On identities

I’m a mycologist. This is part of my identity. It’s a part that I’ve chosen, but one that it would be hard for me to give up, at this point. Why am I a mycologist? What brought me to the love of fungi? I think a lot of it has to do with an interested in the peculiar and the odd, and some deep-seated need to root for the underdog. I like fungi because they’re under-studied, poorly comprehended, misunderstood, and misrepresented. I identify with that; I feel a kinship with fungi because I feel like there’s something in common between myself and them, in a way.

Also, I am queer. This is part of my identity, but not one that I chose for myself, though it has been a long, slow road in recognizing it within myself. And it’s not unrelated to being a mycologist — that feeling of kinship with fungi because they’re misunderstood and misrepresented? I think that comes from my queerness. Growing up in the military, in a family from rural Appalachia, there was no way to express certain feelings, even to myself. My own attractions (call me pansexual, if you need a word) and my own gender expression (I am cis-male, but my concept of masculinity is radically different now from anything I had access too as a young person) were confusing and contradictory as I grew up, and I did not even have the vocabulary to talk about them. Now, looking back, I can recognize that certain discomforts and confusions stemmed from the conflict between how I was feeling and how society expected me to feel. But, not having even the ideas, much less the vocabulary, to think about it, I had trouble recognizing what was going on; I just felt other and different. Continue reading

Some history about handwashing

As some of you know, I’ve been working at the Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon for the last few months as a microbial ecologist. The first project with them has come to fruition: a review of the concept of hygiene as it relates to human-associated microbial ecology. I blogged about that at MicroBE.net (you can read that post here, which includes a link to the BioRxiv preprint of the full review article).

Today, I’d like to discuss a bit of history that only made it into the Review briefly, but I think is absolutely fascinating. It turns out, you can trace hand hygiene back to a discrete starting point in the middle of the 19th century. In Boston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. — now more famous as one of the Fireside Poets, along with Longfellow, but renowned as a physician in his own time — noticed the contagious nature of puerperal fever, which affects women shortly after childbirth. He published his findings in 1843 (though it went largely unnoticed until reprinted in longer form as a book in 1855), arguing that physicians with unwashed hands spread the disease. Holmes’s views were ridiculed by the established obstetricians of the time, but laid the foundations for thought about hygiene and the spread of infection in the American medical establishment.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., on the left, and Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis on the right. Images shamelessly taken from their wikipedia pages.

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The application of names

I’d like us to all think for a little bit about the way that we apply names to organisms around us.

I started thinking about this after my friend Danny Newman hijacked the comments thread on this Mushroom Observer post of a Xylaria from Portugal. This post, but the amicable and cryptically-named zaca, was of a cute little Xylaria growing on a mossy log in a park in Lisbon. They’d tagged the find as “Xylaria polymorpha“, one of the two names for species of Xylaria often included in field guides; the other, of course, is “Xylaria hypoxylon“. Danny used the application of this widely misapplied name in such circumstances to start a more general conversation about how we apply names to fungi. I’d encourage you all to go read that comment thread, if you haven’t already.

Xylaria cf. cinerea, photographed by zaca.

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The Earth’s Breath

Following up on my last post, this was prepared as a sample section from the children’s educational book about fungi that I’m starting to put together. I’m hoping to post more stories like this, and updates on the illustrations, content, and organization as it comes together. Hope you like it!


The Earth’s Breath 

When next you are out-of-doors, look up into the sky. That sky is but a skin of air, a few miles thick, floating over the whole surface of the Earth. It’s made up of many things, all mixed together — one very important part of the air is its carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide), which is the primary stuff out of which all life is made.

Plants and fungi form two great halves of the Earth’s lungs. The plants breathe in the carbon, turning it into more of themselves — the leaves and the wood and the roots. This feeds all the world’s animals, eventually. The fungi breathe the carbon back out into the air, so that the cycle can continue. Continue reading