Notes from Underground - by David Rose

A Nosegay of Fungi: Literary Gleanings

This column originally appeared in the Winter 2001 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            In my ongoing search for mushroom references in poetry, art, and literature I recently came across several passages that illustrate unique attention to the phenomenology of the human perception of fungi. In The Celtic Twilight William Butler Yeats posed the question, “What is literature but the expression of moods by the vehicle of symbol and incident?” The reading of classic literature certainly deepens our appreciation of the subtle colors in the expression of feelings, but how does this apply to mushrooms? In his story “The Teller of Tales” from this collection Yeats carefully develops otherworldly elements in the character Paddy Flynn in a simple juxtaposition of mushrooms and dreams:

The first time I saw him he was cooking mushrooms for himself; the next time he was asleep under a hedge, smiling in his sleep.

            We don’t find obligatory fairies here dancing in a circle on the grass, but the suggestiveness of the dreamworld seems inherent in the repast Paddy had prepared for himself.

            In a wonderfully contrasting example, the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman describes the intricate beauty of a fruit-like growth on cedars, unaware that the “fruit” in question is actually a fungus. The passage is entitled “Cedar Apples” from his Specimen Days:

As I journey’d to-day in a light wagon ten or twelve miles through the country, nothing pleas’d me more, in their homely beauty and novelty (I had either never seen the little things to such advantage, or had never noticed them before) than that peculiar fruit, with its profuse clear-yellow dangles of inch-long silk or yarn, in boundless profusion spotting the dark green cedar bushes – contrasting well with their bronze tufts – the flossy shreds covering the knobs all over, like a shock of wild hair on elfin pates. On my ramble afterward by the creek I pluck’d one from its bush, and shall keep it. These cedar apples last only a little while however, and soon crumble and fade.

            We notice again a reference to the world of sprites (“elfin pates”), but what shocks us is that this reflection arrives by surprise almost, after a heart-rending passage on wounded soldiers of the Civil War. Whitman’s war memories are lyrical and charged with feeling, yet his return to the solace that nature affords brings him to an ascomycete: Gymnosporangium virginianae-juniperi.

            Samuel Beckett sounds the dark note. The association of fungi with decay and scrofula seems all too appropriate in a search for meaning in a sickening world of meaninglessness:

Then for miles only wind
and the weals creeping alongside on the water
and the world opening up to the south
across a travesty of champaign to the mountains
and the stillborn evening turning a filthy green
manuring the night fungus
and the mind annulled
wrecked in wind.

            And again:

The great mushy toadstool
oozing up after me,
soaking up the tattered sky like an ink of pestilence,
in my skull the wind going fetid . . .

            This is from Beckett’s poem “Enueg I”, and is to be found in his book Poems in English.

            Charles Olson, the bard of Gloucester, Massachusetts and master of gigantic things like Moby Dick, Mayan astro-chronometry, and his own Maximus Poems, discovers a curiosity in an animal-fungal association that shows his concern for life at the margins of the everyday. The reference here (in a poem titled “West Gloucester”) is to the star-nosed mole, Condylura cristata:

on Atlantic
Street West
spinning on its
in the middle of the

probably because it had been
knocked in the head (was
actually fighting all the time,
with its fore-paws at
the lovely mushroom growth
of its nose, snow-ball flake pink flesh
of a gentian, until I
took an oar out of the back seat of the station wagon
and removed it
like a pea on a knife to
the side of the road

            Charles Olson is a difficult but rewarding poet. See his Maximus Poems for a unique journey into the great expansiveness of America.

            I conclude this literary pastiche with a haiku from Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, but let’s not assume the subject is fungi when we hear the words “secret growth”.

Alone in his secret growth,
He found a kinship
With all growing things.

            A mushroom? Possibly. It’s when we nurture our own secret growth that connections to the living world are revealed to us most intimately. That fungi are among them is part of this stunning and marvelous realization.

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