We are hunters, my siblings and I. It’s early morning, and a film of mist papers the air, which insects unzip with erratic flight patterns. We trek across a thick carpet of pine needles near Guilford, Connecticut, our steps and voices softened. The cool October air is heavy with water, and as we breathe, we taste the smoky-sweetness of decay and wet leaves, a flavor like antique furniture crusted with dirt.
My mother brought us here to hunt mushrooms. She’s been enthralled by them since she took a medical mycology course in college, where she learned about the dark and light of the mushroom kingdom: the toxic spores, black mold, and also the beauty, the delicious flavors of rare species. She stops every minute or two to reveal hidden mushrooms blooming from the undergrowth, the poisonous and the edible, bright orange caps glinting like bells in the dirt. Since we aren’t eating the mushrooms, she tells us to pluck whichever ones we like from the earth. Their poison won’t touch our tongues; we are using them for art. My siblings and I spread through the forest, wild animals scavenging.
The names of mushrooms are music: Chanterelle, Death Angel, Enoki, Black Trumpet, Witch’s Butter, Lion’s Mane. They are neither plants nor animals. They are fungi, which is its own classification. But they are intimately connected to the plant universe. Fungi form communication networks beneath the soil, allowing trees to share messages and deliver nutrients to their kin. The system is splayed underground, interwoven patterns spiraling out like city streets. When seedlings are too small to see the sunlight, mother trees offer nourishment and minerals to them through the pathways of the web. This structure contributes to the health of the forest as a whole—its resilience, the power of its interconnection.
At home, my mother spreads sheets of computer paper across our kitchen table. The white rectangles make windows in the wood. We unload the mushrooms, sprinkling the table with soil. They are mostly round, but some are ruffled and oblong, and some are blemished and crooked. My siblings and I decapitate our treasures. We toss the stems and lay the heads onto the paper, the side with the accordion of gills face-down. Overnight, spores will rain down from inside, dusting the paper with powder in the shape of the mushroom’s gills.
Mushrooms can make it rain. Many release billions of spores each day, and as these spores traverse the atmosphere on currents of wind, water vapor condenses on their surface, forming microscopic bodies of water. When the water is too heavy to hold, the spores release their rain, letting it unravel into the dirt below. This cycle is essential to the ecological well-being of many forests. And it is the genesis of the next generation of fungi.
There’s fungus among us, my mother says.
In the morning, my siblings and I find the mushrooms slightly shriveled, having lost water overnight. The spore prints wait like wrapped presents. We lift the caps to find giant eyes underneath—their irises varying shades of yellow and brown. When we look away, the eyes move. Blink. They gaze at us. We’re young and believe in that kind of magic.
Scientists studying the tree of life, a map of evolution, have determined that mushrooms are more closely related to humans than to plants. We share much of our DNA, as we sprang from the same evolutionary branch. The history of our kingdoms is intertwined. We both breathe—draw in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, only they do it without lungs. And so I wonder about kinship: fungi lack thoughts and emotions, but they have an ecological sentience that allows their cells to adapt to their surroundings. Their world transforms them, and they in turn transform their world.
Mushrooms absorb pollutants and metals out of soil, water, and even radioactive contamination. They break down toxins and remove them from natural spaces, maintaining a strong sense of their surroundings, and they are compelled to improve the health of their environment. They can drink spilled oil, purifying the planet simply by existing.
When I turn rotten, my mother holds me against her heart, and when she lets me loose I am drained of anything heavy. As a kid, I liked to fight. I incited conflict, struggling against her. I was competitive, held rage in my chest, and lashed out. She enrolled me in piano lessons at a young age. I was an awful student, moping when I was told to practice. I stomped up to the keyboard and yanked out the bench, plunking out “Minuet in G” or “Für Elise” for the required thirty minutes. To me, music was too unruly for strict, technical lessons. I thought my mother was trying to structure something free. Music was not scales or theory or key changes; it was pain and joy. The fact that I was being forced to learn turned every song into a chore.
I always hated these wild and toxic parts of myself, the temper, the stubbornness. But my mother called them my “spark.” And she probably knew that I would grow to love music. That it would become woven through my body over the years, eventually inseparable from who I am.
My mother loves mushrooms because they are small moments of being. They just show up, she says, and people kick them over without seeing them. But they show up anyway, in their beautiful colors, orange, red, and brown. It’s a delight to witness these things that crop up temporarily. She describes how mushrooms recycle, breaking down trees. How some bracket fungi can be used as tablets to communicate, to illustrate meaning. And the spore prints illustrate something as well. It’s about discovering something novel, she said. Something totally unknown, that you wouldn’t understand just by looking at it. I see her kneeling as though in prayer by the mushrooms near our house. She has always caught these subtle seeds of beauty, drawing them out of invisibility. Though she is a scientist, driven by data and research, she is also a form of music. I hear her in the woods, oscillating between the keys of G and A minor. She investigates, analyzes, questions. I hear her voice in the Black-capped Chickadee, a brief gust of song.
I lived in France for six months in college, where I spent a damp Tuesday hunting wild mushrooms. Our French guide drifted over the ground, discerning fungi when they were imperceptible to the rest of us. He would pause mid-stride, eyes fixed on the ground, then kneel and brush aside a swathe of leaves. A cluster of earth-colored mushrooms would flourish from the moss, as if he had conjured them with a wave of his hand, the way my mother always could. It was a sorcery they shared. I spent the morning wandering through the trees, searching for these edible fungi, and tossing them into a sack. Three-thousand five-hundred miles away from my mother, I felt her drifting up from the Earth, her network stretched across the planet. At the end of the day, our guide suggested we split up the loot to take home to our host families. That evening, my maman cooked the foraged fruit in butter, and in them I could taste the pine forest in Guilford, Connecticut.
One of the largest organisms on earth is a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. She is an underground network stretching for almost four square miles, unseen except for the fruiting bodies that emerge from the dirt. She is composed of a communication network between genetically identical cells. She kills trees by invading their roots, which can be detrimental to the forest. Researchers have tried to eradicate her in the past, digging her out of the dirt, but she always leaves traces of her fibrous roots. She survives, as she has for thousands of years, and continues to recycle trees into soil. A giant, invisible power, she occupies her own slab of earth. We walk over her, and she holds us.
When we are born, some of our DNA remains in our mothers. Even after we are released, she carries us within her, our cells embedded in her body, her bones, her organs. Fetal cells spark in her brain. They are braided through her blood. What she has given us, we have also given back to her, in a microscopic way.
My siblings and I toss out the mushroom caps, leaving them in our backyard to decompose. Here, they will break down into dirt and dissolve back into the forest. Each spore print is different, my mother tells us. Like vein networks on leaves. Like bodies.
My mother bends over the prints, examining their patterns. Her eyes are the color of rotting wood peppered with moss. Her spine refuses to be regular, tracing its own path down her back, the sound wave of a song. She spent years inside a metal brace to correct it. Her spine is still slightly curved today.
Sometimes mushrooms must curve their stems to get to the light. Unlike plants, they do not convert sunlight into food—they grow by consuming organic matter from their environments. But many of them need sunlight all the same. It shows them the direction of the sky, and therefore the direction of gravity, allowing them to release their spores properly. Whether they use the sunlight for any other reason is yet unknown. Scientists know that light spurs growth, but this enigma is still being studied.
Mushrooms often erupt out of the soil, blooming in full, in a matter of days. Hence the term “to mushroom,” to expand or grow quickly. To flourish. To explode. This is fungus we’re talking about. Think of the healing forces that humans could release into the air. How could we change the sky? There are billions of imperceptible seeds orbiting our heads. One might drift away, a ghost, but another might rain down hard over miles of land, wrapping the planet in water until one lifetime ends and another begins.
Author Bio: Natalie Martell is an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato, where she teaches Composition and writes young adult fiction, poetry, and nature essays. She is the managing editor and art editor for Blue Earth Review. Her work has appeared in The 3288 Review.