My grandmother, Mary James, was a formidable woman. As I child I understood Nanny to be a constant source of warm hugs and squishy kisses, and biscuit after biscuit after biscuit (that’s British for ‘cookie’). In fact, she was so well-known for her demands around our consumption of shortbread and chocolate chips that later on her great-grandchildren gave her name an upgrade: Nanny Biscuit.
I always remember her the way I saw her when I was a small child. She was a small lady, always wonderfully turned out in piles of fabric and swishing skirts, colorful and vibrant. Her nails were always immaculately done in some shade of pink, beautifully shaped and very strong – she wore rubber gloves to do the dishes. Nanny was an absolute matriarch, the mother of five girls, the wife of the local vicar and she did a great deal for her community. Mary James was proper Scottish, and she suffered zero bullshit. Once, she told me: “I would die for my children…..but I would kill for my grandchildren”. I believed her. She smoked like a chimney and taught me how to spit in the water barrel outside their back door. I recognize some of her traits in myself – when she was excited or engaged about something, she’d have a funny little intake of breath that caught in her throat before she spoke. I do that sometimes too.
My father and my grandparents, gathered around little baby Ṣiv. Mary is on the left of the picture.
As I left littlehood and became a teenager, my life became tougher in many different directions – not least because I was a teenager. I was self-conscious, awkward, with very low self-esteem and had been growing up in a challenging environment. I became hyper-attuned to unease and anger in others, and I became more conscious of arguments throughout the family. So I began to shut down a little, including during our visits to the big vicarage that Nanny and Grandad lived in, and later, to the smaller house they had after Grandad retired from the church. Regardless, through all my most raggedy and pudgy goth phases I never felt anything other than love and acceptance from my grandmother (apart from the one time I colored my fingernails with bright blue marker pen, she did not like that). Towards the end of Mary’s life, her mind began to get a little foggy and I avoided visiting with her. She fell, and became considerably foggier. At this point, I was working with a very incomplete set of social and emotional tools and I had no way to process her illness, to process the loss of her person while she was still alive. It was too painful for me to see her mistake my new baby nephew for my little brother, then well into his twenties. I carry shame around that.
My grandmother loved gardening, she loved beautiful flowers and plants. The garden of the vicarage they lived in for many years was beautifully tended – just the right mixture of wild and tamed. As children, we spent a lot of time in that garden, messing around, developing in amongst the soil and leaves*. In the garden, there was a very large ornamental horse chestnut tree. It was a fairly useless tree to a typical small child, the trunk was tall and smooth – couldn’t climb it, couldn’t build a treehouse in it. But it was gorgeous and grand and Mary James loved it. She loved that tree so very much, and I can remember her hand in hand with a small child, one of my cousins, walking around the trunk. I remember, somewhere in the recesses of my brain, when I walked around the tree with her, too. Soon after she died, my uncle arranged for us to visit the tree. After my grandparents had moved out of the vicarage, some years prior, it was sold and converted into a nursery school. The whole family – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – visited on the weekend and meandered around Mary’s garden, walking up to the tree and touching it.
I said “hello tree”, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Recently, I was back in the UK and I snuck around the back of that building. The vicarage is now a B&B and the land it was built upon is much smaller having been sold to build new apartments. I couldn’t tell if the tree was still there. There were a couple of trees, no less important….but they seemed so much smaller than I remembered. I didn’t find the tree I was looking for, real or perceived from my childhood.
Hello tree. Goodbye tree.
The horse chestnut tree changed all the time. There was always something odd or icky to be found clinging to the trunk or dangling off the branches. Lichen, moss, caterpillars. When the time of the year was right it ditched conkers all over the ground, in their little hedgehog cases. Conkers! The best. Nanny’s tree produced conkers like cannonballs, a beautiful mahogany color, and so shiny. I can confidently say that, as a child, I never gave any consideration to the biological systems that went into producing those conkers, and the lives that the tree provided sustenance to in return. The huge system of roots that must have lurked underneath our feet, maybe even stretching to the house, must have given the developers hell when they took it down. I hope it did. But, in life, that system must have been considerable, and where there are roots there are microorganisms.
I imagine that system now, spreading its fingers broadly, like chariots carrying back the richness of the soil and the biomass. I picture Stamets’ ‘biological internet’ – mycorrhizae, bacteria and viruses, engaged in a stratified marketplace, bartering and brokering and exchanging their goods and services. My grandmother’s horse chestnut was probably the strongest tree I ever met, to date. Yes, in its own right as a living organism, of course. But also, I found strength there because I grew up close to it. Because it was beloved of my grandmother. The towns and villages of microbes serving the Constantinople of roots – that’s where my roots are too. I wish I had been able to reach out to the systems of smalls who made that tree what it was, to thank them, on behalf of myself and my family.
On a recent trip to the area my father grew up in – Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire, UK
The relationships that plants and microbes enjoy have developed over evolutionary timescales. Fungi, in fact, are more closely related to plants than they are to bacteria. In optimal conditions, the complex systems of microbes in the soil, and the complicated interactions they have with plants, cradle one another in a very real sense. Generally speaking, the smalls in soil are crucial for recycling old biomass and making use of decaying plant material. The products of these microbial endeavors are then accessible to move lives on a global scale. In closer association with plants themselves, microbes broker deals with the greater environment that provide phosphorus and nitrogen directly – this is their role in a symbiotic partnership. In turn, exudates from roots send signals and nourishment to the microbes in the soil, influencing populations and activity. Plants are entirely colonized by microbes and so, of course, in response to imbalance or perturbations, microbes can also act as pathogens and cause disease. These interactions exist in equilibrium. This equilibrium, is, therefore, reversible in nature.
My roots, my support system, embedded in the places that made me, are subject to the vagaries of a similar model.
When I moved to New Mexico, I became very interested in the microbes associated with Cannabis. At that time, medicinal use was approved and there were over 30 commercial grows in the state. The use of plants as medicines and sacraments are important concepts to me, and I wanted to map the microbes that lived in the soil of grows to see if I could help grow the plant in a sustainable and respectful way. It is still very difficult for me to reconcile my personal beliefs with the industry sprouting up around the plant. It’s very difficult to perform research on Cannabis, because it’s almost impossible to secure funding, and progress was, and continues to be slow. I became so frustrated that I couldn’t help, until a friend pointed out: “They don’t need your help, Siv. The plants have got it covered. Do what you can.” They were right, of course. This kind of humility, as a scientist, is easy to lose sight of. I remember thinking I was going to do so much, be so valuable – when I realized I couldn’t I reverted to a state of low self-esteem (another flavor of pride). When I let go and listened, and followed where the microbes were taking me, I found my place in that picture. In the end, I moved away from using my microbe maps and was led to a solution to cure a very specific disease on the plant. Another lesson learned, another lesson reinforced.
My roots, my learning, my pride – the equilibrium shifting again through engaging and listening with the smalls.
Las Cruces, New Mexico
The day my family went to visit the horse chestnut tree, its huge, strong roots were underneath us the whole time. As we felt our sadness, our loss, and as I felt my confusion and fear over life in general, we touched the tree and were supported. As I go about my life day to day, participating in my plans and challenges, my fears and my triumphs, my joy and my sadness, at any point I can go outside into my high desert yard and touch the soil. I can visualize how the simple act of doing this physically and chemically connects me to the mulberry trees out there, the prickly pear and the bullsnake winding its way through the large rocks out back. The desert and the sea. I live very far away from where my roots were grown in my grandmother’s garden in Southern England. But a pinch of soil connects me to her tree, reminds me of where I came from. A pinch of soil at a local Cannabis grow reminds me to be conscious of myself, the way I was wired, and how I can change my own wiring to be of greater service to the world.
The tree held us that day, and so we were also held by the microbes in residence. So it goes, as it has been for many thousands of years.
* My little brother was once stung on the toe by a bumblebee and he has been terrified of bees and wasps ever since. This caused him, later on, as a hard-as-nails paratrooper and kickboxer to run howling into my parent’s house having abandoned his infant daughter in the yard. Ari was happily gurgling away to a small bee, come to investigate what they had been up to.
Siv Watson is an environmental microbiologist specializing in examining the activities of microorganisms in soils, freshwater and wastewater. Her website explores how, either knowingly or unknowingly, her narrative as a human being can connect with her narrative as a scientist. You should check it out! Hail the smalls!