What is a mushroom? It’s not a plant or an animal. Technically, it’s a fungus that produces a fleshy body. This earthly gem’s elusive arrival into the woods, cemeteries or unexpected spots (like your front yard) can appear so quickly, so mysteriously, that it’s generated seriously opinionated public discussions over the course of the past three hundred years and beyond.
Yes, some folks instantly think of the hallucinogenic varietals, the ones that thrive on the tops of stinky cow patties found in open pastures after a fresh rain. Would Led Zepplin and Pink Floyd exist without stumbling upon a toadstool or eight? Even Alan Ginsberg was known to consume them for inspiration when writing poetry. But beyond taking that type of trip, there are thousands of others, a few deadly, many delicious, and some that stink beyond the bottom of a pig’s trough.
I love mushrooms and their mysterious place in the giant cubicle of culinary/cultural history, yet I can’t help but notice the choice words that some of my favorite poets and writers from the 19th and 20th centuries composed when symbolically describing those “fruiting bodies.” Herewith, my literary journey through the turbulent rabbit hole of epic opinions from some of our most famous word Smiths.
Take the Scottish bloke, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes (and the dude who rocked a serious hipster mustache until old age) for example, who once composed this ditty:
"…A sickly autumn shone upon the land. Wet and rotten leaves reeked and festered under the foul haze. The fields were spotted with monstrous fungi of a size and colour never matched before-scarlet and mauve and liver and black-it was as though the sick earth had burst into foul pustules. Mildew and lichen mottled the walls and with that filthy crop, death sprang also from the water soaked earth."
True, some mushrooms do grow and sprout from dead and/or decaying matter (you can find some of the tastiest mushrooms at the cemetery, near grave stones.) At this point, I’d forgive Sir Arthur a pass for the low blow commentary since he created one of our cornerstone detective characters, Sherlock Holmes. But then I discovered that even Percy Bysshe Shelley, British poet and heartbreaker, had a mixture of feelings surrounding them when he wrote,
“And agarics and fungi, with mildew and mould
Started like mist from the wet ground cold
Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead
With a spirit of growth had been animated…”
I really started to question my literary heroes as I spotted this bit from D.H. Lawrence, early 20th century novelist, poet, painter, bearded babe, and all around lady-killer:
“How beastly the bourgeois is
especially the male of the species-
Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
standing there so sleek and erect and eyeable-
and like a fungus, living on the remains of bygone life,
sucking his life out of the dead leaves of greater life than his own.
And even so, he’s stale, he’s been there too long,
Touch him, and you’ll find he’s all gone inside
just like an old mushroom, all wormy inside, and hollow
under a smooth skin and an upright appearance.
Full of seething, wormy, hollow feelings
How beastly the bourgeois is!
Standing in their thousands, these appearances, in damp England
what a pity they can’t all be kicked over
like sickening toadstools, and left to melt back, swiftly
into the soil of England.”
Clearly, if I invited him over for dinner, chanterelles are out of the question. My fantasies of long walks in the woods with him might head south the moment I pluck a musty morel from the ground.
In my quest, I started to wonder if it was all geography. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was from Scotland and Shelley and D.H. Lawrence were both British lads. I know that the mushroom was their three point shot for a slam-dunk in Debbie downer metaphors, but I continued to wonder if they ate them in real life after gutting them on the page. Perhaps British mushrooms and Scottish ones weren’t as tasty as the ones found in North America because of the climate and alkalines in the soil.
So I turned my hopes to my American pal, Emily Dickinson, a gal who was rumored to rarely leave her house, to turn the negative opinions around. Surely, she would flip the script and have some positive feedback on these special edibles that seem to have grim reaper social status. Besides, she grew up in a state that has some decent mushrooms, if you look hard enough.
Here’s what she had to say:
"Had nature any outcast face
Could she a son condemn
Had nature an Iscariot
That mushroom—it is him.”
It makes me wonder if much like D.H. Lawrence, she too, would potentially run for the hills if she came over to my house for dinner the moment linguine with black trumpets was served. Then again, she might have been the kind of person that was inseparable from Purell hand sanitizer on the New York City subway system, or might have struck up a love-affair with my favorite neurotic New Yorker, Woody Allen.
At the end of my research, I came to the conclusion that I guess I couldn’t invite any of them to go out foraging with me.
D.H. Lawrence is still a babe.