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A Fungus Among Us

The computer strikes again!  Here I am typing away  at my keyboard-in-the-corner, writing  what I’m hoping will be more-or-less reproduced below and—WHAM!  It all disappeared.  Gone! Gone!  Nowhere to be found(Not that I could find it anyway, technological klutz that I am).  Nearly a page of deathless prose lost into the ether of cyberspace.  What’s REALLY irritating about it is that I had started the piece the night before—not something that I often do, being a world-class procrastinator—so that I could have a little “down time” and not be rushed into doing a bunch of the stuff that I suddenly find that I have to do that I had not planned for.  And now this! Grrrrr!  What follows is a reconstruction, to the best of my recollection, of my this-year entry for the Pulitzer Prize.  If the award does not come my way, I’m, blaming it on this glitch.

This week end the AB-J special sections—and the R-C too—are going on about the various chores that are coming along  to prep the place for winter (They’ve already missed the boat out in South Dakota).  They mentioned   the influx of stinkbugs and planting bulbs and mulch and all sorts of things but no mention  was made, not a word was written about mushrooms!  Or toadstools!  Not one!  Well, there’s a topic, if I ever heard of one.

This was pointed out to me by noted local mycologist, Jim Hammar (Neither one of us will touch a mushroom unless it comes—preferably wrapped in plastic film—from the grocery.  We’re  highly unlikely to go out into the woods and meadows looking for edibles…and don’t get me started on fiddlehead ferns or dandelion greens or lambs quarters, whatever they are).  There are people who go foraging for wild foods;  we are not among them.

This year’s output of mushrooms( the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus) and toadstools has been particularly colorful.  I’ve seen the standard white ones, lots of little, spindly brownish ones, ruffled and striped ones sticking out of the sides of trees, puffballs, stinkhorn, morel, orange, yellow, greenish ones; you name it, it’s  lurking out there somewhere.  Lurking would be the operative word, since a goodly number of them are found under things or growing from unappetizing substances, illustrating how  these guys got their names.  I always just thought that the words themselves were amusing.  Picture a toad sitting on one.  The word ”mushroom” may come from the French word for moss—“mousse”(And what are we having for dessert, my dear?).  “Toadstool” may have originated with the German “todesstuhl”, “death’s chair”.  Does that make you want to fetch a few for lunch?  For believers in the “little people “  in the woods—dryads, leprechauns, etc.—keep in mind that mushrooms and toadstools are the preferred seating arrangements of gnomes.

Most of these are perfectly harmless, the wild version of the ubiquitous button mushroom(Agaricarus bisporus )found in the produce department.  Folks who eat mushrooms can be called mycophagists( Could be worse).  They can choose from crimini, shiitake, portabella (and their children, the baby portabella), oyster, enoki or the aforementioned button mushrooms.  Awhile back some of the more “out there” chefs were touting    side dishes based on that black stuff  known around here as corn smut(Didn’t look much better than it sounds).  You won’t see me heading out to  pick anything for the table because the Amanita muscaria, (Fly mushroom, said to be used as an insecticide when shredded and placed in milk) and the Amanita phalloides, “death cap” (Look for it on a pizza near you)are out there just waiting for the unwary to pick them and chow down.  Bad idea.  As a matter of fact, that last baddie at one time had a reputation for being so poisonous that just inhaling the spores could kill a person.   Luckily, it IS kind of distinctive, having a  red cap with white spots…or variations on that color scheme.  Would look lovely in a toad’s living room, not so good in the ER.

Some people have what has been termed “fungophobia”, a fear of fungus; I may have a touch of it myself.   However fungi of all sorts have had uses in medicine (Think: Chinese traditional, penicillin, statins, lovastatin, etc.) and their psychoactive properties have been known to groups as diverse as      many tribes of Native Americans and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury (Magic Mushrooms…’shrooms, man!  Fly on!).  Lately, some researchers have been investigating   the combination of these properties and finding that the psilocybin contained in the Psilocybe cubensis  do good things for sufferers    with Migraines or OCD.  Textile dyes—organic colors—have also been made from mushroom and  somebody is working on using fungi of various sorts to deal with pollution—mycoremediation, mycofiltration– that has stumped other methods.  Some scientists lean heavily on mycology in their work on phytopathology, a study of plant diseases, since a lot of what ails plants, at any given time, has to do with fungus .

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