Monday, September 11, 2006

The Boston Mycological Society

In the fall, when the air in New England becomes crisp again, when the twilight falls early, I can feel nostalgia for the dream of academia I once held. You see, I remember when I believed that college would be like the old books I would read set in Oxford, anywhere between the early 1800s and the Second World War. There would be late nights of deep intellectual conversation, fascinating characters, professors with passion and wisdom and devotion to the great thoughts of man. People would sip sherry and quote in Latin. I would walk with the spirits of the great minds who had walked the ivy-edged paths before me.

Well, college wasn't so much like that, but there were some late nights, and some quoting (if not in Latin) and some places that were magical, like the observatory or the book-filled attic office of my favorite professor, a man equally devoted to poetry and opera. Wesleyan had enough of the old spirit to let me retain a romantic attachment to the idea of academe.

What ruined things for me was Harvard.

I work at the School of Public Health, and a less romantic place has never been found on this earth. The building was thrown up in the great ugliness-construction efforts of the 60s and 70s. It is charmless. The people are intelligent and earnest and do good work for the world, but the idea of the passionate intellectual, the man or woman devoted to ideas, the Renaissance scholar who may specialize in one field, but reads broadly and deeply from across the body of human knowledge, the professional scholar who remains an enthusiastic amateur naturalist or gourmand or musician, Nabokov with his butterflies - well, that is gone, my friends, dead and buried by the pressures of publication and specialization. The brilliant scholars watch American Idol with everyone else, read Tom Clancy, eat from the cafeteria, and churn out work with an eye to the next conference, the next publication, the next award, the next research grant. Eccentricity can not thrive in this environment. It is tiring and dull.

But even at Harvard, the slickest academic institution around, there can be little places, little moments, in which the ghosts of older academe whisper again. Tonight, I went to the Harvard Herbarium for a meeting of the Boston Mycological Club, and I heard them singing.

The Boston Mycological Club is not strictly a Harvard organization, but its links to Harvard are strong, and they are permitted to meet on Harvard grounds. The club is the oldest amateur mushroom society in the country. They get together for walks in the woods to collect mushrooms, then they use their collective expertise for identification. I signed up for a four-night course of lectures on mushroom identification, their recommended introduction to the world of mushroom gathering.

The room was not an elegant one. I had hoped the Herbarium would be located in the lovely old building that houses the Peabody Museum, but it was next door in a much later, less attractive structure. No matter. The interest of the people there, their obvious pleasure in learning more about a subject they care about passionately, was a thrill. I was, not surprisingly, one of the youngest people there. About half of the attendees, and nearly all of those pointed out as good sources of information, were in their fifties or sixties of beyond. Many wore unfashionable moustaches. One expert looked like a white-haired Johnny Fever, an aged hippie who probably became interested in mushrooms for reasons best left ignored; another seemed the embodiment of the research scientist, enthusiastic and a little nerdy. The older woman who watched the door was delicate and birdlike, with lively eyes. The thirty- and forty-somethings generally had European accents.

One exception, besides myself, was a couple in their late thirties who had just come back from a trip to Italy. They clearly had food on the mind, which naturally was why I was there as well, but something about such a straightforward desire felt almost unseemly. Other people showed great interest in spore patterns and so forth; a real amateur naturalist would surely not look at the fascinating variety of colors, forms, and growth patterns laid out on the table of specimen and think only "dinner." But that doesn't mean the love the real mushroomers had for mushrooms was cold and intellectual. They stroked the gills, smelled the caps, took one bunch into the closet to see if it still glowed (!), and, yes, rhapsodized about the pleasures of the best eating mushrooms.

I walked out into the chill air with dual dreams: of afternoons spent wandering in the woods, comparing notes on species with quirky characters, consulting field guides and making very serious noted in a special leather-bound journal, and of sautéed wild mushrooms over pasta with thyme and cream. A proper Renaissance gal would want no less.


Magda said...

Apologies for my previous comment, which was way too long and probably a bad breach of etiquette :(

I love the US and the Americans and can't wait to go back. But I'm struck by how scientific and systematic some of them (or maybe just the academics?) are about things - you don't just do something for pleasure but "take up a hobby", you don't know what a bird is called since "you've never done any birding", and if you specialize in, say, French literature, you won't read a German or Czech novel...

Good luck with your mushroom course!

mzn said...

Great post. I too wish academia would live up to your fantasy.

Pyewacket said...

Magda, your previous comment was lovely, not a breach of etiquette in the slightest, and I apologize for not responding earlier. (I've been busier than usual and suffering terribly from hayfever, so many things are going undone). You're right about the strange specialization of American culture - I don't think it's just academics. Part of it is an attitude about professionalism, that you either are or aren't a professional. I like amateurs; I'm an amateur painter, printmaker, cook, writer, knitter, and happy to be. But I've noticed that the moment you start to do something in the States, people want to figure out how you should make money at it. Sell your preserves, your prints, your scarves! It's as if the urge to do something without possible monetary reward unsettles them. But "hobby" is an interesting word, because it places all sorts of limits around your interests. You can't be too passionate about a hobby; it's controlled and casual, and you're only allowed one or two. People use the word to deflect the push towards professionalism - "Oh, it's just a hobby" - but it's so dismissive.

I'm rambling again. But thanks for your comments.

Helen said...

Hi Pyewacket,

Your story took me to 3 years ago when I sat in that same room and tried to learn to identify mushrooms. I thought the mycological club members were "cute" in an accademic sort of way, but mushroom picking just wasn't for me. I love cooking them, but find the slugs and bugs kind of unpleasant. And I worry too much about finding a poisonous one. It's funny that I never learned to pick mushrooms considering the fact that I am Russian. The Russians would have such a good laugh about accademics talking about mushroom picking as a "serious" topic. Most of the people in Russia pick mushrooms out of necessity and as a hobby (though I don't mean it in an American way :).

Good luck with mushroom picking!


Yulinka said...

I spent part of my childhood in Russia and my warmest, fuzziest memories are of mushroom picking in the country. I think my parents taught me to identify different types of mushrooms when I was 5 or 6.

We would mushroom picking in the forest on damp, rainy days ('cuz rain makes mushrooms sprout, I was told.)I remember being so excited as a kid when I found the good eating mushrooms. I got even more excited when I spotted the poisonous moohamor--"death to flies," literally. This mushroom had a bright red cap with yellow dots.

For my parents mushroom picking was never an academic or aesthetic hobby. It was all about the pleasure of the hunt and, of course, food. I'd love go mushroom picking again someday, but it's out of question where I live.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post, esp because I recently left Harvard for points north, Vermont. Harvard faculty, well, it wasn't what I had in mind when I was suffering through grad school. Like you, I looked everywhere there for the resonance of the dream. I found it in old emeritus faculty tucked into retirement offices, telling me amazing, broad sweep, stories. I heard about the mycological society and never got there. One of the emeriti told me about it, said it would feel like home. Sounds like it would have. Thanks for your wonderful post.