Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lord of the flies

posted by Chet at 11:21 AM UTC

I blogged this patch of mushrooms last year, Aminita muscaria, the Fly Agarics, growing under white pines. They reappear at this spot every October, as reliably as treat-or-treaters.

Mushrooms are the short-lived fruiting bodies of a fungus, as apples are the fruiting bodies of an apple tree. The organism that persists from year to year is called the mycelium, a web of branching fibers hidden in the earth, threads so fine as to be individually almost invisible, but cobwebby white when seen en masse.

The mycelium secretes digestive enzymes, which break down organic matter, then absorbs the products. Because the digestive reaction takes place outside the fungal cells, living plants also benefit from the released nutrients. The reaction generates carbon dioxide, also of use to plants.

And here they are again, on schedule, the apples of death, costumed for Halloween in pumpkin garb. We don't trust mushrooms. Something deep in our folk consciousness shudders at the sight. Is it that some of them are poisonous? One of my mushroom handbooks mentions a 13th-century wall-painting in an old chapel at Plaincourault, France, depicting the Tree of Life as a Fly Agaric, with Eve beside it clutching her tummy, plainly put out by her bite of forbidden fruit.

Or is it something deeper? Do they remind us of the fairy spirits of our forest-living European ancestors? Is this what Shakespeare's Prospero had in mind when he addressed the elves "whose pastime is to make midnight mushrooms"?