They were the first to colonize the Earth. They will inherit it long after we are gone as a species. And when we go as individuals, it is they who return our borrowed stardust to the universe, feasting on our mortal flesh to turn it into oak and blackbird, grass and grasshopper. Fungi are the mightiest kingdom of life, and the least understood by our science, and the most everlasting. Without them, this planet would not be a world. Like everything vast and various, they shimmer with metaphors for life itself.
Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) was twenty-seven and pregnant with her first child, a daughter, when she wrested from mushrooms one — more than one — of the most enchanting metaphors in the history of the imagination.
In the setting summer in 1959, Plath and her complicated husband, Ted Hughes, arrived at Yaddo — the gilded artist’s colony in Saratoga Springs, New York — and took up separate residences a five-minute walk apart. She had her first room of her own — a sunny third-floor studio in one of the larger houses, with a heavy wooden writing table and a hospital-green portable Swiss typewriter. Perched at her window, she watched the thicket of pines and listened to the birds. “I have never in my life felt so peaceful and as if I can read and think and write for about 7 hours a day,” she wrote to her mother.
But it was a season of dejection: One of America’s oldest and largest publishers had just rejected her poetry manuscript, another rejected her first children’s book — a story about living free from the world’s estimation — and her depression was back after a pleasantly distracting summer road trip.
She sorrowed in her journal:
Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness… Caught between the hope and promise of my work… and the hopeless gap between that promise, and the real world of other peoples poems and stories and novels.
In the evenings, Ted and some of the other residents engaged in antiscientific entertainment — astrology charts and ouija boards. She participated without enthusiasm, perhaps because she had been spending her days devotedly studying German — the language of rationalism and the Golden Age of Science, of Kant and Humboldt. By early November, she was seized with total creative block:
Paralysis again. How I waste my days. I feel a terrific blocking and chilling go through me like anesthesia… If I can’t build up pleasures in myself: seeing and learning about painting, old civilizations, birds, trees, flowers, French, German… To give myself respect, I should study botany, birds and trees: get little booklets and learn them, walk out in the world.
Walk out she did. The woods around Yaddo were damp and rife with mushrooms. Mushrooms were in the lavish food served at the colony. Mushrooms crept onto her mind.
And then, in that way that noticing has of revivifying the deadened spirit, she started to come alive, as if assured by nature that life — like fungi, like art — persists against all odds.
Within a week, the outside world was also looking up — one of her stories was accepted in London Magazine. She wrote in her journal:
My optimism rises. No longer do I ask the impossible. I am happy with smaller things, and perhaps that is a sign, a clue… Every day is a renewed prayer that the god exists, that he will visit with increased force and clarity.
It was a conflicted clarity. She had a series of restless nights full of tortured dreams about her mother, about “old shames and guilts.” She and Ted were about to move to London — a prospect that had filled her with anxiety, like all major change does, but now she began feeling an “odd elation” at the thought of turning a new leaf.
On a windy mid-November day of grey but balmy weather, she took a walk with Ted under the open sky and the bare trees, listening to the last leaves rustle in the wind, watching a scarecrow in a cornfield wave its hollow arms, noticing the blackbird on the branch, the fox prints and deer tracks in the sandy trail, the blue-purple hills and the green underbed of the lakes, the mole hills and tunnels webbing the grassland. Something began stirring — some restive creative vitality that needed an outlet. She recorded:
Wrote an exercise on mushrooms yesterday which Ted likes. And I do too. My absolute lack of judgment when I’ve written something: whether it’s trash or genius.
That exercise became her poem “Mushrooms” — a quietly mischievous work of genius, paying homage to the indomitable nature of the creative spirit. By the following summer, it was on the pages of Harper’s, marking a bold departure from Plath’s previous work.
It is both a hope and a heartache to consider that, today, mushroom species from the genus Psilocybe are being used in clinical trials to effectively allay treatment-resistant depression — a breakthrough she never lived to see that might have saved her life.
At the fifth annual Universe in Verse, held in a young redwood forest strewn with fungi, composer and cellist Zoë Keating brought Plath’s poem to life with a poignant prefatory meditation on its central metaphor for the creative spirit, accompanied here by the exquisite “Optimist” from her record Into the Trees, which has scored more of my own writing hours over the past decade than any other music.
by Sylvia Plath
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.
Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.
Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,
Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We
Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!
We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,
Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:
We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.
Complement with Meryl Streep reading Plath’s “Morning Song” and Plath herself reading her poem “The Disquieting Muses,” then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse, including Patti Smith reading a poem about dark matter (with music by Zoë Keating), Roxane Gay reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s lifeline to the dispirited, and a musical serenade to the ecology of Emily Dickinson.