On the way back to Medicine Hat, I picked up a hitchhiker. Andrew had been going back to Calgary from Fort McMurray when his friend's car broke down in Edmonton. His friend found a place to stay -- Andrew did not. He'd spent five hours in the autumn rain trying to get a ride the previous day -- he'd spent the evening in an abandoned building.
He had that beaten-down look of someone from the street: he never quite made eye contact with me, instead showing me the raw red scrapes on his cheekbone, possibly where he'd slept on a concrete floor. He fumbled with his cardboard cup of gas station coffee, but held it with both hands. Still, he was clean and polite, and being a street performer, he drummed along with my taste in music, even if it clearly didn't match his own. He also had an eye for nature: he'd spot a hawk in the distance, and talk endlessly on their power and grace. He'd also describe the biological mysteries of mushrooms: "They're so weird... they're like plants, but they're also like people in some ways... but they're neither!"
He might have benefitted from a few biology lessons, but he obviously had a passion for mycology that went far beyond the standard appreciation for hallucinogenic clichés. (This is where I start to talk about ecology. Bear with me.)
I know what he meant, though: I've always had a soft spot for the underdog, and not many people smile fondly when they think about decomposers. However, it's easy to appreciate all the work they do if one simply imagines their absence. Not only that, it's even easier to appreciate the soft dignity of moss banks and mushroom circles.
The other reason decomposers fascinate me is that they don't really have an analogue in human society. Garbage collectors and sanitation engineers don't really meet all the requirements: They deal with the death of a cheeseburger. I want to know what we have that deals with the death of a city, or an industry.
That's harder to discuss. We don't like talking about death. In fact, part of civilisation's grandeur comes from the fact that its buildings and projects will last long after we're gone. It's almost treasonous to talk about tearing down an old church or shutting down a theatre. I wonder what happened to the factories that produced vinyl records?
I fully admit that it's not the same. There's nothing that requires (or even allows) our society to follow the same cycle as nature. I grow ill at the very idea of tearing down an old church -- nature might have no need for history, but our society certainly does. Still, it's a different angle from which to think about things.
Andrew, however, nailed it with one statement: "One thing I like about Edmonton, though -- they've still got abandoned buildings, you know? I mean, in Fort Mac, they don't let anything last an hour without tearing it down and rebuilding it for more housing."
Like I said, there's no real correlation between ecology and sociology. Still, that might be why he likes mushrooms.
It's something to think about. If nothing else, I really like the phrase "the soft dignity of mushroom circles."