Mushrooms and Literature


by Justin E. H. Smith

Surely the single largest category of folk names for mushrooms is the one having to do with evil and death, and with the beings who bode and bring these: Witch’s Hat, Death Cap, Destroying Angel, Poison Pie, Lead Poisoner, Corpse Finder, Witches’ Butter, Devil’s Urn, Goat’s Foot, Dead Man’s Fingers.

Other names are identifications, by appeal to some other thing in nature or artifice, that the mushroom supposedly resembles (though for the most part does so only remotely): Chicken Mushroom, Fried-Chicken Mushroom, Rooting Cauliflower Mushroom, Black Jelly Roll, Moose Ears, Old Man of the Woods, Pig’s Ear Gomphus, Pretzel Slime, Scrambled Egg Slime, Blue Cheese Polypore.

Still other names involve incongruous juxtapositions (which include more or less all the ‘tooth’ mushrooms): Shaggy Parasol, Imperial Cat, Big Laughing Gym, Northern Tooth, Spongy-Footed Tooth, Bearded Tooth, Spreading Yellow Tooth, Hairy Parchment. Many names call the very thing they are naming into question: Deceptive Milky, Fuzzy False Truffle, Questionable Stropharia. Many attach a derogatory English epithet to a proper Latin taxon: Fetid Marasmius, Dung-Loving Psilocybe, Hated Amanita. Yet others appear as plays on words even though they are not, e.g., Dirty Trich. Some names are just revolting: Insect-Egg Slime, Tapioca Slime, Many-Headed Slime, Red Tree Brain; while many are simply and inexplicably delightful: Peppery Milky, Dirty Milky, Buff Fishy Milky, Fuzzy Foot, Carbon Cushion, Elegant Stinkhorn, Stinky Squid.

These are all just folk terms, and so, since the beginning of the 18th century anyway, are not the real names of anything. Or at least that’s what we’re supposed to believe. But classification is just one of the things we do with language; evocation, or conjuring, is another.

Other vulgates are just as rich as English in their myconymical creations. Thus German: Hahnenkamm, Dickfuß, Hexenpilz, Satanspilz (one possible etymology for the English ‘toadstool’ is Todesstuhl, which is to say ‘death’s stool’).  Many folk associations are lost as we move from one language to another, thus the Dirty Trich (Tricholoma pardinum) evokes the tiger in its German and Latvian names (Tigerritterling, Tīģeru pūkaine), and the panther in Swedish (Pantermusseron). The Poison Pie (Hebeloma crustuliniforme), also known as a Weeping Fairy Cake, becomes the ciuperca plângătoare (‘drooping mushroom’) in Romanian, and the parastā bārkstmale in Latvian, which means (I think) ‘tattered parasol’. A Swedish cognitive scientist has in fact drawn our attention to the significance of myconymy on the example of this very species; see Gunnar Persson’s nicely titled “Fränskivling eller poison pie: kognitiva aspekter på namngivning av svamp i olika språk” (“Fränskivling or Poison Pie: Cognitive Aspects of the Naming of Mushrooms in Different Languages”).

What the Germans call the Hexenei or ‘witch’s egg’ is known in English as the ‘universal shell’, an oviform envelope that surrounds the young mushroom before it takes on its familiar stalk-and-cap shape. The German Stinkmorchel or stinking morel is born from a witch’s egg but grows to resemble a phallus, so much so that Linnaeus could not refrain from classifying it as the Phallus impudicus. It is the mushroom that is impudent enough to demand that it be called after the thing no one can deny it resembles. No, that’s not quite right. It doesn’t resemble the phallus; it duplicates the phallus fungally. It is impossible to come across a Phallus impudicus and not find oneself transported back into that prescientific world-view on which affinities abounded between different categories of natural beings that share no ancestral relation.

It is also hard not to be transported back to a time when the names of things were held to bear some sort of essential relationship to the things themselves. And here (other than in a few cases where the Latin follows the folk, as with the impudent phallus, along with the Lactarius mucidus or Slimy Milky, the Tricholoma saponaceum or Soapy Trich, etc., all of which are only as foreign to our inmost sense of the names of things as is Latin itself): here it is the folk names, and not the Latin binomial nomenclature, that preserves the bond of being between word and thing.

Often, in fact, the Linnean name for a thing picks out features of it in a seemingly arbitrary way, features that seem to have little to do with what we associate with a given creature. In this respect it is often better not to know Greek or Latin, if one wants the name of the being to resonate. To move away from mycology for a moment and into Pleistocene mammalian paleontology, I recall being deeply disappointed when my Greek became good enough to notice that glyptodont means nothing more than ‘carved tooth’. As if the shape of that giant, lumbering armadillo’s teeth had anything to do with its essence! Much better to just hear the sound, glyptodont, and to picture the beast, as it is not hard for the un-Hellenized to do, as a being that naturally embodies that sound.

Folk names work differently. They do not pick out some arbitrary and contingent feature of a being (I contend that a glyptodont would still be the being it is even if its teeth were otherwise than they are), but instead zero in on the most salient properties of a being, the properties that could not be subtracted without annihilation of the being itself, the properties that the philosophical tradition has associated with essence. That this essence is plainly related to human concerns (Dead Man’s Fingers, Scrambled Egg Slime, etc.) does not compromise its status as essence, since the folk see the world anthropocentrically, as thrown up around them for their own purposes, edification, and temptation. In this respect, mushrooms have only being-for-us.

Nabokov famously told the story of the Cornell student who beseeched him to divulge the secret of great writing. ‘Learn the names of plants’, Nabokov is said to have said. He surely did not mean the Linnean names (though those can help to add an extra flair of erudition); he meant the Russian-English-French names that turn the things into repositories of human lore and values and fears.

I’ve always found plants boring and have not managed to learn the names of more than a handful of them. I raced through Aristotle’s five books on animals, but could not bring myself to read his disciple Theophrastus’s Enquiry into Plants or On the Causes of Plants, which were supposed to complete the Aristotelian project of investigating the living world. Animals jump out at me, sometimes literally; they are phenomenally salient, as the cognitive scientists say, whereas plants just fade into the background. We might suppose it shows Nabokov’s great subtlety of mind that he picked them out for attention anyway (though we should follow up with the point that his greatest interest among living beings was for that most sensationally salient of creatures, the butterfly). Still, the advice is excellent, perhaps the best ever given in the history of literary instruction. Nabokov’s novels themselves (especially Ada) are vividly botanico-entomological, or, better, they are showcases for a sort of phyto-entomonymical mastery. Nabokov understood how to draw essences out of names; he understood that what makes literature live is precisely the theory of nomenclature, the philosophy of language, that had to be repudiated with the rise of modern science, one of the great achievements of which was the arbitrary naming scheme of the System of Nature of 1735.

Genetically and evolutionally, fungus is closer among biota to the animalia than it is to plantae. It doesn’t have locomotion, and it doesn’t do photosynthesis either. In high school I learned that its natural function (as if anything had such a thing) was that of ‘decomposer’, in contrast with the ‘producer’ plants and the ‘consumer’ animals. This triad is calling out for allegorical interpretation, but I won’t offer it. I want only to say here that, whatever is actually going on in nature, mushrooms can’t but come across to us as liminal, as a higher-order instance of being neither fish nor flesh.

Liminal entities, as Mary Douglas has shown us, frequently offer a good point of access for unraveling the knots of cultures. Yet ethnomycology, particularly in the wake of R. Gordon Wasson’s work, has for the most part been largely preoccupied with hallucinogens and with new-age forms of ‘mind-expansion’. I’ve been doing my best to avoid association with that approach here. Not all mushrooms are psilocybes, and the strange position of fungi in human cognition of the natural environment would be no less strange even without the hallucinogenic species. It is more likely the toxicity of some, rather than the psychedelicness of others, that charges mushrooms with such folkloric force.

But beyond this it is their indissociability from decay and death that, I think, gives them the particular cultural role that they have at least across the Indo-European world. Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, argued in their monumental Mushrooms, Russia, and History of 1957 that the Indo-Europeans can be further subdivided into mycophilic and mycophobic cultures, with the Slavs standing as the clearest example of the former, and the Anglo-Saxons of the latter. One wonders how deep this phobia runs, however, and whether there might not be something in particular about the rise of modern science and rationality (a phenomenon centered in Northwestern, Protestant Europe, relative to which the Orthodox, Slavic world has been on the distant periphery) that required a repudiation of these queer beings, of these living lumps so deeply associated with ghosts and witches and fairies, with beings the existence of which could no longer be defended –in English, anyway– much after the 17th century.

But literature isn’t about what exists, and the non-existence of the beings wrapped up in the folk names of so many mushrooms only makes them that much richer, that much better suited to the sort of exercise Nabokov recommended. It would be nice to read some fungal literature: literature that grows out of years of apprenticeship in the art of myconymy and that is as evocative as the folk-names of mushrooms. This would be a different sort of novel than Nabokov’s phyto-entomonymic masterpieces: there would be no flight, no sunlight. It would be a novel from the ground.

The myconymic apprenticeship would at the same time serve as a point of access to human existence –I would say ‘being-in-the-world’, but I’m already concerned about how Heideggerian I’m sounding– through a concrete subdomain of language. On the surface this subdomain is concerned, like Linnean taxonomy, with the simple naming and distinguishing of entities in the natural world; but in fact it could not be more different from the concerns that motivated the System of Nature. Name-giving here is not classificatory, it is not ‘the logic of the concrete’ in Lévi-Strauss’s sense. It is rather the accrual of cultural meaning through the things of nature in which this meaning is invested. The literary use of language on this understanding is the unraveling of this meaning through a mastery of the names of things: the real names.

Photos taken in a protected woodland of central New Jersey, early June, 2011. I should add, perhaps, that I remain a perfect neophyte when it comes to attaching name to thing. I believe these are two varieties of agaricus, plus some variety of polypore, but as to anything more specific than that I am, as they say, at a loss for words.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website