The Talented Mr Whippy
What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?
And greetings from Wales, where I’ve been spending the last few days on a vainglorious, fruitfully fruitless, hunt.
For those of you new to these pages, hello 👋 My name is David and I’m a writer, outdoor instructor and cyclist-at-large with Thighs of Steel. I write stories that help you and me understand the world (and ourselves) a little better.
Welcome to edition 334 — let’s get straight into it.
Seek And Ye Shall Find… But What?
What are we really looking for when we’re really looking for something?
That was the question I found myself asking as I tore onward through the sodden undergrowth, shredding myself on brambles and pulling myself up on slippery fern roots and inquisitive cables of rhododendron.
I reached the top of the bank covered in liquid soil, faced with a thick hedgerow and a stand of barbed wire. From the comfort of his finely mowed paddock, a horse stared back at me, through the mizzle, over this impassable fence.
I was looking for a footpath — clearly mapped, I might add, right here. But the map is not the territory. In this case, the territory is the thorn.
I slid back the way I’d scrambled.
With three days to spare between two activities inside the M4 Corridor, I decided to drive through to the old red sandstone mountains of the Brecon Beacons, ostensibly on a mushroom-hunting escapade.
Given that my mushroom identification skills are almost non-existent — there is only one species I can name with any confidence — the hunt is rarely more than an excuse to spend time foraging the humid air.
In that sense, I found exactly what I was looking for.
In the famous words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are three grades of knowledge:
Known knowns: ‘things we know we know’
Known unknowns: ‘we know there are some things we do not know’
Unknown unknowns: ‘the ones we don’t know we don’t know’
As Slavoj Žižek pointed out, Rumsfeld forgot the fourth category: unknown knowns, ‘knowledge which doesn’t know itself’.
When we look for something, anything, we usually start with something in mind. And so it is that these grades of knowledge also frame the context of our search:
Unknown knowns: unconscious competence, flow, mastery — but also unconscious bias, blind spots, invisible privilege, systemic violence, racism, etc. (Žižek’s example was the US military’s atrocities at Abu Ghraib)
Known knowns: conscious competence and confidence, closed mind, fixed mindset, our comfort zone
Known unknowns: conscious incompetence, growth mindset, learning, open mind, self-awareness, the wisdom of Socrates, managed risk, beyond our comfort zone
Unknown unknowns: unconscious incompetence, adventure, mystery, faith, more blind spots, unmanaged risk, recklessness, the danger zone
If we start our search with our minds filled with knowns (whether known or unknown), then we’re unlikely to find much besides the thing we are looking for.
When we are focussed on searching for knowns, we risk missing all the unknowns — the wondrous worlds that we didn’t even know were out there to be found.
The overwhelming majority of existence is made up of unknown unknowns.
As you can see from the photographs I took on my hunt, I was hopelessly unsuccessful in my search for known knowns.
What I found instead were three extraordinary and previously-unknown-to-me species of fungi.
Despite their apparent heterogeneity, each one, I learned to my growing astonishment, belonged to the genus known as waxcaps.
Further research tells me that there are about 150 described species of waxcaps. I guess I now have some level of conscious ignorance of 2 percent of all known waxcaps.
But it’s estimated that at least 90 percent of fungi species remain undiscovered, unnamed, unknown.
As of 2020, mycologists had named about 148,000 different species of fungus. The current best guess is that there are at least another 2.65 million more to be stumbled upon.
At the absolute most, my ignorant, but open-minded walk unwittingly uncovered 0.0001 percent of fungal diversity.
For every one of those beautiful waxcap mushrooms that caught my eye in the wet grass, dozens more species were growing hidden in the soil beneath my feet — the overwhelming majority unknown to even the most prolific mycologist.
This brief peer behind the taxonomic curtain gives us but a glimpse of the fathomless possibility of what we could be ‘looking for’ if we open our minds as well as our eyes.
Imagine searching for a tin needle in a haystack — and missing that each blade of straw is solid gold.
What are we really looking for when we are really looking for something?
Perhaps life is at its most wonderful when we acknowledge that we don’t even know ourselves.
Days of Adventure 2022: 116
I Put These Buttons Here Every Week :)
The stories I write are totally free to read and always have been.
I find it beautifully amazing, then, that some people actually choose to send me £30 per year to support this regular blend of ‘curiosity, insight, fine writing and infectious sense of adventure’.
Heartfelt thanks to Andy, Claire, Tudor, John, Harri, Becky, Illia, Joanna, Maryla, Cass, Georgie, James, Joe, Libby, David, Tessa and JMJ.
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(Whoever shared last week — thank you! It really worked!)
Any comments or questions to hurl my way? You can reply to this email like any other and turn this extended rant into a proper conversation.
Thank you 🙏
Three Small Things At The End
#1: 103 Pieces of Advice That May or May Not Work
Kevin Kelly’s famous birthday lists are being turned into a book, due on shelves in 2023. Until then, this uncritical interview might get you thinking.
Don’t ever work for someone you don’t want to become.
#2: Lea Ypi 💚
More truth bombs from a professor of political theory at the London School of Economics.
It is true that in the last year the numbers of Albanian migrants have been rising, both to the EU and to the UK. This is alarming for Albania, but hardly something that would provoke the collapse of a G7 country. Albanians know … that following Brexit there are significant labour market shortages in the UK. It’s the EU workers that the UK has lost as a result of Brexit whom they are hoping to replace. … In short, this is a very British, more specifically a very Tory, problem.
#3: Watch TV and DIE!
On average, every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by 21.8 (95% UI: 0.3-44.7) min.
I’m not much of a telly addict (am I the first to use that epithet since the 90s?), but I did watch all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad.
According to this 2012 study, that’s cost me one whole day on planet Earth. Totally worth it.
However you spend this weekend, let it be worth it.
ps: Thank you to TS for the excellent newsletter title. Points for you if you managed to find any connection between it and the contents herein.