Noli me tangere. Touch me not.
Halfway through Bo Widerberg’s 1967 film Elvira Madigan, the camera pans over a summer pasture with trees encircling. The sun is resplendent, and soon blond Elvira in her long striped skirt and white peasant blouse tumbles out of the woods with her new lover, a handsome soldier from the Swedish army. The story is true: 34-year-old Lieutenant Count Bengt Edvard Sixten Sparre abandoned his post and family for the 21-year-old acrobatic dancer, whose parents ran a small circus. They fled to the island of Tassinge in Denmark, where they lived for barely two weeks.
In the film, the couple is starving, famished, and falls upon a scattering of mushrooms. They drop to their knees and stuff the mushrooms wildly into their mouths without washing or chewing. Later they are sick like animals in high grass. Perhaps Amanita fulva, or “tawny grisette,” was the culprit. This species is found in conifer, birch, beech, and oak woodlands in Europe, and, like most Amanitas, it causes vomiting, gastrointestinal distress, and sometimes death.
But the mushrooms don’t kill Elvira and her lover. After thirteen days, Sixten knows their situation is hopeless and walks to town, where he spends the small remainder of their money on wine, bread, olives, fruit, herring—a lavish picnic lunch. They meander into a nearby forest, the Neorreskov, and make love one last time. Sparre draws his service revolver, shoots Elvira, and then himself.
It’s tragic, but not unheard of—romantic love can be a kind of poison, leading us to abandon our senses, families, careers, health, and sometimes, lives.
We recognize two types of mushroom washers: those who scrub (with water), those who wipe (with paper towels). The first care not for the mushroom’s integrity, only that it is clean. A cotton dish towel is spread next to the sink, the cold-water tap runs full blast. In her hand the scrubber holds a wooden mushroom brush with soft bristles, but as she plucks the mushrooms one by one from their blue cardboard box, she is not gentle. Every spot, every flake of peat is obliterated, till the mushroom, which absorbs water like a sponge, is exhausted and lies sodden on the towel. Sauté them and diners will be safe, but the mushroom turns soupy, is no longer firm to the bite.
The second have seen the mushroom videos. A hangar-like cool space, or a cave. Tables layered with humus, stretching far as the eye can see. The “wiper” is less fearful of bacteria, convinced by these documentary-like images. No one has studied the long-term health effects of mushroom washing. Has anyone died, by either method? Suffered nausea or parasites? Holding the mushroom by the stem, she brushes off the soil with a chamois or paper towel, careful to preserve its virgin condition. A wiper relishes the spring of its flesh against her knife. The mushroom is composed almost entirely of water, quite a trick, so why swamp its accomplishment?
In matters of love and dining, we are adventurous. Or not.
Once there was a naturalist named L. John Trott, who taught eighth grade at a small private school in Virginia. The L stood for “Little,” to distinguish him from his father John Trott. An unfortunate coincidence, as in fact he stopped growing at only five foot two. His science curriculum consisted of ornithology and botany, with a little textbook chemistry thrown in to please the parents. Students were deeply engaged in bird-banding, plant identification, and the natural histories of a dozen species.
In April one year, he led his class down a woodsy trail, pausing to identify Rue Anenome, Bloodwort, and the demure Spring Beauty clustered at the base of an oak. Ah, he said, here’s something interesting, Destroying Angel, or Amanita phalloides—from the Latin phallus; the immature mushroom is shaped like an erect penis. (Sudden interest in shoe tips. Relief when he went on.)
Very dangerous, pulling a pair of leather gloves from his jacket, stretching them over his hands, waving his circle of fourteen-year-olds back, back, back, before he knelt. Next to the leaves, he laid a finger on each section of the mushroom, beginning with the pileus—like an umbrella, he explained, designed to protect the scissor-blade gills which in turn protect the spores, microscopic “seeds,” rather like our sperm (sideways glances)—which you’ll never see with the naked eye unless you make a spore print, but that’s another lesson. Here then is the stipe and, ringing it, a partial veil or annulus. Most significant of all, the volva—consider the female anatomy—a semi-detached cup at the base of the stem. By this you’ll know Amanita. But be aware, the cup is often buried beneath soil or a rock.
Sometime later, with his naked finger, he brushed a lash from the crook of his left eye. A spore burned halfway through his cornea before he arrived at the hospital.
From that point on, Little John was a changed man. His students forever associated mushrooms with cantankerous pirates, thanks to the eye patch he wore.
Amanita phalloides is an easily bruised, pale beauty, the color of milk glass in its momentary prime, mature carriage like a tiny Greek temple. One bite, and you have boarded a subway to the grave. Amatoxins are the lethal component of Amanita. They resist changes in temperature and are quickly absorbed by the intestines. The estimated lethal dose is .1 mg/kg, or 7 mg of toxin in adults. Six to thirty-six uneventful hours may pass after ingestion. Then nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain begin in earnest. After a while, there’s momentary relief as symptoms subside. If you were planning to drive to the hospital, you might change your mind, assume the worst is over. This latent period is why Amanitais often fatal. Quietly, with little show, amatoxins invade the liver and kidneys. Without treatment, the result is coma or death.
Seeing one, you might think pedestal, or plinth, not toadstool—the nickname, ever since the fourteenth century, for all poisonous mushrooms. The word comes from the Middle English tadde and stole, and stemmed from a fear that toads themselves were deadly poison. Variations include tadstoles, frogstooles, frogge stoles, tadstooles, tode stoles, toodys hatte, paddockstool, puddockstool, paddocstol, toadstoole, and paddockstooles.
innocent as sugar
but full of paralysis:
is to stagger down….(Mary Oliver, “Mushrooms”)
We keep our distance from catastrophe—invisible, silent, or otherwise. Our brains are hard at work on self-preservation. But powerful as our instinct is to stay alive, we also crave knowledge, excitement, and pleasure. The germ of touching begins in the brain—first as a mild curiosity, then as a spur to action.
By sight, the most omnipresent Amanita is muscaria. Wherever the image of a mushroom is called for––in children’s literature, greeting cards, kitschy seventies needlepoint—its features appear: white stem and a bright-red, umbrella-shaped cap with marked white flecks or “warts.” The common name is “fly agaric.” In the Middle Ages crushed muscaria in a dish of milk would attract flies, which then grew drowsy and drowned. Even today the mushroom is used as an insecticide. It’s also possible the nickname derives from the medieval belief that insanity was caused by flies invading the brain.
The agaric is considered poisonous. But in small doses it’s a well-known hallucinogen. The psychoactive ingredient is muscimol, most potent in the layer of skin just below the cap. Like tryptamine (found in another hallucinogenic mushroom, Psilocybin), muscimol mimics the effects of serotonin on the brain. Symptoms occur thirty minutes to two hours after ingestion and include dilation of pupils, confusion, repetitive actions, euphoria, a feeling of unusual strength, distortions of body and time, and visual hallucinations.
4,600-year-old hieroglyphs from Egypt suggest that the agaric was considered a gate to immortal life, but only royalty could indulge. Certain Vikings in Scandinavia ate the mushrooms and, in war, rampaged unmanageably; they came to be known as “Berserkers,” hence one likely origin of the word berserk. In Eastern Siberia, A. muscaria was used recreationally as well as religiously. The Koryak tell the story of the god Vahiyinin, who spat upon the earth and his spittle became the mushroom and his saliva the warts. Big Raven consumed the mushroom, which enabled him to carry a whale to its home. He was so elated with his new powers, he begged the god to scatter the agaric far and wide so that his people could experience it too. Western Siberians were less fortunate. There, only the shaman could eat the mushroom to induce a trance state; the rest of the tribe drank his urine, where the active ingredient persisted, without most of its toxicity.
In his book The Greek Myths, Robert Graves hypothesizes that the Dionysian rites were conducted under the influence of Amanita muscaria. Other researchers have conjectured that agaric was used by Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Isiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, even Jesus and his disciples. A 1291 fresco in Plaincouralt, France, shows the agaric right alongside Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the Tree of Knowledge. Eve bends forward, her hand resting on her distended abdomen, perhaps in warning to potential users.
To “mushroom” is to expand rapidly. To “pop up like mushrooms” is to appear suddenly, as if overnight. In fact, all species of mushrooms take several days to form, beginning with the pin stage, followed by a “button” stage. Finally, the mushroom draws in water quickly and can swell to full size in a few hours.
Doth like a bubble antedate,
And like a bubble hie….(Emily Dickinson, “Mushroom”)
Lewis Carroll, Victorian storyteller with an ambiguous attraction to little girls, was a known experimenter with fly agaric. Alice in Wonderland‘s body-warps and quick travels through time were probably inspired by agaric-induced hallucinations. In one scene, Alice is instructed by a hookah-smoking caterpillar to nibble from the mushroom he sits upon. She grows immense with a bite from one side, miniscule when she eats from the other. Her neck stretches grotesquely, her arms poke out of the chimney and two upstairs windows. She’s able to hear animals talk, bicker, sing. A croquet ball morphs into a hedgehog, a baby into a pig.
The story of a little girl’s daring and its unusual consequences impacted culture for decades to come. In the sixties, Grace Slick’s song White Rabbit included the infamous lyric: “One pill makes you larger / And one pill makes you small / And the ones that mother gives you / Don’t do anything at all / Go ask Alice / When she’s ten feet tall.” The era brought a desire for transformation through sexual freedom, a mind-bending rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack, and renewed interest in magic mushrooms—chiefly Psilocybin, but also Russula, Panaeolus, Stropharia, Boletus,and Amanita muscaria. (Most hallucinogenic mushrooms are now illegal in the U.S. But it’s still possible to purchase the agaric on the Web at just $29 an ounce—no stems, just caps!).
Over time the mushroom has become a symbol of metamorphosis and dark knowledge. For decades it lies low, subterranean, under the radar. Whenever a culture longs for adventure, hungers for something deeper and wilder (Lewis Carroll under the rule of Queen Victoria, Jefferson Airplane flying out of the American fifties), the mushroom rises from the loam. Its odor is musky, the scent of decay and lust.
Had nature an Iscariot,
That mushroom,—it is him. (Dickinson)
What we see on the surface—the mushroom’s pileus, stipe, and gills—is the reproductive organ of an underground fungus. A network of minute threads, called hyphae, gather into a root system called the mycelium, which can be tiny, too small to see, or massive. Mycelium is crucial in ecosystems on land and in water. It decomposes plant material and, in the process, releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. It enables plants to absorb water and protects against diseases. Some say the largest organism in the world is a contiguous growth of mycelium in eastern Oregon, estimated to be more than 1,665 football fields in size. A mycelium can live for years, centuries even, waiting for the right moment, the perfect mix of temperature and damp, to cast forth its curious, often deadly fruit.
If you are walking through the woods, your gaze fixated on the treetops, and by accident crush a cluster of mushrooms below, never fear that in your clumsiness you have destroyed the last remaining Russula silvicola, Boletus aereus, or Amanita citrona. Most likely, you’ve spread the spores more widely than the mushroom could have by itself.
“Our kind multiplies,” wrote Sylvia Plath in “Mushrooms.” “We shall by morning / Inherit the earth. / Our foot’s in the door.”
The apple is a sweet-smelling fruit with the pleasing shape of a sphere—a spiritual whole, emblem of completeness. Its domain is above ground, saturated with sunshine and fresh air. When Adam and Eve desired God’s knowledge, they plucked the apple from the Tree of Life and were separated from the Peaceable Kingdom forever.
The mushroom is far less exalted, rooted in the underworld, dirty. Its odor is dank and rotten. But, driven by the darker of Freud’s two energies—Thanatos: god of dissolution, negation, destruction, and death—we stoop and pick it up.
If we consume a magic mushroom while we are uneasy, depressed, or in some other gloomy emotional state, the experience can backfire. Once in a while, a mentally unstable user might suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or long-term hallucinatory flashbacks. Centuries ago, the Roman emperor Nero declared Amanita muscaria “the food of the gods” because it offered passage to a Paradise from which the mushroom-eater could return, like a god. But his rule (and that of many other emperors) was marked by decadence and sexual debauchery—a slouching toward the eventual fall of the Empire. The Great Buddha, Alexander I of Russia, and Pope Clement II were all victims of mushroom poisoning—murder perhaps, or misidentification. Charles VI of France died of amatoxin poisoning after eating a dish of what he thought were tasty sautéed mushrooms. His death led to the War of Austrian Succession. Said Voltaire, “This dish of mushrooms changed the destiny of Europe.”
Like any action with an equal and opposite reaction, temptation has its consequences. Perhaps the apple and mushroom aren’t really that far apart; they both promise god-like, forbidden knowledge. And they both come with a caveat: possible death. The mystery comes in our knowing the odds and choosing to taste anyway. We are the only animal whose imagination encompasses both transcendence and death. Yet we go for it. We taste.
Early Danish records raise the possibility that Elvira never saw what was coming. She was discovered in a position that suggested she was shot while sleeping, and her sisters claimed Elvira was a practical person, more interested in fleeing circus life than in falling so devastatingly in love. Quite simply, she saw Sparre as her passage out. To those who knew him well, the dashing lieutenant was far from the romantic hero exemplar. He was cynical, wasteful, a man with a serious gambling problem.
Despite all this, the doomed couple entered romantic mythology forever. The legend of two attractive young people who abandon social responsibility, defy moral convention, and finally die, all for elicit love, proved irresistible. We want to remember their story as Dickinson recalled her duplicitous mushroom: “The surreptitious scion / Of summer’s circumspect.” Perhaps we’ve stepped over some threshold of risk ourselves, bending to touch something taboo, intoxicating, lethal. Or if conscience and better sense prevailed, we at least want to read about it, listen, watch, and whisper the story to each other, not necessarily in warning, but in forbidden pleasure.
The tale of Elvira and Sixten became a ballad, composed by Johan Lindström Saxon. The couple was buried together in 1889, in an unmarked grave in the Landet churchyard in Taasinge. When Bo Widerberg’s film made them famous, a small marker was installed where, according to custom, new brides place flowers for the wedding bouquet that Elvira never received. It’s a lush, photogenic spot lined with small pebbles, lots of shade, and gray-green lichens. When the rains come and conditions are just right, perhaps an Amanita will surface—ghost in a veil, destroying angel, “its whole career / . . . shorter than a snake’s delay” (Dickinson).
Sarah Gorham is the author, most recently, of Alpine Apprentice: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press, 2017), which made the short list for the PEN/Diamonstein Award in the Essay. She is also the author of four poetry collections, including Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011), The Cure (Four Way Books, 2003), The Tension Zone (Four Way Books, 1996, second edition 1998), and Don’t Go Back to Sleep (Galileo Press, 1989). Her essays and poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, AGNI, Creative Nonfiction, The Southern Review, The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2006, and elsewhere. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three state arts councils, she is co-founder and editor- in-chief of Sarabande Books. She resides in Prospect, Kentucky. (updated 4/2022)