Saturday, October 30, 2010

Once upon a midnight dreary

Late October. Green fades. Chlorophyll closes down. This is the season of the Grim Reaper. Mushrooms skulk the forest floor like spirits of the damned. Costumed for trick or treat.

Why do so many species of mushrooms have Halloween names? Destroying Angel. Fairy Helmets. Jack-o'-Lanterns. Death Cap. Witch's Butter. The names betray our feelings. We don't trust them. Something deep in our folk consciousness turns away in revulsion.

Is it that some mushrooms are poisonous? Hallucinogenic? Or is it something deeper? Druidical? Are we reminded of the fairy spirits of our forest-living European ancestors? Is this what Shakespeare's Prospero had in mind when he addressed the elves "whose pastime is to make midnight mushrooms"?

Fungi are heterotrophs, which means they require for their nourishment organic compounds synthesized by other organisms, namely green plants. Some fungi are parasites; they take nutrients from a living host. Most fungi are saprobes; they obtain nutrients from non-living organic matter and cause its decay.

Mushrooms are the grave robbers of the plant world, shunners of sunlight, and it is appropriate that they come out in autumn's failing light to prowl with goblins, witches, incubi and succubi, dancing in fairy circles. There is something darkly sexual about them. The phallic stinkhorn. The vulval earthstar. And those wicked little men of the woods, which I have never seen except in foreign handbooks, the Crowned Earthstars, Geastrum fornicatum, marching in lascivious gangs, with open mouths.

Our ancestors roaming the dark forests of Northern Europe may have seen the mushrooms as spirits of the dead in macabre resurrection. Appearing overnight, in garish colors, these Lords of the Flies evoked, somehow, mysteriously, thoughts of malevolence and lust.

This is the week of their final fling -- night-stalking tricksters, ectoplasmic Halloween spooks.