Mycorrhizal Metaphors: The Buried Life of Language and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s "The Grassling"


  • Jemma Deer University of Sussex


fungi, language, metaphor, memoir, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett


Fungi generate and demand subterranean thinking: thinking beyond the visible, thinking that makes connections between things previously supposed to be separate or individual. This article traces an extended subterranean metaphor that likens human language to fungal networks, showing how thinking fungally can transform how we conceive of the strange, underground life of language and our entanglements in it. The article opens with a brief exploration of the relevant mycological science and the ways in which “symbiotic” metaphors shape and transform human thinking. I then offer a close reading of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s beautiful reflection on the relations between memory, language and landscape, The Grassling: A Geological Memoir (2019). I show how Burnett is attuned to what I call “the buried life of language”: its subterranean or invisible connectivities, its undoing of notions of individuality and centrality, and its dispersed and incalculable mode of co-creation that troubles assumptions about human agency. I argue that the etymological and lyrical mode of The Grassling invites us to recognise what lies below the surface of land, language and consciousness, and to thereby unravel some of our restrictive anthropocentrisms.


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Author Biography

Jemma Deer, University of Sussex

Jemma Rowan Deer is a writer and editor based in Berlin, Germany. She has held postdoctoral research positions at the Rachel Carson Center (Germany), Harvard University (USA), and the University of Sussex (UK). She works at the intersection of literary studies and the environmental humanities, and is interested in how ecological crises are transforming our understanding of the world and our place within it. Her book, Radical Animism: Reading for the End of the World, is published by Bloomsbury. 






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