Lessons on the Anthropocene from Dionysus and Mushrooms

As the International Day of Forests dawns, Persistent Acts reflects on American and human questions in the face of climate change, through two authors grappling with conventional notions of growth, prosperity, and progress. I call on The Mushroom at the End of the Worldfor cues we can take from plants, and discuss inspirations for Madeleine George’s latest play Hurricane Diane.

Earlier this year, I finished Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. With the tagline “On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins,” this book called to me, and is a beautiful portrayal of “arts of noticing.” Through anthropological study, Tsing highlights the matsutake mushroom, and the biology, economics, and socio-politics which make this mushroom possible. Despite only growing in human-disturbed forests, matsutake is integral to a global commodity chain from Oregon, US to Kyoto, Japan, and beyond. The book zeroes in on this one type of fungus, weaving ethnographies from the places where it’s grown, eaten, and treasured as a gift. Tsing asks provocative questions for this age of the Anthropocene: “What kinds of human disturbances can we live with? Despite talk of sustainability, how much chance do we have for passing a habitable environment to our multispecies descendants?” Her arts of noticing remind me of my human perspective, however limited.

By exploring some very particular mushrooms, Tsing traces alternative ways of being, producing, and consuming in our world. All the while, she maps our current climate situation:

We might look around to notice this strange new world, and we might stretch our imaginations to grasp its contours. This is where mushrooms help. Matsutake’s willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home.

Tsing looks at patterns of matsutake growth (the environmental conditions for optimal mushroom growing), harvesting (who are the people picking the mushrooms, and how did they get to where they are), selling (what are the systems that sustain a matsutake economy and how do they function in relation to mainstream commodities), cooking (how do cultures cherish matsutake and bring about optimal flavors), and beyond. Throughout Mushroom, I felt called to slow down, take notice, and dig past my cultural constructs of how the world is supposed to work.

Image: Unsplash.

Climate changes everything, as Tsing highlights through mushrooms. She utilizes climate change as an opportunity, an implication to expand our individual and collective imaginations. Earlier this month, I experienced a play with a comparable mission: Hurricane Diane, presented at New York Theatre Workshop and co-produced by WP Theater. Featuring a world where Dionysus – the Greek god of fertility, nature, and theatre – returns to earth, the play employs specificity to pinpoint societal questions about climate change. I had the privilege to chat with playwright Madeleine George about her latest play, which Vulture calls a “Tragicomedy of Eco-Collapse.”

Michelle Beck, Danielle Skraastad, Mia Barron and Kate Wetherhead in Hurricane Diane presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Our conversation began with mushrooms, our cultural revulsion to fungus, and the life-affirming qualities of the species in its role as a necrophage. The origins of Hurricane Diane rest with a different organic matter, apple trees, as described in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. For Madeleine, questions arose out of Pollan’s description of Johnny Appleseed as the American Dionysus: “What if Dionysus actually came back today? What would the god’s agenda be? What would a bacchanal in a suburban backyard look like?” In the play, Diane (Dionysus, disguised as a permaculture gardener) returns to the modern world to gather mortal followers and restore the Earth to its natural state – starting with four housewives in suburban New Jersey. The play is set in the specific New Jersey suburb where Hurricane Diane was commissioned. This town was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy, and Madeleine spent time with residents talking about what has changed for them since the superstorm almost ten years ago.

Rooted in the theatre tradition of Greek tragedy – Madeleine considers the play to be “a sequel to The Bacchae” – she also utilizes the American tradition of sitcom. Though there’s no laugh track accompanying Hurricane Diane, the play is deeply hilarious, and had me laughing from Dionysus’ opening monologue, through the introduction to each of the housewives. While sitcom has particular associations (like being reactionary), Madeleine utilizes this “stealthy American tradition” to drive mainstream thoughts and hook us, as “ideas can move from edges to the center.” I felt a certain level of comfort, because I’d laughed at and with the characters. The end of the play exemplifies a certain notion of comfort, in the context of “how we handle our thoughts and feelings about climate change.” What Hurricane Diane offers is “not a play to tell us what we should do,” but time and space to hold questions like “how are we tolerating what we’re doing wrong.”

Mia Barron in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Tsing summarizes: “We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination. Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival.” Hurricane Diane reminds me why I make theatre about climate change, and highlights the potential for theatrical spaces to shift consciousness. Madeleine offers an example of a climate play that tackles nuanced questions without relying on doomsday images. By the end of the play, we see an individual gripping onto her remnant notions of consolation. Her outburst reminded me of how easily our culture forgets the limits of our individualism; what Tsing calls out as the potential dangers of fantasizing “counterfactually that we each survive alone.”

As a species, and as part of a larger ecosystem, we need each other to sustain the conditions for life on earth. Through specific narratives, characters, and geographic location – like with Mushroom and Hurricane Diane – I’ve found some universal questions for our current era, about what kind of world we want (and are able) to live in. I’m taking the optimistic route, because we can’t go it alone, agreeing with Madeleine that “from wherever we’re standing, we can make a difference.”

Danielle Skraastad in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

(Top Image: Becca Blackwell, Danielle Skraastad, Kate Wetherhead, and Michelle Beck in Hurricane Diane, presented by New York Theatre Workshop and WP Theater. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This article is part of the Persistent Acts series which looks at the intersection of performance, climate, and politics. How does hope come to fruition, even in the most dire circumstances? What are tangible alternatives to the oppressive status quo? The series considers questions of this nature to motivate conversations and actions on climate issues that reverberate through politics and theatre.

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Julia Levine is a creative collaborator and vegetarian. Originally from St. Louis, Julia is now planted in the New York City downtown theatre realm. As a director, Julia has worked on various projects with companies that consider political and cultural topics, including Theater In Asylum, Honest Accomplice Theatre, and Superhero Clubhouse. She is the Marketing Manager at HERE and is Artistic Producer of The Arctic Cycle. Julia writes and devises with her performance-based initiative, The UPROOT Series, to bring questions of food, climate, and justice into everyday life.

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