broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “August, 2017”

Another Mini Camping Trip

Another Mini Camping Trip

H. Bradford

8/22/17

I can’t believe that summer is nearly coming to an end!  (Well, technically it ends September 21st, but…it feels like it ends once September starts).  I feel that there is so much that I didn’t do this summer.  It never lasts long enough.  I suppose that is why I felt that I needed to take another mini camping trip.  It won’t be long before it is too cold (though I suppose I could someday try winter camping…).   In any event, I once again checked online to see what programs were being offered by state parks.  I saw that Temperance River State Park was offering a plant identification hike.  So…I decided that I would head there for a little camping and lesson on plants.

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Temperance River is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth.  I set out early Friday morning to make certain I arrived there on time for the ten A.M. plant identification hike.  It was a pretty drive.  The road was not yet crowded with vehicles and the accompanying scenery of Lake Superior made me feel happy to be alive.  I have been many places but there really is something special about Lake Superior, especially the north shore with its dramatic cliffs and craggy shores.

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The plant identification hike was pretty cool.  Those sorts of programs don’t tend to attract huge crowds, so it was a naturalist, a family, and myself.  I knew many of the plants already, but I did not know that Jewel Weed can be used topically to treat stinging nettle.  I also saw Wild Beebalm, which I had never noticed growing around here before.  I also learned that Victorians used to back Tansy into cakes.  The smell is pretty…strong and not very enticing…so I am not certain why it was added to cakes.  But, it is mildly toxic, which ended tansy’s career as a cake flavoring.  Hmm.  The hike lasted about an hour and a half.   When it was done, I decided to purchase two guidebooks from the park office and set off on another hike.   I purchased a guide on fungi (as I have been more interested in fungi recently as a result of the Feminist Frolic earlier this month) and another on berries (as many berries are appearing now).

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I set off for Carlton Peak, which is the second highest point in Minnesota.  Because it is the second highest point, I figured it might actually be a bit of a challenge.  It really wasn’t, which I guess goes to show that Minnesota really isn’t a dramatically tall state.  But, it was still a fun time.  I stopped along the way, taking note of interesting fungi and doing my best to sort of identify them.  There were also many warblers hidden in the woods, chipmunks scurrying about, and the early touches of yellow on some of the leaves.  The hike took me to the top of the peak, where there was a nice view of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Like usual, most of the hikers were couples, families, and friends.  I didn’t meet anyone else on a solo adventure that day.   After taking some photos of the top, I went to nearby Tofte Peak for another view.

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Oh, I also ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  This is a challenge when I go on these mini trips.  I never know what to pack.  I need to bring things that are easy to make and which don’t spoil without refrigeration.  I have yet to come up with a satisfying menu of camping foods- so I tend to eat snacks.  In this case, I brought peanut butter, jelly, and bread.  Only…my bread was kind of old.  It tasted gross and stale.  I ate the sandwich anyway, but my stomach felt uneasy for the rest of the day.  I also lost my taste for PBJ sandwiches after that one bad one…even after buying some better bread.  Despite an upset stomach, I went on several other hikes that day.  I wandered around Lake Superior and went on a hike along Temperance River.  In all, I was up and moving around from 10 am to almost 8pm (though it wasn’t strenuous non-stop movement as I sat down, did identification work, took photos, etc.).

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At 8pm,  I made a fire and rested for a while.  I made myself a grilled cheese and avocado sandwich, but my taste for food was non-existent due to my nasty PBJ earlier.  I mostly stared at the fire and journaled in the dim light.  Also, I came to the realization that my tent…which I had not used since my rainy camp adventure in July…smelled really, really musty.   I aired it out through the day, but it still smelled.  I think it will be better next time, but it could really use some airfreshener.  My stomach was not a happy camper  and the smell of the tent was not going to do my digestive system any favors.  I ended up sleeping in my car to avoid the smell.  Yep.  But, not before wandering to Lake Superior in the darkness and sitting on some rocks.  I observed the stars and enjoyed the darkness.  There is something wonderful about the blackness of night.  It is mysterious and frightening in a fun way.   I listened to the water on the rocks and the sound of leaves.  All of the other campers were already sleeping, so it was nice to stay up and out there alone.


I had big ambitions for the following day.  I planned on doing more hiking and visiting some other state parks on the way back to Duluth.  But, after hiking so long the day before, I wasn’t that energetic.  I did a little geocaching around the park and stopped for some photos at nearby rivers and the abandoned town of Taconite Harbor.  However, I wanted something more substantial than what I had packed to eat.  My stomach felt normal but wasn’t hungry for what I had packed.  So, I made my way back towards Duluth in search of food.  I stopped in Silver Bay and did a little more geocaching, but began to feel drawn home by some activist obligations.  Originally, I had set off with the intention of staying out late at Gooseberry Falls State Park so that I could catch a presentation on ravens.  However, this would mean missing out on a prisoner solidarity protest and a benefit dinner for a UMD student from Syria.  My roommate Adam texted me asking where the signs I had made were.  I didn’t actually make any signs for the protest.

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Visions of eating Mexican food and attending these political events drew me home earlier that I had intended.   I didn’t catch the presentation on ravens, but I did have a fun time eating Mexican food and going for a walk with Adam.  I was also glad to attend the political events later in the evening.   I am not much of a camper, but I enjoyed the hiking and genuinely felt glad to live in this part of the world.  There is a lot of beauty to partake in here.  Each time I camp, I learn something new.  This time I learned to really, really think about what I want to eat and not to pack expired bread- even if it isn’t moldy yet.  I also learned that I should be more careful with my tent and not assume that it was “dry enough” when I packed it up.  This can lead to a musty misadventure.   In all, it is fair to say that I am not the most adventurous person…but I enjoy my little mini adventures.  It removes me, even for a short time, from people, work, activism and the demands of everyday life.  It is an important part of my self-care and I always learn something new.

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100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

100 Political Events in 2017: A Reflection

H. Bradford

8/16/17

Yesterday, I attended my 100th political event of the year.   The 100th event was a solidarity vigil for Charlottesville at the Clayton, Jackson, Mcghie Memorial in Duluth.  The event was attended by several hundred people.  So many people flooded the plaza that there were people in the the street.  It was large enough that the police blocked off the street to passing traffic during the event against white supremacy (but framed generally as hate).  We are just three years shy of the 100 year anniversary of the the lynching of three innocent African American men in Duluth.  Yet, 100 years later so little has changed.  Activists 100 years ago might be terrified to peek into the future and see that we are still fighting imperialist wars, hate groups like the KKK not only still exist but is actually gaining popularity,  union membership is less than it was in 1920 and almost a third of what it was at its peak in 1970s, we are killing our planet, and basically…every oppressed group is …still oppressed.   It would be pretty demoralizing to look ahead in time.  In this long view into the future…this century long parade of violence, misery, drudgery…Trump would probably not stand out as the worst of the worst but just the latest terrible thing in the procession of suffering.  Yet, I would hope that this activist of the past would see some hope.  There are moments when humanity unites and fights against the tide of suffering.  There are slow gains from the struggles of mass movements to rage against everything that destroys and diminishes us.

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(I did not take this photo, it was posted to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil and I believe it was taken by Jordan Bissell)


Today was my 100th political event.  Activism is not a numbers game, but I do like numbers.  I know how many books I have read this year, new species of birds I have seen, the number of blogs that I have written, the number of countries I have visited, the calories I have consumed in the last 25 days, spending on food for the last several months, and many other things.  So, tracking my activism is just one thing of many things that I like to keep tabs of.   Numbers do not tell the whole story, but they do provide a piece of a puzzle.  What can be said about 100 political events?  Well, yesterday was day 227 of the year.  That means that 44% of the days this year have been spent at political events such as meetings, protests, or educational political presentations/films.  If I subtract the time I was out of the country on vacation- not at all engaged in politics- the number increases to 50%.  That means half of my days are spent at a political event.  This does not count times I spend writing political blog posts, preparing for political events by making event pages, putting up fliers, or creating fliers, having political conversations, or other political activities.  Of these 100 events, approximately 46% were feminist, 13% were against racism, 10% were socialist specific, 8% were LGBTQ, 7% were non-labor specific economic justice events, 6% labor related, 5% were environmental,   4% were anti-war or anti-imperialism, 3% were criminology related, and 2% were miscellaneous.  These numbers are imperfect, as some events were related to more than one category.  The previous year, I attended 80 events for the WHOLE YEAR.  So, it is safe to say that the election of Trump has resulted in an upsurge of political activity and opportunities to participate in social movements.  I think it is also fair to say that this year has seen the emergence of far more feminist activism.  While I tend to prioritize feminist events, there are far more events than I am able to attend.  Locally, the most consistent and robust area of activism this year tends to be feminism…though there are plenty of opportunities in other kinds of activism as well and my numbers do not reflect the actual number of events against racism or for the environment, for instance.  The numbers tell a bit more about myself than the political situation…but the general increase in activities certainly is indicative of an increase in opportunity.   People are fighting back on many fronts.

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What else can be said about the 100?  I can say that I am a little tired!  I feel accomplished.  It helps keep me motivated.  It also feels like hiking up a mountain and reading the elevation signs or the KM to the top.  When I went on my vacation and entirely disengaged from activism and politics, it was hard to come back.  I can see the appeal for the people who can’t be bothered to become engaged in social change.  I can feel the hopelessness that nothing will become better so we may as live for whatever pleasures we can eke out of this existence.  It isn’t always fun to go to meetings.  It feels like a second job sometimes.  It can feel like responsibility, stress, pressure, annoyance, etc.  I feel a lot of conflicted feelings, really.  I feel that it is mostly thankless and misunderstood.   At the same time, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and a sense of need.  I feel enough passion to continue.  I feel very angry.   It is anger that motivates me the most.  I feel so angry that the world is so shitty for so many people.  I feel angry that there are violent, horrific people who want women to live in the social equivalent of a whelping box as they breed the next generation of soldiers and workers.  I feel angry that the ignorance of America’s atrocities over history and today.  The stupid fear mongering over North Korea.  I feel angry that white people feel victimized by a system built upon slavery, genocide, racism, and imperialism.  I feel angry that there are so many people with the means to do more, but they don’t because it isn’t respectable to protest or in their immediate interest to make some waves.  I wish I had more time for other things, yet I actually usually do get a lot out of activism.  At the same time, I often wonder how normal people live.  What do they do with their time?   Then, there are some super activists who have probably been to 200 things this year!  I am sure that comrades, Adam and Lucas, have probably been to more events than I have.  Adam might have been to 150.  They don’t write it down like I do.  It isn’t a contest, of course.  Activism feels a bit like a Sisyphean task.  Most of the time, the results are not immediately obvious.  OR, in the worst case, the stone of social change actually rolls down the mountain.

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Activism isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it is cold…and boring…or disappointing.  Though this event actually was engaging and left me feeling hopeful.


All activists must have some sense of optimism that things can change.  Even without optimism, things always change.  More than optimism, activists have to believe in a sense of efficacy.  That not only does change happen, but humans can and often influence this change.   I have to assume that the imagined activist from 100 years ago would be disappointed if not terrified, but I would also hope that the activists today could give them hope.   I suppose that it where I see myself in history.   I hope that whatever future 100 years from now is better.   Wouldn’t it be nice if there weren’t prisons, hunger, homelessness, or wars?  What if everyone had enough?  What if the planet wasn’t dying?  How do we get from POINT A (this shit hole world) to POINT B (a better one)?   I believe it is by trying to build movements that will change the world.  I am a very minuscule part of that.   But it will be made by millions of minuscule parts.  So, I am telling you that I have been to 100 things so that maybe someone…out there…. will think that it is time to attend one thing.  The past, present, and future might appreciate it.  And, you can take it from me… one thing is not so much to do.

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Just keeping the flame of hope alive…

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

H. Bradford

8/14/17

When I was about 20 years old, I stopped existing.  By some dark magic, I pulled off an astonishing vanishing act.  I disappeared behind a cloud for six to eight years.  While in this cloud, time stopped.  Yet, the world kept moving without me.  When the cloud cleared, I could finally see clearly my life all around me.  It spread out forever like a bombed city.   I was tasked with rebuilding it.  This is my story of depression and moving out of it.

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I don’t like to admit that I have struggled with mental health.  In fact, it seems like an odd thing to say.  I don’t like to see it as a part of me.  Instead, I like to see it as some external force that happened to inhabit me for a long while.  It began in about the the 4th grade.  That is when I began experience panic attacks.  Though, at the time, I didn’t know what they were.  They were just some terrifying curse that fell upon me randomly- like a demonic possession, which would tighten might chest and put me into a state of fear.  I found it hard to breathe and swallow.  They often happened at night, around 3 am.  Sometimes they happened at lunch or on the school bus.   I would sleep with a glass of water (and I still sleep with a beverage) to help me swallow if I woke up in a panic.  Panic attacks were inconvenient, especially when they happened at a sleep over or with groups of people.   My father would call them “spells.”  Heather is having one of her “spells.”  I suppose it gave it a supernatural quality.   I had these “spells” for years.  I didn’t know their name.  They were just some strange quirk about me that I never talked to anyone about.  I was ashamed of them and could not imagine that other people in the world experienced the same thing.  Thus, I had been dealing with anxiety to some degree since childhood. Image result for witch and cauldron vintage

(Oh no, this witch is conjuring up a “spell”  ….a.k.a causing children to have panic attacks. The cat seems particularly into this endeavor. )


I mostly coexisted with my “spells” as they were an irregular visitor in my life.  But, once I graduated high school, I was visited by a much darker and stronger force.  It began with a deepened sense of social anxiety, (but I have a hard time differentiating when anxiety ends and depression begins).  Basically, I came to believe that I was a failure and the world was judging me.  Because of this, I became so fearful that I could not leave the house to get the mail or put gas in my car.  I feared that someone would see me….Heather…that failure…that terrible failure.  I didn’t want to be seen in public.  I struggled to stay in college.  While I was in college, I maintained perfect grades but I couldn’t face being in school.  I dropped out several times.  While I felt anxiety over seeing people and being judged as a failure, I also experienced depression.  I didn’t have any friends.  I didn’t feel that I had the capacity to make friends.  I basically worked the night shift and otherwise hid from the world.   I lived at home with family members.  The only bright spot was that I did try to travel from time to time.  It was the only thing that made me feel that I was doing something with my life and that perhaps I was not a failure after all.


I was in an out of college for several years.  I did attempt to go to counseling a few times, as it was provided for free through St. Scholastica.  This helped a little.  At least it provided me a name for what I was going through: anxiety and depression.  Really, it opened up the door to the idea that what I had experienced was not some strange, magical force unique to my own bizarre, miserable existence.  It was a treatable medical condition.  It was suggested that I try medications, but I only took a few doses before giving up on that.  I am stubborn and like to be in control.  So, the idea of medication never sat well with me.  Still, I think that going to counseling helped me to think differently.  I was given weekly goals.  Even though I am not sure that I did that well at the goals, it created some momentum in my life.  But, as a general rule, between the age of 20 and 26, I wavered between complete, wickedly immobilizing depression and barely climbing out of depression.  During the time I was caught in wickedly immobilizing depression, I really didn’t live.  I didn’t pay my bills.  I didn’t think of the future.  I avoided my phone.  I didn’t feel suicidal, but I hoped that death would magically come to me and save me from living.  And, since I had social anxiety and felt that the world doomed me a failure, the depression didn’t help…as it made me a failure!  I hadn’t finished college.  The bills were piling up.  I was doing very little with my life. Image result for st. scholastica college

(Ah, my citadel of misery.  Yet, I miss those dark towers)


I am not sure exactly what happened to change things.  Depression naturally receded, much like the glaciers at the end of the ice age.  This happened sometime around the age of 26 or 27.  Something just…changed.  It went away.  It wasn’t anything I did or the result of any treatment.  The only problem was that my life was a mess.  For one, I hadn’t paid my bills for over a year.  I simply didn’t care enough about living to bother.  For another, I owed over $10,000 to St. Scholastica (the only reason that I owed this much money to the college was because I had too much social anxiety to visit the financial aid office and take out a student loan…and the time period to take out a loan had elapsed).  This put my transcript on hold and prevented me from finishing my education.  My life was in shambles.  So, even though my mood had improved, I had a big mess to clean up.  That mess took a lot of hard work and several long years.

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(The ice age might have ended, but I was left with the carcasses of some mammoth messes to clean up.)


Once depression had passed, I had a lot more energy for living.  This was useful, as I needed this energy to work.  I completed two service years as an Americorps member, as the program paid over $4000 in an education award at the time.  This helped me pay off the bill with St. Scholastica.  In turn, this helped me to finally finish off my bachelor’s degree there.  During this time period, I filed for bankruptcy, which discharged all of my other debt (aside from student loans).   Because Americorps paid a stipend of less than $900 a month after taxes at the time, I also worked the night shift at a hotel.  At other times, I worked as many as four jobs.  I was a bit of a workaholic at the time, with periods where I worked 80 hours a week.  However, I was trying to eke a modicum of pleasure from my bleak life.  I probably didn’t need to work as much as I did, but I wanted to save money for travel and for hobbies.  And, between all of the jobs I really didn’t make that much money.   Another boon for my financial situation was when I donated eggs, which helped to pay off my car and the rest of the St. Scholastica bill.  It took me about three to four years to re-assemble my life.  All the while, I felt that I was looking over my shoulder, waiting for depression to return.  After all, it had visited me so often in my early to mid twenties.  I feared that it would return and sabotage everything.  Certainly, there were some very dark and terrible moments in my workaholic years.  But….depression did not return.


It has been over a decade since I emerged from depression.  Depression and anxiety have not returned in the same way.  While they dominated my 20s, they have not and they will not return.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about the situation.  For one, while I used to fear that depression would return, I no longer fear that.  I have far more tools now, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually than I did in my early 20s.  While I continue to experience melancholy and sadness more than the average person, I feel that I have some control over this and can change negative thought patterns before they spiral out of control.  I also have a sense of what depression looks like in my self.  If I stop caring about life, stop paying bills, find myself unable to keep up with obligations, isolate myself, give up hobbies, or generally feel less motivated- I become concerned and seek to remedy the situation.   While I was living in Mankato, I felt those familiar feelings, so I sought counseling right away.  I only went to one session, but it was enough to get me back on track in life and throw my thought patterns into a healthier framework.   As for anxiety, I very rarely have panic attacks.  I have anxiety from time to time, but I recognize it for what it is and know it will pass.  I think medication would really help with anxiety, since it is not a fun experience.  However, I know I can generally power through it.  I fully believe that there will be a time in my life that I do not have anxiety.  I don’t think I have had a panic attack in almost a year.  As I grow and experience more life, I feel that I become better at living and better at thinking.  I am optimistic that I am fully capable of living in a healthy mental state.


I realize that my framing of mental illness is not really very helpful for most people.  For one, I shunned medication.  I don’t think this is the answer for others.  I don’t even think it is the answer for myself.  I suffered longer than I needed to.  Seeing how depression ate up years of my life, I am not against taking medication.  Time is the most precious thing we have.  It is finite.  Our time on this earth is woefully short.  Anything that shortens and diminishes our short lives should be fought furiously.  That is why I am a socialist.  I want people to have the resources they need to live full lives.   If I became as depressed again, I would not be as stubborn in the future.  Also, I don’t really frame depression as something that will always be a part of me or something that is built into my genes.  While it most likely was built into my genetics, I don’t care for that sort of determinism.  I think that it very well could have been the outcome of my life conditions.  That any human being in the same conditions may have also become depressed.  Really, I was lost!  I didn’t have friends!  I struggled to figure out meaning in this world and find my place!  I struggled with poverty and isolation.   This world itself is pretty depressing.  It is astonishing that more people aren’t depressed.   So, in a way, I don’t really OWN being depressed.  Worse, I sometimes feel resentful, uncomfortable, and impatient with others who experience mental health issues.   I should see myself and my struggles in them, but instead, I want to avoid it.   It makes me feel disgusted with myself for being weak and for failing.  Yes, I have internalized some narratives of mental health as a weakness.  Intellectually, I know better, but emotionally, I have negative reactions that I keep on the inside.  I want people to think I am strong, capable, and in control.  I certainly don’t feel happy about the ordeal.   It is embarrassing.  It shows that I am very flawed.  And, even if I wasn’t defective, the disease stole several years of my life.  Those are years that I won’t get back.  My life is less full because of the years that depression took from me.  It makes me angry.  It makes me sad.  When I see young college students having fun and enjoying their youth, I feel that I missed out.  I didn’t have friends, bonfires, camping trips, parties, road trips, spring break…etc.  I had soul crushing isolation.


Because of these feelings of loss, I am compelled to live very well.  I can’t change the past.  My 20s sucked.  That’s how it goes.  But, I made it through it.  I don’t have perfect narratives about the whole ordeal, but I have a lot of determination not to go through that again.  My 30s have been better.  While I struggled to finish one degree in my 20s, I finished three in my 30s!  I travel.  I am engaged in many hobbies.  I am active as an activist.  I keep a very tight schedule.  I have wonderful friends.  I read.  I learn.  I share.  I am living the life I wish I had been living in my 20s.  I live each day very fully.  I am hungry for living.   I often feel stressed because I wonder how I will fit so much into a single day.  I want to paint! Play violin!  Run!  Hike! Read! Write.  Write blog posts.  Write stories!  Write papers!  Write poems!  I want to enjoy the sunshine and trees!  I want to ride my bicycle.  I want to study languages!  I want to plant my garden!  Try a new hobby!  I want to be a better feminist, socialist, environmentalist, etc…  Ah…I want everything!    I have to forgive myself for my terrible 20s as it built a foundation for my 30s.  I am pretty sure I won’t be blindsided by depression later in life, as I went through it, know it, and am more capable of handling it.  I did travel in my 20s and I don’t regret my years of Americorps service.  I had some good friendships in my 20s as well.  So, while my 20s were not as fun and free as I would have liked, I have my whole life to make up for lost time.  To the best of my ability, that is what I will do.  Is it healthy?  If my 20s is the story of my long bleak winter the rest of my life feels a little like the rite of spring, a ceremonial frenzy to dance myself to death.  But that is another story.  The story of my fundamental existential crisis.  Perhaps depression really was just the first act.

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(an image from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring)

Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic.  This month, the goal was to go on a hike to learn more about fungi, edible and otherwise.  We asked Ariel, one of our members, if she would be willing to tell us a little about edible fungi, as she forages for fungi and sells them to a local grocery store.  As for myself, I undertook the task of trying to connect fungi with feminism for a short presentation on that topic.  Connections between these two topics are not commonly made, but almost anything can be connected to feminism.  Indeed, fungi can be connected to feminism through an exploration of women’s roles as foragers and food preparers, the connection between fungi and witchcraft, and the contributions women have made to mycology, the science of fungi.


An Introduction to Fungi:

To begin, it is useful to outline some basic information about fungi.  Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that consist of everything from yeast in bread and beer, infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, mushrooms and toadstools, and mold on bread.  Most people are probably most familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some fungi.  However, this is just a small portion of the diversity of this kingdom.  Taxonomy is always changing, but fungi are often considered to be one of five or six kingdoms of organisms, including plants, animals, protists, archaebacteria, fungi, and bacteria.  For most of history, fungi was lumped into the plant kingdom and it was not until the 1960s that they were separated into their own category of lifeforms.  It might be easy to confuse fungi with plants, due the fact that both grow in soil and tend to be stationary.  In actuality, fungi was more closely related to animals and 1.1 billion years ago they shared a common evolutionary ancestor with the animal kingdom (Staughton, 2002).  Fungi are similar to animals in that they cannot produce their own food, as plants do through photosynthesis.  Rather, they feed on dead and living organisms, breaking them down by excreting enzymes and absorbing nutrients through their cell wall (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  This means that they differ from animals in that they do not ingest their food, rather they absorb it.  Another similarity between animals and fungi is that both of them use oxygen in cellular respiration to convert nutrients into energy.  That is, both use oxygen and release carbon dioxide as waste, as opposed to plants which use carbon dioxide and release oxygen (Bone, 2011).  Yet, fungi are similar to plants in that both have cell walls, although the cell wall of plants is made of cellulose and the cell wall of fungi is made of chitin.  Chitin is the same substance that the beaks of squids and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects is made of.

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Despite the clear differences between plants and fungi, historically, fungi have been lumped together with plants and even today, mycology tends to be lumped within botany departments rather than zoology.  While fungi have had a sort of identity crisis over history, they do indeed have a very close relationship to plants.  Over 90% of all plants have a mycorrhizal fungal partner.  In other words, plants often have fungi that live on or in their roots for the purpose of helping them extract more nutrients from the soil.  In exchange, the fungi obtain sugar, which the plant produces.  This is why a person often sees mushrooms at the base of trees.  Some unusual plants, such as monotropes (more commonly known as Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant), do not produce chlorophyll and depend upon fungi to obtain energy from nearby trees.  Almost every plant has fungi living between their cells.  In addition, 85% of all plant disease are caused by fungi.  In fact, chili peppers evolved their hotness as a defense against fungi (Bone, 2011).  Therefore, it is no wonder that plants and fungi are associated with one another.

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One of the most interesting thing about fungi is how diverse that kingdom is.  While the animal kingdom contains a wide array of organisms including lifeforms as different as horseflies, sea horses,  horseshoe crabs, and horses fungi vary even more greatly.  Fungi include organisms that reproduce sexually, asexually, and both.  This makes them extremely interesting from a sexual standpoint.  Unlike animals, they can be one celled or made up of many cells.  Subsequently, fungi include such diverse phylums as club fungi, which include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and shelf fungi.  This is the phylum that most people are probably familiar with.  These fungi often have club shaped structures with gills containing spores.  Another phylum of fungi are called sac fungi, or fungi which produce spores in tiny sacks.  This group includes yeast, truffles, molds, and morels.  Another phylla is called zygomycota, which feature sexual and asexual reproduction and include black mold.  Finally, there are imperfect fungi, which have unknown methods of reproduction and include penicillium and aspergillus.  There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, but only one tenth of these are known to science.  Interestingly, the mass of the world’s fungi is far greater than the mass of all of the world’s animals, amounting to about ¼ of the world’s entire biomass (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  Fungi also outnumber plants six to one.  Finally, the largest organism on the planet is actually a honey fungus in Oregon which is over 2,400 years old and larger than 1,666 football fields (Bone, 2011).   Truly, fungi among the most fascinating forms of life on the planet.

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

For most of history, fungi were not given much attention as a unique group of organisms.  Thus, most early humans would have understood fungi mostly through the sexual phase or the fruiting body of a mushroom (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Humanity’s earliest encounters with fungi would have been with mushrooms and shelf fungi.  Humans lived as hunters and gatherers, in small communities that foraged for their food, for 190,000 of our 200,000 years as modern humans.  Some human societies continue to live this way.  For most of human history, humans foraged for fungi, for food, medicine, ritual, dyes, etc.  However, mushroom foraging is confounded by the fact that mushrooms may appear only at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.  They may not appear in the same place each year, making them harder to forage than plants.  Mushroom foraging is also made difficult by the fact that some mushrooms are extremely toxic, which means that misidentification or experimentation could result in illness or death.  Around 2,800 species of mushrooms are used today by humans.  Much of the mushroom foraging in the world is done by women  (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).   This comes a little surprise, as in a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food.   According to Crane’s research (2000) the food that was typically gathered by men was further away and harder to obtain.   Today, in Mexico, Bahrain, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, Zaire, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Russia, mushroom foraging is largely women’s work.  However, in Poland and Switzerland, is is more often done by men.  In some tropical areas, women collect mushrooms closest to their homes whereas men collect mushrooms that are deeper in the forest (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, & Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  This is not unlike the gender dynamics of collecting honey and may reflect the importance of women in society for their reproductive capacity (Crane, 2000).   In Guyana, men pick up mushrooms that they find incidentally on hunting trips, whereas women engage in active, premeditated mushroom collecting.  Beyond this, there are gendered ways in which mushrooms are collected, with men tending to be solitary foragers who search out more valuable and hard to find mushrooms and women collecting them together and in more energy efficient locations.  Mushrooms that are collected for ritual purposes are often done by both genders.  Mazatec healers in Mexico can be women or men and Maria Sabina was an important informant of mushroom rituals to ethnographers (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez (2012).

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While it seems that among many hunting and gathering cultural groups women play an important role in obtaining mushrooms, this is not the experience in industrial United States.  Bone (2011) found that many of the people she encountered while foraging for mushrooms were men.  Professional mushroom foragers, who often travelled the country in search of various mushrooms, were often men.  In particular, men from Mexico and Southeast Asia made a living by foraging and selling mushrooms.  At the same time, even amateur or more casual mushroom foragers were men.  When she sought to learn more about foraging mushrooms, it was always men who shared their expertise.  She also noticed a certain machismo among mushroom foragers, as some took risks by eating mushrooms that were known to be toxic or have negative health effects.  Bone (2011) was focused on developing her knowledge of mycology and experiencing fungi from the perspective of a foodie.  Her book, Mycophilia, does not examine the gender dynamics of mushroom foraging at any length.  However, it does very clearly support the idea that in the United States, mushroom science, foraging, commercial production, and preparation are all largely dominated by men.  This begs the question of why mushrooms exist so differently from the women centered foraging that is prevalent elsewhere in the world and presumably elsewhere in history.


There may be a few explanations for their phenomenon.  For instance, until the 1600s in France, mushroom foraging was women’s work.  However, with the scientific revolution, mushrooming became a men’s activity as men began to monopolize the science of mycology (Dugan, 2008).  The shift from mushroom foraging as women’s work to men’s work represents a shift of the power of behind which knowledge is given privilege in society.  As men took control of institutions of learning, medicine, publishing, science, etc. and systematized scientific knowledge, the folk knowledge of women, but also poor people, indigenous people, criminals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups was denigrated, ignored, or suppressed.  This might explain why according to Dugan (2008) mushroom collecting was mainly conducted by women in the United States until the 19th century.  In was during the 19th century in the United States that women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine, and the natural world in general was suppressed by emergent medical and professional institutions.  As this knowledge was professionalized and monopolized, the knowledge of men was empowered and given social value at the expense of women.  Long before the advent of science, many groups of people developed the a body of knowledge about mushrooms that scientists would only later rediscover.  For instance, Russian peasants had a deep knowledge of mushrooms and some of the common names for these mushrooms were associated with the tree that the mushrooms grew near.  Europeans were latecomers to mushroom identification and even Darwin was indifferent to fungi when writing about evolution.  However, the Mayans developed their own system of classifying mushrooms, as did the Chinese.  Chen Jen-yu’s Mycoflora, written in 1245, proposed 12 types of mushrooms (Dugan, 2008).  In all, this should illustrate that humans have had thousands of years of interactions with fungi and through use and observation developed a body of knowledge.  Some of this knowledge was dismissed or overlooked on racist, sexist, and classist grounds.

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

The ability of women to forage for mushrooms is also challenged by capitalism.  Capitalism negatively impacts women more than men, because women are oppressed as workers and on account of their gender in capitalism.  The oppression of women include the being paid less than men, doing more unpaid labor in the home, experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, having limited reproductive freedom, enjoying less political representation, having less social legitimacy, and a myriad of other expressions of oppression.  Thus, at least on the amateur end of mushroom collecting, women may not be as involved because of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy shape women’s relationship to nature.  Within the United States, time in nature is usually associated with leisure, which women have less of due to spending more time with care work and household work.  Women are often also economically dependent upon men and make less money than them, which may mean that taking up hobbies and traveling around to pursue them is a greater economic burden.  Within the context of societies which are less developed and women continue to forage for mushrooms, women have a harder time obtaining wage labor, surviving on lower wages, and supporting their families.  In some areas of the world, foraging and selling mushrooms to middle men is an important way that widows and single mothers generate income for themselves.  Historically, women sold vegetables and mushrooms in markets in Europe.  This tradition conditions in Eastern European countries like Latvia, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic, where women are often the source of mushrooms in markets (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012). Therefore, mushroom foraging is an important source of income to women.  Because it is work that is outside of the formal economy, they are more vulnerable to difficult labor conditions.  And, because of the environmental problems wrought by more developed countries in the context of capitalism, women are vulnerable as the environment they depend upon for livelihood is threatened.  For instance, women in Puebla Mexico must obtain permits to go into the forest and collect mushrooms.  In other places, such as Burundi, logging has diminished the abundance of mushrooms.  Another challenge is other ecological issues, such as acid rain and soil nitrification in Europe.  Mushroom collectors are often independent workers, so they are not afforded health or safety benefits (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Indeed, mushroom yields around the world have decreased over the years, perhaps as a result of climate change.


Women and Food:

Closely related to foraging, women are engaged in cooking and eating fungi.  The preparation of mushrooms, including cooking and storing, is mostly done by women around the world (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez,2012).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an average day, American women spend about twice as much time as men preparing food and drinks.  In an average day, 70% of women reported preparing food compared to 43% of men.  This means that women not only do more food preparation than men, more women are engaged in this activity than men (Charts by Topic: Household activities, 2016).  This should come as little surprise to feminists, who have long articulated that women do more unpaid household labor than men.   This work is often devalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted as part of the normal gender roles and relationship between men and women.  Although women do more unpaid cooking, men dominate professional cooking.  Women and men attend culinary school in equal proportions, but most celebrity chefs and paid culinary professionals are men.  Men also outnumber women 7 to 3 at more prestigious culinary schools and when women do go into culinary arts, they are disproportionately represented upon baking and pastry programs (Jones, 2009).  For instance, at B.A program in pastries at the American Culinary Institute is made up of 86% women (Tanner 2010).   Both of these trends represent how “women’s work” is undervalued in society.  At culinary schools, pastry sections are called the “pink ghetto” or “pink section” because they are dominated by women.  Food and work are both gendered in society.  Baking and desserts are associated with femininity (Brones, 2015).    This relationship to cooking also creates a special relationship to fungi, even if this relationship is not immediately obvious.

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The first relationship to fungi is the relationship between women and yeast.  To begin, bread of some kind or another has been eaten by humans for at least 30,000 years.  But, early breads were unleavened flat breads which were made from ingredients other than grains.  The first recorded discovery of yeast is from Ancient Egypt, where yeast was used to leaven bread and make beer 6000 years ago.   No one knows how yeast was discovered.  It may have been floating in the air and landed in some bread, resulting in lighter, fluffier bread.  Or, it is possible that yeast entered bread by adding ale to it instead of water.  In any event, the discovery of yeast necessarily coincided with several other developments in human history.  First of all, it arose out of settled societies which domesticated and grew grains.  Grains were domesticated by ancient farming civilizations about 8000 years ago.  But, for most of human history, people foraged for their food.  Settled agriculture allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the invention of written languages, private property, and social stratification.  It also is considered to be the beginning of patriarchy, as with the invention of private property, monogamy and the associated control of women was ensured the transmission of property through sons.   Settled agricultural societies were possible because of a surplus of food.  This surplus of food also allowed for the creation of professions, thus, in Egypt, there were professional bakers, herders, teachers, doctors, scribes, etc.  Egyptian art depicts both men and women engaged in bread making.  However, it is more likely that men were involved in the actual profession of bread making or baking, while women made bread in the home or as supporters.  This gendered dynamic continued through time.  For instance, in Medieval Europe, women prepared food for their families or homes, whereas men were professional breadmakers in guilds.  In both examples, the work of women was essential the same, but not given the same social value.  So, although women are more likely to work with yeast or for that matter cook with any other fungi, it is not seen as work that matters in the same way professional culinary work matters.

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While women have a close relationship to food and by extension, fungi as a food, due to their role as a cook for their families, this often goes unnoticed or unheralded.  Despite gender inequalities, women managed to influence society through cuisine.  For instance, countries can roughly be divided into mycophobic and mycophilliac depending upon their relationship to mushrooms.  France is viewed as a mycophiliac culture, with many recipes calling for mushrooms and a history of foraging for mushrooms.  It was largely through women that this French passion for mushrooms spread to other countries.  For instance, Hannah Glasse wrote an  English cookbook in 1747 which drew from French cuisine and included 110 mushroom recipes called the Art of Cookery Made Easy.  Eliza Action’s cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) also included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Cookbooks focused on the historical cuisine of the British isles tended to have few mushroom recipes.  The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons in 1796, does not feature any mushroom recipes.  But, by the 1800s, various cookbooks featured mushroom dishes.  Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, introduced in 1934, popularized mushrooms as part of American casserole cuisine.  And, one of the most popular American cookbooks of the 20th century, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Irma Rambauer’s book The Joy of Cooking included 30 recipes with mushrooms (Bertelsen, 2013 ). In each of these examples, women were able to influence culture by working within the traditional social space offered to women.  The household has traditionally been viewed as the sphere of influence of women.  Books about cooking, by women for women, is a way that women exerted power within the confines of tradition.  In doing so, in a small way, these cultures were changed.  Today, mushrooms consumption has exploded.  The global export value of mushrooms was almost 1.75 billion dollars in 2010, compared to 250 million dollars in 1990 and negligible in 1970.

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Another way in which women relate to fungi is through the ways that food is gendered in society.  Because mushrooms are a viewed as a vegetable and something healthy, one might assume that women eat more mushrooms than men.  After all, women are told to watch their weight, monitor their food intake, and make healthy food choices.  At the same time, masculinity is connected to meat eating.  Eating mushrooms seems to be something lowly and feminine.  There is even a racial and ethnic component to eating mushrooms, as they are associated with mycophilliac cultures such as India, China, Japan, and Russia.  Surprisingly, men and women in the United States actually eat roughly the same amount of mushrooms each year.  According to the USDA, women consume about 8% more fresh mushrooms then men, but men are more likely to eat processed mushrooms.  As a whole, men ate about 49% of all mushrooms produced in the United States, whereas women ate about 51% (Lucier, Allhouse, and Lin, 2003).  Yet, this isn’t to argue that gender does not shape mushroom consumption.  In Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, a food writer from New York, expressed disdain when she attended a Midwest mushroom foraging event and the men in attendance planned on battering their mushrooms or putting them on steaks  (Bone, 2011).  In this example, gender, geography, and class intersected to generate a different sense of taste from the Midwestern men with less social capital.  In another example, the white truffle is the most expensive food in the world, at $3000 per pound (Bone, 2011).  However, men with power are more likely to obtain and ingest truffles.  For instance, a 3.3 pound truffle was auctioned for $330,000 to a billionaire named Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner.  The truffle itself was discovered by an Italian truffle hunter and his father, along with their dog.  Gordon Wu, a property tycoon from Hong Kong purchased two truffles at an auction for 125,000 euros.  An anonymous Chinese writer purchased a truffle for $120,000 at an auction.  Globally, women and children are more likely to be among the world’s poor and less represented among the super wealthy.  The truffle’s value is because it is hard to successfully commercially cultivate, rare, and labor intensive.  At the same time, some its value is more symbolic than material, as truffles are abundant in China, where labor is cheap enough (i.e exploited) that they are raked from the earth by humans rather than trained dogs and pigs.  But, these black truffles are viewed as inferior to European black truffles.  In this sense, when food is associated with power and privilege, women are less likely to partake in this indulgence.  So, while men and women may eat equal amounts of mushrooms, how they are eaten may differ.  I would hypothesize that men eat them more often on pizza, battered, on burgers, or on steaks and women in salads and as a meat substitute.  Class certainly shapes mushroom consumption as well, not only in access to elite foods like truffles, but in consumption of mushrooms in general.  Bone (2011) noted that the biggest consumers of mushrooms were those who were 350% above the poverty line.

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

Another way in which mushrooms have been associated with women is through medicine and witchcraft.  In Europe, mushrooms have often been associated with mushiness and evil.  French words for mushrooms translate to eggs of the devil, devil’s paintbrush, and toad bread.  Toadstool and toad hat are names derived from Danish mushrooms.  In Estonia, Fulgio septica, a large yellow slime mold is called “Shit of a Witch (Dugan, 2008).”  An edible yellow fungus commonly found on dead branches is called “Witches butter.”  Western Europe and the British Isles in particular associated mushrooms with witchcraft (Bertelsen, 2013).   In Russia, Baba Yaga is associated with magical tree mushrooms.  In one story she spares the life of a hedgehog that is eating a mushroom, under the understanding that the hedgehog will become a boy and serve her.  She is also accompanied by spirits that live under mushrooms.  In Italy, there is a story of a witch who disguised herself as a mushroom to figure out who is stealing her cabbages.   Mushrooms have been associated with fairies and in 1599, the word fairy ring described, which is a ring of mushroom left behind by dancing fairies.  In Germany, fairy rings were known as Hexen rings, where witches would dance in a circle on Walpurgis night or the night before May Day (Dugan, 2008).  Plant diseases caused by fungi were sometimes believed to be caused by witches, as exemplified by a decree by Pope Innocent the VIII who noted that witches cause crop failure.  Witches were also blamed for the poisoning of cattle, which itself was often the cause of grain fungi.   Witches were believed to use fungi in herbalism, and that least Inquisition documents indicate the beliefs that witches used puffballs in potions in Basque country, Amanita Muscaria is known as “Witches mushroom” in Austria, and witches in Portugal used a hallucinogenic mushroom called  Panaeolus papilionaceus.  There is also a Finnish belief that if someone is bothered by a kobald like creature, a certain species of mushroom was fried in tar, salt, and sulfur, then beaten, and the woman who controls the kobald would appear to release the creature.  In the Balkans, dried mushrooms were used to ward of witches by placing them in the windowsill (Dugan, 2008).   It seems that mushrooms have been associated with witches, mischief, powerful women, and misfortune.  Though, there are some exceptions.  For example, in China, the lingzhi mushroom or mushroom of immortality, was associated with Kuan Yin, the goddess of healing and mercy (Bertelsen, 2013).

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


There may be some actual connections between witchcraft and fungi.  For instance, there is a connection between ergotism and witch trials.  Ergotism is caused by the grain fungi, Claviceps purpurea.  The fungus colonizes cereal crops, producing nectar like droplets containing spores.  The disease is called ergot, the French word for spur, due to the rooster spur like shape of the fungus on the infected plant.  In medieval times, up to 30% of the harvested grain was actually fungus, due to wet weather conditions.  When humans or animals ingest the fungus many symptoms can arise.  The infected can feel intense heat over their body and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing the limbs to rot and fall off.  This condition was called St. Anthony’s Fire due to these symptoms.  The alkaloids produced by the fungus can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, the sensation of ants on the body, twitching, hallucinations, seizures, and distortions of the limbs.  Ergotism outbreaks occurred through the 1800s.  Peasants were vulnerable as they had to eat lower quality grain or could not waste the diseased grain.  Children were particularly vulnerable with 56% mortality in some outbreaks.   Historians such as Mary Matossian have hypothesized that witch trials and bewitching may have actually been the result of ergotism.  She argued that most witch trials happened in river valleys in southwest Germany and south east France, where cool and wet conditions would have promoted fungal growth.  Both places grew rye and peasants in the area would have consumed up to three and a half pounds of bread a day.  There was only one witch trials in Ireland, where grain was not grown as much.  Trials for witches often happened in the fall or winter following wet years.  Even the Salem Witch Trial followed this pattern as it occurred after a cool spring.  The symptoms reported in the witch trials were similar to ergotism and the fact that children reported these symptoms is also consistent with the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of ergotism.  It is interesting to note that in studying ergot grain fungi, Albert Hofman developed LSD (Hudler, 2000).  In any event, it is possible that outbreaks of ergotism were blamed on witches and a catalyst for witch hunts.

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(A vintage Halloween postcard featuring a costumed witch with fungi)

Beyond this association with witch trials, it is useful to dissect what a witch is.  A witch is symbolic for a women with power and knowledge.  For thousands of years, humans obtained an immense amount of knowledge from the natural world in terms of edible foods, useful medicines, dyes, animal movements, etc.  Because women had an important role in gathering foods, they had special knowledge.  Further, prior to the invention of patriarchy, women likely had important roles as religious or spiritual leaders, healers, and religions with goddesses.  Over time, with changes in social structures and the introduction of Christianity, the role of women was diminished and their knowledge was viewed as threatening and connected to paganism.  In this way, the idea of a witch is a way to diminish and persecute the traditional knowledge and roles of women.  Witches may be associated with mushrooms because of how mushrooms were used in healing and rituals.  Indeed, some fungi have healing properties.   Mushrooms are valued in Chinese cuisine, culture, and medicine.  Chinese medicine includes 100 species of mushrooms, including the wood ear mushroom which was eaten for its perceived improvement to circulation and breathing.  The health effects of mushrooms are only recently being discovered in the West.  Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which boost the immune system and can be a source of protein, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, copper, and selenium.  Chanterelle mushrooms are 11 to 24% protein.  In contrast, the average potato contains 3.9% protein.  Mushrooms also secrete antibiotics (Bertelsen, 2013).  The most famous fungal cure is penicllin, but fungi are used in many modern medicines.  Beano is made with the fungi Aspergillis niger, which digests methane and in turn relieves flatulence.  Lovastatin and Pravastatin are both derived from fungi and used to treat high cholesterol.  Cyclosporin comes from a fungus and is used to suppresses the immune system for organ transplants.  Shiitake mushrooms may have cancer fighting properties (Hudler, 2000).  Gypsy mushroom may be effective against herpes, the steroids used in birth control come from fungi, turkey tail mushroom may be a treatment against hepatitis C, and fomitopsis officinalis has been used to treat tuberculosis and e-coli.  Midwives in Germany and Italy used ergot, the deadly grain fungus, to induce labor (Bone, 2011).  Mold was used by Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, and French to treat wounds (Hudler, 2000).  Of course, the benefits of fungi should not be overstated.  They may be hard to digest due to their chitin cell wall.  Some fungi are deadly.  Designating fungi as a superfood is a marketing ploy to sell more mushrooms.  However, the healing properties of many mushrooms may mean that witches were associated with mushrooms because healers traditionally used mushrooms as medicine.   By associating healing with evil and witchcraft, women’s knowledge, experience, and power was de-legitimized.  At the same time, through witch hunts and trial, women themselves were terrorized with violence and the threat of violence as a form of social control.

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Women and Mycology

It should be clear that one of the themes related to women and fungi relates to the value of the knowledge and work of women in society.  It is suiting then that the final point is how women have contributed to the science of mycology.  In this feminist narrative of history, women have probably been closely connected to fungi for most of human history as foragers for food and as healers.  With the end of hunting and gathering societies in many parts of the world, women took on new, but subservient roles in society.  Still, women continued to be connected to fungi through their preparation of food and role as caregivers, even if this labor was not given social importance.  This final segment of history is about women struggling to assert themselves in male dominated science.  Outside of the realm of formal science, women are often responsible for passing down knowledge of mushrooms to their children.  Even the science of mycology depending upon the knowledge of women.   For instance, Carolus Clusius and Franciscus van Sterbeeck, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively were two of the the first pioneers in mycology.  These men relied upon the knowledge of wise women, known as herb wives, to obtain information about mushrooms (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  It is tragically ironic that when men were developing science based upon the knowledge of women, these very same women were persecuted as witches for their knowledge of nature.


Later in history, Mary Elizabeth Banning was a pioneer in mycology who sought to identify mushrooms in the 1800s (Bertelsen, 2013).  She identified 23 new species of fungi and completed one of the first guides to mushrooms of the New World.  She worked as a teacher to support her mother and sisters after her father died, but found time to pursue mycology, then associated with botany.  Men dominated professional botany, but women were sometimes amateur botanists.  For 20 years, she studied the mushrooms of her home state of Maryland at a time when there was only one book on American fungi.  She never earned money or recognition and was often viewed as a lunatic by those outside of the scientific community.  She did however correspond by mail with various scientists (Pugliosi, 2016).  Her life represents several barriers for women who wish to pursue science.  For one, she was burdened with care work for her family.  Her mushrooming adventures were limited by the constraints of caring for her family.  At the same time, her work was stymied by the fact that she also had to be a wage laborer as a teacher.  Her “hobby” as a scientist was an unpaid third shift.  While she produced useful information, she never published it out of lack of confidence and her outsider status to scientific institutions.

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

In a similar but less tragic example, Beatrix Potter was interested in mycology and painted hundreds of scientifically accurate portraits of fungi.  She studied fungi under a microscope and presented a paper on fungal spores at the Linnean Society of London.  She began creating watercolor paintings of mushrooms at the age of 20 and sent her paintings to the naturalist, Charles McIntosh.  In turn, McIntosh gave her scientific advice and sent her specimens to paint.  Beatrix Potter also began studying lichens, which she wrongly believed were fungi rather than a symbiotic relationship between fungi, algae, and bacteria.  The mycologist, George Murray, rebuffed her, both for the position on lichen and her earlier work on spore germination, which he said had already been studied in Germany decades earlier.  Her paper was never published and she was told to make revisions.  Female students were not accepted into the society until 1905 and she was unable to present the research herself.   Her biggest contribution to mycology was her illustrations, which were used for fungi identification (Flemming, 2016).  Potter went on to achieve fame as a children’s book author and illustrator, but her scientific endeavors largely went unnoticed in history.  Again, she was shut out of a world controlled by men and men mediated her access and legitimacy within science.

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


With successes of the early women’s rights movement and other social movements, the social space within science slowly expanded for women.  In 1950, Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered Nystatin while trying to isolate antibiotics from Strepomyces noursei  (Hudler, 2000).  Nystatin was one of the first anti-fungal drugs and is used to treat various Candida infections such as diaper rash, yeast infections, and thrush.  Both scientists worked together for the New York Department of Health  and went on to develop two antibiotics.  Developing anti-fungal drugs is particularly challenging because, as it was noted earlier, fungi are closely related to animals.  This makes fungal infections harder to fight than bacterial infections.  Bacteria are simpler organisms, with a cell wall but not the complex cellular structures of animals and fungi.  This makes it easier to destroy bacteria.  Drugs developed to fight fungal infections may attack healthy human cells, as they are more similar (Staughton, 2002).

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Another contribution to mycology was the discovery of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroyed elm trees in Europe and the U.S..  The cause of this disease was discovered by a team of five female Dutch scientists (Hudler, 2000).  The source of the devastating tree disease was uncovered in 1921 by a team, lead by Johanna Westerdjik.  Westerdjik was a plant pathologist and the first female professor in the Netherlands.  She wrote over 70 papers on mycology and plant diseases and supervised over 55 Phd students, half of whom were women.  It was her student, Marie Beatriz Schwartz who isolated the fungus infecting elms and another student, Christine Johanna Buisman who developed Dutch Elm Disease resistant elms.  The project that she started continued until the 1990s.

 


“Moldy Mary” was another contributor to mycology.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after observing mold attacking bacteria in a petri dish.  He hired a woman nicknamed “Moldy Mary” to collect moldy produce so the mold could be studied.  Her real name was Mary Hunt and she was a young lab assistant.  The molds that Hunt found were tested to determine if they were penicillin.  Some of the cantaloupes she collected indeed contained a culture of Penicillium chrysogenum and many modern strains used in modern penicillin come from her moldy melon (Hudler, 2000).  Another contributor to knowledge about fungi was Valentina Wasson.  Unfortunately, her husband, R. Gordon Wasson is more famous than she is for his research into the cultural relationship between people and mushrooms.  However, he was struck by the cultural difference between them when on their honeymoon, Valentina, a Russian, began collecting mushrooms.  He was terrified that they were toxic, a reaction that highlighted a difference between his American upbringing and her Russian upbringing and how that shaped their relationship to mushrooms.  The incident inspired the couple to research these cultural differences together and they authored Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.  They went on to travel to Mexico where they studied the relationship to mushrooms among indigenous people and went on to introduce psychoactive mushrooms to a mass American audience through Life magazine (Hudler, 2000).  Unfortunately, this attracted droves of Western visitors to the Mazatec community and especially to Maria Sabina, who was interviewed in their book.  Maria was investigated by the Mexican police for selling drugs to foreigners and had her house burned down.  Thus, while they examined cultural differences in the relationship between cultures and mushrooms, their work had a negative impact on indigenous people of Mexico.  Finally, as one last tidbit of mycological history, all button mushrooms, the mushrooms commonly used in pizza, salads, canned mushrooms, and cream of mushroom soup all come from a spore discovered by the Dutch scientist Gerda Fritsche in 1980 (Bone, 2011).

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

While women have made contributions to mycology over time, gender inequality in mycology persists today.   There are two times as many male members of the American Mycological Society as there are females.  Only 13% of the presidents of the MSA (founded in 1932) have been female, starting with Marie Farr in 1980.  MSA secretaries have been consecutively female since 1991, but treasurers have historically been men.  Various MSA awards have also gone disproportionately to men, although female students have won travel grants in greater proportion to their male counterparts.  The majority of published articles in Mycologia are written by men (Branco and Vellinga, 2015).  Mycology is not unique among the sciences.  The gender inequality within mycology is pretty comparable to similar sciences such as botany, ecology, and lichenology.  It begs the question of why women do not enter the sciences or when they do, they are not as active in leadership roles.


Oddly enough, I wanted to be a botanist when I was a kid.  I even went through a period of time in the 5th grade when I wanted to be a mycologist.  I attended science camp and continued to be interested in science through high school.  However, I think a deterrent for me and science was a lack of confidence and a fear of math.  Low self-esteem is pretty common among girl.  There are varying statistics on the occurrence of low self esteem, but if one believes the statistics put forth by Dove’s Self Esteem fund, as many as seven in ten girls believe they are somehow deficient.  If girls indeed believe they are not smart enough or capable enough, they may be deterred from science.  And, if they do enter the sciences, they still must contend with the social expectations of women, such as having a family, doing research, doing unpaid labor at home, etc.  This cuts into time spent for research or going to conferences and limits the ability to become leaders in their field.  They may also face sexism and sexual harassment in their work environment, like many women do.  Finally, as it has already been outlined, scientific institutions have not been welcoming to women in the past and have suppressed the knowledge of women.  Rationality itself is associated with masculinity, whereas femininity associated with emotions.  But, rather than viewing one as inferior or that reason and feeling are opposed to each other, they are instead, interconnected.  The drive to study the natural world, interest in research, dedication to a subject, and passion for science all come from an emotional place.


Conclusion:  

I am certainly not a scientist, but I hope that the presentation and accompanying hike provided a few insights about fungi.  Personally, I find fungi pretty fascinating and hope to learn more about them in the future.  That is the goal of feminist frolics, to get together, share knowledge, and hopefully open the door to future learning.  For thousands of years, the knowledge and experiences of women have not been valued.  I think that learning together and sharing builds confidence, community, and self-efficacy.  It is also a way to find a place in nature, science, and history.  Hopefully you will join the Feminist Justice League in future feminist frolics.  I think you will find we are a bunch of fun gals and fungi!

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Mushroom: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.

 

Bone, E. (2011). Mycophilia: revelations from the weird world of mushrooms. New York: Rodale.

 

Branco, S., & Vellinga, E. (2015). Gender Balance in Mycology (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://msafungi.org/wp-content/uploads/Inoculum/66(5)%20preprint%20gender.pdf

 

Brones, A. (2015, May 17). Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn

 

Charts by Topic: Household activities. (2016, December 22). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/household.htm

 

Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

Dugan, F. (2008) Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, [S.l.], v. 3, p. 23-72, ISSN 1937-786X. Available at: <http://www.pnwfungi.org/index.php/pnwfungi/article/view/1062>. Date accessed: 11 Aug. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2509/naf2008.003.0074.

 

Fleming, N. (2016, February 15). Earth – Beatrix Potter: Pioneering scientist or passionate amateur? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160215-beatrix-potter-pioneering-scientist-or-passionate-amateur

 

Fungi – an introduction. (2009, October 27). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/fungi-an-introduction/

 

Garibay-Orijel, R., Ramírez-Terrazo, A., & Ordaz-Velázquez, M. (2012). Women care about local knowledge, experiences from ethnomycology. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8, 25. http://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-8-25

 

Hudler, G. W. (2000). Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Jones, G. (2009, November 19). Male to Female Ratios in Culinary School. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.reluctantgourmet.com/male-female-ratios-culinary-school/#context/api/listings/prefilter

 

Lucier, G., Allhouse, J., & Lin, B. (2003, March). Factors Affecting U.S. Mushroom Consumption (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from USDA website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/39489/30836_vgs29501_002.pdf?v=41414

 

Puglionesi, A. (2016, November 08). The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-lost-mushroom-masterpiece-unearthed-in-a-dusty-drawer

 

Staughton, J. (2016, November 18). How Are Mushrooms More Similar to Humans than Plants? » Science ABC. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

 

Tanner, P. (2015, February 20). A Debate About The Role Gender Plays in The World of Pastries-www.njmonthly.com. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/does-dessert-have-a-gender/

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

H. Bradford

8/1/17

I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender.  A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed.  After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant!  With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women.  He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender).   The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists.  The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction.  Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology.  Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.


In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling.  I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression.  My long experience with depression is another story.  But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person.  I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death.  Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear.  One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole.  Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs.  I began to look into this option.  The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis.  But, it paid around $3000 if successful.  I filled out a long application.  I believe it was over 25 pages long.  The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.


I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out.   But, I am generally a pretty healthy person.  I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc.  On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc.  I even passed the mental health evaluation.  So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags.  I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations.  Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors.  With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate.   It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me.  I was simply donor number 306.

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The donation process was involved.  It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient.  I was told to begin them on a certain date.  After which time, I would begin a series of injections.  I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs.  I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process.  Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones.   In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron).   Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries.  It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work.  At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles.  I felt heavy.  I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down.  The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family.  I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen.  As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones.  I was deeply offended.  Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine.  Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones.   I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving.  In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate.  I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date.  I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction.  No eating.  No drinking.  The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).

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I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year.  Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.


The extraction itself was uneventful.  I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?).  The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour.  In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed.  Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23.  These eggs would go on to be fertilized.  The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient.  The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use.  Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing).  Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor.  I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation.  Again, I handled it pretty well!  I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient.  The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards.  In all, it was pretty cool.  I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.


As I said, I donated three times.  The first two times were uneventful and largely successful.  But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule.  Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again.  And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time.  This is a pretty intense process.  It was a lot of driving.  It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week.  It was a lot of hormones.   It was a lot of sedation.  Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba.  In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off.  I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life.  I hope to never do that again.   Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip.  And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation.  My third donation did not go as well.


When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms.  My arms and legs shook.  I felt nauseous.  The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual.  Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little.  Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate.  I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself.  I felt angry at my body for betraying me.  Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt.  I felt so upset with myself.   So, so, so upset!  But, three times was an accomplishment.  Perhaps it was hard on me.  Perhaps I was overly tired.  Maybe I was anxious.  Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself.  Why did the third time go awry?  I will never know.  But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.


Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I feel great.  It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba.  I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology.   In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes.  I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world.  I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen.  I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort.  Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor.  Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird.  I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence.  Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part.  Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past.  It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation.  In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology.  I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way.   I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know.   I kind of felt like a stud.


On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this.  Egg donation was hard on my body.  After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes.  The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled.  It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging).   I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed.  Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs).   The reason why I donated was because I was in debt.  I was overworking myself.  My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education.  In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women.   The cost of IVF is extremely expensive.  Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money.  Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed.  Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies?  Why not adopt?  Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important?  I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices.  However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life.  Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character.  To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars).  For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF.  It is plainly too expensive.  Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?”  Partially because of supply and demand.  The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women.  So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved.  I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications.  I wanted a better life.  I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.


Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience.  I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education.  I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me.  I feel proud of my unique gender experience.  I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history.  I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience.   I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money.   In all, I have little to complain about.  As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc.  It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo.   As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family.  I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures.  I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.

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