Modernist poet T.S. Eliot calls April the “cruellest month” (The Wasteland). While he was writing about a very different world (and writing the poem as he recovered from the Spanish Flu in 1918), April remains a challenging month for even the sturdiest of souls. The weather and the work can be daunting: sunshine and snow in equal measure animate a period that also marks the end of the academic year. As the world around us awakens from a long winter nap, I am reminded of a podcast from the Maple League Award-Winning Educators series we recorded this winter. As part of this series, I interviewed Dr. Juan Carlos López, a soil microbiologist at Acadia University. In his research, he studies how a particular type of fungi helps trees talk to one another, and he showed this as both an incredible metaphor for classrooms but also the interconnectedness of the Maple League universities.
Dr. López explains his work this way: “good fungi, the ones that help the trees grow, form a symbiosis in the roots of the trees, and then they are able to capture nutrients and other things that the tree could not capture itself. And the tree has to give up something, to the fungi so that the fungi grows... This is a very intimate relationship between plants and these fungi where chemical cues go from one tree to the other via the micro-system of fungi.” In other words, if we think about the Maple League as the fungi and the institutions as the trees, the consortium creates an interconnected network for the universities to communicate and flourish. Each party in the relationship gives something but they also benefit. The fungi are small, often invisible, but powerful by connecting the trees together to create a forest that is resilient and healthy. These underground networks are essential but often invisible – or at the very least overlooked when the lofty trees reach for the sunshine. And yet they are fundamental to surviving and thriving in the broader eco-system.
We’ve seen a number of tantalizing clues that the consortium (as the connector) is helping our universities (the trees) flourish: four out of ten 3M National Student Fellows in 2022 are from Maple League Universities. All four universities have a record-breaking number of applications for incoming students. And we’ve seen projects like the Decolonizing Education Abroad project flourish as they welcome their first cohort of indigenous students and elders. Causation and correlation are often hard to disentangle; however, if we trust in the fungi to do its work, determining cause versus effect is less interesting than the processes of growth and regeneration we can see unfold at systemic levels.
Here's to spring and the unsung heroes (like fungi) that connect us all in a resilient eco-system, enabling each of us to grow and flourish better together.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities