What every aspen grove knows

An aspen grove is one of the largest organisms in the world. The root system is sufficiently intertwined and interactive to constitute a single creature called a rhizome. Up above, there are individual trees tied into the single rhizome underground. The trees exhibit tree-like growth while the roots go crazy. The trees above create sugars from sunlight while the roots below deliver minerals and moisture. The inter-relationships are both symmetric and asymmetric. Aspen groves know they "have it together". They wonder what our problem is that makes for such contentious models of growth among humans.

Actor-network theory is giving us a way to incorporate rhizomatic growth models into our techno-mediated culture. As with any change, it's necessary to begin with a positional stance against the established order. So it seems to the aspen groves that actor-network theory is saying "down with trees" and "branching growth is wrong". Of course, aspen groves know their own rhizomes are in the dark and cannot see the light either.

Nowadays there are rhizomes seated in every college class and conference session. There's a robust, rhizomatic back channel of communication among those formerly known as the audience, attendees, students or enrollment. But somehow the trees and rhizome are disconnected. Instead of feeding each others' growth, the tree-like presenters of front channel content are getting drained by the boredom, disinterest and distracted attention of the back channel rhizome. It's as if everyone is enacting a role of zero-growth "rocks in my head" instead of the dynamic of "porous surfaces nurturing continual growth".

This will change when presentations get subjectively mediated by the end users. Instead of getting objectively mediated by expert content, presentation hardware and scheduled sessions, the content, timing and end uses will get co-created through collaborative interactions. The back channel will support the front channel and vice versa. The trees and roots will grow together. Aspen groves will take interest in this "pattern that connects" them and us.


  1. G'day Tom,
    Not meaning to engage in any sort of pedantic oneupmanship here. Simply drawing attention to a different take on the metaphors.

    "Which is the world's largest living organism? You will be tempted to say something you can see: the blue whale in the case of animals or the sequoia tree when it comes to plants. But you're wrong: it is something you do not even see, but it slowly grows for thousands of years. It's an enormous tree killer called honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae). 

    The huge root-rot mushroom is 2,400 years old and has spread over 2 200 acres east Prairie City in a remote corner of eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains at an altitude of about 6,500 feet (2,160 m). Some say it could be 8,000 years old. Honey mushrooms are more known as culinary delicacies. The underground fungus spreads its shoestring-like tentacles (rhizomorphs), covering tree roots. Its sheer mass could be even bigger than the currently estimated area. DNA fingerprinting and vegetative pairing showed that this was a single organism and the biggest living thing on Earth. This fungus uses the roots of one tree to pass to another. It causes a root disease that kills the trees."

    I am rather taken with the rhizomorph - even its name suggests adaptability. Of course Wikipedia has something to offer about the rhizomorph, but I'm quite taken with this site -

    yrs mycologically,

  2. Thanks for the biological clarification minh! I've fixed my exorbitant claim about what is the biggest organism. The attack of the killer mushrooms with slow, hidden growth offers great warning calls for all the arrogant technological systems that ignore their contexts, side effects and inter-relationships. Thanks for this!