Donna Troy Cleary

17. Immortality and Fungus

Donna Troy Cleary1 Comment

When I think of fungus, generally speaking, I feel a bit nauseous.  I picture that slippery pink stuff that grows in my bathtub, the green powder that covered stored boxes in my basement or worse the black, toxic kind that has made headlines of late.
Erase that from your mind and conjure the image of a shiny, red, fan-shaped fungus loaded with the stuff that makes you Immortal (sort of).  
This is where studying herbalism and my time spent at Mildred's Lane conflate.  Artists navigate the spaces between the conscious and unconscious, finding connections and inspiration when we leave our minds open. The same applies to the practice of Herbalism.
Part of my Herbalism training involves "walking with" one of the plants that provide medicine.  This means spending an extended period getting to know the herb, in my case a fungus, using its medicine and leaving myself open to whatever information presents itself.
I had chosen to walk with Reishi the day before I left for Mildred's lane, the artist residency run by J Morgan Puett and Mark Dion. I was a late add to the mix of those teaching after expressing my interest in the session about Wasting and Wilding.  Morgan suggested I participate as a Contributing Guest Artist.  Of course I said yes but I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  
I will say in summary, that my mind was officially blown.
After a few emails with Athena Kokoronis, the bright, young artist and organizer of the session, I decided to make my workshop about herbalism and volunteered to assist in the tincturing workshop.  
Arriving in the afternoon the first day, I roamed the property taking photo after photo of the plants I knew, drawing a map as I went so others could find them.  I planned to go back and mark them with the red yarn I brought for that purpose, making them easy to spot from a distance.
About an hour after my walk, Athena arrived with a giant Reishi mushroom plucked from a nearby tree. When asked where she found it, the Fellows who accompanied her pointed broadly to the forest and said, "Somewhere over there."  It was late in the day.  It registered that I had chosen Reishi wisely, gaining affirmation in Athena's find but thought nothing further about it. 
Reishi have been used in Chinese medicine for over 4000 years. They call it The Plant of Immortality for its cancer fighting, antioxidant-rich properties.  
Reishi kept popping up in my consciousness.  I named a dog I fostered Reishi after deciding I couldn't call her the name she came with - Baby.  I reserve that name for boyfriends and children. Remembering that dogs only hear vowels, I made the switch to its sound-alike.  Dogs foster longevity as well, so it made sense. Her new owner loved the name and kept it.  
I had also made a body of work after the Reishi Mushroom. Serendipity lead to a series of shapes that looked like shelf mushrooms. Raku firing added a surprising, iridescent, metal finish, completing the reference to this "magic" fungus.
On day two of the residency, foraging was on the agenda.  My experience with herbs had included class discussions, internet searches for images and a walk through Prospect Park with my teacher, who pointed out the local plants we had studied. Many were familiar but some did not grow in the park. Being a visual learner, I knew that once I saw the plants in real life, they would permanently imprint on my brain.
We explored the meadows and forests surrounding the compound. I can identify flowers but most plants had not reached that stage so their leggy green stems and leaves were pointed out by Nathaniel Witmore and Laura Silverman. Nathaniel had encyclopedic knowledge of everything growing on the property. Laura too and her keen eye caught anything he walked by with his brisk pace.  
About a 1/2 hour in, we came upon a stump covered in Reishi.  Mouth agape, head spinning, I impulsively reached to take one, asking if it was ok. I was told I should leave it to finish growing. Its wide white edge indicated it was not mature.  I studied the fruiting bodies closely and hesitantly walked on.  My mind kept returning to the Reishi for the rest of the walk.
At the end of the walk, tinctures were on the agenda and we congregated in the kitchen. Nathaniel walked in with a mound of Reishi so we could prepare a double decoction.  I talked about belief systems in healing, mentioning the mind/body connection. This is something ancient healing practices have known and science is now affirming. I also brought up the premise that we and the plants are part of a macrocosm that is this planet.  Respect for all that lives use to be a given. Traditionally we ask permission before taking from a plant, leaving an offering from ourselves in return. 
Later, I was asked to tend the decoction. 4-6 weeks are needed to pull the medicine from the generous polypores.  My training involves giving recognition and thanks to the plant for its gift of healing.  Each time I shake the mixture, gratitude is expressed. The liquid has already turned a dark shade of amber.  
You might find this article interesting.  Written by Michael Pollan, it outlines research conducted on Plant Intelligence. It reminds me of something my son, a Neurosurgical Resident, once told me when talking about mental illness. "What we now consider Psychiatry will soon be linked to a physical element in the brain."  it seems, it's just a matter of time until science catches up to what Indigenous cultures have known for thousands of years.
Part of our time at the residency was spent in town and every time I drove out of Mildred's Lane, my eyes were glued to the forest. I was rewarded.  I managed to find 5 more trees and stumps growing the mushrooms, each time being careful not to take more than 1/3, a wildcrafting ethos that insures the mushrooms will spread their spore and find other hosts in the forest for future harvests..
My last full day was particularly fortunate.  I found a still upright tree with foot-long growths on it, taking only two of the twelve or so mushrooms this time, I had enough.  I gave the largest to Jan Mun, another of the Contributing Guest Artists.  She works with plant remediation as the social practice part of her art. I gave another to Kristyna and Marek Milde, other Contributing Artists working at the intersection of culture the landscape.  

Jan had brought bags of Reishi mycelium with her to Mildred's Lane. After hearing about my connection and calling me the Reishi whisperer, she asked if I would be interested in inoculating trees in the area. Yes please!  She also gave me Reishi plugs so I could grow reishi from a log at home.  I decided to split the plugs with Sacred Vibes Apothecary, where I study, so we can start a Reishi log in our medicinal garden. We'll also make medicine as a group with the Reishi I harvested.
Jan and I found one more stump loaded with the mushrooms as we left on the final day. I had hoped to show her the upright tree, knowing it would fruit again next year but I didn't spot it.  Driving in the opposite direction, I suspect the width of my car blocked its location, down a slope, out of view. 
My cache of medicine has been drying this week in my apartment. The smell is akin to rotting leaves in a damp forest. Hot and rainy weather forced me to keep the windows closed for days and I was overwhelmed - every breath loaded with their scent.  If I left and returned, I was struck by their potency. Over time, I came to love the earthy, decaying scent, recognizing its origin.  Reishi thrive on dying trees, converting their diminishing energy into the gift of immortality.