The rain came down shockingly hard, flung by someone up high who must have been really angry. The skies overhead were a dense soft-colored silver, but lurking at the fringes of the yard, coal-colored clouds were advancing fast. Mazel Tov and I had been playing throw-and-fetch out in the lazy drizzle, but the sudden onslaught of wild weather chased us inside. We made it into the kitchen just as the rain began pelting the windows with stinging rain. From inside the house, it sounded like a downpour of gravel.
Carter and I are back in our little blue house again, and are trying to settle now that the kids have moved on to their new place and winter is about to turn over on us. When I look back over the summer and fall, I realize that I have been gone more than I have been here since our cross-country move in June. One of my readers wrote to me that in every move she made, at first only a few parts of her moved, and the rest had to catch up as time passed. I feel that way, like my arms and legs made it to Washington, but my belly and neck are still in Indiana, and my head is floating somewhere between California and here. I don’t know where the other parts of me are. I’m sure they’ll show up eventually…
I have not taken enough time to write about the wonder of this transition back to the Northwest, where my writing life began back in 1995 with the creation of “Animals as Teachers and Healers.” There are still-familiar aspects to the area, of course, but I am returning here after an absence of fifteen years. I’m sure the landscape is much the same, but who I was fifteen years ago has changed. My connection to Nature has deepened. My awareness of the symbols, signs, and sights in the living world before me has quickened.
For example, when I lived here back in the 90s, I never noticed the mushrooms. Never noticed a single one of them, though I’m sure they sprouted up all over the place. Something draws me to them now, and I walk through the forest park near our house with my eyes tuned to the silver and brown, tan and pearl hues of the fungus. They blossom discretely along the dirt path; spring up from the bodies of fallen, moss-covered trees; peak out silently from beneath the umbrella of fallen leaves and rain-heavy fern fronds.
While visiting my mom in Crescent City awhile back, I took a two-day mushroom identification class at the local college. I learned many of the things a rank newbie needs to know about the mycelia world. But I didn’t learn nearly enough to start eating mushrooms off the forest floor. Currently, I am in the gathering and pondering stage. On our morning walks, Carter and I may pick a few to bring home and study with a magnifying glass and our mushroom field guide. I liken this process to learning about a whole community of new friends and teachers. Sometimes, I even hum a few bars of “Getting to Know You” while I turn the cool and mysterious fungus around in my hand and learn the feel of it. Then, I’ll peak underneath that unique petticoat we call a mushroom cap, to find what may look like fish gills, or a sponge, or even tiny spines. Mushrooms hold no end of surprises.
They also hold no end of lessons and cautions about the world around us, and about our place in it. I find the mushroom a particularly apt teacher for me these days as the world around me seems to become more treacherous with each step: Poison in our food chain, poison in our waters, poison in each breath we take, poison in our politics and in the way we humans treat each other. From the fragile negotiations between families, friends, and lovers trying to learn to live compassionately with each other, to the epic challenges of countries trying to do the same, we struggle to find our place without stepping on the sanctity and soul of others. In our tenuous relationship with our mother planet, we suffer when we realize we have lost our ability to translate her language, thus to hear her wisdom and her cries. Often, we hurt when our intention is to help. Often, our ears remain stone deaf even as we strain to hear. Often, our eyes are blind when it comes to reading Creation’s wisdom.
And so I’m pondering what mushrooms require of me so that I may be in right-relationship with them. I believe that if I can learn right-relatioship with a mushroom, those lessons will serve me in all the other big and small relationships of my life. I’m certain this is true because this is simply how nature works: Study deeply enough and any denizen of the natural world will teach you all you need to know about life.
So I’m listening to mushrooms these days. I’m spending time with their sacred texts and endeavoring to be a good student. Among our mushroom relatives are some of the most powerful healing medicines on the planet. For those who seek to visit with Spirit face-to-face, certain mushrooms can guide us there. Many mushrooms provide tantalizing, nutritious food for those willing to put in the time to get to know these relatives on a first-name basis. Then, of course, there are those mushrooms that carry within their bodies some of the strongest, most deadly poisons on Earth.
I’m only beginning my relationship with mushrooms, and already I have learned that I that a quick, hurried look will not suffice for me to distinguish a deadly mushroom from a tasty one, a spirit-revealing mushroom from one that will cause me to vomit my insides out, or a healing mushroom from one that will eat my liver. A relationship with any mushroom requires a very discerning eye. I find myself getting down on my knees a lot when I’m “mushrooming.” Is this mushroom attached to the ground, or to an old decaying chunk of wood? Is it shiny-slimy or chalky on top? Is it in its mushroom infancy, or doddering off into old age? The young of some mushrooms can look just like the very mature in another type of mushroom.
Such a close look requires me to slow down and breathe—a good habit in the beginning of any new relationship. Just, first, slow down and take a long, close look. Use all the senses. I smell the mushrooms. Some smell like almonds, some like fresh fish. All these things are important identifiers. If I were ever called upon to negotiate a peace, I believe I would first require all parties to first slow down. Breathe. Take a deep sniff.
Stepping a little deeper into this new relationship, I am required to consider the mushroom in all its totality.The mushroom poking its head above the ground is not the whole enchilada. A mushroom conceals much of its life beneath the soil, where its root-like threads—called mycelia—weave an intricate web underground, feeding, eating, and connecting the living tissue of the earth. Mushrooms have a particular way of springing up from the ground. Some have a round bulb on the bottom of their stems to anchor them to the earth. Some sprout from what looks like a kind of vulva. Others stand strong on very skinny stalks. Some have no stalks at all. All have remarkably different relationships with their deeper mushroom selves.
We humans are rooted to our own particular kind of undergrounds. Our roots reach not into the dirt, but into the symbolic soil of our unconscious and our souls. Mushrooms teach me to consider the totality of my human relations, and to respect what is unseen beneath the surface. I’m getting to know new family members (Carter’s children) here in Washington. Some are stepchildren, some are extended family of step-children. The Thanksgiving celebration of this clan was so large, they needed to host in it a church community room.
Imagine me for a moment as I sit at long tables talking with these people who are mostly strangers to me. I file away in my head pieces of stories they tell. Some of the stories are about who they are. Some are about what they think. Some are about what they think of other family members. I listen closely to all I see and hear, breathe, take a good sniff, and I remember that much—perhaps most—of this complex organism called Extended Family—is concealed down beneath the dark soil of the unconscious. Like threads of mycelia, the beliefs that form this family and the fears that drive it remain unseen and mostly unknown by the family itself.
I may never know the workings of this underground web, but I must respect it. In all of my communications with all the souls life butts me up against, I must remember to keep in mind this darker mystery and honor it. If I don’t, if I only consider what I see and hear at the surface, I will never understand anyone at all. Most of what drives families and relationships is underground. Sometimes it is deep, deep underground, and sometimes a well-directed question will serve to scratch the surface of that soil, and more will be revealed. But only if the question is asked with respect and an understanding of the mysteriousness that underlies all things.
We humans like a quick response to our actions. We like to see the results of what we do and choose come fast. We take a pill and expect our headache to be gone in 15 minutes. We gulp down a glass of wine and expect to start feeling giddy by the time the last drop trickles down our throats. We apologize for a mistake and expect complete forgiveness in an instant. Mushrooms are teaching me a very sobering reality that I must apply to all my relationships: Sometimes the effects of our careless actions show up much later down the line, with deadly consequences.
You see, some of the most deadly mushroom toxins won’t show their effects on the human body until several days after ingestion. I could pick an plate of seemingly tasty mushrooms, cook them up, and gobble them down, and not suffer the consequences for several days, at which time the toxins would have all been absorbed by my body. At this point, no purge will help. And death may be the result.
And so I am counseled by the mushroom to be ever-mindful in my relationships with all things. There is little room in most relationships for carelessness. The effects of bad-behavior may only be evident months, years, or generations down the line. I am reminded that the bad behavior of humans toward our planet has taken many years to become obvious. And now that we see the evidence of our actions all around us in the form of famine and flood, climate change, pollution, extinction, and so much more, it may be that the toxin has already overtaken Earth Mother, and there is no longer the chance to purge or to effectively apologize. I pray that we will be luckier than that, and that the Earth is more resilient than we know to our poisons.
The ground here is becoming cold now with the winter moons coming on soon, and the rains fall constantly. All the mushrooms of the forest and field are looking waterlogged and tired, yet I will continue to seek out my fungi brothers and sisters even in these wet times to learn what I can. All my relationships are depending on it.