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Arise, Marasmius

Fairy rings, for all their mystique, are common at Berry College. In comparison to other universities, Berry isn’t abnormally eco-friendly, but its long-leaf pines, sweeping lawns, and petite, half-tamed deer attract an array of nature-loving students, as well as skunks, cats, tree frogs, herons, black grasshoppers, and fungi. In the mornings at Berry, when the sun gushes like a crushed blood-orange over the pines, a circle or two of white caps will often bloom on our lawns, while the fawns bend and graze around them. The mushroom caps are lush, as though sponging in the surrounding dew, but they are bordered by a necrotic zone, a shadow-ring of dead grass.

When I was a freshman at Berry, I dated a girl named Emily, who sometimes carried a mushroom field guide with her, so now and then, I’d see her sitting on her heels in the grass, her field guide open in her palms, and squinting to identify a fresh umbrella of pearl, sulfur, or coral. I began to spot mushrooms around campus more often, ranging from scab-like buttons to angelic halos, and I tried to mimic my girlfriend’s reverence by squatting to examine them. Sometimes, I’d cross a dewy lawn to visit a fairy ring.

This circle of caps, chipped and nibbled, marks the living ripple of mycelium below. The mycelium is the true body of the fungus—a tangle of fibers hidden underground, yet signaling its presence with rising caps. At the fairy ring’s center, where there are no mushrooms, the fibers beneath have withered, having used up all the surrounding nutrients. The fairy ring itself, however, rises from the living border of the mycelium, spreading away from the dead core.

In this way, mushroom rings become a liminal space—a border between life and death, flesh and spirit. Celtic legends describe these spots as a dancing ground for sprites. Some fairies would sit on the mushroom caps, carousing and clapping, while others would stomp and leap and whirl in an ethereal bacchanalia. Spirits of miracle and mischief, the pixies weaved back and forth across the fungal border, in and out of the realm of decay.

Mushrooms are a bridge between worlds. You feed a stump, a mangle of bruised leaves, or perhaps a corpse to the mycelium, and out come bubbles of living color, a splatter-paint of cobalt and mauve and ochre. The fungus works like a mad chemist—deconstructing the dead into their basic elements, then rearranging them into newborn flesh.

Peoples of ancient Asia seemed to have glimpsed something sacred in this transformative power. The Ganoderma fungi—called lingzhi in Chinese, reishi in Japanese—grow in kidney-capped stalks and fanning shelves, and their Chinese name stems from the words for divine spirit (ling) and woody mushroom (zhi). This “divine fungus” is also known as the “ten-thousand-year mushroom,” or the “mushroom of immortality.”

In the Shennong Ben Cao Jing, a Chinese medicinal document compiled somewhere between 25 and 220 AD, the authors identify six basic colors of Ganoderma: white (baizhi), yellow (huangzhi), green (qingzhi), black (heizhi), purple (zizhi), and red (chizhi). Each color, according to this text, has a different medicinal property. So, if you’re ever browsing through the forest, and you pluck a lingzhi from a stump for a snack, it may benefit your lungs, your spleen, your heart, or your kidneys, or it may give you eternal life, all depending on the color. (If you want immortality, the red chizhi is the best choice.) Of course, if you’re the sort of person who samples unidentified mushrooms in the woods, then it’s also quite likely that you didn’t eat a lingzhi at all, and that your intestines will promptly cave in.

The risks of foraging notwithstanding, the lore surrounding the lingzhi suggests a portal between death and life. This revered, wrinkled cap eats up dead flesh and transmutes it into a fount of medicine and immortality.

If the mushroom's way of sculpting life from rot yields us any comfort in our grief, it might be because it dimly echoes an entirely different world order, one ruled by the law of re-composition. Noah Guthrie

Though I’ve never seen a lingzhi, I’ve had glimpses of a similar transformative power through the fungi in my own life. Back when I was twelve, I switched schools, and for over two years, I grieved for the friends that I’d left behind. As though to emphasize my division from those relationships, my family moved houses in 2014, transitioning from a largely flat suburb in the town of Pegram to a hilly, forested neighborhood twenty minutes from downtown Nashville. Our new home had a long driveway with a thirty-five degree slant, and to one side of that driveway, some shrubs, gravel, and a decaying stump clung to the hillside.

The stump was the important part to me. Back then, my favorite videogame was The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which portrays the protagonist’s best friend as a wood elf of sorts, named Saria. With the blessings of eternal youth and good hair (the latter being styled in a moss-green bob), Saria passes the time in a sacred grove, playing her ocarina on a tree stump.

By the time my family moved, I’d already begun to associate Saria with the old friends I’d left at Harpeth Middle School, so when I saw that my new home had a tree stump, I viewed it as a symbol of my loss. I’d sit on that wooden seat, maybe whistle a bar of Saria’s song, and wrap myself in a fresh layer of worn, aging melancholy.

Then the mushrooms arrived. Thick brown saucers began to foam across the tree stump. Over the following months and years, the fungi tore at the wood, prying away splinters and wedges like rotten teeth. At the stump’s receding base, new soil opened up. Grass sprouted.

As the shelf fungi gnawed at the stump, the years wore away at my grief for my old friends. The tendrils of new classes, dance recitals, fantasy novels, and relationships began to creep in. So, by the time my “Saria’s stump” had decayed, giving way to fresh herbage, I’d been transformed as well. My grief had taken me apart, then built me into something new.

Such images of decay and new growth have brought me hope in the past, but I admit that in some ways, they are a misrepresentation of what fungi actually do. In my own case, I underwent an inner transformation from melancholy to renewed joy, but at each phase, my essence was preserved. The body and self that I called “Noah” was still intact.

Say I died, however. The mushrooms would deconstruct my flesh, then rearrange it into something unrecognizable. My body’s proteins, aminos, and carbohydrates, my marrow and lymph and neurons, my soil-brown eyes, they’d become humus, grass blades, and maybe a spray of blackberries to feed a passing bear.

Yes, pieces of “Noah” (my proteins and all that) would technically be preserved in the flesh of berries and bears, but they’d no longer be myself, any more than Notre Dame would remain itself if I tore it down and raked out the rubble to form a parking lot. Notre Dame would be destroyed, just as I would be destroyed if my body went to the mushrooms. Maybe the lingzhi can yield medicine for the living, but the dead remain dead.

This is why I’m not always comforted when good things arise from death. I see this when I consider the passing of my paternal grandmother, who died during a family vacation in 2011. The week leading up to her death, she’d been as lively as ever, serving our family lasagna over a game of Texas Canasta, so when she was hospitalized, and her organs failed, it was an evil shock. There was no decline, no preparation. It felt like I’d watched her go straight from the kitchen to the coffin.

However, as is often the case with seasons of grief, the following years yielded many up-shoots of new life for my family, color mushrooming from ash. Grief brought me resilience, emotional maturity, and inspiration for my fairy novel, and as my family and friends comforted one another, love blossomed. These are the blessings of the lingzhi: decay and transformation.

If those blessings were all I had, however, it would be a hollow consolation. Even if my grandmother’s grave yields grass, dandelions, and mushroom caps, medicine and new life, the magic trick isn’t enough for me. My grandmother is still dead, and no amount of personal growth or familial affection will change that.

In the end, mushrooms are just another proof of the law of decomposition. Everything lives by ripping other lives apart, by devouring them, by transforming their flesh into their own. We join the fungi in a parody of Eucharist: we offer them our bodies to tear apart, and we are destroyed, becoming food for the next generation.

We accept the law of decay for the time being, though. While we’re still alive, it’s helpful for us. In the case of the lingzhi, we harvest, powder, and brew it, concentrate it into pills, and sell it to ailing souls across the world. In 2004, the global average turnover for lingzhi products was about $2.16 billion. There would be no mushrooms without death, but we accept them, whether eagerly or grudgingly, because they bring us life.

Even when we don’t invest in myco-medicine, our lives all depend on decomposers. Every food chain leads back to the soil, no matter how many links of meat-eaters, plant-eaters, and all-eaters you work through to get there, and our decomposers (the dead-eaters) give the soil its structure and fertility. The mushrooms feed the earth, and as a result, they feed everything. We eat the fruits of decay at every meal, whether in a bowl of kale, a hatchet of chicken breast, a curried pot of rice, a froth of blue cheese, or a savory, frilled wheel of portobello.

People across the world consume the lingzhi in tea and supplements, but mycologists have observed ever since the third century, all the way back to the Shennong Ben Cao Jing (if not earlier), that the mushroom of immortality is bitter. It’s what you’d expect from death’s medicine.

If the mushroom’s way of sculpting life from rot yields us any comfort in our grief, it might be because it dimly echoes an entirely different world order, one ruled by the law of re-composition.

The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel offers a bizarre, almost hallucinogenic image of this alternate law. In his book of visions, Ezekiel describes God overlooking a wasteland of desiccated bones. The worms and fungi, no doubt, had cleaned these corpses long ago, leaving the skeletons for the wind and beasts to scatter. By now, even the most dedicated osteologist would struggle to piece the bones together.

Nonetheless, God speaks to them: “O dry bones, I will lay sinews upon you, and I will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live.”

As Ezekiel looks on, the bones shudder. They jerk and shift, turning the wasteland into a field of rippling limbs, white and ripe. Then, like a time-lapse run backward, the lost bodies are reconstructed bone by bone, muscle by muscle. Everything that had been scattered to the soil—the collagen, the tendons, the veins, the ballooning flesh of the lungs—they weave themselves together, and they are human again.

The lingzhi may transform flesh, feeding old life to new generations, but it always leaves the bones to dry. It picks apart, but it can’t rebuild what was lost. In the end, it’s only the promise of re-composition that comforts me about my grandmother, or about anyone else who’s died.

One family of mushrooms, however, bears a hint of that hope for restoration. The fairy ring mushroom, so common among the grazing deer on my college campus, is also known as Marasmius oreades. Its name comes from the Greek marasmos, which means “withering.”

If, upon catching sight of a fairy ring on my college’s lawn, I waited for the sun to come out, and the dew to dry, I might see those caps, caramelly and lush as pancakes, shrivel into husks. For most types of mushrooms, this is the end. You can’t revive a punctured heart, and you can’t revive a dried mushroom cap. However, if I waited longer still (perhaps with an umbrella), and watched a shower spill over the withered ring, I would witness a phenomenon that has long fascinated mycologists. The mushrooms would blossom anew, frills spreading, their wrinkled heads turning smooth as the cheeks of a newborn child.

Here, we see another vision of this unnatural, yet good, law, the law that refreshes dry caps and enfleshes cracked bones. It’s no wonder that we relegate this to the world of sprites, and that anyone who sees a fairy ring is meant to step inside and make a wish. The ring invites us to enter, crossing to stand over the mycelium’s withered core. It invites us to pray for rebirth.

—In memory of Eden Muina, who passed away on September 12, 2021, at the age of twenty.

A memorial garden has been established on Berry Campus in Eden’s memory. Click here to contribute to ‘Eden’s Garden.

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