Decomposition As Explanation

Jae Rhim Lee’s The Infinity Burial Project, conceived of as an intersection of art, science and culture seeks to “promote and facilitate an individual engagement with the process of decomposition.”

Our Human bodies store many of the toxins we encounter, so that when we die, we are, to varying degrees, little toxic dumps.  As Lee points out, most western funerary practices add toxic chemicals after death, and then put the whole mess in the ground.

Lee is developing toxin-cleaning-mushroom-based technology embedded in a burial suit to both assist in the decomposition of human bodies, and to mycormediate the toxins.  The mushrooms growing from the mycelium in the suit would break down some toxins into benign substances, and accumulate others such as heavy metals, allowing for safer disposal.

The video embedded here and the discussion on her website do not explain her decision to use edible mushrooms for the project.  It does seem an apt choice though, illustrating the potential for either nourishment or lethal toxicity that mushrooms represent.

All of this led (lead?) me to an extended mediation on mushrooms and this dual potential.  In the Atomic Geography household we have several favorite mushroom dishes, many mushroom field guides and several mushroom cook books.  So I thought of Alice B. Tolkas’ recipe for mushroom flan that she prefaces with this:

We were seduced at once by the little town, the hotel and the forest. We not only ordered lunch but engaged rooms to spend the night. While waiting for lunch to be cooked, we walked in the forest when Gertrude Stein, who had a good nose for mushrooms, found quantities of them. The cook would be able to tell us if they were edible. Once more a woman was presiding in the kitchen. She smiled when she saw what Gertrude Stein brought for her inspection and pointed to a large basket of them on the kitchen table, but said she would use those that Gertrude Stein had found for what she was preparing for our lunch.” Alice B. Tolkas Cookbook

Which lead me to think of Gertrude Stein and her writing.

Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing.  These are both things.  And then there is using everything.  Composition as Explanation Gertrude Stein

So there we have, I think a succinct gloss of the Infinity Burial Project: the continuous present, beginning again and again and using everything.

For my part, I can’t help but think of what mushrooms recipes I would want served at my memorial service.  It might take a few years for the first few crops of mushrooms to clear my toxins, but at some point these edible mushrooms would be edible.  Maybe ABT’s mushroom flan made with morels.  Maybe Mushroom Fritters with Tomato Sauce from The Mushroom Feast by Jane Grigson.  Or a simple mushroom omelette.

Lee promises new developments in her project in 2014.  Watch this space.

 

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Vallyey – Part 3

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Part 2 asserts that from  the Uncanny Valley’s forest floor, the drone seems both an uncanny robot and a living nonhuman species.  Of course neither is true.

The drone is a remote appendage of a cyborg. The parts of this entity includes a human at a control panel and all the technological infrastructure the drone needs to complete its mission. Distributed across the world, it is a functional human/machine hybrid, just as a human immersed in an electronic device, or in union with a pacemaker is.

Looking down at the Valley’s forest floor for a moment, perhaps distracted by a sound, or just overwhelmed by the vigilance of looking at the sky, I see this:

atomic angel

Destroying Angels (a group of closely related Amanita species around the world) are among the most deadly mushrooms there are.  Humans eating the various species of Destroying Angel (or the closely related the Death Cap) result in up to 95% of mushroom deaths.

These visible mushrooms though are only a projectile of the underground organism, the mycelium.  This part of a fungus can be huge.  Depending on the criteria one uses, a fungus in Oregon is the largest living organism on earth.

Additionally, the fungus lives in symbiosis with the surrounding trees, fungus penetrating into tree roots cells, becoming a functional entity, becoming one thing, becoming a non-human/non-machine cyborg.

Standing on the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, the potential of death hovers above me and stands as witness at my feet.

About Mushrooms

In a previous post,  I described the events leading up to my grandfather telling me, “You have to understand about mushrooms.”  Learning recently about Charles McIlvaine, I recognized something of my grandfather in him.  Both, I think, trusted his own experience to a degree that would ordinarily seem to result in an early death, only to have it validated.

He served in the Union Army for two years, rising to become a Captain. (Here is a point of difference between the two.  My grandfather came to America in part to avoid service in the Polish army.)

I found no account of his next 17 years.  Another similarity to my grandfather perhaps – a certain mystery about where he was and what he was doing.  At that point McIlvaine moved to West Virginia.  This is his account of what happened.

A score of years ago (1880-1885) I was living in the mountains of West Virginia. While riding on horseback through the dense forests of that great unfenced state, I saw on every side luxuriant growths of fungi, so inviting in color, cleanliness and flesh that it occurred to me they ought to be eaten. I remembered having read a short time before this inspiration seized me, a very interesting article in the Popular Science Monthly for May, 1877, written by Mr. Julius A. Palmer, Jr., entitled “ Toadstool eating.” Hunting it up I studied it carefully, and soon found myself interested in a delightful study, which was not without immediate reward. Up to this time I had been living, literally, on the fat of the land – bacon; but my studies enabled me to supplement this, the staple dish of the state, with a vegetable luxury that centuries ago graced the dinners of the Caesars. So absorbing did the study become from gastronomic, culinary, and scientific points of view, that I have continued it ever since, with thorough intellectual enjoyment and much gratification of appetite as my reward. I hope to interest students in the study as I am myself interested.

For twenty years my little friends – the toadstools – have been my constant companions. They have interested me, delighted me, feed me, and I have found much pleasure in making the public acquainted with their habits, structure, lusciousness and food value.

Charles McIlvaine “ OneThousand American Fungi”

McIlvaine’s method for leaning about mushrooms included eating hundreds of species of them.  The ediblity and poisoness of many of these were not known at the time.  His nickname came to be “Ole Ironguts”.

My grandfather came to America when he was 16.  I don’t know what education he had there.  His family was well off, so I’m sure whe went to school.  But from the rough jobs he had in this country, I’m fairly sure his formal education stopped in Poland.  Maybe he began to learn the ways of the forest there.  Because of the way he talked about “the woods” I’m sure though, that his knowledge came from extensive personal obsevation and experimentaton.

If you ever drank his coffee you would know he deserved the name “Ole Ironguts” as well.