Tuesday, June 15, 2010

`Nothing But a Soft Mush or Jelly'

To the left of our front door are the remains of a cedar cut down before we moved in two years ago but not fully decomposed. The stump is four inches tall, eighteen inches across and stands about six inches from the house. Obviously someone skilled with a chainsaw leveled it. Saturday morning I noticed a disc of pale yellow about two inches across on top of the stump. It looked like scrambled eggs or saffron rice and I assumed it was a slime mold, though it looked appetizing.

By Saturday afternoon the blob had turned brown as a toasted bagel. Sunday morning it looked like molten horehound candy. By Monday it was a carbonized pierogi. A little research suggests what I found was Fuligo septica, popularly known as scrambled egg slime mold or, more euphoniously, dog vomit slime mold.

Myxomycetes once were classified as fungi but, regardless of taxonomy, remain beautiful organisms, little understood. The appearance of Fuligo septica at our front door coincides with my ongoing reading of Emerson, about whom my thoughts are more conflicted than ever – great writer, silly thinker. Here’s a passage from “Man the Reformer” (we’re already in trouble), a lecture he delivered Jan. 25, 1841, to the Mechanics’ Apprentices’ Library Association (wonderful name) in Boston:

“Love will creep where it cannot go, will accomplish that by imperceptible methods, -- being its own lever, fulcrum, and power, – which force could never achieve. Have you not seen the woods, in a late autumn morning, a poor fungus or mushroom, – a plant without any solidity, nay, that seemed nothing but a soft mush or jelly, -- by its constant, total, and inconceivably gentle pushing, manage to break its way up through the frosty ground and to actually lift a hard crust on its head? It is the symbol of power of kindness. The virtue of this principle in human society in application to great interests is obsolete and forgotten.”

My reading of his journals emphasizes the differences between Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson’s “nature” is bookish and gaseous. He saw little in the fields and woods of Concord, and what he saw he views through the lens of Romanticism – a lens Thoreau removed through a disciplined devotion to the real. Thoreau, not a scientist, though more of one than Emerson, trained himself to see.

The passage above from Emerson’s lecture is typical. “A poor fungus or mushroom.” Why “poor?” Meaning humble, discredited, scorned? Perhaps. “A plant without any solidity, nay, that seemed nothing but a soft mush or jelly.” Not so. Its solidity is as notable as its mushiness. A soft form, almost gelatinous, spongy, like the Fuligo, but no less solid than an apple or a bird. “It is the symbol of power of kindness.” Emerson likens human kindness to the growth of fungus, and I trust some readers will share my amusement and recall that “slime” is a dyslexic's “smile.”

Kay Ryan has a poem with a conceit remarkably similar to Emerson’s, though less unintentionally funny. “Tenderness and Rot” is from The Niagara River (2005):

“Tenderness and rot
share a border.
And rot is an
aggressive neighbor
whose iridescence
keeps creeping over.

“No lessons
can be drawn
from this however.

“One is not
two countries.
One is not meat

“It is important
to stay sweet
and loving.”

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

From an 1850 entry in Thoreau's journal:

"A truly good book is something as wildly natural and primitive, mysterious and marvelous, ambrosial and fertile, as a fungus or a lichen."