Reading poetry as a mushroom forager

We at The Foragers believe that a foraging experience is beneficial to every team, no matter how unrelated their field of work or their goals. Here’s an example. In his other life, Richard is an award winning poet. In the below blog post, he shows how foraging and mushroom knowledge can even be used as a critical technique for deepening your understanding and appreciation of poetry. We’ll leave it to him to explain how:

Foraging for mushrooms in a poem

As a mushroom forager, I often get requests online to identify a mushroom growing in someone’s garden. This morning I had a stranger request than usual – my friend Anthony asked me to identify the particular species of mushroom growing in a popular poem by Derek Mahon, A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/92154/a-disused-shed-in-co-wexford

This kind of question is a dream come true for me as it unites two sides of my career: the mushroom forager and the poem-maker. What follows is an attempt to discover, by a combination of technical mushroom knowledge and close reading of the poem, precisely which species Mahon’s poem describes. You could call it a work of myco-criticism, if you wanted.

Growing conditions

These are some very enigmatic fungi. But we can start with a definitive statement – the mushrooms in this poem are, to use a technical term ‘etiolated’.

There’s this:

A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.

And then this:

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’

Etiolation, or similar, is something that happens to mushrooms, plants and, the poem argues, humans alike when they are grown in the dark. Specimens, rather than becoming full, chunky and upright, will stay thin, anaemic-looking and tentacular, using all their energy to strain and stretch in gross mutant shapes towards whatever light source (the ‘keyhole’) they can find.

I have personal foraging experience of the weirdness of etiolation: I pick oyster mushrooms from inside the same hollow tree every year, but every year the hole in the trunk grows narrower, until now it’s only a couple of inches wide. What were once full, meaty mushrooms are now bizarre, noodley appendages. Luckily the hole is still just big enough to get a camera inside. Here’s a disturbing video of me and George at work foraging some etiolated weirdness. It will blow your mind.

The other thing to point out is that you’ve probably eaten etiolated mushrooms before. As I demonstrate in the video, those weird white pinheaded ‘enoki’ mushrooms you get in Japanese ramen dishes are, in fact, velvet shank mushrooms which have been intentionally etiolated in factory conditions by a culture much more tolerant of disturbing noodley appendages in their food. And other things.

I digress. Mahon’s mushrooms are definitively etiolated. This is important, not just in terms of identifying the species (etiolation drastically changes nearly every identifying feature of a mushroom). It’s also important to the themes of the poem and its overall message. The poem is occupied both literally and figuratively with strange things that happen in the dark, the frightening twisting in darkness of that which we too often ignore, whether it’s fungal decay or human imprisonment in concentration camps.

We’re now not very much closer to identifying the species, but I do think we’ve just scored a point for myco-criticism. A better understanding of the etiolation process and its results (as seen in the video) has only made this poem richer for me, darker and more twisty, more palpably unsettling.

Soil type

When hunting for mushrooms, the environment in which they grow and, particularly, the soil’s pH is extremely important. I often consult geological surveys before heading to a new area to forage. Some mushrooms, the delicious chanterelle for example, hate to grow in alkaline soil, which is bad news for us in Hertfordshire, perched as we are on top of a chalk aquifer.

I understand that Mahon’s mushrooms are not wild mushrooms growing in natural conditions, but the poem strangely does throw out a lot of pH-related imagery in its early lines, as though it’s teasing us with clues. Problem is, the first stanza isn’t describing the main habitat we’re interested in, but listing snapshots of other places life has grown, similarly unseen. So even though “lime crevices” and “bone burials” conjure unambiguously alkaline environments, it isn’t those particular nooks and crannies we’re analysing.

The next stanza does offer us more pH indicators, and this time they do refer specifically to the location of our mystery fungus. First, we have the “burnt-out hotel”. Acid-loving plants and mushrooms often grow in the aftermath of fires – the ash mixes with the soil to lower the pH. As if to confirm this analysis, a few lines later we have the phrase “beyond the rhododendrons”. Rhododendrons are a sure fire indication of acidic soil – they refuse to grow in alkaline environments. In fact, gardening manuals advise anyone wanting to cultivate rhododendrons mix their soil with a quantity of… ash. We’re also fortunate to know the location of the poem: Co. Wexford. A quick google reveals that the county’s soil is pretty uniformly slate-clay – an acidic blend.

So far so acidic. But this doesn’t really help us. If you are hunting a particular species of mushroom, you can use soil chemistry to profile locations and boost your chances of finding it: if we were on the hunt for chanterelles or hedgehog fungus I’d feel optimistic about this spot in Co. Wexford. But you can’t really work it the other way round and use soil chemistry to deduce the identity of a particular species. Though any and all evidence does help to confirm an ID in the end. And of course, as I said before, these aren’t wild mushrooms but the product of an old mycology lab set up in a shed, so the usual wild clues aren’t so useful. Cultivated mushrooms are actually often grown on a lime-infused substrate, balanced with gypsum, so maybe the “lime crevice” is even more significant than I thought.

Ok so this is all slightly tongue in cheek. But we’ve learned other worthwhile things from this chemical analysis. Most obviously, with the burnt-out hotel and rhododendrons we’ve been given a firm and consistent grounding in the topography of the poem – I’m now even more confident that the poem is set in a real place, as the title loudly states. But we’ve also been given a grounding in the mental geography of the poem’s speaker.

Although it is only “flash-bulb” in the penultimate stanza and “You with your light meter” in the poem’s penultimate line which confirm that the speaker is a photographer (and, punningly, a poet? Meter/metre? No?), I think the rest of the poem also demonstrates the mind of a photographer at work. In terms of imagery, we begin with a quick introductory slideshow of several snapshots. Image. Image. Image. As the poem proceeds we also get an extended rumination on (and a directly spoken appeal to) the moral obligations of those who witness and make images of those imprisoned or dead in dark spaces. Such ethical conversations are familiar to photographers. When you picture the prisoners of Treblinka, or the ashen dead of Pompeii, you’ll most likely be remembering black and white photographs of those scenes.

Finally – and perhaps this is the result of a reading which has intentionally become too close and specialised (if such a thing is possible) – my soil analysis of this poem has convinced me that the speaker of the poem is familiar with chemistry and develops their own photographs. The dark room as trope, figure and setting in this poem is so prominent that one can’t help but think of a literal darkroom.  And the camera too is a dark place, like the shed, which takes in the light of the world through a pinhole aperture. The fact that the poem begins with a series of images indicative of alkalinity and acidity, which swim fleetingly past the reader’s mind’s (like half-developed photographic paper seen through a rippling two inch-deep bath of Tetanal Eukobrom positive-development liquid…) really does suggest to me that the speaker of the poem is a photo-person who spends much of his or her time in the darkroom, thinking about chemical processes and the philosophical status of people who make images in dark places.

Morphology

This is difficult. The specific physical features of the mushrooms are only glancingly described, and these descriptions come when the mushrooms are already being characterised as various emaciated humans and monsters, so it’s never totally clear which features belong to the “real” mushrooms in the shed and which are the characteristics of their poetically-invoked analogues – or even what is tenor and what is vehicle in this miscellany of metaphor. We do get a few hints. Let’s go through them one by one, and for each hint I’ll offer a few suggestions for mushrooms that might fit the bill.

“web throated”

This probably means cobwebs, but if not, perhaps they’re part of the Cortinarius or “web cap” family, identified by the distinctive wispy strands of web which connect their caps to their stems. Again, probably more likely that it’s a spider web, but still interesting to consider.

“powdery prisoners”

The powder is probably just dust. “flies dusted to mildew”. Or maybe an accumulation of released fungal spores (if the poem told us what colour the spores were, or was accompanied by a sketch of their shape when viewed at 100x magnification that would be hugely helpful). Or! There is a mushroom named the Powdery Piggyback. This is a tiny mushroom, powdery as though dusted with icing sugar, which grows in only one incredibly specific location – on the back of another species of mushroom: the blackening russula. It’s an amazing find, and a fascinating shroom, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the mushroom we’re talking about here. I’m just a sucker for alliteration.

Alternatively, the powder could be a colonising mould. I am often frustrated, on damp days, to find a crop of mushrooms already moulded to mush. There are endless moulds which attack mushrooms, specific types for specific species. My first thought was of something similar to the pesky “Bolete Eater” mould, Hypomyces chryospermus, to which some of my favourite boletes frequently fall prey, turning bright yellow and squishy with a topcoat of dusty white mould.

“stalked like triffids”

This could be useful – only a fraction of fungal fruit bodies have stalks, so this rules out many genuses of mushroom right away. We can say pretty confidently that these are not tree brackets, polypores, jelly moulds, birds nest fungi, spore-shooters, elf cups, coral fungi, splitgill etc. That said, I didn’t really think it could be any of these. Many people would only call something a mushroom if it has a stalk anyway. The triffids of John Wyndham’s original novel do have a very distinctive curvy stalk, but it’s the distinctive shape of an etiolated mushroom, not unique to any one species.

That the mushrooms are etiolated and straining towards the light is significant, in that not all mushrooms do this. Agaricus bisporus, the classic white supermarket mushroom, for instance, doesn’t require light to grow and wouldn’t strain towards a keyhole. This isn’t a well-explored area of science. To test various mushroom species’ behaviour in response to light requires you to be able to grow them consistently in captivity at all, and we still haven’t figured out how to do that with most species. Boletus edulis, the delicious Penny Bun, for example, can still only fruit outdoors as part of a poorly understood relationship between the fungus and an oak or other broadleaf tree. Many fungi grow like this. Scientists are now investigating the mechanisms of the “wood wide web” – the complex of roots and fungal filaments through which the trees and fungi of a forest are able to share nutrients and information and function as something resembling a society or even a single super-organism. Mushrooms which can be cultivated artificially in isolation are, then, unusual in their isolation. Thinking about mushroom farming this way serves to underline the loneliness, disenfranchisement and imprisonment of the symbolic mushrooms trapped in the shed of this poem.

One genus of fungi of which we can test the photomorphogenetic qualities is Coprinus – the ink cap family. It seems these have been thoroughly experimented-on by scientists because they grow very quickly in predictable rhythms, and already have long stems (stipes), meaning any etiolation / aberrant photomorphogenesis can be seen much more dramatically. To me, this is quite a tempting candidate for the Wexford mushrooms, because of another couple of lines in the poem:

“A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.”

and

“Elbow room! Elbow room!”

This image of the huddled masses of mushrooms yearning to be free puts me in mind of some of the trooping varieties of ink cap mushrooms, which grow in great numbers and clearly evoke the mood of a helpless, crowd of victims straining in ghostly union to escape the pain of their existence, like the pallid flash-reflecting skins of concentration camp prisoners, shocked to be found and photographed. And they have the necessary weird alien look too. I mean look at them.

They’re like the terrifying Hattifnattar of the Moomin books who, as people once believed of mushrooms, emerge in lighting storms and, as no-one has ever believed of mushrooms, cultishly worship a barometer tied to a pole.

Conversely, the poem makes it clear that these mushrooms are “soft food for worms”, which made me think of the substantial, worm-sustaining stems of species like oyster mushrooms or shimeji rather than the hollow, grass-stem-like stipes of Coprinus species. So I’m back having no clue.

So?

As fun and worthwhile as this myco-criticism has turned out to be, we’re never going to get an answer. And that’s partly because we don’t have the necessary information, but partly because there’s… not any information to have. Huh?

I mean, to most people and to most vocabularies, a mushroom is a mushroom is a mushroom. When the poem says mushroom, two things happen: 1) we probably picture something white with a stalk and a cap. 2) We think of those received qualities and properties generally attributed to and connoted by mushrooms: ghostliness, alien-ness, elven meekness, a certain… wan-ness of form and spirit. It’s the same iconic mushroom invoked by Sylvia Plath’s “perfectly voiceless” mushrooms, who will “inherit the earth” or Emily Dickinson’s mushroom who “is the elf of plants”, “nature’s Iscariot”.

(And it’s no accident that mushrooms are (with varying obscurity) affiliated with the struggles of the Jewish people in particular by Mahon, Plath and Dickinson, respectively as a visual metaphor for concentration camp victims, a figure for oppressed masses identified-with by a Jewish poet, or an embodiment of Judas, that most-blamed of all Jews. Plants are predictable and wholesome, and to land-owning, barley-farming, Jew-hating European gentiles, the mushroom historically represented everything they found unpalatable about the Jew-as-other. Historically barred from owning and cultivating land, the Jews were forced into a shadowy, parasitic existence, profiting from the honest sun-drenched toil of European society in dank, underhanded ways. What better anti-semitic metaphor exists for a usurous Jew, profiting intangibly from the livelihood and capital of others, than the grow-by-night mystery of the mushroom, appearing unpredictably in rotten corners like a ghoul and feeding on the decaying flesh of healthier and more upright beings. In 1938, in Nazi Germany, an anti-Jew children’s book was published called Der Giftpilz or the poisonous mushroom. The cover bore a green slimy toadstool with a caricatured ugly Jewish face on its stem and a star of David round its neck.)

My point is – all necessary significance and connotation is contained in the word mushroom. There’s very little folklore or cultural significance specific to one species or another. At most, a culture will traditionally discriminate between edible mushrooms and loathsome toadstools. When I, and most foragers, use the word mushroom these days we usually mean the fruit-body of any fungal organism, but I’m often surprised that older folks will use the phrase definitively to mean “an edible mushroom of the kind we know and eat”. An old man once told me about a mushroom he found and I asked him what kind of mushroom it was and he said, taken aback, “It was, you know, a mushroom, like you have on toast”. In such a lexicon, which is uninterested in the complexities of fungal taxonomy, there are simply mushrooms, and mushrooms are those things which are not toadstools.

So perhaps it doesn’t matter what species the mushrooms are. This myco-critical endeavour has been interesting, and has certainly helped me to think about what this poem does and how it does it, and raised many tangents, some fascinating and some silly. But the word mushroom in this poem operates perfectly without meaning anything more specific than the generic mushroom – that simple, unspecific, iconic ideal of a mushroom which you picture first when you hear the word spoken. As singular as a lightbulb above a cartoon character’s head. To “zoom in” on the mushrooms of this poem in search of their specific qualities is like zooming in on a low-res digital image in search of greater granular detail. The results may well be interesting to look at, but it’s noise, not information: the pixelation and compression artefacts of an image never intended to be viewed this closely.

Which, of course, is a problem you’ll never encounter if you develop old fashioned film yourself in a darkroom.

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