Rain, and then
the cool pursed
lips of the wind
out of the ground –
red and yellow skulls
through sand; astonishing
Mary Oliver, from “Mushrooms”
After a night of wind and rain, the sun exploded across Chena Marina this morning, turning it into a mirror of paper birch and spruce, float planes and ribbons of grass green light. A pair of Canada geese squawked and nosed around in the shoreline silt before heading south. Since little r didn’t need to be picked up from pre-school for a while, I decided to drench myself in bug dope and maunder into the woods with my Cannon.
Now, being from the “U.S.” (or “Lower 48”), as locals like to say, I know next-to-nothing about the mushrooms of Interior Alaska. But last year some German friends came by for a moose dinner and picked what they called “Shaggy Manes” in a field near the hangar that lies between our house and the marina. I headed that way and found Cousin Itt, surrounded by a hundred brothers and sisters basking in their weed bed.
Here’s Cousin Itt from the Addams Family. Same-same, right?
Our German friends harvested a basketful, dusted off most of the dirt and bugs, chopped the shaggies coarsely and sauteed them in a mountain of butter, salt and pepper. They were exquisite. Today, though, I left the cuties alone, thinking I’d return later to paint a watercolor if the mosquitoes weren’t too terrifying. And then we’d eat them.
I ambled in and out of the birch and spruce groves fringing our dirt driveway, rambled over roots and rocks, through rose hip brambles and high-bush cranberries. I found patch upon patch of mushrooms without knowing any of their names so, forgive me, I made them up.
Brain on Chocolate
Four Leaf Fungus
Purple Trumpet Shroom
I’m going to have to take a class or buy a field guide, or both, I told myself, realizing that it wasn’t just little r who needed names for the world. As you can see from these few photos, I had entered a place where the mushrooms were incredibly beautiful, and as I moved deeper and deeper into the forest I felt like I was in a strange, Alice in Wonderland dream.
Advice from a Caterpillar, Arthur Rackham, 1907
Caterpillar: Who are YOU?
Alice: I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.
I’ve shared before that a seventh grade student of mine once told the class, “Sometimes I hallucinate in the woods,” and I understood, now, what he meant. Lightheadedness and confusion, an intoxicating mushroom madness made me giddy. I twirled and giggled, ripped my pant leg on a birch branch, tripped and fell onto my side in the boggy wetness next to a mound of moose droppings. Was there just too much magnificence here? Or were invisible forest fairies blowing toxic spores into my nostrils.
I wiped my nose on my sleeve and that’s when I came to my senses. Bursting out of a rotting carpet of birch leaves and spruce cones partially covering the moose droppings was a speckled dome of flame, an Amanita muscaria, gorgeous, deadly, my favorite mushroom and, more importantly, the only one whose Latin name I actually knew thanks to having been around in the 60s. I took a quick photo, walked back home, and hopped in the Subaru. It was time to pick up little r and share the magic with him.