A HOUSE OF SWINGING DOORS: THIS FUTURE LIFE (CALVATEA GIGANTEA)
Amid the September leaf litter bronzed by the slanting afternoon light, a gleaming skull round and clean catches my eye. First one, then another further off the trail, and another smaller one like a child's, and there is a white knob like a hip joint unsocketed and emerging from the ground.
"Botanizers are the worst out here. You've got to unscrew those green eyes from their sockets and put them away. No more flowers or leaf shapes," advises John, my forest guide for this mushroom foraging class. We soft-step through the leaf litter, scrutinizing every shadow, every tree stump and rotting log, every clump of leaves tilted up as if by some tiny earthquake. "You've got to screw in your brown eyes and look for shades of brown and red, violet and orange, caps and shelves and spheres."
I'm not sure what to do with the stark white hairs that have been showing up in my beard the past few years. How to reconcile feeling still so young and so unprepared for the world with these pigmentless ghosts already congregating on my chin? My hair is dark brown and thick like the hair of a father I never knew whose head bore heavy waves of black in a blurred 1970s photograph, the only one I have ever seen of him (and that one not since I was seven years old). Through my beard runs a sheen of copper, inheritance from my mother of her rich auburn hair that used to fall in a long straight cascade down her back when I was a child. Now her hair is thin and cropped short to her head, a cap of snow curled around her skull. Occasionally I pull at the white in my beard, my eyes crossing as I try to measure depth in the bathroom mirror, either with my fingers or with tweezers, not so much out of vanity as out of grotesque curiosity at the feel of the oddly thick, coarse hairs as I spin them between thumb and index finger.
John and I are searching for mushrooms like Virgil leading Dante through the dark woods and into the underworld, out of the green and gold of leaves spinning sugar from air and down into the forest duff, the mulch and mildew of moisture caught and webbed into the ground. Through the dark brown humus run thick waxy white threads, individuals that merge into cords, cords that merge into mats, mats that grab hold of last year's fallen leaves, chew them into humus, and mold them into tilth. These mycelia are a headless, toothless, limbless, eyeless body. A body of all nerves or all blood vessels, a network-body, a net, a mind.
One cell inhabits a space, its membrane a provisional line of limit, though in reality the quantity and variety of transactions across that line make of the cell a house built of nothing but swinging doors. When one cell becomes two cells becomes four cells becomes eight, there might be infinite city blocks or there might be one swirling liquid dragon endlessly jumping through a hoop of flame.
The mycelial mat of a fungus under the veneer of leaves in a forest is like the internet, according to the mycologist Paul Stamets. It pulses with information that is at once everywhere and nowhere. Headless, it thinks. Toothless, it eats. Sexless, it mounts its desire into the ether of air in fantastic architectures of gills and caps and pores.
Birth: two cells find each other: two turning into one, two turning into three, turning turning some notion of self into a scaffold for community, community conjuring dreams of webs, congeries of roots and ganglia: a body.
There are some thirty-seven billion cells in my body. Some are human and others are bacteria, viruses, fungi. Only one of ten is mine, begging the question, "Am I theirs?"
For most of my life my mother has been over-protective and possessive of me and covetous of my attention and affection whenever it's been given elsewhere. Now, in her early seventies and slowed by Parkinson's disease, she comes to stay with my partner and me in our house. I cut slabs of olive bread and slices of salty salami for lunch with her on my back porch on a summer afternoon. I watch her when she walks to make sure she does not trip. I observe her in a thousand small moments to make sure she is okay. Her thinning white hairs entangle with my coarsening white hairs. A door swings one way and then another, and a spirit flies past.
In the forest, fungi comprise forty percent of all the life in the soil, and mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with some ninety percent of all plants on the planet. Plants, it turns out, are for the most part quite ill-equipped to absorb the nutrients necessary for life on their own. Fungi, on the other hand, are ravenous. With powerful enzymes that can break down intractable substances like the lignin which makes wood woody, fungi are excellent nutrient absorbers. So good that the livers of two to three hapless mycophiles are liquefied every year by an unwisely eaten Destroying Angel. On one of our forays, John laughs, "There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters." While plants catch sunlight and bounce it through narrow green-glowing channels of chloroplasts in leaves high in the air, fungi tunnel underground, melting away this illusion of a solid world into wisps and fragments. Fungi send molecules across vast waxy white networks of mycelia to plants and plants reciprocate with sugars sent down stems and trunks to roots which fungal hairs clasp and even penetrate. Together, these "phytobionts" and "mycobionts" form one system.
More than just a symbiotic relationship, the interface of plant and fungus is a medium of communication as a tree in a forest speaks to its sisters in chemical words written on the white scroll of mycelia unfurling underground. One tree may nourish another by sending nutrients that are shuttled by fungus connecting to both. The door swings and energy flows.
John shows me black trumpets, soft and velvety with an olive tint, and almost immediately I start seeing them everywhere. We come upon a peppery bolete, with its massive twelve-inch tawny cap standing six inches off the ground on a sturdy stem, and he casually breaks off a hunk of cap to show the pleasing yellow flesh inside. "Touch it to your tongue," he says, offering the chunk my way. I look skeptical, but he is insistent, so I do and recoil instantly at the immediate and overwhelming acrid bitterness. "That'll teach you," he chuckles. And then in the distance, he points at the gleaming white dome, some eighteen inches across and rising out of the leaves. This is the Giant Puffball, Calvatea gigantea. John palms it underneath and with a firm tug and an audible snap, he lifts it up. He flicks his index finger against it and it gives a satisfyingly rich thump, like the stretched skin of a drum. He passes it to me and it must easily be ten pounds, a medicine ball of a mushroom. Inside it is pure white and the conisistency of a firm marshmallow.
Calvatea gigantea: the giant skull. At first it is a spot of milk on the ground, then a golf ball, then a baby's soft skull delicate and still knitting together. It grows over several days, monstrously. The skull's skin hardens into a dull matte, healing over the adolescent ruptures of too-quick growth. Grown to its full majesty, immediately it descends into decay. The fine textured interior coarsens, sickens into a dingy ochre chartreuse, as its trillions of spores mature. The skin thins and brittles. The wind, weight, or an animal inevitably snaps the neck of this teetering skull and the contents tumble out, a graceful exhalation of ochre smoke into the quiet of the autumn forest.
Calvo: "bald" in Spanish. To be bald is to be one step closer to one's skull. Gleaming taut skin across hard bone. I think about my maternal uncles, most of whom are bald, as was my mother's father. And on my father's side – father whom I never knew – I have no idea if I even have uncles. Only smoke. Dead: the baldest one can be when even skin and blood are shed away and only unyielding bone remains.
John died of a heart attack two years after our foraging expedition. Not the heroic/tragic/ironic death by an ill-identified mushroom in one last fatal meal, but of a prosaic heart attack, the result of a plaquey artery or a misfiring muscle. He was too young to have died, but he was a large man who, though surprisingly nimble in the trailless forest, was an imposing ponderous figure short of breath as he bent over tiny caps poking out from under dry dead leaves.
While some fungi are pathogenic and predators (who can forget once seen the image of a fungal thread that loops and sets itself like a trap until a nematode passes through and it shuts closed like a vice?), many others are saprophytic, feasting only on the dead. How do they know a corpse from a life? What are the limits and contours of a fungus' knowing? I myself wonder at and worry the edge of life, trembling in unforeseeable secret moments at the prospect of my own end. As a child I watched my mother asleep on the couch by eight p.m. after working for twelve hours in a factory, and I feared the moment when her caving-in chest wouldn't rise back up. What then?
The ancient Greeks considered mushrooms to be the fruit of lightning strikes from their observation that after a night of fierce storms, the woods and meadows would suddenly be covered in fungus of all manner of strange colors and shapes. Such bizarre "plants" that appear from nowhere could only come from something equally powerful and mysterious, like bolts of divine fire. Without mouths or orifices of any kind, fungal hyphae exude powerful enzymes into the soil around them. They do the work of breaking material down into soluble component molecules that are then absorbed into the cells. Like an external stomach (though not like this at all), these enzymes form an aura of dissolution around the fungus, a liminal zone of other transforming into self, of self extending past itself in a halo of becoming. Do fungi have selves? Humans, of course, are more horrifying, given that we eat the living and keep our stomachs inside us like black holes of light that trap and transform the spirits of living things into ourselves.
When I die I want (though I will be past wanting) to be buried without a casket or shroud, naked, completely unadorned, and have a fruit tree planted above me (above that which is not me), so that its roots might plunge hungry into (not) my stomach, curious into (not) my brain, desirous into (not) my pelvis, thirsty into (not) my mouth.
I recently saw a presentation by Jae Rhim Lee on her proposal for fungus funeral suits, in which she describes a suit or shroud to be wrapped around the deceased. The suit is inoculated with fungi that will decompose the body, cocooning it in a nest of white threads, impelling it towards transformation. The impetus for this project is to neutralize all the toxins (heavy metals in particular) that accumulate in the modern industrialized human body (cyborg at the level of mercury and lead and strontium enmeshed in kidneys, liver, and marrow). Call this atonement for a collective careless life, a life without care that has collected in lazy cellular eddies the contaminants of a lifetime. Call this absolution: dispersal of a life's sins in hyphal tides, enzymatic ripples. To expedite this process, Lee suggests cultivating the agent of your posthumous expiation by feeding a culture of fungus your toenail clippings and dead skin to breed over your own lifetime a strain of fungus uniquely attuned to undo you.
In old apple orchards, white and pink flowers cloud the sky in branches unpruned and entangled with each other. At their gnarled feet in the unmown grass, morels fruit from the rich dark earth. In my black sleep, in my white dreams, a single prayer: a swinging door.
"My father knew a lot about these things," my mother says. She tells me, after asking me if I have any ashes to coat the seed potatoes we are about to plant in the ground, that he used to do this all the time. She remembers this from her childhood, as well as how he used tobacco to ward off insects from potato plants. Fine threads of memory unspool from her white skull underneath her cap of white hair. Each day another white hair appears in my beard.
Under a microscope's shifting focus, cells can appear like individual walled medieval cities, buzzing with activity contained by heavily fortified borders. Or with the turn of a knob, the walls all fall and leave a unified maze of interconnecting alleyways, a shimmering lace of movement, an open field. On a late autumn day as golden light slants in across the dry grass , who can say where one begins and another ends? Who would want to? With each breeze, doors swing. Light roots the ground. Grass stitches the sky.
It's been about five years since John passed away. His brown eyes have long gone white in the soil. What do they see now? Perhaps they squint at the sun, green-gold now in the leaves at the very top of a hundred-foot oak. Or maybe they sift, transparent in the millions, from velvety gills into the forest air. In my sleep, maybe they rolled out of the earth unspooling white threads from their last home, crossed highways and valleys and nuzzled their way past my eyelids into my sockets, so that now a waxy white cord runs from John to me conducting like electricity a memory of a way of seeing. Two nodes of a network, one spirit flying from door to door.
There are some woods a half hour west of my house where I go on pilgrimage. Each year sometime around Labor Day, I make my way there and walk a trail that crosses a river and switchbacks up a hill, goes through a stand of pines and the soft susurrus of dry needles underfoot and finally comes to a spot that is completely unremarkable. Off the path (now a gravel road) to the right and down a slight shady incline among a thick leaf litter, I always find without fail the relics of this quest, these holy bones. Skulls, hip joints, knobs of tibia: a heap, a string, a constellation: the visible part of something so much larger and unseen: Calvatea gigantea.
My mother wants to be cremated when she dies. It's actually been a while since she's mentioned this, though she would remind me all the time when I was a child of eight or nine – over dinner, while walking through the aisles of a toy store, driving me to school in the morning. "I don't want to be buried underground. Remember, I want to be cremated and then spread my ashes at the ocean." This was information I hardly knew what to do with at that age. Less a question of fear, my unease in these moments had more to do with some sense of the morbid gaucheness of speaking of this, as if such speech came through a portal out of some other world. Now, with my mother in her seventies, I think I can appreciate more the radical gesture of cremation, this act which so forcefully impresses on its survivors the transformation of the deceased. The fire of burial, on the other hand, is an exceedingly slow burn. It is the work of a trillion small enzymatic bonfires in each fungal thread turning flesh into soil.
I palm one, small as a newborn's skull and as soft, with my index and middle fingers on either side of the delicate little vertebral cord connecting it to its gargantuan body beneath and with a light pressure snap it. Others are much larger: grapefruits, soccer balls, basketballs. One looks like an albino piglet curled up asleep, another is two feet across and must weigh ten pounds. When I get home I find that one of them is already too far gone, all golden and curdled inside. I tear it into large hunks as if ripping apart a giant loaf of bread and scatter them about the yard. Over the next year, as I pass them I give them gentle nudges with my foot or pick them up and squeeze them like playing a bandoneon. Ochre smoke billows out, even a year later, like curls off a trillion bonfires. Smoke, spores, this swinging door, this future life.
Fungal hyphae finger their way into plant roots. Family histories flow downstream and wash over/through me. Knowledge networks bodies. This is a little effort at considering cells when the microscope lens slips and membranes fade out of focus.