larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next

March, 2011

Magical Mushrooms

by Valerie

I am sure that the title of this essay makes some people think immediately of the hallucinogenic toadstools that seem to dominate most popular references to the Kingdom Myceteae. Well, it is not about that. Quite some time ago, I wrote about the mushrooms that my family gathered as food, but it is not about that either. This time, I am treating mushrooms as art.

Mushrooms are often compared to plants, but, really, all they have in common is that they don't move very quickly. We rarely see the main part of fungus, which is a network of branching filaments, usually in the ground, called mycelium. The mushroom is actually the fruiting body, which grows in order to release spores. An entire volume can be written about the intriguing biology of fungi, but I'm thinking more poetically at the moment.

Ever since I started using a camera, I have never passed up a pretty mushroom. Their inclination to remain still makes them ideal subjects, although I often have to practically lie on the ground to get their best angle. They commonly grow in dimly lit locations, but, being near the ground, there are always plenty of rocks or logs on which to rest the camera to take long exposures. So they are both worthy, as well as slightly challenging, subjects. Just the right balance.

Because mushrooms develop quickly, they can often be found in pristine condition. Smooth, delicate surfaces free of blemishes, and unusual colors hidden amidst the forest floor are appealing and eye-catching, to say the least. The element of surprise adds to the delight; you never know where or when these transient growths will materialize. Although some factors, such as moisture, temperature, and location, increase the chances of discovery, most of the time it is not possible to predict these elusive organisms. Situated in intimate settings amid ferns and mosses, it is no wonder that in folk tales mushrooms are often associated with sprites, fairies, gnomes, elves and leprechauns.

Although we think of fungi located on fecund forest floors, they also grow in more varied habitats. Some prefer the dunes near the sea or large lakes, others live in sunny meadows, while a fair number sprout out of trees. Sometimes, when I'm kayaking, I find gracefully curved forms protruding from fallen logs and branches overhanging the water or nestled in the eroding embankment of the shoreline.

The forms that mushrooms take are sometimes beyond imagination. Although each species has its characteristics, individual variation is often extreme. While this makes practical identification a nightmare, it also creates innumerable permutations that are as enchanting as flowers, clouds or butterflies. I've been an enthusiast of surrealism since I first laid eyes on a Dr. Seuss book as a small child, so life forms that tend toward the bizarre, strange or eccentric are definitely desirable in my opinion.

Many of the places where I go hiking do not have well-manicured trails. The upshot of this is that I have to watch where I step. Whether it be to avoid stubbing my toes on rocks, tripping over tree roots, or treading on a rattlesnake, I have to be very observant of the ground. And guess what? That's where I often find mushrooms. They might be well camouflaged or they might stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, but if I didn't look down, I would miss them. There have been times when I've entered an area such as a forested bottomland along a river or a stony rubble layer where the base of a cliff meets a creek and happened to see a mushroom or two. Alerted to their presence, I looked a bit more carefully and, like magic, they were all around me! What might have started as a casual stroll became an exciting treasure hunt to see how many different kinds I could locate.

There is no way to preserve the fragile forms of fungi except in art and photography. Their physical presence only lasts a brief time and must be observed on their terms. However, with the expediency of digital photography, it is possible to amass a pleasing selection of images that serve to remind me of the many wonderful mushrooms I have met.

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next