The Zombie Fungus

Django and I head into the woods together. We have to do this. It’s how we work off our anxieties, where we mark new territory, and how we find that still place inside.

This morning it was 8F with a breeze, so I strapped on the snowshoes and kicked off down the trail we’ve been working on with friends, stomping down the new snow and exploring the hillside below the local ski area. At this point, the trail is a trench two to three feet below the snow line. It curves along ridges and dives down to creek crossings. Birch and fir stand by. Big boulders crouch above and below.

At these temperatures, Django struggles sometimes with snow freezing into his paws. I have to stop to clear the space between the pads. He hates this and nips at my hands, but when I’m done he can run freely again, his snout dusted with snow where he’s thrust it into the bank, scenting the squirrels and maybe the bears.

I’m dressed for the weather and don’t feel cold, except on my face when the wind kicks up and sprays us with surface snow. As we go, sometimes breaking new trails to connect the pieces we’ve already established, I heat up and start to sweat.

We are utterly alone, and this is what we both needed and also borderline dangerous. I’m mindful as I plant my feet that I don’t overcommit. A sprained ankle here is a bad idea. No cell service. No way to get out except to limp, scramble or crawl. You have to be reasonable and also not worry too much.

Ophiocordyceps is a fungus that takes over the minds of carpenter ants. It infiltrates their nervous systems and forces them to leave the ground where they live their normal lives, to climb up plant stalks to the very top, and then execute a “death grip” there, whereupon the fungus binds the ant in place, digests its body and sprouts a stalk from its head, a high point to distribute its spores from. Ophiocordyceps is what’s called a “zombie fungus,” for the way it takes over its host’s mind.*

Even I cringe a little when, sitting on the morning couch drinking hot coffee, my phone tells me it’s so cold. Is it against my will that I dress and put Django in the car? Have the woods fully subsumed us, bending us to some unknowable purpose served by having two small animals stomp around aimlessly, pissing periodically into the deep snow?

Free will might die at the intersection of interconnectedness and manipulation, or the dog and I might just be hearty explorers, turned on continually by bright sunshine in frigid air, the trees swaying hypnotically, and our breath a cloud drifting skyward behind us.

*All of this and more in Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life.