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Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg's Free Virtual Event Honors Earth Day and the Power of Connection

April 10, 2020

"For me, any film I make is a gateway to nature’s intelligence and it takes me on that spiritual journey. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it only reinforces the idea that we need to wake up and live in harmony with nature, and learn more about the little things that live beneath our feet and make the world go around—the fungi, the viruses, the 'internet' under the ground, all those trees who are in community with one another. It’s this shared economy and it reinforces connection."

As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches (April 22), several Esalen faculty interviewed during the COVID-19 pandemic have reminded us that our connection to ourselves, our planet and to one another can have deep-rooted and long-lasting effects on our lives and our collective future.

In an effort to keep these truths close to our hearts, Esalen faculty and award-winning filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, whose hit documentary Fantastic Fungi screened at the Esalen Inspiration Film Festival in 2019, has created a virtual Fungi Day, Tuesday, April 21. The free online gathering will feature live-streamed conversations with researchers, educators and solutionaries about our planet’s most pressing environmental and global challenges. “We have a real rock star group of thought leaders who are joining us to have unique conversations,” says Louie, who leads Conversations on the Edge | Awe and Wonder: Exploring the Intersection of Art, Science and Technology, October 2-4 at Esalen. “My hope is that people take the opportunity, now that we are in the mode of virtual cinema, to experience something truly unique.”

In addition to Louie, mycologist-entrepreneur-author Paul Stamets, professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard, filmmaker-futurist-philosopher Jason Silva and other luminaires are on the roster. The event features the following:

    Educational Forum Parents, teachers and children will be able to watch segments from Fantastic Fungi, where they can explore the mycelial kingdom and discover how important the world of organisms is to human survival. 10 a.m. (PST).
    Shift in Consciousness The panel discussion revolves around shifting consciousness to gain the perspective, speaking to the heart, understanding that we are connected and much more. 1 p.m. (PST)
    Nature’s Intelligence A deep dive through time and scale to discover the secrets and mysteries that nature can provide. 3 p.m. (PST)
    Female Psychedelic Leaders An all-woman panel about psychedelics. 5 p.m. (PST)

Panel discussions run throughout the day and will be available to watch for free on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. In between panels, Louie will be showing his sublime moving art—nature imagery with music—as a “palate cleanser” and an opportunity to be immersed in the healing beauty of nature.

In conversation, Louie is candid about nature’s profound wisdom. He shares more about that, the mycelial network and the creative web that connects us all.

Esalen: First of all, how are you doing with everything that is unfolding during COVID-19?

Louie Schwartzberg: At the beginning of the year, I made a bunch of New Year’s resolutions. One of them was that I wanted to slow down and have a simpler life and travel less—be at home more, spend more time with my family and grandkids. I’ve achieved everything except actually being with the grandkids at this time. So this pandemic is, curiously, giving me most of the things that I wanted.

What excites you most about this unique event?

Sharing it with people. The panels truly stand out and I’m especially happy about the free educational version of the film for elementary school kids, which features lessons they can work with. So many children are home now being home-schooled. This one-day-only educational version of the film, with nothing about psychedelics in it, is ideal and allows young people to have a fungi learning experience. Beyond that, the sessions on nature’s intelligence, shifting consciousness, psychedelics with women, biomimicry and more, will be memorable, too. I also hope people experience the film beforehand, which can be accessed online, so that they have even more context into the vast greatness of nature.

Are you surprised by the film’s success?

I’m surprised and not surprised. For me, any film I make is a gateway to nature’s intelligence and it takes me on that spiritual journey. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it only reinforces the idea that we need to wake up and live in harmony with nature, and learn more about the little things that live beneath our feet and make the world go around—the fungi, the viruses, the 'internet' under the ground, all those trees who are in community with one another. It’s this shared economy and it reinforces connection. Because of the pandemic and social distancing, we are in dire need of connection now, more than ever. For me that was the big takeaway in the movie, which I didn’t expect—that the “closer” would be all about connection. There is no such thing as life without a network.

What are the most common misconceptions about fungi?

The biggest misconception is that people think it’s a plant. We now have the three Fs—flora, fauna and fungi. There are six times more species of fungi than there are of plants. It’s a giant kingdom that’s integral to our life on this planet. What most people don’t know is that in a handful of dirt there can be 300 miles of mycelium and millions of microorganisms. Soil is alive. Fungi are that interconnected membrane that enables all these organisms to communicate with each other. Another thing people may not realize is that the mushroom is a fruit of the mycelium organism—much like what the apple is to a tree. We need to understand that the mushroom pops up from the ground when it needs to reproduce, send out it spores and move on.

What do you hope people take away from the Conversations on the Edge weekend in October?

I hope the takeaway is a deep dive into wonder and awe. The way I approach filming nature, which is filming too vast for the naked eye to see, is to offer a gateway into the portal of the deep mystery that makes you present, mindful and able to see things beyond your vision; something that opens up your mind that there is a broader horizon out there; something that expands your perception of life. I think that’s really happening with this pandemic right now. Most people don’t know a lot about microbiology and its scarier when you don’t know anything. You see photos on the news of this big red ball with spikes (COVID-19) and you realize it’s invisible and it can kill you. We need to recognize that we are giants walking on the planet. We are in the top 80 percent of living organisms in terms of size. Eighty percent of life on the planet is smaller than us. If you are aware that that world exists, I would hope that it would reduce the anxiety and fear. So, I’d like people coming to Conversations on the Edge to experience being present, mindful and able to appreciate the wonders of nature, and to engender gratitude, because you will always remember these kinds of sweet experiences.

How has filmmaking helped you expand your own human potential?

Filmmaking for me has been my “practice.” I’ve been time-lapsing almost nonstop 24/7 for 40 years—and I would call that a practice. I’m letting the cameras do the meditation for me: stare at a flower, don’t move, don’t think of anything else for the next 24 hours. If I asked you to do that, it would be hard to do, wouldn’t it? Whereas I can show you what that experience is like on film—staring at the rose and watching it open. What’s beautiful is that I can share my spiritual practice with people—what’s the point of view of a flower, a hummingbird, a redwood tree or a mosquito? That is mind-expanding because we’re all trying to get rid of a narrow point of view. The brain yearns for that. We all yearn to learn—to become less arrogant and stop thinking we’re the center of the universe.

Has this work offered you a deeper insight to life itself?

Definitely. Because you realize that everything is transcendent. If I'm shooting a flower—it opened, it closed, it died, it wilted. That’s the life of a flower and it’s a reminder for what is true for everybody. In a biographical kind of movie, you can see a kid grow up and you experience their life journey. It’s powerful because we’re all going to go on that journey—from birth to death. It’s a circle and it really doesn’t really have a beginning and an end. Nature shows you that in a very deep and profound way. It puts the seed out there, it blooms, it says, “hey, come get me, I’m gorgeous, I’m beautiful, here’s my seed and off you go.” And then you’re ready for the next generation. There’s a comfort in knowing that it all continues like that.

Fungi Day takes place Tuesday, April 21. To register for the free virtual event, visit www.fantasticfungi.com. Craving more? Revisit our Voices of Esalen interview with Louie here.

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