I just love mushrooms. I don’t mean I only love to eat them (but that too). Seeing them out in the world– growing in the grass, on trees, and on fallen logs– makes me happy. I love that they are so cute and little, but I love when they are huge as well. Mushrooms are little portals to my childhood, when I was a citizen of the land of fairies, magic, and make-believe.
When I was young, I liked to imagine fairies amongst the ferns, brownies in the roots of giant banyan trees, ghosts in the graveyards, and witches in the swamps. I savored stories where animals could talk, wear little vests, and ride motorcycles. I was especially enamored of the idea of being a tiny creature in the regular sized human world, using a button as a shield and sewing needle as a sword. I read and reread the children’s books with lilliputian heroes, like The Borrowers, Gnomes, and The Littles. I would imagine tiny magical creatures lived under the leaves in my grandparent’s garden– and, of course, mushrooms were part of their enchanted world.
Folklore from around the world associates mushrooms with fairies, gnomes, elves, and magic. And not just the wondrous and whimsical side of magic, but the dark and dangerous as well. Maybe that’s because, in reality, some mushrooms are delicious and some can kill you, and some can alter your consciousness and take you on a hallucinatory trip.
I am not even the tiniest bit tempted to eat, pick, or even disturb any mushrooms I see in the wild. I know a few types of mushrooms, but I am not knowledgeable enough to safely identify a poisonous mushroom from an edible one. People who can do that seem almost magical to me, like people who can track animals, predict the weather, or successfully fold a fitted sheet.
Until I learn how to safely identify mushrooms, I am happy just to see them, popping out of the soil, stuck to the side of a tree like a shelf, and growing by the hundreds in rotting logs. For a moment, the part of me that is still a child feels very small and like the world is very big and full of wonder and magic. I feel like a pixie face could peek up at me from under the umbrella of that mushroom, or a gnome could wear that mushroom cap as a hat, or fairies could sit on that cluster of mushrooms to drink their fairy tea.
In folklore, a naturally occurring circle of mushrooms is called a fairy ring, and stepping into one was said to transport you to a magical world where you could dance with fairies for an hour while 100 years pass by back in the human world. You might become stuck inside a fairy ring if you set foot in it, or the fairies might curse you.
In Germany, fairy rings mark the spot where witches dance, and in France they are known as witches’ circles and are guarded by giant toads. Whether associated with witches or the fae, fairy rings, and mushrooms themselves, spark a sense of wonder, mystery, and possible peril.
For me, mushrooms are a delightful gateway back to childhood fantasies. They burst through the soil overnight, bringing a button sized portion of magic to my day. They connect me to the earth, to unknown powers underground (mycelium), to cycles of death and decay, to the abundance of nature, and to the delight of small and simple things.