About ‘Forest Spirits’

I had a story out in 2018! “Forest Spirits” came out in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #266 at the beginning of this month. I always try to share a little bit of background about a story when it comes out, but I’m only getting around to it now due to Reckoning 3 prep and then the holidays. I guess this is going to amount to my “awards eligibility” post too, such as it is, today being my last chance.

I haven’t written a whole lot this year, obviously. If you’re really hankering for more of my work, please read Reckoning 3. It means a lot to me.

So. “Forest Spirits” is a story about what it takes to rebel against an impending ecological catastrophe that has been making your life easier and better for a long time, to which you have been actively contributing. I imagine my inspiration for all that doesn’t need a lot of explanation. But it’s also a story about the revelatory experience of showing a part of the natural world that was instrumental in making you who you are to someone you love. I’ve been through that a few times. It’s not easy. It takes a hell of a lot of trust; it’s making yourself vulnerable, opening yourself up to the possibility that they won’t understand. At least it was for me. A lot of what I am, a lot, comes from my relationship with nature. The Mary Oliver poem I quoted in the upper right on this site communicates it probably better than I’ll ever manage.

I came up with the idea for this story at a writing retreat hosted by BCS editor Scott Andrews at his family’s house on Buck’s Elbow Mountain in the central Blue Ridge, over a week of very early, misty mornings spent hiking around fire access roads and cow pastures with Justin Howe. Yes, both Scott and Justin are people I trust with the part of my soul that is a product of mountains, mist, mushrooms, summer squalls, owls, trees, water trickling through moss, etc. Justin and I had a series of conversations about a kind of story that could take place on a path through wilderness, a story that would undermine certain traditional dramatic expectations by occupying the interstitial space between big set pieces, the parts that tend to get glossed over, particularly in adventure fantasy. We talked about Western plots that work that way, and bits from samurai films and what they have in common. And I ended up working out a set of story furniture I thought I could work with: small stakes both foreshadowing and emerging out of larger stakes, just a few characters, one of them being the setting itself, lots of backstory. I’m not sure if Justin ever did anything with this idea—I hope he tells me when he does. I’m very grateful to Scott for getting on board with it—the ending was entirely a collaborative effort between us, figuring out how to lead up to the edge of a climactic conflict without actually going there.

The setting of “Forest Spirits” is something between the central Blue Ridge, the eastern Berkshires and the colder, rockier White Mountains of my youth, all of which I miss dearly from here in the inland-sea geological flatness of Michigan. I’m indebted to Miyazaki—as I’m sure I didn’t have to tell you—and also to Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”.

Photo credit I believe goes to Erin Hoffman.

For the record: go into the wilderness with someone you love, trust and admire. Show them the parts of your soul you usually only visit alone. Take that risk. It’s worth it.

Some Tentative Explorations into the Genus Boletus

Last year around this time I poisoned myself, rather severely but not life-threateningly, with a mushroom by the name of Boletus sensibilis. A surprising amount of hilarity ensued. People love to hear that story; I will never live it down, and I can’t say I feel bad about that. It’s a story I enjoy telling, a cautionary tale, and something not a lot of people have or hopefully will experience.

However, it has had the inevitable side-effect of making people doubt my mushroom hunting erudition and caution. Believe me, both have improved dramatically as a direct result of poisoning myself. But I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life combating that judgment. And that’s fine, well and good. Don’t eat wild mushrooms unless you know what the fuck you’re doing.

To that effect, this summer I have undertaken a hands-off study of genus Boletus, a rather large class of mushrooms that distribute spores through a porous membrane rather than laterally separated gills. I don’t expect to be eating much in this genus ever again; among the people whose faith in my skills at positive taxonomic identification I have permanently shattered is my wife, who forbids me from eating any mushrooms I haven’t previously eaten without poisoning myself. I can still look. I can touch and smell. I can learn.

First, the easy ones.

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Strobilomyces strobilaceus, the old man of the woods mushroom. Found on the North Country Trail, Newaygo County, MI. A hard mushroom to mistake, and yet I learn it has three subspecies distinguishable only through microscopic identification of spores. All three, as I understand it, are edible only when very young, otherwise rather unappetizing.

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Boletus edulis, aka porcini, like you’d find in the grocery store, this one again found on the NCT in West Michigan. A rather aged specimen, though lovely, as you can tell by the bug-eaten decay in the cross-section. I am surprised to learn that there are not actually very many species of buff to tan, white-pored boletes, mycorrizal with mixed deciduous and evergreen woods, fruiting in late summer in the American northeast. And all of them appear to be choice edibles. Not that I would know.

Now on to the scary, confusing, variously blue-staining, variously poisonous red and yellow boletes, at which my gorge rises Lovecraftian despite their beauty.

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Baorangia (formerly Boletus) bicolor? var. borealis? This is (perhaps) the mushroom I thought (hoped) I was eating when I poisoned myself. Found a mile from my house in Bald Mountain Recreational Area, Oakland, MI. Beautiful soft creamy flesh, smells wonderfully of something very much like Indian yellow curry, tastes…well, I’ll never know. But delicious, they tell me.

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Boletus sensibilis, aka the Brick-Red Bolete? The one that poisoned me. Maybe. Or maybe it’s another variation of bicolor. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?

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Boletus flammans? or etc. Note red pore surface and blue coloration in pore cross-section, which came on almost as soon as I sliced into it. Here we have the trouble. There are just too many of them, with too much commonality of season and habitat, too much commonality of color and form factor, too much variety of color and form factor depending on age and habitat.

For example:

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Boletus subvelutipes, the red-mouth bolete. Or not. Just look at that monster’s deadly, blue-stained jaws.  I feel like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. How could I not be fascinated? After an experience like that, how could I not want to learn more?

Now I’m going to go donate some money to Michael Kuo, whose website is dauntingly detailed about all this and makes very clear what a vast and complex discipline is mushroom identification, and at which I have probably spent more time this month than facebook.

In conclusion: I need a microscope.

Also, here’s that caveat again:

Don’t eat any mushrooms you find in the woods unless you really, seriously know what you’re doing or have someone with you who does. Don’t come crying to me if you do and it doesn’t work out. If you do, and it doesn’t work out, and you find yourself violently expelling the entire contents of your digestive system, go to the hospital. You’ll live, and if nothing else you’ll have a very interesting story.

In the Woods Today: Will-o-Wisp

This one was too long for a tweet.

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Windy and warm in the woods today. Not like yesterday, when the wind shifted and died and came to life again and gusted in such a way that everywhere around me trees creaked and branches clattered and I could tell thereby that I wasn’t actually surrounded by distantly laughing children, barking dogs and shouting men even though that’s just what it sounded like. Not so today: a west wind, strong and steady. I biked out to this peninsula I like that sticks out into lake and swamp and hosts a half dozen huge old red oaks. Last year it suffered a brushfire, but the oaks survived. Aspens rise from the marshy ground to the west. I climbed my favorite oak. I heard a voice. Loud, not quite clear, but almost: “not my lake”, I thought I heard the first few times. No–the first few times I thought it was a pine tree creaking.

No kidding it’s not your lake, I thought, it’s everybody’s. Fuck off.

Then, maybe the tenth time, I heard “Caught my leg”, and then for the next twenty or so repetitions, clearer all the time. I stared across pond and marsh. It wouldn’t have done any good to yell–the wind was right in my face. I couldn’t see anyone. I scrambled down out of the tree and started into the marsh. Ice, that slickly clouded ice you only get when it’s been below freezing for weeks and then suddenly well above for three days straight. Twenty paces, no sign of anybody, I realize I am doing exactly what the will-o-wisp would want. His leg is stuck? What’s going to happen to me? So, temperately, but with a twinge that I’m abandoning some poor guy, I turn back. The shouts keep coming as I walk the quarter mile back to my bike. Keep yelling, I thought furiously at him, or I’m never going to find you, as I slogged through thick mud onto the west trail, a mile and a half clockwise around the marsh until I was on the far side of where I thought I’d heard him. I left my bike and plunged into thick brush. Now I was windward of him, so I started yelling. I followed deer trails, meandering all along the shore and out onto another little marshy peninsula I hadn’t known was there, then further out among the ice. I climbed another tree. I kept yelling, kept looking. I clung there in the tree, listening.

Nothing. Wind.

Rarely have I gotten so thorn-scratched and covered in muck for so little. Stupid will-o-wisp.

Antlers

Today drops the inaugural issue of Orthogonal SF: The War at Home, which features my story of technopagan populist revolution, “#Anon and the Antlers”. Yes, that’s a hashtag in the title. Yes, I did take leave of my senses a little. Not a little. That hashtag is the tip of the iceberg.

There’s not much I like more than a cautionary tale. This one starts with mad ambition, as I suppose cautionary tales tend to do.

Continue reading »

Veiled Lady


veiled lady stinkhorn, Dictyophora indusiata

In a clearing among thick brush under ceiba and palm trees, Quiriguá archaeological site, oh about 25 metres west of the ballcourt plaza. This may be the nicest mushroom picture I have taken. Look at the texture in the full size image. D. indusiata appears in tropical regions all around the world. In China it’s cultivated for cooking. I did not eat this one because I had no idea what it was at the time, and even if I had, they were blanket-gassing banana fields with pesticides on the other side of the forest.

But of course I’ll eat those bananas later.

Happy equinox.