Why Are Writers Like Mushrooms?

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IN SEARCH OF A POT OF LEFTOVER BOSTON MARATHON CHILI TODAY, (which I thought would make a fine lunch and I was right), I found a large bluish-lilac mushroom zipped up in a gallon-size plastic bag in the refrigerator and remembered my quest to learn its identity.

Today is a typical Gulf coast Florida so-called winter afternoon: 77°F, cloud bursts alternating with streaky sunshine leading inexorably to a front that will drop temps into the 50’s overnight, with another murky day to follow, and then Thursday, yes! Bright sunshine, with a high of 58°F and low of 40°F. This is why, even in the dead of winter, when nighttime below-freezing temps can line themselves up one against the other like frozen peas, we never pack up the shorts and t-shirts.

Perfect weather for hanging out in my study tracking down fungi identities and pondering why it is that writers are like mushrooms.

A lovely Lepista Nuda (Blewit) nestled in the clutter of the forest floor between house and gate — found January 13, 2013, Longleaf Preserve, near Pensacola, Florida.

Our friend, Elaine Spencer, and I, were making several laps to the gate last Saturday following a late breakfast with Buck and Elaine’s husband, Neal, of Mary B’s Thin Biscuits, Greek Fage Yogurt and a mélange of fresh fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, blood and navel oranges, and sliced bananas. We were fully caffeinated and ready for a nice stretch of the leg. I spotted the unusual looking mushroom on the way back from our second lap.

We got back to the house and Elaine headed up stairs to shower and dress for a lunch outing at The Grand Marlin on Pensacola Beach. I decided to go back and take a picture of that lavender ‘shroom, harvest it and bring it back to the house so I could look at it in a good light.

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I put it on a glass coffee table out in a room we call “the snow porch.” Snow never falls outside those windows, but it reminds us of a similar room we had in the mountains of Western North Carolina near Asheville, North Carolina from 1997-2004. I’ll never forget being there one Christmas Eve and watching a rose-breasted grosbeak commandeer a feeder box full of seed on the deck as large flakes of falling snow wrapped us in the white silence of angel’s hair, a serendipitous gift.

Clitocybe nuda (blewit)In truth, writers are more like members of the kingdom of fungi, working cryptically in la noche oscura del alma. Like fungi, we only become noticeable when fruiting, our mushrooming pages the visible evidence of our efforts.

“Turkey Tail” (trametes versicolor polypore) seen January 13, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola.

Sometimes the fruit of our labors is showy, but tasteless, hard.

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Sometimes, no matter how intense our effort, the result is dry and dull. Like mushrooms, writers, too, may dwell solitary or in colonies. There is a nearly infinite number of unique forms within the fungi kingdom.

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When the words pour elegantly like delicate, warm madeleines, they dazzle. When they spread thickly like whole-wheat gingerbread made in madeleine molds, they are fragrant and succulent; they nurture. These spore-bearing fruits look like gingerbread butter cakes to me.

Amanita muscaria, seen December, 2012 at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida.

A writer’s words can emerge, as mushrooms do, from many environments: from the rotting wood of life, hard bark, packed sand, the air, leaf clutter, even excrement. Words have power. Like the Amanita muscaria, they can send dreams and visions, enlightenment or the illusion of it, as well as deadly poison. Consider these words from Roger Phillips, founder of a wonderful site, Roger’s Mushrooms:

This is one of the easiest species to recognize and describe, and consequently its properties have been well documented for centuries. The common name Fly Agaric comes from the practice of breaking the cap into platefuls of milk, used since medieval times to stupefy flies. It is a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant and was used as such by the Lapps. In such cases the cap is dried and swallowed without chewing. The symptoms begin twenty minutes to two hours after ingestion. The central nervous system is affected and the muscles of the intoxicated person start to pull and twitch convulsively, followed by dizzines and a death-like sleep. During this stage the mushrooms are often vomited but nevertheless the drunkenness and stupor continue. While in this state of stupor, the person experiences vivid visions and on waking is usually filled with elation and is physically very active. This is due to the nerves being highly stimulated, the slightest effort of will producing exaggerated physical effects, e.g. the intoxicated person will make a gigantic leap to clear the smallest obstacle. The Lapps may have picked up the habit of eating the Fly Agaric through observing the effects of the fungus on reindeer, which are similarly affected. Indeed, they like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground. Another observation the Lapps made from the reindeer was that the intoxicating compounds in the fungus can be recycled by consuming the urine of an intoxicated person. The effects of consuming this species are exceedingly unpredictable; some people remain unaffected while others have similar, or different, symptoms to those above, and at least one death is attributed to A. muscaria. This unpredictability is due to the fungus containing different amounts of the toxins ibotenic acid and muscimol according to season, method of cooking and ingestion, as well as the subject’s state of mind. Ibotenic acid is mostly concentrated in the coloured skin of the cap. This very unstable compound rapidly degrades on drying to form muscimol which is five to ten times more potent. Traditionally, where A. muscaria is used as an inebriant, it is the dried cap which is taken.

1-IMG_7363And in that rare moment when elusive perfection brings life to the page, our words can curl happily up at the edges like some old, light-filled scroll, worthy of binding into a book that others will keep on their shelves, riffle the pages, sleep with and dream the created worlds.

9 thoughts on “Why Are Writers Like Mushrooms?

    1. It’s a “lepista nuda” — common name blewit. Apparently that lavender one can be sliced and sauteed and mixed with chicken into a pie, but I just didn’t have the nerve to try it.

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  1. What a beautiful lavender shade! The other pictures are also impressive. What a great variety of fungi. I’m familiar with the old comparison of mushrooms and government workers. In order to thrive, keep ’em in the dark and covered in manure. I like your descriptions of writers.

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    1. Our house guests may have thought I’m a few fries short of a Happy Meal to be gushing over a mushroom found by the side of the road, but hey — I may be a tad strange, but I’m not dangerous.

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