Sometimes a leaf is just a leaf

Looking for mushrooms and looking at paintings

Chanterelle mushrooms on green board

In August in the past we would go on walks and notice mushrooms, but since moving to Devon three summers ago it has become a more regular, organised thing. There are lots of places we can go to on Dartmoor that have the rich, mossy, damp conditions that many of the best mushrooms seem to love. On any given trip it takes a bit of adjusting to reach the true mushroom-gatherer state. You can’t approach it like you would go about your usual day to day life, it’s not a to-do-list activity. Finding mushrooms requires letting go, sinking into a meditative state which is more in tune with the surrounding environment. You have to become a visual receptor, soaking up the data that comes in through your eyes, really scanning for the dull flashes of round brown, orange or grey that could possibly be a mushroom. You have to be open to seeing anything. If you’ve found a likely spot, a wettish area with spongy moss and small dark cavities, a mushroom could appear at any moment. You have to let it be found by your eyes though. If you try too hard to look, as you might look purposefully at a road sign or train timetable, you won’t be as lucky. It’s open looking, staying open to finding shapes that could be something, and then interrogating further if anything matches the broad brush stroke of a mushroom. But also despite the associations mushrooms have with fairyland, witches, and various mystical practices, despite this, the mushroom never comes to you. Mushrooms are not imbued with magic properties that mean they can communicate with humans in any meaningful way – I’m pretty confident in that, at least. True, mushrooms, or fungi more generally, do aid communication of a sort between trees and other plants through the wood wide web, the mycorrhizal network. They move nutrients from a tree in an advantageous position to a tree that is not and is therefore lacking. But this generosity of spirit, or whatever it is, won’t extend to the mushroom hunter. Mushrooms don’t really want to be eaten, they can’t proactively ask to be eaten either. They are just there and you have to get down on your hands and knees and keep your eyes wide open if you want to find them. 

For me this experience of looking for mushrooms, achieving this more meditative state, is similar to the experience of going to a gallery and looking at paintings. When I come to a painting I walk up to it first, and situate myself a practical distance from it before I start really looking. Finding the painting itself is not like finding a mushroom, but what I mean is that within any given painting there is the potential to find things akin to mushrooms. You look first at the painting very directly and try to work it out, you find reference points, characters, style, materials used, vanishing points. This is all good to do, probably essential or at least inescapable in many cases, but these big things are not “mushrooms” – they are more like the apparatus of the painting, the nuts and bolts that hold it together. After the initial wave of taking in the painting, then always, for me at least, comes the instinct to move on to the next painting in the gallery. This is not helped usually by the flow of other people in the exhibition space, who you know are hot on your tail, impatient, following the anti-clockwise, 30-seconds-per-artwork protocol. But leaving that aside, the brain with its habitually investigative type of mindset, wants to be stimulated by the next problem, to interpret, grapple with then discard. But it is at this exact moment of inertia or boredom, of feeling it’s time to move on, that the mushroom-hunter in me decides to stay with the same painting. If you stay with this other, less overbearing, secondary instinct and keep on looking at the same painting, in doing this you let the great investigator inside you move on, leaving behind the mushroom hunting openness. Then the eye begins to soak up the entire scene (pictorial or abstract) of the painting and roves across and up and down with a different more exploratory speed, noticing little elements, finding a quality in some detail that is not instantly obvious and clinging onto it, or revisiting certain favourite bits of the painting, approaching from different angles, while the peripheral vision also kicks into gear, registering new areas that are yet to be appreciated, or even noticed. This is what I would describe as sinking into the mushroom-hunting mode of seeing (or being). I often find there are many mushrooms to be found in a single painting, even a painting that on first glance is quite drab or uninteresting. But what are they? I think they are essentially, what I’m going to call: moments-of-recognition.

One of my favourite paintings is Les Grandes Baigneuses in the National Gallery in London, which I used to visit often during my lunch break when I worked up near Trafalgar Square. In that painting, as I returned to it day after day, I began to find mushrooms. (I’m not talking about literal depictions is of mushroom here, even though the figures, some of them at least, are not unmushroomlike in shape). The mushrooms I found were small things like the sharp, dark diagonal line of one the central bathers who is looking over her shoulder to stare right out at you through the frame; the aloof, uncharacteristically small one standing to the right hand side, hands behind back, possibly robed, who is and isn’t part of the whole; or the painter’s use of the colour blue for shadow; the odd dark green lines of slanted tree above to the left defying gravity; the fact that there are eleven people; the sleeping dog; all kinds of elements really that emerge in the mind out of the practice of looking and holding the gaze on the painting. My biggest mushroom find in that painting so far at least is this: if you look quite vaguely at the formation of the group of human figures as a whole, without properly focussing on any one thing, they begin to resemble the letters of the name Cézanne. Look at the structure of the half-standing one on the left forming a kind of capital C, the lying down diagonal of the sixth figure from either side suggesting part of a hanging Z, and the two abruptly upright ones at the back, with red hair, their bums next to each other are a kind of double N. This moment of recognition, seeing the artist’s name loom large out of his own painting, was at the time, like the feeling of finding a huge perfectly ripe and untouched porcini, best of all mushrooms. An exquisite feeling. 

These mushroom discoveries are of that deeper kind of recognition in looking at a painting or at a real woodland scene, an almost creative form of recognising, re-cognising the new, you might say. They don’t have any bearing on the intention of the artist at the time of painting. The re- of recognition here is not really temporal or historical. For me there is a kind of delicious uncertainty in both pursuits, going mushroom hunting and looking at paintings. We don’t know for certain that our interpretation of a painting is right in any socially relevant way, or even useful to ourselves, but we interpret and recognise and that produces pleasure. In the same way, when you find a mushroom (and especially when you actually eat it) there is always a slight fear that maybe you made a mistake in the identification – you know, oh shit, what if I’ve eaten a poisonous one by mistake. But that’s not the point here. Eating a cast iron edible mushroom is all very well and satisfying (though not recommended without much, much over-cautious research and help from others) but for me the fun is in the act of finding the mushroom, of realising that it is a mushroom coming out of the ground. It’s through that state of visual probing and exploring, in finding those moments of sudden recognition, that we can become completely engaged with the present; the rest of time falls away, and we know for sure that we are alive. Chanterelle!

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