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.