Scenes From a Pandemic: 32

9 11 2020

by Maria Margaronis

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe and experience it.

A walk in the woods, and what have we here? (photos: Maria Margaronis)

A Walk in the Woods

London, Halloween

Secretive, indifferent, they erupt from the shadow world beneath our feet. They whisper risk; promise delight, delirium, or death. Their names are magical: crowded parchment, club-like tuning fork, hairy curtain crust. Candlesnuff, fragrant funnel, collared parachute, coral spot. Destroying angel. Dead man’s fingers. There’s respect in the stretch for connection in those names, that effort to domesticate without denying mystery.

I live on the edge of a wild London park, so big that after a lifetime of wandering there I can still get lost in its woods. My housemate is a senior hound of stubborn habits and profound emotional intelligence. Together we walk every morning, rain or shine; this is my sanity in the long season of uncertainty. I alternate between looking up at the trees and down at the packed dirt paths and layers of fallen leaves. For years I’ve searched for shards of broken china—flashes of blue or pink against the grey, debris from Victorian middens used to fill the ground. Now I look for fungi too. As darkness presses hard against our flimsy human arrangements, I find their quiet persistence, their getting on with it, comforting.

Mostly they come in shades of white or beige or gray. Pale tentacles poke out of rotting stumps; dull frills edge fallen logs; white domes like flying saucers lurk under the grass. But today, in the woods, the dog and I discovered a spreading patch of amanita muscaria, or fly agaric—the bright red, white-spotted toadstools native to fairyland. They took my breath away: their unlikely brightness pushing up through dead leaves, the presence of something I’d associated only with the world of imagination.

Fly agaric, ready for its close-up

I’d also always thought that they were deadly poison—a loud scarlet warning. In fact, in measured quantities they are hallucinogenic. (They will also make you very, very sick.) The first mushroom known to produce visions in the West was not the fly agaric but psilocybe semilanceata, the common liberty cap, so named by Samuel Taylor Coleridge for its resemblance to the Phrygian cap worn by the sans-culottes of the French Revolution. But it was the flashier (and more dangerous) fly agaric, encountered in Kamchatka by a Polish traveler named Joseph Kopek around 1797, that penetrated European folklore and became the official mushroom of Victorian phantasmagoria, a parasol for elves and pixies in children’s picture books, the kitsch accoutrement of garden gnomes in the fantasyland of suburbia.

Illustration by Richard Doyle from his In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf-World (1870)

The dog didn’t deign to sniff my fly agaric patch; probably just as well. But those toadstools spoke to me of things that seem especially precious on this weird Halloween, as the pandemic rages across Europe, and our incompetent, blustering, disconnected disaster of a prime minister announces a four-week lockdown too late to save thousands of lives: imagination, risk, rebellion, wildness, mystery; dangerous beauty erupting from the darkness underground.

Maria Margaronis is a writer and radio documentary maker. A member of Kopkind’s honorary board, our friend, summer neighbor, and a guest speaker in 2011, she was Andrew Kopkind’s first Nation intern, in 1983.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on The Nation‘s website on November 4, 2020. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: Alicia Garza on Possibilities for Our Collective Future

detail, Satsuma porcelain bowl, late Edo period

Alicia Garza (then Schwartz) came to Kopkind as a young organizer in 2006. Seven years later she was a force behind Black Lives Matter. She has a new book out, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart. In this audio excerpt from her introduction, she mentions her childhood attraction to Satsuma porcelain “because it looked like broken pieces that had fused together to make something new,” and speaks of BLM in terms of the organizing that led up to it long before it emerged on the stage of history—the work that came together and broke apart and came together again, not as a hashtag but as people in motion. “My hope,” she writes at the end of the introduction, “is that this book leaves us thinking differently about the moment we’re in, how we got here, and where we can go, together—and what gets in the way.”