Agata Izabela Brewer
Crawfordsville, Indiana, United States
A bored teenage Santa holds two small girls on his lap. One is dressed as a queen in a yellow handmade crown and crape-paper cape. The other girl is the author, dressed as a poisonous mushroom. The cheerful-looking costume hides the truth of a mushroom that releases a potentially deadly toxin.
My family, like most families in Poland, loved mushroom hunting. We developed expertise in recognizing the poisonous ones and spotting sites rich in porcini and chanterelles, bay bolete and scaber stalks. Mushroom hunting is a national sport in Poland. Anytime in September, hordes of people carry wicker baskets, metal pails, and discount store plastic bags to their secret mushroom spots. Last year, mushroom pickers in Poland interrupted U.S. military exercises in a forest near Żagań despite many warnings in both Polish and English about heavy artillery shooting. But it had rained a few days before, and it was early fall, so priorities had to be maintained—it was perfect timing for mushroom hunting, tanks or no tanks. The U.S. command had to cancel the maneuvers.
Most forests in Poland belong to the Treasury of State, which means they are open to anyone who wants to pick mushrooms as long as whatever they pick is not under protection. In the past, when land was owned by szlachta—the rough equivalent of the nobility—peasants had to get permission from their landlords to use wood or pick mushrooms or berries in the forest. But now Poles consider their right to enter public forests to be sacred. Some countries, like Italy, require a special mushroom-picker card. In France, people have to pay for mushroom hunting. In the Netherlands, mushroom picking is entirely forbidden. But it is a free-for-all in Poland. Each year Poles pick around six million kilograms of mushrooms—and that is only the amount sold, since nobody bothers measuring how much one family collects and eats.
During Communism, mushroom- and berry-picking was a major source of food, and it still sustains many families in rural areas. They leave their homes right after dawn for their special spots rich in mushrooms, wild blueberries, wild strawberries, and raspberries, and by noon they line up along country roads, selling their goods to city folk, who often stop with screeching tires when they see someone with buckets and wicker baskets in a roadside ditch.
Recognizing poisonous mushrooms used to be an art passed down from generation to generation. My grandfather Wincenty learned about mushrooms from his father in what is now Belarus. My mother, who loved mushroom hunting, learned it from Wincenty. We were told never to pull or kick a mushroom and to preserve the ecosystem by cutting the stem with a knife. While Mother hunted for mushrooms on her own, a cigarette in one hand, a red plastic bucket in the other, my grandparents would make a team—Grandma Izabela cutting the stems with a short blade and Grandpa Wincenty carrying the increasingly heavy buckets. To find Mother, who would often hide behind trees and bushes, we would simply follow the smell of tobacco. She rarely wanted to be found.
My younger brother and I, on the other hand, could be easily spotted because we smelled like raw onions. Grandma would cut an onion in half and rub it all over our skin to deter mosquitoes. On our way back, our tiny red Fiat smelled of fresh forest and onions, and we would each have at least one heavy bucket on our lap. Our pungent skin made my eyes water.
I grew up inhaling the earthy smells of drying mushrooms in my grandma’s kitchen, touching the rough, wrinkled skin of fungus strung in garlands over radiators, and then tasting the first mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi of the season. Sometimes I would put the mushroom necklace on and strut around our two-bedroom apartment like a model. This whole putting-things-around-our-neck habit is one of my most vivid memories of Communist Poland. We displayed proudly our most prized purchases, like toilet paper, which we had to line up for in front of the store for several hours, blowing on our freezing hands, and then strutting home with toilet rolls strung on a rope and swinging from our necks, our precious Eastern Bloc lei.
Those fungal garlands sitting on radiators saved us during harsh winters. When I think of September and October back home in Poland, I recall the earthy scent of drying mushrooms. Yet I hear there are fungi out there that smell like raspberries–for example, the mushrooms we call gniazdeczka, or “little nests”. They look like tiny cylindrical orangey-brown baskets with little balls inside, and you can often spot them on decaying tree limbs. Mięsichówki smell like herring and pickled cucumbers, and they grow under pine trees. I have read that some mushrooms smell like coconut, others like radishes, or lavender, or anise. The ones drying on our radiators were not fancy at all. They smelled of soil, moss, and wet leaves.
Grandma sat in an ugly chair, her elbows on fake leather armrests, her face in the shadow. “Your mother was poisoned. Mushrooms.” She lifted her arms in the air to welcome us to a family hug, but her hands were shaking, and I hesitated. My brother was already on her lap. I joined in and felt her plump cheek against my forehead.
“The priest is at the hospital. He’ll put holy oil on her forehead so her sins are forgiven. He’ll stop by here afterwards. Priest Zdzisław. Do you know what this means? The doctors are trying to help, but they say she has no chance to recover.”
I do not remember the priest’s visit. He must have come—he was a family friend, my First Communion guide, my mentor. Lanky and jovial, Priest Zdzisław was always surrounded with kids, singing and dancing in church and playing soccer with us after Catechism classes. He must have come and comforted us, but my memory fails here. I only recollect three moments from that night when I was five: finding Mother unresponsive in her bed, dressing my younger brother in wool pants and winter boots and trekking with him through muddy snow to reach Grandma’s apartment, and listening to Grandma as she sat in that ugly chair to tell us about the mushrooms.
You cannot tell by taste whether a mushroom is poisonous or not. The death cap, one of the world’s most poisonous mushrooms, apparently has a mild taste—no warning in that first bite. It is also tricky to distinguish it from some other edible fungi. Its amatoxins cannot be killed with heat less than 300 degrees Celsius, so cooking it on a stove will not help. It causes intense vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, organ damage, and eventually death. This mushroom is responsible for over ninety percent of fatal mushroom poisoning globally. Pope Clement VII is said to have died from accidental death cap poisoning, and the Roman Emperor Claudius may have, too.
After my mother’s recovery (and innumerable trips to church to thank Virgin Mary for saving her life), I would sit in Grandma’s living room, which doubled as her bedroom, since we lived with my grandparents in an on-and-off arrangement that depended on Mother’s ability to care for us. I would pore over a large mushroom atlas, looking at poor-quality photos of edible and poisonous fungi, trying to guess which ones almost killed my mother. Whenever I asked, my grandparents and uncle would quickly look away and change the topic, which I should have interpreted as a sign that Mother must have been poisoned by something else, with the determination of a freshly divorced alcoholic. But the word suicide was not yet in my vocabulary, and I transferred all of the anger and helplessness of that night onto the pages of the atlas. When I found it years later, its hardback covers were chewed off on the edges and the paper inside was stained and creased.
My costume in that Santa photo was the fly agaric mushroom. Fly agaric is potentially deadly, but it mostly causes digestive issues. People in Eastern Europe use it as insecticide because it attracts house flies when the cap is crumbled into a saucer of milk. It contains toxins that paralyze the central nervous system in humans and cause symptoms such as vomiting and vertigo, as well as euphoria and visions. There is a story that Lewis Carroll hallucinated after eating dried fly agaric, and that this experience influenced the scene from Alice in Wonderland where Alice shrinks and then grows tall after biting opposite sides of a mushroom. Some historians theorize that fly agaric was the secret to Icelandic Berserkers’ frenzies, as they foamed at the mouth, howled like wild animals, and charged at the enemies after eating the mushroom.
Mother’s poison of choice was alcohol, though, not dangerous mushrooms, and that night she mixed it with a bunch of potent sleeping pills. She was capable of unstoppable fury during alcohol withdrawal. Once she charged at me with a large pointed shard of glass. This indelible memory—Mother running toward me through the hallway, the sliver moon of glass in her raised hand, eyes wide open, nostrils flaring—makes it hard for me to acknowledge that she was, in fact, a small, fragile woman, with delicate facial features, thin arms and legs, and tobacco-stained fingertips. She would bite Grandma after discovering her secret alcohol stash gone. She would yell obscenities and kick when we tried to drag her home from a libation, hoping that nobody could hear her at three in the morning because she was a high school teacher and, apart from our grandparents’ modest retirement money, the only source of income in the house. The fear that she would lose her job was always there, especially after we overheard on a bus that someone’s English teacher was drunk in class again. It was not just the money that we would lose. For her, work was the only thing between being a semi-functional alcoholic and a full-on escape into the bottle.
Whose idea was it to dress me as a poisonous mushroom for the Christmas party in Mother’s high school? Did I say no to being a princess or a doctor or a butterfly? As children, we loved fly agaric’s attractive coloring and the cheerful little dots, but we never touched it in the forest. We knew even then that we could die from eating it, and that the bright little cap was just the fruiting body of a huge network deep underground. As an adult, I am in awe of the vast ecosystem of mushrooms, their hyphae reaching down and mycelia often surviving for thousands of years. Those who kick or cut away mushrooms from their lawns or mossy forest beds only remove a tiny part of a resilient, beautiful organism hiding patiently underfoot, waiting to produce more bodies when temperatures drop and the rains come.
And that vast underground network is one of the ways trees communicate with each other. In an incredible symbiosis, trees provide fungal cells with carbohydrates while fungi help trees collect water. Researchers describe fungi as an “information superhighway,” linking roots through their thin underground threads, sending information and nutrients from plant to plant, and helping established plants sabotage invasive species. Large, older trees help younger and weaker ones through carbon transfer along the fungal mycelia. When trees and other plants like tomatoes or broad beans are attacked by toxic fungi, they release a warning to neighboring plants through the mycelia. Because of the help from the fungi, trees are actually social beings, helping each other to survive.
But those mycelia also may facilitate theft of nutrients. For example, phantom orchids steal carbon from neighboring trees because the orchids do not have their own chlorophyll. Lots of other unfriendly plants, like the black walnut tree, release toxins toward their neighbors in fierce competition for water and food.
Was Mother’s “mushroom poisoning” an escape from a life she never wanted to live, from the boredom of mothering, the harsh realities of single parenthood, and the mayhem of two kids under five? Was she fit at all to have children? Were we stealing her air? Did we finally suck her dry of life-giving nutrients? After all, she divorced my chronically unfaithful father when we were tiny, had a full-time teaching job, and the often impossible task of finding food and basic toiletries in Communist Poland. Would she have been warmer and more loving toward us if she had loved herself?
It occurs to me now that perhaps, though I was the one dressed as a toadstool, who thought of myself in unflattering terms and transferred the blame for Mother’s behavior onto myself, just maybe I was not the one poisoning our fragile ecosystem.
When Grandma and Grandpa took us in after Mother’s attempted suicide, they took her in, too, hoping they could keep her away from self-destructive binge drinking, but she would always find a way to sneak alcohol into their apartment and hide it in unlikely places. Initially, whoever found her little bottles of vodka would throw a fit, spill the contents in the kitchen sink, and beg her to “think of the children.” At some point, those dramatic displays faded and life became somewhat quieter, although I could always detect tension in the secret looks between my grandparents. Mother drank as much as before. I think my grandparents finally decided to focus on us and provide as much stability and peace as was possible for five people, a disruptive alcoholic among them, living in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. Mother never gave up mushroom-hunting, though, and she would occasionally help Grandma in the kitchen after a trip to the forest, threading mushrooms onto yarn for hours in brown and orange garlands.
Children under ten apparently should not eat mushrooms because fungi are hard to digest. But we ate them, lots of them, especially in winter, when our garden lay barren, and meat, as usual, was mostly unavailable. We dried mushrooms, but we also pickled them and prepared them fresh—steamed, sautéed, deep-fried, mixed with sauerkraut and stuffed into pierogi dough, added to soups and sauces, mixed with pasta or potatoes or buckwheat. And though many people would consider the smell unsavory, one of the most distinct odors of the Polish kitchen is that of bigos: mushrooms stewed for three days with sauerkraut, red wine, honey, prunes, kiełbasa, and meat scraps, served with rye or sourdough bread. After days on the stove, the stew thickens and becomes dark brown. As you eat, its sweet and sour taste gives way to an umami sensation that lingers on the roof of the mouth and the back of the throat. Bigos tastes like a snuggle under a warm blanket with Grandma Izabela; the window panes are covered with frost, and I am waiting to watch my favorite TV show about Bumblebee Maia, who finds refuge under a giant mushroom while a storm rages and the water swallows the other tiny forest creatures, who are too far from dry land to be rescued.
AGATA IZABELA BREWER is a professor of English at Wabash College, an author of Empire and Pilgrimage in Conrad and Joyce (University of Florida Press, 2010) and an editor of Critical Approaches to Joseph Conrad (University of South Carolina Press, 2015). She has also published several essays on colonial and postcolonial literature.