Fungi In Another Light

Starting with Milo’s 2011 and 2012 posts, our attention to the wide-ranging topics related to fungi have been in the spirit of public service announcement. Scientific sometimes overlaps with culinary interest, and that intersection has motivated more than one post. Today, having noticed that this coffee-brewer on my desk looks inspired by the Pleurotus that just appeared on my screen, the motivation is aesthetic. Thanks to Helen Rosner, whose sense of wonder has pointed me to a publication that is likely already known by our fungi-focused friends, and well suited to broaden the appeal:

The Mushroom as Muse

A zine by the photographer Phyllis Ma presents fungi in all their alien glory.

Hortiboletus rubellus.

John Cage, the avant-garde composer, was also a passionate mushroom forager. In his 1954 essay “Music Lovers’ Field Companion,” he wrote about his habit of going into the woods and “conducting performances of my silent piece”—his most famous work, “4’33”,” in which ambient sounds are the only music—while attempting to identify nearby fungi. “The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them,” Cage said, almost three decades later, in a conversation with the French musician Daniel Charles.

Cordyceps militaris.

“Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is—its own center. It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition.” I thought of Cage’s comments while paging through the third and most recent volume of “Mushrooms & Friends,” a photography zine by the artist Phyllis Ma. It is a mostly wordless publication, filled with Ma’s saturated, otherworldly images of mushrooms, many of which she gathers on foraging expeditions through the same upstate New York woods that enraptured Cage more than a half century ago.

Ma’s studied arrangements are more like portraits than still-lifes. Her mushrooms take on character beyond what one might expect of their taxonomic kingdom. A pair of ruby boletes (Hortiboletus rubellus) joined at the root embrace like lovers, lit as if gazing at a golden sunset just out of frame. A cluster of pink oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus djamor) is shot in closeup, the velvet ripples of its caps and gills resembling a wall of coral, a maze of viscera, or the flesh of a grapefruit.

A massive specimen of Berkeley’s polypore (also known as stump blossoms, or Bondarzewia berkeleyi) is sliced in half and ornamented with green chrysanthemum blossoms and sprays of purple flowers. Set against a backdrop of seamless blue, the mushroom’s scale is unknowable: it could be a bacterium pressed on a microscope slide, or a full-scale building, set with trees and bushes. A trio of yellow-capped Amanita muscaria—mildly psychoactive, if you care to partake—stand on a halved purple cabbage set in front one of its velvet-gray outer leaves, like a bandstand, or a clamshell: a mycological Venus…

Read the whole article here.

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