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April 25, 2004 (Third Sunday of Easter/Earth Day)—“An Interview with a Fungus and a Crow”*

Pastor Fritz Frischel

Deacon and Alala chat prior to worship in front of the Earth Day bulletin board.Deacon and Alala chat prior to worship in front of the Earth Day bulletin board.

Deacon: Welcome to our celebration of this Earth Day Sunday. We are expecting several guests today who can speak to us about some common concerns of our care for the earth. We have the likeness of one of expected guests posted here in the chancel. This particular guest is usually not seen in public, being included on the Endangered Species list. But we hope that this image that we have will encourage him to make an appearance.

Now for our first guest, Pilobola Crystallina, author of the award winning bestseller, Do We Need Mankind: A Fungal Perspective. Ms. Pilobola is a member of the kingdom Fungi, class Zygomycetes. She is a scholar, lecturer, denizen of darkness. Welcome Ms. Pilobola.

Ms. Pilobola, your most recent book, which I have here, raises serious questions about the future of the biosphere. Could you tell us what some of your concerns are?
Pilobola:      I became quite concerned in the last couple of centuries about the reputation that was beginning to develop about fungi.
Deacon: How so?
Pilobola: The modern history of the fungi, which I date about 400 million years ago, has been a remarkable success. There are two vital roles that fungi have played--indisputably--during that time. First, we are the drivers of the carbon cycle. We have elite teams whose job is to digest organic matter and return the component parts to the ecological system.
Deacon: So you claim that without your work, life on earth would have ground to a halt for a lack of raw materials.
Pilobola: Exactly.
Deacon: And the second role?
Pilobola: Secondly, we team up with the roots of plants to extend their reach into the soil environment and enhance their uptake of water and nutrients.
Deacon: I can see that it not only helps the plants, but other animals dependent on plants.
Pilobola: Right again.
Deacon: Now, of particular interest to our audience, when do human beings come into your very extended history?
Pilobola: Humans interacted with us in a significant way about 20,000 years ago, when they stumbled on the fermentation of alcohol.
Deacon: Stumbled might be the right word. The fermentation of alcohol?
Pilobola: Yes. Some ancestral spores of a fungal yeast must have settled into a pot of gruel and become fermented. This began what we call a honeymoon period with humans, as you might imagine, but it didn't last long.
Deacon: What happened to end it?
Pilobola: Two things. Agriculture was one. Single cropping and animal husbandry led to concentrations of plant and animal populations that were vulnerable to problems.
Deacon: Problems like?
Pilobola: Like smuts, rusts, mildews and blights. For example, one of my cousins produces ergot, which causes gangrene, madness and death in humans.
Deacon: So humans were jeopardized by some of their own practices.
Pilobola: Yes, indirectly. The other change for worse came because of transportation. Rapid movement of species allows no time for immunities to develop. Many fungal species have been vilified for causing mass exterminations of elm trees, potatoes and other plants. The real culprits, of course, are the humans who transport exotic plants and animals from continent to continent.
Deacon: And those interactions can be harmful to many species. That brings up another question. As you see it, what has been the human purpose during recent centuries?
Pilobola: With the benefit of hindsight--a failed experiment in individualism. There is no fungal equivalent. We fungi have learned how to live together.
Deacon: How do you see that human individualism expressed?
Pilobola: In the abstract, individualism sounds good--an enlightened, educated person who can take care of oneself. But after a brief period, the culture of enlightened individualism turned into a cult of personal freedom. Chance distribution of natural resources led to the creation of pockets of wealth and isolated colonies of people. Prosperity excited envy This clamor for abundance put enormous stress on the biosphere.
Deacon: I can see you make a strong argument. If I may pause here, I thought that we have seen one of our other guests by now.
Alala: [Interrupting from the balcony.] Here I am. I've been listening up in the rafters to what you are saying. You know how sound travels up.
Deacon: And who are you, may I ask?
Alala: My name is Alala, or my technical name is Corvus hawaiiensis, one of the endangered birds in this territory.
Deacon: Alala, or can I call you Al?
Alala: I would prefer Alala. It means to cry or scream. [Alala has now reached the podium.]
Deacon: All right, Alala. You have something to add in regard to the human involvement in your life?
Alala: I should think so. Humans have had a striking effect on the biosphere. Some humans think they are the only important creatures in the biosphere. They act as if everything in the world is intended for their use and exploitation. But we birds have our rights, too. And we've been here much longer than they.
Pilobola: And now you sound just like one of them, demanding your personal freedom and rights!
Alala: I don't mean it that way. Maybe I should say that we birds have an important role to play, just as I overheard you describe the fungi's role in the biosphere.
Deacon: Back to my question. What has been your experience of interaction with humans?
Alala: It's a bit of a long story, but I'll try to make it short. We used to be one of the most plentiful birds in Hawaii. So plentiful at one time we were ostracized by being termed pests.
Deacon: What happened?
Alala: Our numbers were dramatically reduced because of several things, one being the introduction of non-native species into our territory. These "intruders," I call them, devastated the avian population including the alala species.
Deacon: Precisely what intruders are you talking about? I don't hear anything yet about humans.
Alala: I mean rats, mongooses--brought to these islands by people, and feral cats! These creatures eat our eggs and young. People seem to give little thought to how things interact, that introducing one new thing might bring an ancient world to ruin.
Pilobola: Were there other dangers for you?
Alala: All pigs and cattle that brought by people have big appetites and have no respect for how the forest plants, and yes, the fungi, work together. They trample and root and wind up killing the plants we and countless other species need to live on. And people also brought those mosquitoes! They have spread malaria and killed so many birds that we have had to retreat high on the mountain to escape them.
Deacon: And now, Alala--what are your prospects now?
Alala: Now there are people who are trying to save us.
Pilobola: You mean they are trying to convert with religious persuasion?
Alala: No, no. I don't mean save in that way. The Alala has been classified as an endangered species. No Alala birds have been sighted by humans in the wild for more than 18 months. Some think that we are near extinction

By the way, did you know, that currently about 27,000 species become extinct each year.
Deacon: That sounds catastrophic. No, I didn't know that.
Alala: Some of your human reporters say that this is the greatest period of extinction of species since the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. And you remember that, don't you, Pilobola?
Pilobola: Yes, of course. Why it seems only like yesterday.
Deacon: That sounds critical.
Alala: But as for the disappearing Alala--humans are trying to raise some of these birds while in captivity. There are now forty of us being cared for, and we hope that soon, some of us will be released again into our forest home.
Deacon: It certainly sounds as though the rapid growth of the human population has severely affected you.
Pilobola: One of the biggest problems, I think, has been the failure of humans to act decisively and thoroughly.
Deacon: Can you explain that?
Pilobola: If you visit the media archives of the human species--and we fungi are able to do so freely in spite of human efforts to exclude us--in their literature you will see that environmental issues were at the forefront of concern in all the wealthier nations for the past century and a half. Treaties, agreements, protocols, regulations, public opinion--all were used to stop the tide of harmful practices.
Deacon: I am aware of a great amount of written material on this subject But the effectŠ?
Pilobola: Population growth outpaced our ability to maintain control. And more and more people began to demand higher standards of living. And although good ecological information was available to them, a lot of the data was ignored in favor of other amusements and entertainments.
Deacon: Sounds like a clash of values. And in your book, you do acknowledge the importance of values--what some might call altruism or moderation. How do fungi talk about ethical values? Or perhaps you call them spiritual values?
Pilobola: [Laughs] Much of what other consider spiritual, we call secular. This does not mean that we are without a theology. We have two major religions among the fungi, but the core principle of both religions is identical.
Deacon: And that principle is?
Pilobola: Our core religious value is species recognition.
Deacon: Species recognition? Now that needs a little more clarification
Pilobola: Fungi have nearly one and a half million species who need to work together. You can imagine the pressure from that number. We encourage our fungi to recognize with respect the role and activity of other species of fungi in non-violent, mutually beneficial ways. And we advocate the efficient allocation of fungi throughout our biosphere.
Alala: I have something to say. It is not only a matter of efficiency, but a matter of justice. There needs to be a conscious effort at a fair distribution of the world's resources. And a third thing.
Deacon: Please go on.
Alala: The third factor is adopting a proper scale or amount of consumption. The carrying capacity of the earth is limited. We birds know that, endangered as we are. You people need to take that seriously also.
Deacon: You make a good point.
Alala: As you know there are many species of birds, also. And some of them have been used by humans in symbolic ways. For example, the eagle, the hawk or the dove.
Deacon: Yes, of course, the dove of peace.
Alala: Or the dove of the presence of "spirit," since you are talking about spirituality.

However, I have another point to make, if I may make a small "flight of fancy." Winged creatures have often been regarded as messengers between heaven and earth--the carriers of the messages of the gods. I contend that such "things with feathers," as Emily Dickenson might say, are images of transcendent hope.
Deacon: Images of transcendent hope. Say more.
Alala: We birds symbolize the soaring dreams and imaginations of you people who are often rooted to the ground. We birds fly with a freedom and fantasy, sailing over the treetops, following the courses of billowing winds, enjoying a bird's eye view of the glories of this world. We see things from a different angle.
Deacon: I see. But where is the hope in what you say?
Alala: The hope is in seeing the many small interactions in the world that benefit all the different aspects of the biosphere. The interaction between fungi and plants, between insects and plants, between waters and soils, between forests and creatures.

Oh I know, there are many obstacles and problems. But I am here to tell you that we birds remind you people that you can rise above many of the problems.
Pilobola: Perhaps I could add to that by reading from the last chapter of my book.
Decon: Please do.
Pilobola: "We fungi do not recoil from the future. We believe that life on earth is embarked on a unique trajectory, one that will not be repeated. We believe that the outward journey has entailed a long and intricate interweaving of the interests of all living things. We believe that within this matrix of diversity, that beauty may be increased, that peace may be broadened, that the adventure of life may be respected. However, such hope and beliefs need to take up residence in each creature. We will try to do our part."
Deacon: Thank you both for participating. Your observations and insights have been most helpful. The audience today should certainly be more informed and aware of the need for cooperation. And some may be moved to change some behavior to reflect their care for the earth. Thank you all for being here on this Earth Day Sunday. Our guests have been Pilobola cystallina, a fungus of the Zygomycetes class, and Alala, also known as Corvus hawaiiensis, from the Big Island.

* The idea for the interview with a fungus is based on an essay that appeared in the Economist's annual edition of 2004. The information concerning the Alala was found on the website for the Fish and Wildlife Agency.

Deacon and Alala chat prior to worship in front Courtyard displays for Earth Day.

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