On Mushrooms and Poetry
Authors of the Week: Finland
False morel mushrooms have appeared in a clearcut area next to our summer cottage. Soon, I’m finding more of them. After the weekend, we return to the city and the mushrooms are left in the forest.
Luckily, I can look in the same place next year. And the year after that. At some undefinable point in the future, the forest will come back with new, autumnal, mushrooms.
Finland is known, wherever it is known, for its everyman’s right. One may roam even in private forests and pick berries and mushrooms.
In his final book, the long poem Hämärän tanssit (The Dark One’s Dances, 1983), the poet Pentti Saarikoski (1937–83) makes a memorable distinction between different kinds of foragers: “Berry picking / is lonely work / even if you have a companion / you can only brag about / quantity, industry / or fewer twigs in the basket”.
As for the mushroom forager, he does not encounter masses in the forest but individuals: “With mushrooms, quality is decisive / with berries, quantity”. Saarikoski pictures how a berry picker and mushroom forager might arrive at the same rock from different directions and try to find something to talk about: “picking at the moss, smelling fall / gently feeling each other out maybe / they could become buddies”.
Originally an urban bohemian poet who gave voice to the rising left-wing movement of the 60’s, Pentti Saarikoski seems to have become irrevocably associated with mushrooms. The poet Aleksi Wilenius’ (b. 2000) book Z (2021) is about the young generation known by that letter, but even there we meet Pena, one of Saarikoski’s nicknames, a frumpy old drifter in the forest: “From Pena’s shirt/ mushrooms emanate webcaps lucid milk-caps/ and tree stumps/ and and and”
There is no doubt that Pena, as portrayed by Wilenius, is well-nigh overflowing with a density of meaning. He is oozingmushrooms and the forest so that in attempting to describe it, language is reduced to stuttering conjunctions.
Is the mushroom forager, whom Saarikoski describes as somewhat conceited or at least well aware of their social status, a poet at heart? Fiction writers with their aspirations to print-run royalty must in that case be akin to the berry picker.
Here it is necessary to look at the bigger picture, to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Then it will be clear that despite their apparent differences the berry picker and mushroom forager are on the same side of the fence. On the other side is the plundering behemoth of industrial forestry at whose mercy small scale foraging always happens.
“I am a catcher in the wind of things”, writes the poet Olli-Pekka Tennilä in his book Lemmonommel (2021). The berry picker, the mushroom forager and the contemporary writer all pick at meanings in the shadow of the great oligarchy that is capitalism.
The anthropologist Pieta Hyvärinen describes Finnish forestry as plantationocentric. Since the 19th century, the amount of wood and paper produced has been viewed as the most relevant aspect of the forest. Because of this goal, Finnish forests have become monotonic monocultures that might more aptly be called tree fields. All other economic activity that takes place in the forest has been viewed as not much more than a hobby: mushrooms and berries have been collected as an afterthought to forestry.
The brain-like false morel is often used as an example of biodiversity produced by plantations. The species thrives in clearcut areas, using dead wood and the light and warmth of the open space.
It should be clear that some species of poetry also thrive on plantations. Behind the billboards, however, there remains that critically important diversity which maintains the whole linguistic system. Due to the uneven distribution of attention, this is perpetually endangered.
Perhaps wood in its measurable aspect is important to forestry precisely because it is a kind of economy that requires no imagination. But there can be no forest without mushrooms. As the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes in her work The Mushroom at the End of the World, mushrooms are world-builders that use dead wood as the substance for building new life more effectively than people could ever even imagine using it: “Follow fungi into that underground city, and you will find the strange and varied pleasures of interspecies life.”
My daughter finds a black morel among the plant litter in the yard of our apartment building. Soon, children with black morels in their hands are appearing from all directions. The opportunity must be seized, the mushrooms must be taken to the frying pan. These rascals aren’t sedentary.
There can hardly be anything weirder than mycelium and yet it is everywhere—on land, in the sea, and in the air. We look for the edible sporocarp, also known as the fruiting body, which is only a tiny part of the whole. I, for one, would struggle to explain how black morels find their way into the yard of a new apartment building. The surfacing of poetry in a given terrain is also an obscure phenomenon that is in no way attributable to economic incentives.
If we think of a book of poetry as part of an economy of signification, it is usually characterised by weak reproducibility. No plantation is founded on the projected revenues of poetry. One may enter a book of poetry in the way one enters a forest, from any place, and read as much as one wishes, in any direction. This experience is best embodied by a palindrome, such as Tennilä’s Lemmonommel (“Lempo’s Stitch”). Lempo is a name for the devil in Finnish folk religion. Therefore, it is no surprise that Lempo feels at home in the forest.
The way I see it, lemmonommel, signifies the web of language that surrounds a person on all sides like a mycelium and is common to all despite appearing different from every angle. The book suggests that the system of language is best represented not by the plantations of standardised discourse but by individual quirks and misunderstandings, of which the book provides ample material:
Le’s wai’ fo’th’sun, they said,
or that’s how I always heard it.
Or understood, when nothing happened.
And when I asked: why are you waiting?
They sat in their bikinis and oils
in the North in the middle of the yard and the 80’s
sun-waiting, I’ve forgotten to turn it off.
I’ve allowed it to remain in effect.
(Tennilä: Lemmonommel, p. 41)
It may be easy to see the life-sustaining system of language at work in places that are conceived as organic. In looking back at the verbal interactions of one’s childhood, one is recalling the emergence of an entire, mercurial world. Mushrooms don’t believe in the imaginary boundary between the actual and the virtual, and neither should poems.
Has the plantational development of the Internet reached the point at which language’s creative potential is lost? Are algorithmically steered skirmishes between prefabricated ideas the truth about today’s Internet?
Like Lemmonommel, Virpi Vairinen’s book of poetry about the entanglement of the online and the offline, Kaikki tapahtuu niin paljon (Everything Happens so Much, 2020), proposes multiple reading directions. Its chapters progress from nine to zero towards a traumatic episode: the death of a lover. At zero the numbers start increasing again.
If a literary plantation favours linear plots and the growth of suspense towards the end, the book caters to this, but at the same time it blows the whole business into smithereens: reality is too large and unpredictable to adapt to simple structures and commercial algorithms.
Everything Happens so Much finds the Internet’s creativity in the shadows (its title comes from the @Horse_ebooks Twitter account) and, most importantly, its potential for boredom. Even mushrooms would hardly be able to grow without boredom and the spare time that sprouts from it.
weekdays are now spent meandering in the borderland between
maintenance and repair
i look at knowledge and knowledge looks back
i look at the slow growth of indoor plants, i will log onto
in a few minutes
(Vairinen: Kaikki tapahtuu niin paljon, p. 29)
Hyvärinen, Pieta: “Sienestystä pohjoisilla puupelloilla: metsien moninaiset taloudet ja plantaasiosentrismin ongelma.” Alue ja ympäristö vol. 49, no. 2. 2020.
Saarikoski, Pentti, and Anselm Hollo (trans.): Trilogy. La Alameda Press, 2003.
Tennilä, Olli-Pekka: Lemmonommel. Poesia 2021.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt: Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in the Capitalist Ruins.Princeton University Press Library, 2015.
Vairinen, Virpi: Kaikki tapahtuu niin paljon. Poesia, 2020.
Wilenius, Aleksi: Z. Aviador, 2021.