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Feature - Issue #15

Make Me Good Soil

Words by Anna Souter
Illustrations by Pei-Hsin Cho

Writer Sophie Strand discusses the myth of the healthy self and why she advocates a view of mind and body as part of a broader web of relations with the world around us.

Sophie Strand lives with a genetic connective tissue disease. She is also a writer, working at the intersections of spirituality, ecology, and storytelling.

She tells missing stories. Messy stories of decomposition, accidental intimacies and damaged bodies. Like the mythical princess Scheherazade

of The Arabian Nights, who extended her life by telling tale after tale, Strand feels compelled to speak up for her passions, using an ecological perspective to dive fearlessly into topics others tend to sidestep, such as illness, masculinity and the ethical complexities of Christianity.

“I have a condition that could kill me tomorrow. I have come so close to death so many times that I have been left with an urgency for the things I care about,” she says.

She thinks of her writing as a process of composting, of making good soil that will allow ideas to bloom and develop: “My work doesn’t have to be individual, it doesn’t have to belong to me. It should create the generative chaos that lets other people take these stories and make them better.”

She suggests that the best thinking and feeling is like mycelia, the mycorrhizal network of strands of fungi in the soil, which has no central node of cognition and flexibly fuses with other species of plants and bacteria. “I like to think of that metaphorically,” she explains. “How can I let my thinking flow into my ecosystem and into my web of relations, and then have that thinking flow back into me? I don’t really own anything. If I write something, it is a product of my web of relationality around me.”

In Strand’s conception of mycelial thought, the mind extends beyond the confines of the brain or body as part of a reciprocal relationship with one’s environment. This mode of thinking informs, and is informed by, Strand’s myriad of personal experiences of sickness and healing. As someone with an incurable condition, she has been interested in how our healing paradigms often exile the incurable, the illegible, those who cannot easily be fixed or perform a healing narrative.

“So, in these ideas of extended cognition and embodiment, I can see that my healing doesn’t have to happen within my atomised self,” she says. “It can happen in my relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, with rivers, with other people. Healing can be a relational event that doesn’t have to be complete or end in wellness.”

Although she became ill as a teenager, it wasn’t until her mid-twenties that Strand received a diagnosis. In the interim period of untraceable symptoms and anxiety, she began to calm herself down by spending time outside and “falling in love with mushrooms”. She discovered the importance of learning about mycorrhizal systems both through scientific research and through developing an embodied relationship with the soil.

When she finally received a diagnosis of genetic connective tissue disease, she was struck by the resonance between her condition and the “connective tissue of soil and ecosystems” she had come to love. This led her to the revelation that the fungal soil networks that create nodes of interconnection between species might offer a way into a sort of healing: “Maybe there’s not a pill or a cure I can take, but there is a doorway I can step through. I often like to say that our wounding is like a compass that points us out of an anthropocentric narrative into the Animate Everything: the bumptious, capricious, wild, illegible world of everything other than humans.

“When I look at ecosystems, the more species and the more nodes of connectivity they have, the more resilient they are to anthropogenic harm and to climate change. And I think the same is true of healing: you’re not going to heal something by isolating it. You’re probably going to heal it best by planting it in a forest, with elders, with children, with people who have different viewpoints. Healing in community is what we need - and not just human community, more-than-human community.”

Healing, then, happens in interstitial spaces, in the connective tissue between ourselves and other beings. As Strand points out, the word “analyse” comes from Greek roots meaning to break down, to separate, or to unfasten. Standard models of physical and psychological healing attempt to isolate causes, break them down, and cut them out, she says. Instead, she is attempting to reweave her pain and trauma, to understand it in its context, and to allow it to dissolve into an ocean of relationality.

‘'How can I let my thinking flow into my ecosystem and into my web of relations, and then have that thinking flow back into me? I don’t really own anything. If I write something, it is a product of my web of relationality around me.’’

— Sophie Strand

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