28 February, 2009

Death and the Maiden

I'm up in New England again doing a bit of work, tending the shop really. Nothing too strenuous - a new roof on one of the commercial spaces (installed during what has been a very cold and snowy winter) needs approving, some tax issues need reviewing, mostly I needed a little rural recharging.

One of the tax issues has to do with a case of fraud (for which I was the mark) wherein the culprit made off with a few tens of thousands deposited on an excavation job. He cashed the check, bolted, and promptly bought a spendy ride (fully chopped custom bike) to propel an intoxicated romp across Maritime Canada.

So it goes sometimes.

Being a good American I sued, and after a year or so (during which the defendant reliably failed to answer subpoenas) I won, which of course means nothing if the defendant's address, income and assets are now part of his cell chemistry (the expensive ride was wrecked in northern Maine, I believe - the subject of somebody else's suit. This is a popular guy). So I'm figuring out how to deduct the losses from the company taxes - this one of my companies is in a fortunate position given the state of the economy; we're making money so some deductions are not altogether unwelcome, but I can think of better ways to come by them. As I sat running numbers I ruminated on what quantity of recreational pharmaceuticals such numbers might buy. The amount I arrived at was considerable.

Still, getting thoroughly fucked up is not altogether an ignoble pursuit. Maybe grand larceny, fraud, vehicular mayhem and treble damages are all worth it.

I was reminded that Plato was want to wander the hills over Athens for days on end in springtime with his philosophical confrères in search of ergot, a mycorrhizal fungus that favors certain early grasses and contains the chemical analogs to LSD. They took a lot of trouble, those ancients, to get high. My defrauder committed a great deal of energy to his mood alteration as well, and if things work out the way Colchester deputies think they should, he will continue to expend energy for a long time in memory of his Bacchanalia.

I do not have Plato's philosophical consciousness, a hustler's lack of it, or the devout interest of either to alter its contours dramatically. I'm more of a plodding voluptuary, and my greatest pleasures can be the smallest - especially if they're elastic or show up with some regularity. I'm with Plato on the fungus, however. It's about this time of year that I start to look forward to the snows thinning and the pines lifting and the chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) popping up. It's too early yet, but I took a hike upland with Ben to have a look for likely new prospecting areas, to check the old favorite and secret sites, and to see if I could remember my favorite recipes, such as Pfifferlingen in Rahmsauce - the Germans treat the arrival of der Pfifferling with a kind of reverence reserved otherwise for the likes of Elvis and David Hasselhof.

Last year I wrote of the morel hunt out in Oregon's piney woods. This year I'll be sticking close to the North Country oaks and focusing my vision softly for the tell-tale venting of the decoupaged and decaying ground cover where chanterelles and other root-bound symbionts do their work with the dead.

It was late afternoon as I walked, like Plato, in the hills, my thoughts full of fungus. The shadows were already long and I considered that the deer would be coming out soon - always an issue with Ben. Still, the low-angled light, the brittleness of the air and the bracing effect of climbing through north woods in winter had me in an excellent mood.

As I wandered among the oaks, maples, hickories and beeches, beneath my feet invisible tendrils of massive, acre-wide organisms pulsed with purpose, intent on inserting their fruiting bodies into my realm in coming months. Their purpose, biological or otherwise, apparently no one really knows; the fruiting body of the chanterelle is extraneous to its position in the great chain of being. The business of mushrooms takes place in mystery - to attempt to look at it is to destroy it. The part of any mushroom we can see, and the part of certain mushrooms we treasure, is the potentially lethal part of the ones we don't. It takes strong medicine to disassemble nature's complexity into discrete and again-useful elements, and some of it would just as soon dissolve your liver as it does deer spoor.

The working body of a wild mushroom is the mycelia that interdigitate with the roots of trees as symbionts, issuing a variety of nutrients as byproducts of metabolizing dead stuff and receiving sugars the tree produces from photosynthesizing. The whole arrangement is an exemplary shorthand for the cycle of carbon, indeed, the cycle of life. The tree reaches for and gathers to itself the energy of the sun, with it elaborating carbohydrates for acres of subterranean organisms which do the dark work of breaking apart dead tissues into useful molecules for the living. Too much light and a mushroom withers, dig it up and it tears apart. Thus are their chthonian powers associated with night and the moon, and, not incidentally, with lunacy, for among the many powers assigned to the kingdom Fungi, the many fancy alkaloid compounds they pack can have a profound effect on humans who ingest them; profound to the point of death.

Andrew Weil, in his trippy and rollicking The Marriage of the Sun and Moon: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Consciousness suggests that mushrooms collect and concentrate the powers of the moon in much the way the plant kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the sun, and the animal kingdom collects and concentrates the power of the other two, only in the end to be molecularly returned to the use of both. I like this idea as it has about it the whiff of a certain mystical sophistication, comports itself well to symmetry (justice?) and thereby gross scientific understanding, while in the same move thumbing its nose at problems of method. Perhaps Weil would say other kingdoms have other methods inscrutable to the animal mind, but there is about the whole flow-and-concentration-of-powers-idea something analogous to SM and therefore to me intuitively agreeable.

While crunching through the old snow, I found myself presently in the throes of a small reverie concerning the eerie parallels between the beautiful, mysterious, inscrutable, earthy, meaty, delicious and potentially deadly mushroom and that other great betokening of lunar wisdom, capital-W Woman. That Woman is associated with the cyclicality of the moon seems almost trivial in comparison to a moment's reckoning with her deeper mysteries, the collective genius of which governs the subtle substructures of all apparent being, penetrates all things and delivers the most refined products of its endeavors invisibly to striving humanity, mostly quietly, sometimes dramatically, all for the low, low price of being Dionysus' emmisary (Dionysus, the god of altered states, whose priests claimed sole rights to the hallucinogenic scarlet mushroom amanita muscaria, by means of which they communed with their master) and romping in the messy and necessary fields of destruction so that life may cycle through yet again.

I broke out of the Mile Around Wood onto a pasture in the far corner of which Ben was nose down to the frozen earth, blowing powdery snow up around his face and pawing excitedly. I was a good 25 yards from him. As I stopped to enjoy his pique a rabbit leaped in a small explosion of frost out of the ground not more than 20 feet from Ben, racing immediately toward the center of the field. Ben was after it before his nose was entirely out of the hole.

The rabbit, apparently realizing the error of its first trajectory, abruptly changed course 90 degrees for the cover of Bucket Wood opposite where I was emerging onto the scene. By that time Ben was very close and the rabbit's instinct to make for cover was its undoing. With a very small tack Ben placed his maul right in the rabbit's new path and with a plowing of snow and a quick jerk of the head it was all over. In all not more than 5 seconds had elapsed.

The rabbit was limp - clearly dead, but I called to Ben sternly just the same. Ideally he's not supposed to kill things on his constitutionals. When he gets a quarry in his sights often he remembers his shock collar and the situation is defused before it gets started. This time there was blood on the snow before my hand got anywhere near the sending unit. He stood a moment like a trophied show dog, head high, square of shoulder and absolutely at attention, ready to be judged by anyone who dared. As my voice faded into the woods he relaxed and sat down in the snow, pointedly not dropping his prize, defiant of my challenge to the taste of blood on his tongue.

I crossed the pocketed tundra intent to make my point with him, but, despite my thoughtful intentions, proud of his canine skill. His tail told me that he was wise to my ambivalence and he suffered no misgivings that I was either going to punish him or deprive him of his spoils. He looked very pleased with himself, tail twitching expectedly, and even put his prey gently down as I got close. His eyes were more twinkly than wild when I patted his shoulders and said "go ahead".

Ben picked up the rabbit, bounded about with it a few times, then put a paw on its broken back and tore a conservative rend in its middle, managing the gore with his tongue. Once the rabbit was splintered open he quartered it with Jacques Pepin - like flourish and made a clean job of devouring every bit, bloodied snow and all. I watched him relish his essential nature and worried only a moment about the possibility for worms, deciding that was simply not going to happen (just because) and thought finally that in a few hours, perhaps on the walk before bedtime, this rabbit, only a few minutes ago hibernating underground unmolested by either mycelia or Ben, would be transformed into to the sort of organic matter any mushroom would probably find useful.

I looked around to see if any oaks were nearby.

1 comment:

Asobime said...


Oh what a wonderful entry! Bad Ben!

Good Ben. Had he not devoured the bunny, you could have had a lovely dish...skinned, gutted, fried a little bit like Maryland Fried Chicken, in butter, with seasoned flour, and then stewed in milk for about 45 minutes....and you could have shared it with Ben.

I remember many years ago, after a bitter divorce, a friend bringing me a large basket of chanterelles, red, smooth, horn of plenty, pigs ear, and other mushrooms, and without a thought to whether he knew what he was doing, I sauteed them in butter with a little wine. Perhaps I had a death wish going..

Oh my god! What a delight that meal(s) was. The different mushrooms tasted either like chicken/veal/beef/lamb, but really indescribable except Incredible!

Obviously my friend knew EXACTLY what he was doing. He gathered them in a forest besides the mighty Chattahoochee River I believe in the spring.

I have never had a meal like that again. I have tried, and have bought many different kinds of fungi to replicate that meal so long ago, but I have never been able to do so. Fresh gathered trumps even expensive specialty mushrooms in stores.

Since then, I have become a mycophile....

I remember many more years ago tromping through a field in Ann Arbor in the dead of night looking for 'magic mushrooms'. God only knows why we didn't die. There were bulls in there.

Thanks, Mac, for the fond memories...