So it would be hard to overestimate how growing up in rural Kansas, whether you call it the Midwest or the Plains, has shaped everything that I am, let alone everything that I write—fiction and nonfiction.

By Koee Pipins 

Dr. Sara Rich is an assistant professor of Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies at Coastal Carolina University. She is both an art historian and maritime archaeologist. She is the author of three books, one of which is Mushroom, part of the Object Lessons series. Her teaching focuses primarily in the areas of Sci-Art, Art History, Colonialism, Archaeology, Studio Art, Pseudoscience, and Prehistory. Her professional research focuses primarily in the areas of Nautical Archaeology, Archaeological Science, Archaeological Theory, Art history, Studio Art, Speculative Philosophy, Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and Speculative Fiction. I wanted to interview Dr. Rich because as I read Mushroom I was entranced by her writing style, voice, and ideas. The ideas presented in the book are a breath of fresh air to those interested in new perspectives on history, religion, environment, technology, and the future of humanity.

KP: From growing up in the rural Midwest, to living overseas during your graduate and doctorate school years, mushrooms have always been a part of your life. Throughout reading your book, thoughts on religion, biotic life, government, and even humanity were presented, eventually suggesting a markedly selfless lens with which to view major, contemporary topical issues of the 21st century. But these issues could have been focused around a more abstract issue, or another central topic altogether. So backing up, what would you say were your primary reasons for writing Mushroom?

SR: Because my primary research agenda investigates the relationships between forests and shipbuilding, I was initially most interested in mushrooms, and fungi more broadly, from ecological and anthropological perspectives. But the more I started thinking about my own relationship with mushrooms, and my lifelong love of foraging, the more personal this project became. And over the course of writing the book, it really blew up—can I say ‘mushroomed’ here?—from the deeply personal to the big picture implications of what thinking with fungi might mean for how humans interact with other earthlings, and by extension, what this might mean for the future of our home, our living Earth. So to answer your question more directly, my reasons for writing Mushroom were exploratory and quickly lead into unexpected territory; my reasons for publishing Mushroom were with the small, humble hope that readers might be inspired by fungi to conceive new ways of thinking, living, and being in our shared world.

KP: You have a background in researching and navigating the validity of pseudoscientific claims. How has your expertise aided you in researching and objectively supporting your views and ideas in Mushroom

SR: You’re right that four years (and counting) of teaching a freshman Honors critical thinking course on pseudoscience has impacted the way that I evaluate sources for my own research. Namely, my sense of skepticism is immediately piqued when grandiose claims are made in support of one panacea or another, or conversely, when oversimplifying metaphors are used to describe really complex phenomena. Not surprisingly, both these types of claims were encountered when researching mushrooms and fungi, so it was important to be wary of jumping onto bandwagons and into hasty generalizations just because they helped make my point about how amazing these organisms are. Nuance and contradictions seem almost inherent to fungi, so embracing those inconveniences helped to arrive at more accurate conclusions and to more meaningfully represent these baffling creatures with integrity. Or at least that was my intention!

KP: In your interview with New Books in Early Modern History, you say that you have attempted to accomplish a seamless integration of what the interviewer called “theoretically sophisticated work” by suggesting that one does not have to conform to the modernized western manner of thinking in such a “…dichotomous way,” noting that “…particularly as westerners, as modern westerners, we tend to try to separate, categorize, and classify things out—this is poetry, this is art, this is science.” At one point you even mention the technique of mosaic as the first thought that comes to mind. Does this manner of presenting information manifest itself in the way you structure the presentation of ideas in Mushroom

SR: Definitely, yes. There is organization, and there is structure, but poetry is mixed in with biology, and memoir with theology. As explained in the “Post-Amble,” or what I called the conclusion of the book to contrast with the “Pre-Amble” at the introduction, there are discrete sections of the book that contribute to a linear, logical progression of the overall argument. But each section has two parts, mimicking footfall. And between each set of steps, or each section, there is a passage with guidance on foraging specific mushrooms that is set in a particular season, and those seasons cycle in and out through the book. And then, at the end, there is the surprise word-search and anagram game that the reader has been unwittingly playing all along but has yet to conclude. So you might say that there is also a mix of traditional scholarship with life-writing and recipes and games in this book too. It’s a strange concoction, but it seems to suit the subject matter!

And I might add briefly here, since you mentioned my 2021 book Shipwreck Hauntography, that I started playing with this structural and categorical mixing, along with reader interaction, there first. In that book, five chapters consist of four parts, and each chapter is punctuated with a series of visual artworks (hauntographs) that gesture toward the shipwreck that is each chapter’s primary case study. And the whole set is bookended with a Preface and Postface—but in the postface, the final hauntograph is a picture drawn only in the reader’s mind.

KP: Continuing along these lines, how have your experiences living and studying abroad influenced your views on mainstream western methods of presenting ideas and information? How have these experiences shaped your writing style?

SR: To be honest, I’m not exactly sure, but I suspect that studying Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic, may have influenced the structural experimentation. Learning to read and write from right to left, and the way that Arabic writers have long played with text, image, and form, may have contributed to that desire to take more structural risks with pattern and cyclicality. As far as writing style is concerned, again I would suspect that studying a lot of languages, ancient and modern, has influenced my writing style—being exposed to new idioms and different ways that cultures verbalize common experiences certainly diversifies one’s own way of translating and communicating ideas in a written format. Beyond that, I’ve been writing fiction and poetry since I was in Kindergarten, and published my first novel when I lived in Belgium (where I was also a writer, illustrator, and editor for a magazine The Voice), so writing in these different formats and eventually for international audiences has also certainly impacted the way I write scholarship too.

KP: And in a world that seemingly becomes more dystopian and disconnected from nature by the day, how important is it to respect and acknowledge, in an objective manner, the realities of history and their effects on today? 

SR: Although a dystopia implies that there was a previous utopia to fall away from, and I don’t think any such thing ever existed, I certainly take your point. We are in the first mass extinction our species has ever experienced, and we’re the ones who caused it. There is a whole slew of archaeologists who are trying to get the public to pay attention to the ways that past civilizations have confronted various apocalypses—some of them nonanthropogenic climate changes like at the end of the last Ice Age, and some of them the ancestral apocalypse experienced by Indigenous peoples who survived colonial genocide in relatively recent history. We need to examine the past to start understanding how to be more resilient to the detrimental changes that are advancing all around us right now. And just as importantly, we also need to examine the past to conceive of alternative ways of being, beyond capitalism, and make informed, creative choices about how human systems might become symbiotic again.

KP: Your writing structure is very deliberate and thoughtful. Do you often intentionally structure your writing style to be deeply in congruence with and as a sort of written manifestation of the topic at hand?

SR: When I was studying visual art for my BFA at the University of Kansas, this ‘thoroughness’ is kind of what I was known for, if anything—that there was a deep resonance between the subject matter or concept, the medium, the form, and the materials. Every decision about the medium, form and materials stemmed from the underlying concept. And over the years, that habit has made itself increasingly apparent in my written work too. We discussed this above with regard to Mushroom and Shipwreck Hauntography, but I think it’s also apparent in another recent book, Closer to Dust, which was published by Punctum in 2021. That small book reads as a kind of elaborate eulogy, like the pamphlets that one gets at the funeral of a loved one: a photo on one page and a memory transcribed on the facing page. I took a break from Shipwreck Hauntography to write that book in a summer, and I suspect the pacing and eulogizing, the mixing of art and text, in Closer to Dust had an impact on the overall structure and approach to the content of Shipwreck Hauntography, which in turn certainly affected the structural and stylistic choices made in Mushroom.

KP: You are also quoted as having said some of your writing in Shipwreck Hauntography as being somewhat of a respectful and measured “…critique on Christianity’s influence on contemporary scientific practice,” and an attempt to “dismantle the nature-culture binary” and the “binary opposition between living and dead.” With the federal banning of psilocybin, a natural mushroom that has been found to have substantial benefits to humans, how much progression of western ideology and thought have you found to be stymied, barred behind or chained to dogmatic institutions of religion and government? And, in your experience, are similar situations present in other nations around the world?

SR: In short, probably a lot. It’s common for Americans to experiment with psychedelics in high school or college, but then it becomes taboo as we get older, and that seems really backward. It seems to me that as we age and become more dogmatic and convinced of the ultimate validity of our own opinions, that this is the point in our lives when substances like psilocybin would be most advantageous. And even besides the prospect of re-opening our minds, modest psilocybin use—without stigma—might also help us to remember how to laugh, I mean really laugh, and remember the joy in everyday things at a point in life when stress reigns as a ruthless king and every day bleeds into the next without differentiation until suddenly it’s all over and there’s no going back. Isn’t that a more frightening prospect than surrendering your mind to a cartoon world for a few hours a year? Of course, I don’t think psilocybin is the only way to avoid the ruts of middle age in the modern West, but I do think Americans are more vulnerable to getting stuck in these ruts because of the amount of our lives that we spend working—in some cases by choice but in many others by necessity. And to your question, this almost stereotypical American tendency has its roots in Protestantism, as sociologist Max Weber pointed out over a century ago.

KP: Furthermore, to what extent do you think these institutions may have intensified less than desirable attitudes towards the environment?  

SR: This is a recurring theme in my recent scholarship, starting with my 2017 book Cedar Forests, Cedar Ships, but many others have written about this as well, and much more effectively. I’m thinking especially of Jason W. Moore and Timothy Morton, but also Donna Harraway and Stacey Alaimo. It seems pretty clear that when scriptures inculcate the idea that humans have a moral duty to subjugate all others, and when the abstractions of scientific achievement make such large-scale subjugation possible, and the conversion of subjugated entities into the infinite accumulation of profit becomes the norm, that we have all the necessary ingredients for the very situation in which we find ourselves now entrenched: in a word, the Anthropocene.

KP: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? What’s your favorite book? Your favorite place to write?

SR: Maybe I’m a boring writer! I do most of my mapping out in a sketchbook. But the writing itself is usually done at my desk in my studio, although I take my laptop outside on the porch a lot too. In fact, that’s where I am at this very moment, with a dog on each side and a cat coming back and forth (sometimes with a lizard in his mouth). Once in awhile, I’ll also take my laptop to a restaurant at the beach for a change of scenery, atmosphere, and aromas.

As for my favorite thing to read, I’ve really been enjoying my subscription to Orion, even though I have a backlog of issues to attend to—which is sad since it only comes out four times a year and I can’t even seem to keep up with that!

KP: Do you love to write? If so, what led to your love of writing? (If not, how do you do it anyway?!?)

SR: Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I absolutely love writing. It’s the part of my job that I love most, that makes me feel most fulfilled. I think this love of writing also goes back to my childhood and writing (really bad) poems and short stories. I grew up way out in the country, and my siblings were four and six years younger than me, so I spent a lot of time by myself. One of my favorite things to do was to take a book, notebook and pen, and ride my horse out to some field or climb up into some tree, and just read and write. Maybe my next book will be written from horseback or treetop! Or maybe from my kayak.

KP: You mention that one of your favorite things to do growing up in Kansas was spending time alone reading and writing in nature. Growing up to write a book about exploring an increased connectedness to the reality of nature while having spent much time ‘alone’ in nature is intriguing. Can you tell me a little about how your roots in Kansas shaped your experiences with nature, ecology, and/or fungal life?

SR: Even though I was born in coastal Virginia, and there’s no doubt that in my mind that the early exposure to saltwater has shaped my interests too, my entire family is from Kansas. I’m the only one who doesn’t live there still. So it would be hard to overestimate how growing up in rural Kansas, whether you call it the Midwest or the Plains, has shaped everything that I am, let alone everything that I write—fiction and nonfiction. Now in my family for a few generations, I grew up on a small farm, where we raised horses and about every other animal you can imagine, as either a companion or a food source: pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, fish, guinea pigs, rabbits, newts…. Now my family raises cattle and goats too. Hunting and foraging have also always been staples, because why buy something from the supermarket, wrapped up in plastic, when the forest gives it to you for free and without waste? Although my family and I couldn’t be more divergent politically, these are the core principles we still share. The main difference is that my takeaway from all this is that humans are not entitled to exploit the gifts of the Land, just because we can. Instead, we have obligations to serve and protect, to reciprocate what the Land gives by giving back.

KP: Who or what would you say is your greatest source of inspiration, giving you the strength/spirit to pursue your ideas?

SR: If I had to pick a book right now to take with my notebook up into a tree, on a horse, or in a kayak, it would probably be Luce Irigaray’s Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her book of aphorisms may be born from frustrations with the way things are, but each aphorism is in its own way as provocative as it is hopeful. It is this kind of philosophical and poetic writing that I think might be able to inspire imaginative but realistic alternatives to the institutions that are killing us.

Koee Pipins is a writing student at Loyola University New Orleans.

Dr. Sara Rich is assistant professor of Honors and Interdisciplinary Studies at Coastal Carolina University, and an art historian and maritime archaeologist who dabbles in wood science, studio art, and speculative fiction.