Chicken of the Woods, essay

“It is not easy to say where a fungus ends, or begins, when it is born, or dies”

Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. p.102

This essay, inspired by the Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, explores online permutations of grief and loss.

The frilled shelves of the Laetiporus sulphureus fungus steal their way through woodlands each year, blooming overnight like a bruise. The fungus’ fruiting bodies wind yellow ribbons across injured oaks, sweet chestnuts and yew. Some are beautiful, appearing as cascades of ruffled velvet. Others seem ungainly, lolling from their hosts like misshapen tongues. They disappear as suddenly as they arrive.

Scrolling through my digital feeds, I am reminded of the bright clusters of mushrooms that I encounter in the woods. Images bloom and fade; the fruits of hidden webs of connection that are at once both gaudy and sinister. I am thrilled to see a cluster of ‘memories’ and the candid smiles of a younger self. Immediately after, red bulbs throw up reminders for a dead friend’s birthday, bringing with them the shock of memory. It never ceases to be startling, this reminder of the dead living on my feed.

If you uproot a toadstool, or tear the Laetiporus sulphureus from its tree, you will be unable to see any plant-like roots that tether mushroom to bark. Instead, curling thin fingers into the heart of each tree, microscopic fungal hyphae weave filaments through their hosts. When the time is right, these hyphae knit themselves together and burst into the heady air as mushrooms.

Grief can be triggered by many things: a particular smell, a season, the touch of a hand. Is it any different when it is spurred by a notification? When sadness blooms – undeniable, ungainly – but subsequently fades. When the person connected to you by the spores of social media was more than someone-I-knew yet somehow less than friend.

We are altered by the losses we live through. All the same, I often feel fraudulent in my grief. In the privacy of my mind I recount the lunches and dinners, the school plays in identical outfits, the small moments where our lives were shared. It’s an excavation of sorts, proof that I was close enough to care. Simultaneously, my online world is swarmed with cries of sadness, each one more heartfelt than the last. They blossom in all directions, twining across tweets, stories and Facebook posts. I refresh my browser to see the myriad lives that one person can touch. Did they know this, I silently ask the mourners, do you hope that they can still see?

Over time, the heartwood of a tree hosting a Laetiporus sulphureus is hollowed out completely. Filaments of the fungus stretch deep inside the trunk, draining heartwood to brittle brown rot. While the fruiting bodies of the fungus only last for a few weeks, the fungus itself does not die. I read somewhere that the heartwood of a tree is considered to be non-living; I do not understand the difference between the non-living and the dead.

Online, our lost friends’ accounts lurk somewhere on our feeds, mired behind the daily onslaught of selfies and short videos. And yet, without visible cry or cause, there are times when an intangible force brings old mourners together. The words I miss you, begin to reoccur across my screen. I think of the Laetiporus sulphureus’ sudden bloom and our hidden connections to other people's lives. There is no universal standard for closeness, we can never know who we might touch.

Laetiporus Sculpture, recycled fabric on wood. 2021.

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