The Pacific Northwest breeds life like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve already mentioned slugs. Also coniferous trees (when I took “Washington History” at Battle Ground High in 1971 – a required course, mind you! – it was 10% history and 90% tree recognition).



The Northwest also breeds mushrooms, toadstools, and puffballs.



All of them popped up everywhere, in all shapes and sizes. Puffballs were my favorites: smooth stemless white spheres connected to the ground by a stubby little root. When they’re growing, they’re full of what looks and feels like damp styrofoam; in death, they wither into little brown dry bladders that emit a smoky cloud of spores when you step on them. Fun! (Some people eat them. I had them served to me once. Meh.)



My mother grew up eating wild mushrooms. She had only one test for poisonous / safe: if it was a white mushroom, and if you could peel the skin off its head, it was okay to eat. These she called “French mushrooms.” I was mistrustful of this, as it seemed just a little too easy. Then there’s the silver-dime test: if you cook your mushrooms with a silver dime in the pot, and if the dime turns black, they’re poisonous. Two problems here: a) no more silver dimes; b) all it proves is that there’s something in the pot with sulfur in it. Lots of people must have died for nothing over this one.



You know I love Betty MacDonald. As a real Northwesterner, she wrote about mushrooms a lot. In “The Egg and I,” she writes about collecting wild mushrooms and comparing them to pictures in her field guide to determine if they were poisonous. This line, for me, is the best thing anyone ever wrote about mushrooms: “Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn’t, so I tossed it into the pot.”



In her lovely last book, “Onions in the Stew,” she writes about gathering yet more wild mushrooms, and trying (unsuccessfully) to get her family to eat them, and eating them herself just to show them how foolish they were being, and going (temporarily) blind as a result.



Mushrooms must be awfully good, if they make us go to such ridiculous lengths. It’s understandable that they would want to protect themselves from us.



But, for true mycological viciousness and perversity, nothing compares to the things I’ve seen here in Rhode Island. I suppose it stands to reason: this whole area was pretty much swampland for millennia, and a little rain brings all the old inhabitants back.



Including some of most peculiar fungi I’ve ever seen.



One variety looks like a rotten head of iceberg lettuce, with a gooey interior. It lies on the ground and stares at you like a big rotten pink-purple eyeball.



Some are airy little spotted toadstools that look adorable and just dare you to touch them.



And then there are the beauties you can see at the head of my blog today, which I spotted outside my office building the other day. They are red, and beastly, and very – well, suggestive. “Nature is perverse,” my colleague Cathleen said while we were pondering them. “It really makes you wonder what God was thinking about when he made them.”



I could not have said it better myself.




About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to

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