Notes from Underground - Fall 2000, by David Rose

Introduction to "Notes from Underground"

This column originally appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

          "NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND" will be a regular feature of Spores Illustrated beginning with this issue. Its purpose is to provide readers a wide range of information about mycology, to continue COMA's educational efforts for its members. To begin, I will say a few words about the title of the column. First, it is obvious to all that what exists "underground" has great importance for us since we're forever seeking those fruiting bodies that arrive above from down below. To be even more specific regarding things unseen in mycological realms, we associate "underground" with mycelia, rhizomorphs, etc. without which vegetative components we would never find what we're ultimately searching for on our forays. The underground perspective is essential, for in the world of mushrooms what is unseen is quite as important as what is seen.

            Second, many will recognize "Notes from Underground" as the title of a novella by the great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "ugh!" you groan, "I suffered through his angst and gloom years ago in Russian Lit." you may impatiently ask: "What in the world has existentialist literature to do with mycology?" For any myco-skeptic out there, please rest assured that I will not attempt to make a case that Dostoyevsky's "underground man" is in the advanced stages of Amanita virosa poisoning just because he lucklessly grumbles, "I am a sick man. I believe my liver is diseased." Nor will I attempt to convince you that stinkhorns are a primary symbolic motif in Jean-Paul Sartre's play "The Flies." So just what is the connection? Well, it's this: my inclination is to consider the study of mushrooms not only from mycological and taxonomic perspectives, but also from those of literature, history, and anthropology. Bringing these fields of study into play, we'll find that they will greatly contribute to our understanding of the world of mushrooms in many ways. It is my belief that mushrooms are essentially a window to the imagination (as are all aspects of nature), and depending upon how one creatively conceptualizes fungi, to that extent will one enrich the comprehension and magic of the human relationship to the fungal world. Finally, I suppose that "Notes from Underground" (by way of Dostoyevsky) is a tip o' the hat to Russia, that most mycophilic of cultures.

            I must also thank my family who assisted me with choosing the title of this column. Quite a few possibilities were discarded! I rejected "Ask Doctor Fungus" as a potential invitation to people seeking advice from COMA about their Tinea versicolor infections. So too was "The Mushroom Maniac" inappropriate, possibly too revealing of the writer's unpredictable behavior in the presence of his favorite fungi. My daughter Katelyn thought that "Katie?s Korner" was an excellent choice even though she would not be doing the writing "It really doesn't matter, Dad," she prompted me, ?Just use it." In the end I offer warmest thanks to a certain COMA Vice-president whose initials are not DS) for suggesting the title "Notes from Underground." Perhaps she knows me better than I know myself. In fact, I'm sure she does.

            In the months to come I plan to discuss mycology in a number of different contexts: book reviews, field reports, interviews with local (and not so local) mycologists, updates on current issues, and excursions on literary, historical, and ethnomycological themes. For example, I will consider the historical significance of R. Gordon and Valentina Wasson's work Mushrooms Russia and History, and why it is largely unavailable. The debate on the botanical identity of "Soma" is still brewing in the Indian press, and the identification and availability of manuscripts and books on mushrooms in library and museum collections in the New York area may also be worthy of discussion. It is my intention to be as wide-ranging as possible, within the context of COMA's goals in advancing the study of mycology.

            As I have mentioned, my approach is interdisciplinary and imaginative. This is why one of my favorite mycologists is John Cage. Like several mycologists, I prefer to introduce Cage (to people who are not acquainted with his work) as a mycologist who also happened to be one of the most influential American composers of this century. Cage's work is fascinating because he brought imagination and much more to all of his endeavors, whether it be the plastic arts, musical composition, poetry, Zen philosophy, or mycology. What he offered was an openness to nature and to art that encompassed ways of experiencing the world even beyond imagination. Cage practiced an openness to life which I believe is indispensable in understanding mushrooms (and nature at large) despite the difficulties and complexities of the study.

            Cage tells a story of a particularly unsuccessful day hunting mushrooms with some friends. They were all very tired, and the sun had gone down. Cage knew of a cemetery in a town one hundred miles away where he was sure Pluteus cervinus was growing, so he convinced his friends to drive there even though it was pitch dark. Arriving at the cemetery late at night, he searched the grounds thoroughly with a flashlight and found nothing. Supposing his friends would be angry and upset at him, he walked back to the car to find them looking up with utter fascination at the aurora borealis shimmering in the northern sky. End of story. If there is a message here, it must be this: by closely studying one wonderful, mysterious, beautiful part of nature you will invariably discover other aspects of nature, just as wonderful and mysterious, and just as beautiful. It is the interconnectedness of the universe that fascinates us all.

            Happy Holidays to everyone! See you in the spring !

            P.S.: Ah, but it was Soren Kierkegaard who spoke of cryptogamia. You may not think it true, but nevertheless, it is so.

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