The mycelial web, developed hundreds of millions of years ago, now on your cellphone

David Merleau was one of the two winners in last year’s Sound Walk September. His piece, Forest Talk Radio, set in Ontario, Canada, weaves together folktales and forest science to produce a radio comedy experience delivered right to your smartphone. Here, David talks about his work. 

For decades I have been fascinated, some could say obsessed, by three seemingly unrelated things: Folktales, Forest Science and the Art of Radio. And it is through the art and tech of the Sound Walk that I have been able to weave these three threads together, the net effect of which has been to make a forest speak.

The first Forest Talk Radio walk, The Laurier Woods edition, takes place on a roughly two kilometre trail in a small nature conservation area in North Bay Ontario Canada. The content of this locative installation is drawn from both local folklore and site-specific scientific research. And the story I am telling through the audio entries in this GPS-triggered app are all packaged up in good old fashion radio comedy.

The story of how Forest Talk Radio came about can be distilled into a three phrase conversation:

David (me): Hey Mom, did you know that there is a fungus under the Laurier Woods that allows trees to talk to each other? Wouldn’t it be cool if those conversations could be translated into human language?

My Mother: (being cheekyWell Jeez Dave, there’s got to be an app for that!

And from that point, the audio artist and storyteller in me began to imagine what these conversations would sound like in hopes of building a locative sound and story walk.
My inner radiophile figured it would most likely sound like a community radio station, where trees would call in to share a story about living in this forest, or to complain about their neighbour for encroaching in on their sunshine.
Then, our radio host, the friendly fungus, whom I imagined in a dark smoke-filled room, wearing sunglasses that darken the red of the On-Air light, and reflect the flashing buttons on the phone, signalling would-be callers. His smooth voice lulls his listeners into a state of deep introspection. After all, the Forest Talk Radio experience is, you could say, a thought experiment: We know that friendly fungi build communication’s networks under the forest floor, where nutrients, chemicals and even electrical impulses can be transmitted.

So what if the fungal/digital divide could be bridged? What could we learn from the nature of this network? Oddly, the more I researched this “mycorrhizal” fungus and its “mycelial web”, the more I realized that in many ways our human info-grid mirrors this network. But this Web was something that nature stumbled upon through evolution, hundreds of millions of years ago.

So what does it mean that our information technology finds its natural analogue in the world of trees?
Well, this tells me that we should get off our high horse, rethink our human-dominant world view, and maybe then we can allow ourselves to learn from a forest.

One thing the mycelial web does well is facilitate cooperation between trees. The friendly fungus regulates the amount of nutrients that a particular tree or tree species needs. In many ways I believe that this fungus can be thought to serve as a form of governance, keeping some species from hogging all the good stuff, a state that would otherwise drive other species into impoverishment. Who knows, maybe deeper research into this “Forest Ethic” could shed light on how we humans could address socio-economic disparity in our societies.

Furthermore, I think that we can learn a lot about how humans engage with nature (and with each other) by looking closer at the behaviours of the wide array fungi. Let’s put it this way, not all forest fungi are friendly. In fact, some parasitic fungi will consume with reckless abandon to a point where the entire ecosystem collapses.

Sound familiar?

Let’s talk now about the cell phone. I can’t tell you how many times I have walked through the Laurier Woods and passed someone who barely notices me. You might think that they are enraptured by the beauty of their natural surroundings, but alas, their eyes are merely locked on their screens. At first I had become a bit judgmental towards these folks and soon amused by the thought of them bumping into trees and getting soakers for not having seen the puddles.

But then this got me thinking. Perhaps I could design an app experience that will actually help people engage with nature instead of reinforcing some sort of Tech/Nature divide. Heck, if they, particularly young people, are going to be tethered to their smartphones while they are in the forest, perhaps this app could give them reason to engage with their surroundings more.

The story that you hear as you stumble upon the audio entries are linked directly to your specific surroundings in the forest. I like to think that you begin to inhabit the narrative in a profound way because your senses are actively absorbing the forest setting and the characters begin to speak when they are standing physically right in front of you.

You stare across the pond at the tamarack who is grieving the loss of his brethren to the encroaching gentrifier-beavers who “build things with our body parts…build things with our body parts…and the swimming pools! What decadence!…” And, a bit further down the trail, a red maple and a black cherry, their roots wound up together, are slapsticking about being rubbed the wrong way. Sure, you are being entertained by some really fun dialogue and some great voice actors but in these cases, all the while you are learning about the natural history of the area (beavers infiltrated the surrounding area about fifty years ago) and the basic difference between tree seed banks (Black Cherry) and sampling banks (Maple) and how maples are better equipped to become the dominant tree species in a forest.

My next Forest Talk Radio project is set within an old growth pine forest in a little place called Temagami Ontario. The White Bear Old Growth forest oozes ecological longevity and the indigenous population have called this area home for thousands of years, the perfect place in my mind to set a series of humorous post-apocalyptic choose-your-own-adventure sound walks.

Forest Talk Radio—Laurier Woods has a long list of collaborators and frankly the sound walk would not be what it is without them. However, they are far too numerous to name here. Go to the website to learn about the various partnerships as well as the many voice actors who you hear throughout your walk. This said, I would like to mention the wonderful folks at Cgeomap , especially Fred Adam and Horacio González. Without these two intrepid sound walk aficionados Forest Talk Radio would be a bumbling mess.

It is wonderful to be recognized by the Museum of Walking, and I am honoured to have gone up against some serious heavy hitters in the worlds of sound art and site-specific audio documentary and come out a winner of the Sidewalk September 2019 Award.

And to all of you reading this, thank you for your interest in my work!

Submit your work for Sound Walk September 2020

Perhaps you’re inspired, or you were already planning on taking over the world with your next sound walk. We’re now taking submissions for Sound Walk September 2020. New sound walks, created in 2020, are eligible, as well as any sound walk event, executed during September 2020.

More here.

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