THE CREEPING GARDEN is a documentary that successfully challenges everything we thought we knew about life on earth. The result is both fascinating and discomfiting, not unlike its subject, the slime mold, a life form that confounds all attempts to classify it as animal, vegetable, or fungal. It moves from place to place on its own, it reacts with something that is all must indistinguishable from decision-making, and it has the ability to hibernate in spore form for half a century or more. It’s no surprise that some people are convinced that they are aliens who have traversed the void of space to make a home here.
Filmmakers Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp, authors of an eponymous and excellent book on the subject, also do an excellent job of examining all the facets of the slime mold’s appeal. From an amateur naturalist who spends his free time poking into rotting logs, to a musicologist who is convinced that he is collaborating with the slime mold growing in a petri dish in his piano, to an engineer using a slime mold instead of traditional electronics that allow robots to think, paradigms and presumptions crumble as possibilities, heretofore either unimaginable or unthinkable are presented as so many done deals. With no differentiated organs, at least as we understand them, how does a slime mold solve a maze in the most efficient manner possible? How does a plasmodial blob infuse a human hair such that said hair becomes a highly effective tactile sensor? And why does a mob of people, tethered together and deprived of speech as part of an experiment/performance art piece, so perfectly reproduce the movement of a slime mold?
There is also a wealth of information about slime molds in general, the bright colors, the shapes that mimic everything from ocean foam to dog vomit to Hoberman spheres, but best of all there is time-lapse photography in close-up that reveals the grotesque beauty of the pulsating gelatinous mass that is a slime mold on the hunt at 1.35 mm per second for an oat flake (its favorite food), or retreating from a poison pill. How, one asks, is this not sentient? Perhaps it’s the way the experts on screen talk about their relationship to slime molds, but after a while, there seems to be a difference between the ones cultivated in labs, like the one that turns their stress levels into sound, and the free-range ones discovered in wild. True, Grabham and Sharp have included a biologist who breaks everything observed into just so many chemical reactions, but after the electrical impulses of stressed slime molds have been translated into the expressions of a robotic head, I’m not sure there’s any turning back from the idea of some sort of sentience going on amid all that cytoplasmic streaming, a streaming that can change direction at will. Far from a recitation of admittedly fascinating factoids, Messers Grabham and Sharp have employed the idioms and sound design of an elegant horror film. All the better to visit the fungarium of a university, or to watch a slime mold surround, envelope, and then digest its food. It’s not a cheap trick. There is something disquieting about an aggregate life form that turns purple when poked.
THE CREEPING GARDEN may not make you fall in love with slime molds, even when they look like so many pink tuffets, but it will force a grudging admiration from even the most slime mold-phobic among us for the fascinating paradox that they represent about how nature refuses to fall into neat categories.