The Gift of Mushrooms

Mushrooms carry an almost unintelligible magic. One minute they’re seemingly not there. The next, after a rain, they have taken over the world—coming up in every shape, size, and color in every corner of forests and neighborhoods. Once they’re out, they seem to disappear almost as quickly, spoiling like the rotting wood or decaying tree roots from which they grow, just at an astonishing speed. Even what we call them hints at wrapping our minds around something just out of reach of full comprehension: toadstools, puffballs, stinkhorns, death caps, fairy rings.

Of course even what we think of as mushrooms, are really just the flashiest part of much larger underground networks. These fruiting bodies (sporocarps) sprout from a tangled mass of threads (hyphae) collectively called the mycelium, which lives on long after the mushroom we see rots. What grows in the dark is the real life of the organism, and nothing visible would exist without it.

Even these types of networks represent only a tiny fraction of the species we call fungi. Mycologists and other scientists are still figuring out ways this mysterious branch of life on earth—no longer thought of as plants like they were, even as recently as my high school biology textbooks, but as a whole kingdom unto themselves—interact with the rest of life.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the way fungal strands embedded in the roots of some nut trees function as an underground superhighway for information, nutrients, and more. These symbiotic mycorrhizae, she says, enable “the fungi to forage for mineral nutrients in the soil and deliver them to the tree in exchange for carbohydrates.” Beyond that, they “may form fungal bridges between individual trees so that all the trees in a forest are connected” transferring nutrients from healthy trees to struggling ones and allowing the trees to co-regulate nut production and set the tempo for the life of the whole forest. “All flourishing is mutual.”

I’m thinking of this wondrous mystery because I’ve witnessed a metaphorical mycorrhizal network among some friends on Instagram this summer, as we share photos of mushrooms we’ve found, writing poetry or other reflections on these tiny miracles, and basking in the joy of creation together at whatever level we’ve dived in to amateur mycology. We didn’t set out individually to create an Internet mushroom cabal, but the manmade mycorrhizae we call algorithms brought a snowballing cascade of vibrant photos into our shared feeds.

But is it just an algorithm? Though I’ve learned not to underestimate the power social media exercises in our lives, I won’t cede this—the symbiosis of mushrooms popping up simultaneously in Tennessee, North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia and the call to bask in wonder that my friends and I felt—to some artificial intelligence. If all flourishing is mutual, that is by design. God speaks in beauty as well as words, and calls us to attend to the world for our own good and the good of others. The interconnectedness we experienced over these posts is a gift.

The depth and breadth of our neural networks, as vast and complex as any mycelium and carrying a flow of information that none of us fully comprehend, is also still being researched, continually astonishing us with the web of knowing God has sewn into each of us. Absorbing the delicacy and grandeur of the world around us can attune us to God’s peace. Circulating ever-present reminders of creation can also attune us to each other. Networked loveliness can co-regulate us just as surely as fungi facilitate the health of the forest.

We share wonder with others as a way to stay alive together. Beauty springing forth to be observed by one of us can be shared to nourish others struggling to see the goodness of life at the same time. When one of us is strengthened, that gift is not for us alone, but for the strengthening of others as well. Art—even sharing phone photos of mushrooms on a social platform—is a response to something true and good and beautiful that can’t help but invite others to come and see.

As part of her story, Kimmerer writes of the wonder she uncovered by struggling to recover the Potawatomi language of her people. One of the first words that sparked her desire to find out what was hidden in her then-missing language was puhpowee—which could be translated as “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.” She writes, “As a biologist, I was stunned that such a word existed….In the three syllables of this new word I could see an entire process of close observation in the damp morning woods, the formulation of a theory for which English has no equivalent.” 

The mystery behind this word born of gazing at wonder sticks with me. The same God who pushes forth mushrooms after a rain is working out grace in the hidden places of our lives. The encouragement of new life from old that he nudges me to notice in my backyard or on a hike are worth meditating on. The sunrises and sunsets that paint the world every day are worth staring at and writing poems and prayers about. The glint of light on a fish’s scales or a rainbow in a waterfall or the ripples on a desert dune deserve all the attention we can spare. 

The flashes of beauty in this world are as fleeting as the life and death of a mushroom. They’re easy to miss. But they are so frequently given, it’s never too late to look up. I pray I will never stop straining to see or stopping to say “look at this!,” because the wonder that others want to (need to!) see it too will never stop amazing me.

Featured Image: Mushrooms in the golden hour, Hamilton County, Tennessee.

Holy Daybreak

or “Aaron’s Beard Redux: Psalm 133.5

The sun seeps contently across a thousand “heads,”
Spits of earth bathed gently by precious light that spreads
From the ocean inland down on cornfields, swamps, woods
And then, as on command, dawns to wake neighborhoods.

Above false light-rings snuffed by rising of the day,
Soft pink cloud-beards, puffed, shine back above the gray
About mountain collars transformed by the first rays
That hit peaks and hollers to Appalachian blaze.

Here beyond hills glowing, I watch the red-orange ooze
Spill down, slipping, slowing, toward misty valley blues,
Now casting blades of grass bowed with drops of dew
As countless beads of glass making the scene brand new.

Tomorrow they’ll reset and pull it off again,
Cycling without regret nature’s unfeigned amen.
Each day cries out wonder, sprouting what joy we’ve squirreled.
Blessing rends asunder the darkness of the world.

Soundtrack

At six-fifteen in the suburbs
Day and night shifts greet each other,

Chattering robins, cardinals, wrens
Echoed by a barred owl’s questions.

For a moment they acknowledge
The shared dominion of sound

And take turns, stopping dissonance
With great breaths between each call.

Dark and light are not comingled
With such grace in ordinary time;

Hope of light vain and vague at night,
Darkness tempting thoughts in the noon sun.

But the turntable spins time and again,
Accompanied by untroubled birds.

The Resurrection of Irises

The specificity with which Easter falls in the year, tracking with the prescribed dates of the Passover festival, convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be in the midst of the turning of the seasons. It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (which I love), he says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The fundamental uniqueness to the second person of the Trinity being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting. Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. But I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). This one (pictured below) is my favorite, both for its outlandish style and its understated resilience.

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into one bed. They kept growing, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. But they did eventually come back to life.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. They were listed by the AIS as extinct in 1939. But here in 2022, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance in April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes—every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the son of God. The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father—that part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity—it the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ. The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own rage and inability to control even the process of getting the kids out the door to school without it. 

God knows I am weak, and he sends flowers. They speak of his goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes, because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.