On Seeing in the Woods
Amidst the duff of a darkened forest floor the flash of orange/yellow color that characterizes Cantharellus cibarius (or Chanterelle mushroom for the rest of us), is enough to get any mycophile’s heart racing. But to the untrained eye the likelihood of finding and recognizing edible mushrooms amongst the hyper abundance of flora and fauna that litters the forest floor is a completely different, and far less likely, matter altogether.
Amongst mushroom foragers it is a commonly accepted fact that the shorter you are the better the haul. The argument goes that the closer you are to the ground the higher the likelihood that you will find the tasty morsels (or morels) that you seek. It isn’t even uncommon for the children of foragers to outdo their older, and taller, counterparts, simply because of their favorable distance to the earth. Yet, while height plays a significant part in the hunt for mushrooms, I believe it has more to do with a cultivated and attuned quality of seeing.
The giant upside down Amanita muscaria (or Fly Agaric to the hallucinogenically inclined) that litter the gallery ceiling of Carsten Höller’s installation titled (all too literally) “Upside Down Mushroom Room” are more than absurd gestures or facile attempts to make us feel out of place. Rather, they are an attempt to rewire how we see. Inspired by the late 19th century experiment by Dr. George Malcolm Stratton who sought to understand how inverted images projected upon our retina appear upright by wearing glasses that flipped his vision, Höller’s work inverts our expectations twofold by distorting the size and orientation of the fungi he so playfully chose as subjects.
While the abnormally huge inverted fungi in Holler’s installation may seem like a playful experiment, the result can feel far more unsettling. Defying gravity and scale these mushrooms cause the participant to feel disoriented as our brain reels for an understanding of how it has found itself in a position that defies any previously learned heuristic. And so our brain begins to cope with this new information. Given enough time, just like Dr. Stratton proved with his inverting glasses, our brains would rewire and we would see once more.
Hunting for mushrooms, like Holler’s work, is implicitly tied up with how we perceive the world around us. From an evolutionary perspective it makes sense that as bipeds who once relied on gathering for sustenance we would develop a sophisticated set of tools that allow us to see in ways that maximize our fitness. It is just that in an era of HD TV and chronic over-stimulation we have lost our way in the woods.
What is most astonishing to me, a new convert to the world of mushroom hunting, is how quickly our eyes (and therefore our brains) adapt to the challenges of seeing in such a new environment. It begins with hopelessness. A quality of being completely overwhelmed by the presence of so many new stimuli that prevents our brains from making any sense of the mess. But slowly we begin to breakdown the layout of the forest floor, recognizing distinct niches of ferns or moss, revealing a distinct, and logical, structure. Little by little we start to see the thousands of Little Brown Mushrooms (or LBM) that materialize everywhere upon first recognition (but that are frustratingly indistinct for proper identification). With enough tromping larger mushrooms appear here and there, and with a guide (I recommend Dave Arora’s All That The Rain Brings And More…) proper identification becomes a welcome chore.
And then it happens. The moment arrives when you are no longer lost in a bewildering environment, but instead find yourself comfortable and attuned to the patterns of the forest. A fog lifts and you can finally see. This process, while at times fruitless and frustrating, is actually indicative of something transformative that happens in the brain: a collection of visual and environmental cues become linked and primed to maximize success in the search of rewards. It should come as no surprise that our bodies react accordingly to the environmental cues that signal potential reward. Whether it be a flash of color or a patch of particularly attractive moss, our hearts start racing while our palms become sweaty (sometimes before we consciously know what we are getting excited about) in anticipation of a mushroom that may just become dinner.
Unfortunately, this reinforcement works both ways. The commonality of palatable mushrooms with poisonous mimics can, at times, make the forest floor feel more like a mine field than a cornucopia. And one wrong mistake is all it takes to permanently discourage our brains from ever foraging again.
So what do a Belgian artist’s work and foraging for mushrooms have in common? Both can be seen as a celebration of how we see. Moreover, they are experiments that demonstrate the unbelievable plasticity our brain demonstrates when faced with novel visual and sensory stimuli. Furthermore, they provide insights into how our ancestors may have learned to survive in such a bewildering and constantly changing environment.
It is not uncommon to come home from the woods without a haul of mushrooms (reminding myself about what I need to pick up for dinner on the way home). But it is truly rare for me to arrive empty handed. More often than not I come home having found something just as nourishing; a new way to see.