A woman mixes flour and water in a bowl and sets it outside. After a few days, there are bubbles in the mixture and she brings in inside. She takes half of the mixture and mixes it into her dough, which rises and bakes up into delicious sourdough. She adds more flour and water to the bowl every week, feeding the mixture. In exchange for her gifts, the yeasts and bacteria in the culture change dough into bread to be baked every week for her, even helping glutenin and gliadin combine to form the protein gluten.
The woman also makes cheese from milk, using a culture of yeasts and bacteria to preserve and add nutrients to her food. Many foods are preserved by fermentation, which adds the nutritional value. The cultures benefit from being provided with food, and so the benefit is mutual. When the hard work of storing food is done, the woman sits down to dinner with her family, and they pass a horn of mead around. This mead is produced by a slightly different culture of yeasts feeding on honey and water collected by the humans.
As the food the family has eaten is digested, it is broken down by intestinal flora, which are bacteria which live in their guts. Without these bacteria living inside their intestines, the family would soon die because their bodies would be unable to properly take up (or in some cases create) some nutrients without this flora.
Outside the house, the compost pile is being digested by bacteria, fungi, and insects. In the soil in the fields, fungi and bacteria and increasing the productivity of the land. In the bean patch the family planted in the spring, the plant roots have nitrogen nodules produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These nodules will decompose and provide bio-available nitrogen for next year’s crop of wheat. The family will eat the beans and plant more beans next spring, preserving their own lives and furthering the life cycle of the legume.
In the forest surrounding the farm, the trees maintain a social network. According to this forester old stumps are supported by living trees. All over the forest, herbivores eat plants and are eaten by carnivores, who in turn die and are decomposed by colonies of fungi and bacteria. Every part of the ecosystem relies on cultures of bacteria and fungi. In some areas (such as the Malheur National Forest in Oregon), individual fungi set up colonies ranging over several square miles that survive thousands of years.
Microscopic fungi or hundred year old trees, our world is populated by beings which maintain relationships with one another. We know that a wolf pack works to maintain the good of the whole and we can easily see that dogs and wolves have a spirit (by which I mean that they have some sort of existence beyond the physical- they think, they feel). Dr. Wohllben’s research in German forests suggest that trees also have a community, and many cultures have assumed that they have spirits also.
My understanding of the wights is that they are the spirits of things. While heathens a thousand years ago didn’t have microscopes to see bacteria and fungi, they weren’t dumb. They knew that something made the land fertile, something made bread rise, and that forests might have spirits that deserved respect. Probably any people making a living off the land would have observed the effects of organisms too small to see. Most cultures seem to have developed some sort of belief in land spirits, anyway.
My thought is that we are most able to experience the spirits of things which are closest to us. It is relatively easy to see that a chimpanzee has a spirit. Even the spirit of a dog is relatively obvious. I have a harder time with the spirits of trees, but some people claim to see them. A fungal or bacterial culture is farther away from a human experience, and is also harder to see as having a spirit. If they think and feel, it is in a way so alien to ours that we can’t even perceive it.
Obviously, this is simply my opinion on the nature of wights. It could be absolute BS. I have no idea whether the spirits of things are conscious entities or personifications of the forces of nature. Nor do I think it matters. Whether a species of bacteria mutates and adapts because it has a spirit directing its evolution or whether it is a random chance mutation that is selected for by the environment, the result is the same. Whether feeding a sourdough culture is merely a mechanical process or part of a gifting cycle is irrelevant compared to the benefit gained by both sides in the exchange.
A question I’ve considered is whether each tree (or fungi or whatever) has a spirit or whether there is a general wight, like a forest wight for trees in an area, or a culture wight for a culture. I think the answer is probably similar to the same question for groups of humans- does each person have a spirit or is there a spiritual force for the entire group? In the case of humans each person obviously has a spirit, but there is also an overarching group identity. I would guess that the same is true of trees, cultures, and packs or herds of animals. Each component has an identity, but it is (ideally) concerned with the good of the whole group. I think we are most likely to relate to the spirit of an entire group, especially in the case of cultures, since the group a whole has similar interests (reproducing itself and continuing its way of life) to the goal of a human group, making it more relatable.
As far as this concerns me, it means that I try to think about honoring the wights in the context of what the wight would want if it were the “collective consciousness” of the entity. For example, to honor a field from which I harvested food, and to return a gift for the gift which I received, I might give a day of my labor spreading manure (which will certainly benefit if not please the bacteria and fungi which keep the land fertile). To honor a forest from which I harvested wood from, I might apply some sort of natural tree fertilizer near the stumps of harvested trees.
I might be a nutty tree-hugger, but I think that this view of the world (as being alive, with each thing having an existence beyond the physical) encourages right action. If I have respect for my tools, I’ll clean them and take care of them and they will last twice as long. If I have respect for my dishes, I’ll wash them and live in a cleaner home. If I respect my domestic animals, I’ll give them room to roam. This translates into better quality food for me when I eat them or their eggs or milk. By buying into the gifting cycle, I create a better life for myself and my family, and this is worthwhile to me, even if I’m a nutty tree-hugger.