Saturday, June 06, 2009

`We Always Love Our Mushrooms'

The garden is three islands of soil surrounded by sidewalks and the walls of the high school. My work partner was a woman of 70, sturdy as an oak, who emigrated from the Ukraine 20 years ago, after Chernobyl. We parked two girls in wheelchairs on the grass so they could watch us work the plots, already densely planted by her in the Ukrainian style – flowers on the perimeter, vegetables, herbs and fruit trees at the center. I planted pumpkin and marigold seeds, she covered them with sheets of newspaper (to keep the birds away), and I watered them with the hose.

My fellow-gardener was a concert violinist in the Ukraine, and sometimes she brings her violin to school and plays for the kids in the special-education program. Her favorite composers are Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. We talked about the latter’s dance of-death with Stalin and she said, “The Communists made their own truth. One day a man was an enemy of the people; the next, they named a street after him.” Her husband is Polish, born in Chełm – a city of fools, according to Jewish folklore (see Isaac Bashevis Singer). She visited once, to view a memorial for the Poles dead in World War II, her husband’s father among them.

We talked of gardening, Poland, the war, children, Russian (the language was mandatory in Ukrainian schools), herbal medicines, blackberries – and mushrooms, the subject that moved her to eloquence: “The Communists could not control our love of mushrooms. They tried but we kept it secret. We always love our mushrooms.” I told her of my meeting with Mikhail Iossel, the Russian-American writer who wrote a story about a gribnik, a mushroom hunter, based on his childhood in a birch forest outside Leningrad. “I have been there,” she said. “The Communists gave it that name. It is St. Petersburg.”

In “Lascaux,” an essay in Barbarian in the Garden, Zbigniew Herbert describes his first morning in Montignac, a village in the Vézère Valley near the Paleolithic cave paintings. He eats an omelette with truffles for breakfast, which prompts a digression on the much-prized, pig-hunted, subterranean mushrooms:

“Truffles belong to the world history of human folly, hence to the history of art.”

1 comment:

Eric Thomson said...

Book three of Pan Tadeusz is the locus classicus for the Slavic fetish of mushroom-hunting, but it's described there in such posthumous language that it's as if they'd all eaten the wrong ones:

"Beyond the orchard he noticed a grove
scattered with scrubby bushes and a layer
of turf, from which thin white birches rose,
their leafy branches bent as if in prayer.
He spied a multitude of forms dancing about
in strange costumes, like ancient spirits forlorn,
trolling beneath the moon. Some were decked-out
in flowing robes or snow-white gowns well-worn.
Others were all in black, with broad hoop-like caps.
Some heads were bare, but some appeared wrapped
in mist, as though the clouds themselves were traps.
Each figure would assume a pose in rapt
attention, joining hands to the smooth ground,
shifting only its glowing eyes, then gazing
straight ahead, dream-walking without a sound,
as if treading a tightrope—an amazing
vision, undeviating from the line,
only its arms reached down on either side,
as if regaining balance, or to design
some secret tapping language, new and untried.
If one approached another, it did not greet
or talk, so deeply were both plunged
in mime—no recognition, however discreet.
to each; each other figure was expunged
by separateness. And so the Count was sure
he’d been transported to the Elysian Field
where he observed wandering shades, pure
and cleansed, no longer full of woe, yield
their sins, their coming fate not yet revealed.
How could the Count have guessed that these silent
creeping people were the Judge’s guests?
That after sumptuous breakfast they all went
to gather mushrooms—one of the ritual quests
still done in Lithuania. They were all
respectable people who knew just how
to moderate speech and movement; they could recall
the stringent rules of etiquette, so now
they trailed the Judge, and likewise dressed
in his attire, donning canvas capes
to ward off the forest damp, and had expressed
delight when large straw hats of various shapes
were passed around. Thus it was no surprise
that they appeared like spirits from Purgatory."

Chernobyl deserves at least a footnote in the world history of human folly. In Shostakovitch/Lesvkov's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the priest called to administer the last rites to Boris Timofeyevich quotes Gogol (a Ukranian) “Oh these mushrooms and cold soups are too much” after Boris is poisoned with mushrooms laced with rat poison. Post-Chernobyl, Ukranian mushrooms are now laced liberally with Caesium-137.