After returning to the familiarity of the school year, some students will look back on their summers and feel grateful for the future security conferred upon them by their new business contacts. Others may try to conjure up the memory of the adrenaline rush from hang gliding for the first time. Instead, I will reflect on the experience of discovering my ability to co-exist in perfect harmony with other living creatures – a lesson learned not from the friends I traveled with, but rather from a fungus.
Until I discovered one ensconced in my flesh, I had no problem with fungi. In fact, the sight of a mushroom surviving in my sizzling Miami yard catapults me into hysterical joy. And the time that I learned that the world’s largest living organism is actually a fungus in Oregon, I nearly burst into tears of happiness.
Given the choice, however, I would still prefer not to host them on my body – just as someone who likes stray cats would probably stop short of inviting one into his bed. But I had not been given a choice, or maybe I’d just missed the deadline, and my flesh had been invaded, splattered all over with red-rimmed fungal colonies. I felt like an apple riddled through with worms.
With a bit of early treatment, it might not have progressed that far. But as I was only one malady away from being labeled “Unfit to Travel” by my mother when it first appeared, I purposely ignored the quarter-sized red circle on my left side for the week before my trip. In the island of Corfu, its presence became harder to deny. It basked in the Mediterranean sun with as much gusto as I did, and it seemed to feed off of the massive gyros I scarfed down at every meal.
It grew wider and more fearsome, cracking my skin like a drought. And then it spread. A few days into the trip, new colonies spotted my chest with unnerving circular precision. Fine, I could no longer ignore it, but what was it? Some sort of Dalmatian-themed plague? Dermatological crop circles used by aliens to communicate with those far from any field? Only when my friend finally took a break from making out with his girlfriend did it all become clear. He said, “Alexa, don’t you think that might be ringworm?”
Well, now that he mentioned it, I had no trouble imagining that the red circle could be a flesh-eating worm demented enough to loop around and eat its own backside. The voice of denial faded like an echo in those forested hills, or like all those gyros down my gullet. It had to be ringworm.
That night I made my way to the local bar (by which I mean I sprinted frantically up the hill toward the nearest WiFi source with a laptop clutched in my possibly worm-infested fingers) to do some medical research. It turned out that ringworm was not actually a worm, but a fungus, which seemed only marginally better than a worm. At home that night, my friends had to do a bit more consoling than my usual state of hysteria requires.
As the fog cleared, though, I started to feel almost fond of my ringworm. It was no evil invader. It didn’t have a brain. It was just following the course nature had charted. The least I could do, as an organism of greater functioning, was to demonstrate this cognitive ability by treating it with respect. I’m not saying that I would welcome a deadly virus into my blood to devour me from the inside out, but my ringworm was harmless, really. It didn’t even itch. When I thought about it, it was almost decorative.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t decorative enough to keep me from applying anti-fungal cream. Still, it was ultimately with deep regret that I waged this war against my living passenger. As much as most of us like to imagine our bodies as the pristine vessels of our higher consciousness, our cells are actually 90 percent microbes. Without them, processes like digestion would be impossible. My ringworm was a visual reminder of our place within the web of life, rather than as the spider lurking on top of it.
As the life force of my ringworm faded along with memories of my trip, what remained was a faint patch of lighter skin, and on a deeper level, I gained a lesson in love and a sense of deep affection for all the world’s creatures. Unfortunately, this lasted only until the Miami mosquitoes returned. Kingdom of the fungi, it’s time for my refresher course.