“It attracted me because it was not a formless thing but one whose parts and aspects manifested an interrelation, a sequence and harmony as it were, that enabled me, after a single look, to conceive and foresee the aspects I had not yet examined. Its parts are joined by something more than the cohesion and solidity of matter.”
My seven-year-old and I were on a nature scavenger hunt in the woods behind the Lutheran church where his Cub Scout pack meets. We had a list of sixty-three objects to find in twenty minutes. Some from the start were hopeless on a cool June evening in the Pacific Northwest – a snake, a frog, a lizard. Others were throwaways – “the funniest thing you saw” (a middle-aged father with Bermuda shorts and tattoos on his calves).
We found forty-nine items on the list, including a robin’s egg, an earthworm and holly berries, but our proudest find was a cedar stump almost covered with mushrooms that looked a bit like this and this but denser, with almost no bark showing. The stump from a distance appeared terraced with gray and silver-gray balconies like a futuristic condo. Some were dry and hard as wood, others moist and still growing. Even mycophobes could admire this creation, something so unlikely, elegant and formally regular as to resemble sculpture, surely of human origin.
“If groves are choirs and sanctuaried fanes,
What have we here? An elm-bole cocks a bloody ear;
In the oak's shadow lies a strew of brains.
Wherever, after the deep rains,
The woodlands are morose and reek of punk
These gobbets grow —
Tongue, lobe, hand, hoof or butchered toe
Amassing on the fallen branch half-sunk
In leaf-mold, or the riddled trunk.”
And where does this come from? Beowulf? Christopher Logue’s reimagining of The Iliad? No, from “Children of Darkness,” published by Richard Wilbur, that supposed tatterer of filigree, in The Mind-Reader: New Poems (1976). The title refers to mushrooms, which inspire revulsion and hunger, fear and admiration. Wilbur celebrates both qualities as well as the role of fungus in the life-and-death cycle of the natural (and human) world:
“Light strikes into a gloom in which are found
Red disc, grey mist,
Gold-auburn firfoot, amethyst,
Food for the eye whose pleasant stinks abound,
And dead men's fingers break the ground.”
Here in Washington primitive and enterprising lifeforms flourish – mushrooms, mildew, lichens, algae, yeasts, toadstools, slimes, all sorts of fungi and tattoo-wearers. The cause is so much moisture, so little sunlight and so many sheltering trees. The Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers writes in The Way of All Flesh (2000):
“Where fungi are found, humidity is usually so high that’s it’s almost impossible to stop the decay. No fungi can survive in less than 20 per cent humidity, and to settle somewhere they need much more than that.”
Eric Ormsby in “Wood Fungus” (from Time’s Covenant, 2007) comes closest to describing what David and I found in the suburban wilds of Bellevue, Wa. (the title is the start of the first line):
“juts in grey hemispheres like a horse’s lip
from tree-trunks. The outer edge is crimped
in sandy ripples and resembles surf.
The upper plane of the fungus does not shine
but is studious beige and dun, the hue
of shoe-soles or the underside of pipes.
“Jawbone-shaped, inert as moons, neutral
entablatures, they apron bark and pool
rain. Underneath they’re darker, fibrous
Mountain artists like to etch
intricate patterns on their flat matte skins
and their tobacco-bright sketch-marks look burnt
as tattoos or tribal tangles of scars.
“When you grip their surfaces, they bruise.
When you pry them from their chosen oak,
they seem shut fast, like the eyes of sleepers,
or the tensed eyelids of children when they’re scared.”
This post's opening paragraph I took from “Man and the Sea Shell,” an essay by Paul Valéry in Aesthetics (volume thirteen of the sixteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry). Valéry describes his reaction to a shell found on the beach. In the mass of mushrooms growing on the cedar stump I observed an “interrelation, a sequence and harmony” similar to what he perceived in his shell, and there is certainly more to these lovely organisms than “the cohesion and solidity of matter.”