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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Gaiman, A Fun Guy, on Beatrix Potter, Science, and Art: You Can't Have One Without the . . . Others

         The scientific illustration of mushrooms and other fungi by Beatrix Potter, children's book writer and mycologist, is part of the inspiration for a poem by Neil Gaiman, "The Mushroom Hunters."

        The blending of science and art is described in Gaiman's poem, which begins:

      "Science, as you know, my little one,
is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.

      It’s based on observation, 
on experiment, 
and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed."

     "The Mushroom Hunters" is read by Amanda Palmer in its entirety here.

      Mushrooms, which are closer to animals than plants in their origins, are both mysterious and mundane. The poem continues (after a break):

      "Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.

      Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

      Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies.


      Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. 


Observe childbirth, 
measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.

And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe.


The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

      The men go running on after beasts.

      The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.

     They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms."


Have you hunted for mushrooms? My friend described finding some 'shrooms that helped him see the earth breathing. . .


  1. The Armitt Museum in England houses the Beatrix Potter mushroom, spore, and moss collection of scientific illustrations.

  2. We once took a mushroom walk at the South Mountain Reservation, in Millburn, NJ, guided by Gary Lincoff, of the New York Mycological Society. At one point, he claimed that many people who got sick after eating found mushrooms did so because they used too much butter to saute them. Afterwards, we did cook up some Hen-of-the-Woods that we found in our neighborhood. They were tasty, but I don't think I've retained enough knowledge to try anything else I might find without consulting a reference first.

    1. Mushrooms are a source of much fascination for me.

      Another friend says you can't go wrong with morel mushrooms and that nothing else looks like them. Hmmm.

  3. When I was in grammar school, we went on a field trip with a naturalist who visited our school on a regular basis. He found a deadly fly amanita - although they are ones that you can eat if you cook twice as the poem relates - and brought it back to our classroom to make a spore print. I remember being terrified having a poisonous mushroom sitting on the bookcase in our classroom.

    Thanks for the beautiful post. I love the way you weave everything together, especially Beatrix Potter, who is not often remembered as the scientist that she was. She was among the first to correctly hypothesize that lichens are fungi and algae in symbiosis. I will be re-blogging by link.

    1. Joanne, thanks for your kind words and for reposting on your blog.

      Beatrix Potter was quite a fascinating and fascinated human being.

  4. On March 8, the Final Jeopardy! category was CHILDREN'S AUTHORS, and the clue was:

    "The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots", written by her in 1914, was first published in 2016

  5. Replies
    1. Yeah, I was surprised when I saw that, too. But the board has a case in that Jarlstrom apparently claimed he was "an excellent engineer" in his emails to them.

      Reminded me of this incident.

    2. Fine. Just fine. Thanks for the link, Paul.

      jan, I enjoyed the last line of that article, especially:

      ". . .That, in America today, the only thing more terrifying than foreigners is. . .math."

  6. A long time ago, "gay man" and "fun guy" were almost synonymous.

    1. Indeed. I had a similar thought as I wrote the PEOTS headline this week.

      Now that most of our crazy, significant Saturday snow has melted, it may be time for a little mushroom foraging for this fun gal ;-).

  7. Mycology seems like a MySpace page (remember those?) for an ecologist. . .

  8. Speaking of poetry about potentially poisonous things, I believe Steph's blog this week was ripped off by President Trump in Harrisburg, PA, where he recited that great literary masterpiece, "The Snake" which was a song written by this guy.
    In Trump's interpretation, the moral of this fable -- in Harrisburg or Coral Gables -- is to be unhospitable. It definitely pales in comparison to the poem that graces PEOTS this week.
    Indeed, "The Snake," when stacked up against "The Mushroom Hunters," seems to me to be pretty immmorel.

    And thanks too, Steph, for reminding us that Beatrix was not just for kids.


    1. I had not heard about "The Snake," Lego.

      "The Mushroom Hunters" is quite lovely, I agree. IMHO, Beatrix Potter's illustrations are more "realistic" than some mushroom photographs. Her eyes see more deeply than a camera lens and her hand emphasizes more clearly the fungi structure, integrity, and hue. . .

  9. New post on "Birdsong and Creativity: Songbirds Name Their Offspring!" is now up.