The Holden Village Podcast

Holden Main-Street: Nic Caddell

August 20, 2023 Dev Bach
The Holden Village Podcast
Holden Main-Street: Nic Caddell
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to Holden Main Street: a playful podcast series dedicated to capturing the daily life and creative musings of ordinary folk at Holden Village. Who are the people drawn to this wild and uniquely transformative mountain community? How do their descriptions of hilarity, wilderness living, shared work and interior exploration shape the landscape of their time here? Expect to be delighted by improvised stories, poetry readings, the sounds of tea being poured, songs being sung, and bits of whimsy inspired by the moment. Enjoy.

In their time as Holden's naturalist, Nic Caddell has written curriculum, taught classes, and facilitated community conversations that have invited the guests and villagers of Holden Village into richer and more personal relationship with the living beings and processes that compose the Railroad Creek Valley ecosystem. Weaving together their experience working as a field ecologist, their collegiate studies in philosophy and critical queer theory, and their enthusiasm for playful and embodied learning, Nic has deepened our sense of place and prompted us to think critically about the ways we talk about, interact with, and care for the other living beings who call this valley home.

Referenced in this podcast episode: "Queer Theory for Lichens," by David Griffiths.

To learn more about Holden Village, visit: or to listen to more audio recordings visit: The Holden Village Podcast is accessible through Apple iTunes, Spotify, TuneIn, iHeart Radio, and most podcast apps. For questions and inquiries, contact

Background music by Tomomi_Kato: The Sound of Water Drops.

Nic Caddell

[00:00:00] Intro: Welcome to Holden Main Street: a playful podcast series dedicated to capturing the daily life and creative musings of ordinary folk at Holden Village. Who are the people drawn to this wild and uniquely transformative mountain community? How do their descriptions of hilarity, wilderness living, shared work and interior exploration shape the landscape of their time here? Expect to be delighted by improvised stories, poetry readings, the sounds of tea being poured, songs being sung, and bits of whimsy inspired by the moment. Enjoy.

[00:00:41] Dev: Welcome to another edition of the Holden Village Podcast...another special edition of Holden Main-Street. I am with our wonderful naturalist...Nic would you like to introduce yourself? And perhaps say one inspiring thing that's happened to you in the last 48 hours?

[00:01:02] Nic: Hi, I'm Nic. I'm the resident naturalist here, which is a pretty sweet gig.  

[00:01:09] Dev: That seems like the best gig in the village. 

[00:01:11] Nic: Yeah, I get to focus on areas of my own interest and then share that with other people. So, I get to do research on whatever ecological topics are particularly pertinent or interesting...especially as it relates to this valley...and then I get to teach that and develop curriculum...and share that with other people. That's a little overview of my job. 

I would say one thing that was really inspiring to me actually was going to Lyd Wilkes artist talk. As their friend, I get to see them get really excited about finding wild clay...then watch the process of that becoming a piece of art. And so it's really cool to hear more about their process...conversations about creating art that isn't for utility in a medium like ceramics...that has traditionally been used in many circumstances...for utility. So yeah, it was really interesting to hear how they're integrating narratives and commentary on the climate crisis...and utilizing trash and upcycling materials to incorporate that into their art. That was really cool to witness. 

[00:02:21] Dev: Well, Lyd's a total badass. So, shout out to Lyd in this podcast. So this is an unglazed piece of clay...grumpy kitty right here. Since it's's seasoned like a everything that it absorbs. They talk about how it's like 60-year-old aged clay...which, of course, clay is way older than that. It's just the human...silly human arrogance of..."Oh yeah, we've touched it for 60 years and now it's only that old." So we giggled about that. Do you have a particular art form that you resonate with? 

[00:03:00] Nic: Well, for most of my life I was training as a dancer. I started training in classical ballet when I was five. And did that for many years. I don't dance with a company anymore, but in college got to do a lot more kind of experimental stuff with improvisational dance and contact improvisation and kind of dance in group settings...and collectively creating something together.

And that was very fruitful. So I'm kind of in a place of developing my own practice around dance now. I'm not having it be such a rigid thing, which has a give and take to it. I like having structure in that way, but it's also really cool to just explore...and one of the things I've been doing with that is exploring dancing in natural spaces...and utilizing...or interacting with what's around, trees, see how that changes...and influences bodily movement. So that's been a lot of fun. I go down to the creek by myself a lot and dance down there. 

[00:04:06] Dev: Creek dance! That's the best! 

[00:04:08] Nic: I taught a class at one point with another staff member on plant dancing and learning how to kind of characterize or demonstrate through embodied movement...the character of different plants as a way of identifying them. So that was really fun.

[00:04:28] Dev: Well, that's like the most amazing thing ever. And that makes me think of so many different things. I used to do a lot of Sufi dances...the mystical aspect of Islam. They have the whirling dervishes and they have these different practices...particularly of connecting the stars to the earth. And so they'd have these different gestures that they would do...and they would point to different celestial bodies...take it from this hand and then ground it in this hand into the earth. And then you kind of become this medium point.

But I know they've done other focused dances on like different...not necessarily plant forms...but like like the desert the rain dances. Yeah. I love all that. Well, I would love to join one of your plant dances...whenever it's happening. That also makes me think acoustics is really important to sound helps things grow. And so there's been a lot of research on how different frequencies can help plants grow in certain ways. And a lot of that research was done in the 60s and 70s. 

[00:05:38] Nic: Talking to them and singing to them.

[00:05:44] Dev: Exactly! Yeah, we have to!

[00:05:48] Nic: Yeah, it's almost like they can perceive things.

[00:05:51] Dev: Fancy that, right? I know! Wild notion. Do you have a specific plant that you really resonate with? Or that you've been dancing for this summer?

[00:06:07] Nic: This is such a hard question for me. It's like, I'm a botanist.

[00:06:15] Dev: This summer specifically. Yeah, let's pair it down. I won't tell them, alright?

[00:06:24] Nic: Well, on the dancing side of things...the Western Red Cedars that I've been paying a lot of attention to.

[00:06:30] Dev: Oooh, tell me more about that.

[00:06:33] Nic: Yeah, well they're a really cool tree for a lot of reasons...but in terms of movement...they catch the wind in a really interesting way...and so it's fun...either if you're lying underneath them...or just watching them even from a distance...more in silhouette. When wind comes through looks like they're dancing to me. And so it's fun to see that in another living being. It's the same way as when I go and watch dance performances. I love watching dance performances. But it's also painful because I have to sit still and watch other people dance and I want to be involved. And it's kind of the same with the tree.

[00:07:18] Dev: They have all the fun, right? 

[00:07:22] Nic: So one plant that has really amazed me this summer...I know a different variety of this plant exists where I grew up... but I've never paid it that much attention. They are very present here right now in the forest...especially since the Wolverine Fire...ceanothus...I think the variety we have here is ceanothus velutinus...but it's a shrub or kind of a bush...with kind of shiny roundish leaves. In the early summer/late might've smelled them. They smell really good when they bloom. They have these big white blooms...they're related to Lilac.

They're everywhere right now and part of the reason for that is that they have a really cool fire adaptation. Their seeds will lie dormant in the ground for up to three hundred years...waiting for fire to come through...and they need fire before their seeds will germinate and grow. But they're one of the early successional plants that will come back...and help to restabilize the soil...and build the plant community back up. So eventually, you know, trees come back in...and they cycle out again...and their seeds will just lie dormant. And so you might have a forest where you haven't seen any ceanothus in decades...if not hundreds of years...and then all of a sudden, the fire will come through and it's that's been really cool too.

[00:08:52] Dev: Totally, totally. So you were mentioning, the scent of the know...our senses are like our maps to the world. And we tend to have ones that we gravitate more towards. Are there specific ones that you gravitate towards?

[00:09:10] Nic: That's a good question. 

[00:09:11] Dev: I'd say for me it's hearing and far are the two most.

[00:09:18] Nic: Definitely touch. I joke sometimes that as a scientist, I don't do things the way science sometimes prescribes. And I think the reason I'm a good scientist is that I'm not just out there trying to like collect data. I'm not a subject...that's as objects that I'm learning about.

For me, science is like a form of communion. It's a way of deepening personal relationships with other living beings and getting to know them...and I don't think that you can just do that through quantitative measures. When I first go on a hike...or I'm first keying a plant that I don't know yet...before I try and use any scientific language to describe them...I try and talk about them like someone I'm just meeting. So, describing quirks or thinking about why they might like to call that particular place home.

Often that involves using a lot of other senses to get to know them. And so touch is very important in that process...and also using my senses to see how they are in relationship with other living beings. It's never really made sense to me to study organisms in isolation. They don't exist in know...they're not in a void. To me, ecology and being an ecologist is about studying the relationships that exist between organisms...that actually are the reason they compose organisms. You know, we're composed of so many different organisms...and so one of those soon as I start to get to know between the two of us.

I think touch and smell is important to me too...that connects it to memory. And I'm able to make that connection each time. If I walk down the trail...I am my head or out loud...naming whatever I'm seeing. Which has's a great habit...but it also has gotten more consuming the longer I've been a botanist. Now I know a lot of plants!

[00:11:37] Dev: That's fantastic...cause that's know...with our summer theme...Eden is calling...part of the Eden myth is the naming of's the way that I interpret it. It's not the mainline interpretation. They're discovering like the frequency of an animal or a plant. Like a sound...not like an abstract name like's the actual embodiment of that being...which is obviously a very complex array of many sounds.

But I think in a lot of mystical traditions that was a part of their the Australian Aboriginal...dream-walking tradition...where like they would go out on their walkabout...and they would just start naming things. But like the actual essence of like that thing as well.

[00:12:36] Nic: And lot of indigenous languages then...names of things are place based. If they say something about where that being exists...or how they exist.

[00:12:46] Dev: Exactely! I love that you said that science is a process of communion for you...that's how I feel as well. I think in a different life I would have been a mad scientist because I love scientific processes...and discovering how things are connected. And...did you go to any of Saskia DeVries...they was like the neurology of sight.

[00:13:16] Nic: Sadly, no. I did terrible scheduling that week.

[00:13:19] Dev: It's okay. Nobody knows how to schedule at Holden. It's just a hodgepodge of madness. But I just released their you might be interested in hearing that. But they just had the most incredible way of describing...not only their scientific process...but also what twilight means...and how twilight is this space of the coming together of darkness and light...but also how it's a place that's really not for humans. It's a place where corpuscular animals can see various things that are beyond human perception. And so they put that as a queer space during the day...and not that humans aren't allowed...but it's this place of like undefined...

[00:14:14] Nic: Yeah, the fact that we are still part of the food chain and not independent from a little bit more obvious...

[00:14:25] Dev: Yes, exactly. One of the reasons why we are here today is to also highlight a class that you've been teaching this summer. How would you like to articulate that? I've been hearing all these wonderful whisperings of these wonderful philosophical conversations that people are yeah, how would you like to articulate that?

[00:14:51] Nic: Oh, let's see if I can do this succinctly. So what we've been calling the class is fungal ecology and philosophy, but really what's gotten incorporated into that...a lot more than I originally anticipated...was a lot of queer theory. It's ended up being...and this is the cool thing that my view...when you study fungal ecology.

Like I was saying earlier...ecology really is about studying relationships...and I think fungi make that super obvious...and so we have gotten into a lot of conversations about...through studying fungi and lichen in particular...that have led us into conversations where we've gotten to reframe what the self or the individual really is.

So we've gotten to read some Judith Butler and this really incredible article called Queer Theory for Lichens...that have both articulated a notion of the self...and of the body as fundamentally relational. I think sometimes we think of the individual as what is individual about us...what is distinct...or separate from other people.

And I think they help to recontextualize that and actually say...we are composed of relationships...we came into being because of relationships...and we are never independent from that. And maybe we can actually think's not that distinctness doesn't exist. I don't have to completely do away with the idea of the individual, but it's contextual...the reason that's even possible is because of the particular composition and relationships that compose and sustain us. 

And so we've gotten to talk about that. And we've looked a lot at the history of how certain organisms have also been scientists are trying to make sense of them while they're making these discoveries...sometimes discoveries that have been known by indigenous people for a long time. Naturally...I dismissed as hyperbole, but we're just catching up. 

With lichen, for example, a lot of the kind of early descriptions of lichen were very gendered...they were describing the algae and the fungi that were coming together as like a tyrant and a damsel...or a master and a damsel. You know, there was a lot of language like people were trying to make sense of what that relationship was. Was it one that was exploitive? Was it one that was symbiotic? You know, the term of symbiotic was just kind of coming into being at that point...and at each turn we are seeing there was a lot of pushback from the scientific community...towards any notion that you couldn't really pry apart the different components of this organism...that they had come together and collaborated to become something...other than what they could be separately. 

And part of the reason I think that that pushback was happening was...when you use conceptual frameworks that we use to make sense of the human social world as well...and then those get challenged in what you're seeing with another's also a challenge to our own social organization and sense making. So if you have a lichen that really is a very queer being...and your research is showing you that...really challenges a lot of heteronormative ideals...thoughts about what is considered natural.

When you look at these organisms that are doing something called horizontal gene transfer...which is basically taking on traits that aren't being passed down through kind of a parent kind of lineage...then you can use that. To also then look back at our own social world and say...maybe this can help us reframe how we think about kinship structures and family structures...that other organisms have found ways to pass on valuable information...and continue to do kind of collaborative world making or family making that isn't just about genetic relationship.

So, I think there are a lot of ways we've kind of gone through this class, reading about, the life ways of fungi. And then reading that in conversation with Queer Theory have allowed us to actually kind of see deeper into both of those.

[00:20:00] Dev: That's fantastic. You're incredibly articulate, by the way. I've always thought so ever since I've met you. I'm curious...on a more personal note...with everything that you just has it impacted you the most in your life? Helping define who you are or knowing who you are. 

[00:20:41] Nic: Fungi kind of came into my life at an interesting moment. I mean, obviously they've always been there. For quite a number of my late teen years...early adulthood...I was very sick. I had Lyme disease, but I wasn't diagnosed with it's been a lot of years getting progressively more ill...and having no one know what to do about it...and just a very humbling experience and quite scary.

I had a lot of ambitions that at that point in my life...not to be melodramatic about it...but I just wasn't sure if they were things that I was going to be able to actually pursue. And there was a lot of rethinking of what my life was going to look like...and some of the symptoms that I had made it difficult to do school in particular.

But also just to function as an independent adult. So I had to rework my idea a pivotal age...but it also gave me a lot of time to sit and observe the world around me...because I had just been in high school...I had all these plans...I was very busy all the time...was dancing. You was all good stuff, but I was rushing around from place to place...and this sort of brought me to my knees in a literal sense. It's hard when you have something that affects your brain and your nervous system so much.

I couldn't really remember anything and didn't have any energy...and there wasn't a lot I could do. And so I spent a lot of time where I grew up...just finding places on the land to sit and watch...or sit and watch isn't really the right word because it was more of a like holistic sensory experience I got to experience. The after day...and there's a lot I learned from that.

Right about at the same time, I was observing how things were working in relationship...and one of the things I kept seeing was things decomposing...and the way that that kept cycling things through. One night my parents were going to watch this documentary and I was feeling kind of glum. And they were should just come watch it with's about fungi.

I'm not a big documentary person. Or at least I wasn't at that point in my life. And so I was like...okay...whatever. I don't have anything else to do. And it totally changed my life. I'm sure a lot of people have seen this documentary. It's pretty well known. It's called Fantastic Fungi. People talk about it all the time. I happened to see that...and just got really hooked on this idea...kind of two components of it. 

One was how these ecosystems are structured by mycelial networks and the way that that is actually one of our oldest a way that they came to land before almost any other organisms besides maybe cyanobacteria...and were able to digest rock in a way that could create organic material that could end up bringing plants to land...and it's a fundamental part of our story.

I was fascinated by some of the research that was being done into psilocybin as a neurogenesis...and helping people with terminal illness...or other illness...memory kind of either come to terms with that...or to do some rewiring in the brain. So it's interesting you brought up neuroscience because that's an important part of my story it relates to fungi.

Around the same time...I randomly picked up this book that was about rewiring your brain when you have a mysterious illness. It sounded a little...I was a bit skeptical at first. It's visualization based, but I started reading the book and this woman's story was just like my own experience and I signed up for the course and I was like...I'm going to try it.

It was a visualization-based healing method...of rewiring your brain away from things that are...basically when your brain gets stuck either through psychological or physiological trauma in my case...having this bacteria working away at my cells....the brain goes into a fight/flight/freeze space...and it gets stuck there in the limbic system and can't get out. 

And so when you're in that state all the time...all these ordinary things start to get...your brain starts to make mal associations with them because you're in that state. So like...all of a sudden...I couldn't eat all these foods...and couldn't sleep...cause who's gonna sleep when you're in that kind of response.

And so I was working to literally rewire my brain and remake those associations...and what I did when I was to picture mycelial networks...and the ways that they help to...I don't want to say positive connections...I think that's too narrow view of what they're doing...but it was helpful to have that structure to picture...and I healed myself. Which is pretty cool.

And yeah...I kept getting interested in...I think they were my entry point mostly...what is important about them to me is they were my entry point into understanding that science can be the study of relationships...and not just the study of relationships between fungi and plants...or fungi and trees...but also I think they're able to help us better understand our own ecological conversation with things like queer theory are able to help us kind of reevaluate some of our own relationships...even human to they were just sort of my entry point into that. And now...all of a sudden...I see that with a lot of different organisms.

[00:26:49] Dev: That is such a phenomenal answer...and I appreciate you being vulnerable in the answer as well. We all have interests in things, but there's always a connection to some deeper internal struggle that we're having. And I'm always curious about having those conversations with people because that makes it more tangible. I feel not only teach...but for people to learn...and two of my best friends in Austin have Lyme. But I would always feed them this type of tea. Whenever they would have hard times. And so L-theanine is the key.

[00:27:30] Nic: I struggle sometimes with how to articulate that part of my story...or like that connection between fungi and that period of my life. Probably doesn't help that I can't remember most of it.

[00:27:44] Dev: I think you did great job. 

[00:27:47] Nic: It taught me to how to pay a slow kind of way. 

[00:27:51] Dev: Well, that's what struck me as you were talking...particularly if you had a fast-paced lifestyle previously...and it was helping you slow down and observe...and I think that's beautiful. 

[00:28:05] Nic: It's something we've talked about in the class too the way that climate anxiety...there's a huge sense of urgency around what to do with climate solutions. And one of the things we looked at in the class is different...what's called micro remediation. So different ways that people are utilizing the incredible capacity of fungi to break down most toxic materials that we've created. 

[00:28:34] Dev: Do you mind going a little more into that? Because that topic is very fascinating. 

[00:28:39] Nic: Yeah, they break down plastics and, in some ways it's not always what they would choose to maybe eat. The language that some scientists have used is that they can basically train certain strains of white rot fungus to learn how to digest these things. And part of that is that they've had millions of years...and with this capacity to do horizontal gene transfer...where they can pick up traits...they have millions of years of genetic knowledge to know how to break things down. 

So sometimes it takes them a little bit to figure it out. You might inoculate a pile of trash with white rock fungus and they're not going to do anything with it right away. But then they...for lack of a better way of understanding this...flip back through all their millions of years of files of what do I do with this material...if this is my food source...and figure out a way to break it down. If we and other animals...we ingest our food and then we break it down...they do the opposite.

They output acids in enzymes that break materials down...and then they...but that's one way that fungi is being used in toxic cleanup, but also there are all these ways that it's being utilized now to make building material. And micro fabrication...creating all sorts of products to kind of replace these plastics...and things like that. Packaging and plates and all sorts of stuff. But one of the kind of complex things that we've been talking about in the that really's definitely being absorbed into a commodification kind of model. 

Some of the questions that kept coming up in the class is how do we learn from the skills and capacities of other organisms and embrace those...without slapping on the framework we've been using already...and treating them in a new way as inert...going back to climate solutions...there is this huge sense of urgency and the need to innovate...and I think sometimes what takes center stage...or what takes precedent is technological's still urgent, but it actually requires slowing down, which I think is counterintuitive.

I don't think, personally, that we're going to make the changes that are necessary by just creating the right technologies. I think that one of the most important things that's ever happened to me is the fact that...for a chunk of time...all I could do was pay attention to other beings. And I learned to do that really well. I could not have done that if I was trying to do things quickly. It's something I contend with a lot when I do scientific work for other organizations. It's're trying to collect're moving at a pace. And I'm like...wait...I want to get to know that. 

My mom always jokes that she would take me for hikes a lot when I was a kid...from the time I could walk. We would go for hikes...or she would put me in one of those things that you put on your back. And she said it was painfully slow and taught her to be really patient.

But we would take like four hours to go a mile. I mean...granted I had short legs...but I had to monologue...I had to talk to everyone...and by everyone I mean every plant...and animal...and insect...and like a nice looking frog. But I was like...these are my friends. I have to check in with everyone. I want to see how they're doing. Oh my gosh, here's this person I've never met before. I've got to learn something about them. And so, I would do this as I would go on hikes...and my mom was in school learning some herbalism stuff at the time.

So she had these plant cards at home. And she only told me this story like a year ago. I don't remember it...and I've never heard it before then. But she had these plant cards and I would come back from these hikes...and I would go get the plant cards and I would play with them. And she would go do other work.

And then she came out into the yard one day to like see what I was doing. And I'd arranged them in this like weird they were just in weird clumps or some of them were close together...and other ones were far apart. And she's like, what are you doing? Oh, well, let me explain.

I'm like three years old. This plant is next to this plant because they like to live together...and this one is down by the creek...and this one's up on the mountain because they seem to like a lot of sun. And I had mapped out the relationships of the ecosystem. And, so I knew how to do that...I knew how to do that as a kid. And then 15 years later...I got to do it all over again. 

[00:33:56] Dev: So this is full circle. 

[00:33:57] Nic: It was full circle. But yeah...I think there's huge importance to actually slowing down and taking the time to get to know other beings personally and developing that relationship. I think that goes a huge way to working counter to the narrative that they are not animate...or don't have anything to teach us...or because their style of communicating...who they are and what information they have to share is not through language...and not through the English language in particular.

You know, it goes a long way to realize that the onus in some ways is on us to broaden our concept of what communication is...and then learn how to pay attention to what's being communicated...and you can't do that by going in with your data sheet and seeing whether the leaves are lanceolate or ovate. You know, that helps you get to know just scratches the surface. 

[00:35:03] Dev: Yeah. I love your story and how you've been able to deal with your own internal processes so that you can be a more effective activist...and just human being in general. I love that you dance with plants and all that...and this feels pretty conclusive to me. This can be like part of a series too that we do. And so if there's like things that you're like...hey, I've got new ideas for part two or part three...then we can do that as well. Any final words for the listeners? 

[00:35:39] Nic: I'll just leave a silence as my final words so that you can listen to whatever...whatever other beings are talking around you.

[00:35:49] Dev: A reminder to everyone listening to this...find the stillness in your heart...observe the monumental beauty around you...cause it's there if you pay attention.

[00:36:00] Nic: Yeah, absolutely. 

[00:36:02] Outro: Thanks for joining us. Be sure to view the links in the description for more information or visit our website to find out more about the village. We hope you'll make a pilgrimage to Holden soon. Blessings and peace to you.