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Of symbiotic tricksters and other monsters

I walked with a trickster dream today. It tempted me to crossover the ordinary path towards the fantastic, the surreal, the unusual and monstrous.

A much needed energy for the times we live in but not necessarily a welcomed one.

Why? Because it is one that requires a complete letting go to uncertainty and opening ourselves to its sense of infinite possibility.

How enmeshed are you in the world you inhabit? How committed are you to its social and financial demands, the subtle and gross ways it preempts the fundamental, radical changes needed for us to possibly avoid total ecological collapse? How caught up are you in a double bind?

In that trickster dream, I was driving towards a dangerous sharp right turn edged by a few majestic Pine trees that looked as if they were floating on pieces of soil above a drop of some height.

I was uncontrollably attracted by these strange trees and fell in the 'crack'. When I came to and slipped out of the car unscathed I saw three dinosaur-like creatures reminding me of gigantic Komodo lizards walking slowly towards me. I panicked and tried to find a way out. There was an odd looking building on the left behind me and I began to run towards it.

It had massive drawers instead of windows. I pulled one but there was only a thin slit at the bottom of these deep rectangular boxes. I leaped out and spotted a doorway, a French window as they’re also called here, and I stepped into what looked like a shop with a woman and a dog beside her. She looked towards me as if she were expecting me and said ‘Well done! You’ve pulled through. Follow me.’

She led the way with her dog out of this ‘shop’ to a path in the middle of tall grasses…

It was quite puzzling at first but as I walked with it I realised what it was about.

A few days before at a craniosacral postgrad seminar organised and hosted by Jane Shaw of the Elmfield Institute (1) we had talked at length about the trickster energy of liminal places, the domain and chief characteristic of the messenger God Hermes, one you know I am particularly fond of if you read my previous blogs.

The floating trees embody that very trickster energy I am lured by and fall for. It is one that leads me astray from the dominating paradigm of what we call ‘normality’ to land in this liminal, queer world of possibility: one that is peopled by the surreal, the unexpected and the wild, the monstrous. One that can set off fear and anxiety because it feels unsafe, threatening, overwhelming but one that can also point to a path, a direction home, to wholeness.

Why were we talking about Hermes the trickster of the in-between?

Because we were exploring the microcosm of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that become our microbiome, and live in our gut walls and membranes as well as our lungs, hair and skin and maybe even our brains, and how it affects our health and our connection with the macrocosm of life on Earth within the infinite cosmos.

It has been said before, our organism is a planet that is host to trillions of strange inhabitants living in symbiotic relationships within our cells and fascia. The more bio-diverse these 'guests', the healthier we are.

I personally feel and see this as a massive playground, a slightly dizzying and exciting gigantic maze, a communal microcosmic chaos of monstrous proportions, that supports and nurtures life, without which we could not survive. It is an intrinsic and intricate part of who we are and how we relate to the world we live in.

These microorganisms metabolise other forms of life that feed us. They also play an essential role in our immune system.

They are the messengers between the substantial out there and the particular in here.

They are our constant gardeners; the ‘punk’, anarchist type, not the ‘classical’ kind you may enjoy in the formal landscaping at the palace of Versailles.

This microcosm includes bacteria, fungi (yeasts and moulds), viruses and bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria and can help maintain our gut balance).

Microbiome analyst and craniosacral therapist Viola Sampson (2) speaks passionately of this 'forgotten organ’ whose significance and impact on our overall health has been the subject of regular breakthrough discoveries in the last two decades.

She explains how, from life in the womb onwards, our microbiome is ‘seeded’ first through our umbilical cord and the placenta, then via our landing on earth when the birth canal gifts us with our mother’s vaginal flora.

Like our mother and father, these trillions of invisible creatures are our primary care givers.

Like the magical folk presiding over the successful birth and lives of princesses in tales, they are family.

Viola explains how this ‘metabolome' or the overall balance of these microbial species in our microbiome is a complex ecosystem which will continue to form up to three years after birth through healthy exposure to the land.

Toddlers instinctively know to play with soil, puddles of water, and just about anything that adults usually view as ‘dirty’. This interaction is a healthy attraction that will result in a more diverse microbiome and stronger health and immunity, especially important if you were born via cesarian delivery.

The more diverse this invisible family is, the greater the range of responses to different situations and the more possibilities to transform, adapt and evolve.

Like Irish philosopher John Moriarty(3) intimating us to remember our fundamentally therianthropic nature, a knowing woven in multiple myths and lore throughout the ages, our microbiota are this pool of wild monsters that have constantly shape shifted and mutated since the dawn of life on Earth.

They are the threads to our early ancestors, like the precursors of life on this planet: fungi.

The threads of fungi are multitudinous hyphae, networks of infinity in the making called mycelium. They elongate at whim attracted by ‘food’ and bioelectric signals. They adapt and change direction as they grow, constantly in process in the most unpredictable manner and entering into all sorts of symbiotic partnerships or mutual aid type of exchanges as they do.

As biologist and fungi-lover, Merlin Sheldrake, author of the fabulous Entangled Life says,

”Mycelium is a way of life that challenges our animal imagination.” It “ceaselessly wanders beyond its limits”. (4)

“Mycelium is ecological connective tissue,” he adds.

Like quantum diffraction, it completely escapes human apprehension. “Mycelial coordination takes place everywhere at once.”

They are the beginnings and the endings but even this linear and ‘finite’ vocabulary falls short of their endless meanderings because their mode of being is profoundly circular, queer and often surprising.

Fungi and other microbes were the first forms of life on earth and will no doubt outlive us.

Fungi’s association with algae about 420 million years ago created the conditions for the first plants to grow on land. Thanks to this ’coupling’ a few hundred million years later dinosaurs roamed the land among trees and other plants.

Fungi survived the asteroid strike that wiped out 70 percent of life on Earth. They literally ‘cleaned up’ the mess left by this catastrophe as they processed the decaying dead and allowed new life to spring forth. The mammals who had survived were able to live alongside fungi thanks to their body temperature.(5)

Fungi are the ultimate tricksters, the connectors per excellence. They bear all the qualities of omniscient, omnipresent and very playful gods in my personal cosmology.

So it is not surprising that fungi are all over and within our organisms. Their spores fall from the air on our skin and yeasts and moulds inhabit our gut and fascia nourishing us, and helping us to maintain a metabolic balance.

In fact, according to the majority of anthropological research, our ‘partnership’ with yeast is what sealed our evolutionary trajectory from nomadic hunter gatherers to more sedentary agriculturalists (5).

Merlin Sheldrake explains how about ten million years ago, ADH4, the enzyme used to digest the alcohol generated by rotting fruits fallen on the ground mutated to become forty times more efficient, thus allowing our primate ancestors to come down from trees and feed from these easy pickings.

It is thought that as a result apes spent more time on forest floors and slowly evolved to become humanoids.

“Long before our ancestors became human and long before we evolved stories to make cultural and spiritual sense of alcohol and the cultures of yeast that produce it, we evolved the enzymes that make metabolic sense of them.” (4)

If these micro organisms show anything it is that we are not in control, we can only influence and optimise the conditions to maximise the potential of our metabolism.

We can have a “conversation with our microbiome through the food we eat,” Viola Sampson says. Part of the key stimuli for such playful chat is immersing oneself within the wild we co-evolved from and are intimately bonded to through our inner jungles. Viola explains that foraging for wild foods that are rich in polyphenols like elderberries and blackberries for example is particularly beneficial because it feeds ‘good’ bacteria in our large intestine.

We are literally what and how we eat and each microbiome is unique.

For this very reason Viola adds that a treatment like craniosacral therapy is just the ticket since our balance-creating microorganisms are in constant flux, a fluidity that needs to be supported and facilitated rather than arbitrarily controlled.

CST encourages this allowing adaptability and does not function on the premise that we know what’s best for the person we make gentle contact with.

In the biodynamic form of this therapy, each individual organism decides on the course of events through the body’s higher Intelligence. There is an inner Knowing translated in tissues and fluids, that creates space for transformation, for the fabulous trickstery of transmutation to slowly and naturally occur while the practitioner holds and facilitates this change.

We trust in this process because of its boundless wisdom harking back as it does to the dawn of life itself.

According to evolutionary biologist Rob Dunn, in the current medical context, we target the ‘bad’ (bacteria or virus) that makes us sick by ‘killing’ it. But we don't have"much of a framework" for the "idea that something good is missing and that it makes us sick"(5).

Our microbiome is very much the new frontier, an unknown ‘planet’ we are only relatively recently exploring and discovering. One that we have disconnected from just like we have cut ourselves off from the microbial world we came from in the wild. It’s no accident that a rekindling of interest in wild foraging coincides with these new discoveries at a time when this awareness and apprehension of our bodies as ecosystems within the wider ecosystem of our great Biosphere is crucial for our survival.

At a time of massive loss of species and biodiversity.

At a time when an exponential rise in allergies and immune-depressant chronic diseases, rooted in excessive inflammation and imbalances in our organisms, comes as a direct result of “our isolation away from the microbes we’ve evolved with.” (5)

Viola Sampson says that just like there is irreversible damage in our environment, there are also microorganisms that have forever disappeared, some whose story we no doubt never got to hear or explore.

So it is indeed a form of ‘punk’ gardening that is needed to match and meet the wonderfully messy and chaotic wild of the land, of our land. Classical landscaping and ultra hygienic living destroy the diversity we need to thrive.

I quite like that there is a bacterium called ‘the gardener’ maintaining the integrity and quality of our gut linings. She (I can't help imagining her as a feminine entity) is named Akkermansia. She likes it when we intermittently fast, Viola explains, because she can tend better to our garden during this slow downtime.

Groundbreaking researcher, biologist and author Lynn Margulis speaks of “the intimacy of strangers” when it comes to symbiosis and how two, or more very different organisms can associate and cooperate to transform and adapt to new environments (6).

An intimacy that is not so far removed and is still consciously present in indigenous populations around the world. In Ireland, the ancient reference to the Other World-- a magic realm of 'other folk' and ever-lasting life set beneath the ground that one can ‘visit’ through special portals in cave/womb-like structures when the veil is thin at Samhain -- is a great reminder of this ancestral conversation with the invisible forces of the wild.

We are slowly reviving this intimacy in many domains of life, a threading of a new wonder-filled path that gives hope to Viola Sampson as “it can break down artificial barriers between medical microbiology and environmental microbiology.” So that Health can be apprehended through the prism of the “global community of the living”, not in isolation.

We are holobionts, a collection of a host and many living species, and microbial diversity attract us as much as we attract it. Life revolves around it.

Lynn Margulis has these beautiful words,” We animals, all thirty million species of us, emanate from the microcosm. The microbial world, the source and wellspring of soil and air, informs our own survival.”(6)

The quality of potency of our internal microcosm is intricately interwoven within the macrocosm we live in. It is also very much dependent on it.

I remember the dream and wonder are we ready to go astray from a fast road leading straight to catastrophe and instead become 'lost' as fugitive tricksters at one with the wild?

Are we ready to surrender and fall for this inherent attraction that animates us and has always been within us? This intimacy with invisible monsters?

I know I am like you, somewhat afraid and uneasy around uncertainty and just like in the dream I tend to run away from it. But maybe this frantic 'fugitivity' (7) is really an escaping from both the inevitability of complete collapse and extinction (as symbolised by these dinosaur-like creatures) and our ongoing fast-paced suicidal growth.

Others like Nigerian philosopher and author Bayo Akomolafe (7) have spoken of a “third way”, the way of the 'Middle', the way of ‘pisar suave’, treading slowly and lightly in Spanish,

Just like fungi filaments,

Just like Akkermansia,

Just like the other folk of our underworld

Oh and did I say that the dog I walked behind amidst tall grasses at the end of the dream was an Irish Wolfhound? The hound of Cuchulainn, the famous Irish hero of mythical lore.

Meanwhile Hermes the Trickster keeps playing their tune… while symbiotic tricks shape us.

Notes and references:

1- For more on courses offered by Jane Shaw at the Elmfield Institute see

2- Viola Sampson made a presentation on the microbiome as part of the seminar mentioned in the ongoing series From Earth Mother to Birth Mother hosted by Elmfield. For more information on Viola's work see

3- From the wonderful Dreamtime by John Moriarty

4- From the excellent Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake

5- From a series of two documentaries called Life on Us that can be viewed here:

6- From the brilliant Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis.

7- I am currently enjoying the sensuously exciting and insightful exploration hosted by Bayo Akomolafe: We Will Dance With Mountains see and highly recommend his book These Wilds Beyond our Fences.


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