation with Caro about mycorrhizae—and then to write a very short essay, “Two Approaches to Root Systems.” There are more than two approaches I’m sure, but it suddenly occurred to me that my fascination with fungi and my fascination with tumbleweeds comprise two sides of a dichotomy: the one, being rooted and connected to a vast global network, notions of interdependence and care, resource sharing, empathy, fluidity, tactility; the other, the ability to detach from the root system and settle anew in perpetuity. There is a sort of ruthless independence to this second approach, a rejection of the root system as foundation—the cycle is one of establishment and abandonment, a gathering up but in some ways also a tearing down.
“The only land I’ll settle down on will be under a tombstone,” Hart declares, shortly before falling in love and jumping through myriad hoops to claim and settle a very particular piece of land on what would become the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The movie takes place in 1893 during the Cherokee Strip Land Run, when roughly 100,000 homesteaders rushed to claim a portion of the vast swath of Indian territory that had been declared “Unassigned Lands,” or public property of the United States. In the Hollywood Western, tumbleweeds reflect both the iconoclasm and the imperviousness of the cowboy, his resistance to the established root system of civil society, his propensity for the rough and simple life on the range. Tumbleweeds, though, settle frequently and opportunistically: they roll through the desert in search of freshly plowed soil and water, their spiny bracts prepared to open mechanically and set seed at the first sign of hospitable conditions. In this sense perhaps they have more in common with the love-struck cowboys turned homesteaders than they do with the iconoclasts, and yet I prefer not to think of them as colonizers at all. Ranchers are frequently at war with tumbleweeds; rather than corralling cattle and setting borders, tumbleweeds frustrate such activities, overrunning grazing lands and rolling over fences. They appeared in South Dakota in the 1870s, stowaways in a shipment of flaxseed from Russia, and within 10 years they were found in more than a dozen states. Now they can be found almost everywhere in the world. Detractors call them “Russian invaders” or “aliens,” pejoratives that seem to suggest the tumbleweed is a pernicious interloper in contrast with the supposedly virtuous white settlers who unknowingly carried them to this continent. But like other plants, tumbleweeds neither abide by the law nor break it; they simply pose the same fundamental question that any invasive species poses: what are the preconditions of belonging?
Most plants benefit from mycorrhizal partnerships, the symbiotic relationship between fungi and root systems. But what we call “weeds”—including Kali tragus or Russian thistle, that most common and commonly maligned of tumbleweeds—can largely be distinguished from other plants precisely because weeds are not dependent on the mycorrhizal network. Weeds are either non-hosts or occasional hosts of fungi, capable of functioning without the nutrients that characterize fungi-enriched soil. And so weeds settle most readily in the most disrupted sites—like the tumbleweed, combing the arid landscape in search of the most meager accommodations. Tumbleweeds are gregarious, congregating in these nutrient-poor environments and multiplying rapidly: this is another kind of belonging, one that rejects the symbiosis of the mycorrhizae and privileges instead the fecundity of the crowd, the potential contained in a change in the wind. There is necessity, too, to this movement—a scarcity of resources becomes the demand for constant uprooting, the primary means of survival in extreme droughts and harsh soils. Classified among the “resurrection plants” and increasingly valuable as research subjects in our changing climate, tumbleweeds are radical, adaptable, nearly immortal.
Though we can trace the origins of Kali tragus—to regions of Eurasia where it is still recognized as a valuable food source for camels, sheep and goats, particularly when other plant species are scarce—the tumbleweed seems to belong wherever it settles, if only temporarily. But what can kill it, before it is able to detach and roll away, are the very fungi that are so beneficial to mycorrhizal plants. Tearing Russian thistle from the ground is a futile exercise, but the introduction of fungi into the soil can quickly decimate a population: the fungi attack young weeds, feed off of their nutrients and bore holes into their roots, distributing the spoils to other mycorrhizal plants in the network. The richer the mycorrhizal community, the weaker the tumbleweed; and yet the body of the weed still has an afterlife, both in the nutrients that it has provided to the community and in the structural support it supplies to neighboring plants and foraging animals. Fungi are famous for their ability to compost almost anything, from toxic waste to human bodies; here the necropolitics of the tumbleweed come into play, as this apparently invasive species unwittingly partners with the mycorrhizal community to renew a decimated ecosystem.
As part of the Manhattan Project in 1943, The Hanford Site was established in Washington State by the Columbia River. Plutonium used in the bombing of Nagasaki was manufactured there, and it is now the most contaminated nuclear site in the United States. Radioactive runoff was initially contained in tanks, with the “less potent” waste dumped into the ground and pumped into two deep wells directly into the aquifer. Helping to spread the waste are burrowing badgers and rabbits, peripatetic fruit flies, and tumbleweeds, their nomadic natures belied by tap roots that can extend as deep as 20 feet into the ground, sucking up waste from the groundwater before detaching and pushing off into the wind. And so embedded in the dormant weed is the history of this temporary birthplace, one in a long line of birthplaces stretching into the past and the future. Most of these tumbleweeds don’t stray far from Hanford, caught up in sagebrush a few hundred yards from the site, where they are measured by a Geiger-Mueller counter for radioactivity and then corralled, compacted and hauled away in a garbage truck. But if such tumbleweeds were allowed to germinate, complete the cycle and detach again, would the second generation still carry traces of radioactivity? How long is that history? How many generations carry with them the physical traces of previous root systems? Here the dichotomy begins to look somewhat different: the mycorrhizal partnership between fungi and plant becomes a way of working through, almost a kind of doubling down, where the ground—the topsoil and the subsoil of a specific piece of land—becomes the ultimate source of orientation. Fungi occupy earth collaboratively, proactively; tumbleweeds instead carry it with them, a physical trace that can only be worked through as a successive uprooting and re-rooting, an un-belonging that allows for a perpetual becoming.