The Origin of Dead Man’s Fingers


Consider the Bygone Mycological Club (BMC), an organization so old that literally every one of its members has bought the proverbial farm. Lest you think otherwise, this does not prevent those members from foraging for fungi. Quite the contrary. They simply go foraging in their current habitat, which is beneath the ground. Since they’re not governed by circadian rhythms, the weather, seasonality, or 9-5 jobs, they can look for fungi morning, noon, and night.

Yet there’s a downside (so to speak) to their foraging. Being hypogeous themselves, they tend to encounter only hypogeous species such as Gautierias, Mesophillias, and various phycomycetes, none of which is a decent edible. Once in a while, they might find an Elaphomyces truffle, and given their identification skills or lack thereof, they exclaim, Wow! A Perigord truffle! After gnawing on a specimen, however, he or she usually realizes that the species in question isn’t the sort of fare any critter other than a squirrel would eat, much less an item which Sotheby’s, not to mention Walmart’s, would ever sell.

Unlike certain other mycophiles, BMCers don’t forage for medicinal fungi. After all, such fungi don’t have the necessary properties that might bring someone who’s dead back to life. Instead, they look for fleshy fungi, although they never seem to find them. The Club’s President, a woman who refers to all fungi as guys because she doesn’t know Latin binomials, will say, Black trumpets are such nice guys, why do they avoid us? At least nobody is accusing us of overcollecting! Addle Pate, the Club’s foray leader, will sometimes remark.

Every once in a while, one of the Club’s more percipient members will realize that fruiting bodies tend not to be subterranean, so they’ll extend their hands upward, ever upward, hoping to grab a morel or perhaps a chanterelle. Eventually those hands rise above the ground, whereupon their fingers will harden and turn black, thus becoming what’s commonly known as dead man’s finger. Almost nobody who sees one of these Xylaria species has the slightest inkling that it actually belongs to a deceased member of a mushroom club.

dead mans fingers fungi at the Bygone reserve


In my previous bog post, I considered the subject of overlooked fungi. Now I’d like to consider fungi that are underlooked — i. e., those that are either ignored or cause the viewer to avert his eyes. It seems to me that people who underlook fungi often do so because of an attitude instilled in them by Hollywood.

I can almost see the incredulous look on the reader’s face. Hollywood can be blamed for plenty of sins, but can it be blamed for a prejudice against certain fungi? Why not? Create a mental picture for yourself of a typical Hollywood actor’s face. Star, starlet, or mere extra, that face is doubtless the consequence of a botox treatment, excessive makeup, plastic surgery, or some other form of reconstitution. Even as such faces excite a fantasy-making mechanism in the viewer, they also make that same viewer feel his own face is unattractive, whereas his own face is simply natural.

A character from Dovzhenko's film, Earth.

Well, that’s the way it is with movies, you might say. Whereupon I would ask you to screen (for example) Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film Zemlya (Earth), and you’d see an alternative to Hollywood beautification, so-called. Dovzhenko’s characters are Ukrainian muzhiks (peasants) with scraggly beards, rotund bodies, wrinkles, warts, and various disfigurements. In other words, they’re real.

Unfortunately, many people regard fungi from a Hollywood rather than a Dovzhenko perspective. Thus they gaze fondly only at certain species, usually agarics. How often does a corticioid (crust) fungus or a small black ascomycete win a photographic contest or appear on a website (except here!)? Instead, you tend to see brightly-colored Hygrocybes (the young Julia Roberts?), slender-stalked Amanitas (Mel Gibson in fighting mettle?), suppurating Lactarii, or Leptonia carnea. Mushroom photographer Christian Schwarz gushingly calls the last of these “indescribable,” which I suppose means that it has a pretty face.

A beguiling batch of Rosellinias

As for myself, I tend to gaze at fungi from a Dovzhenko perspective. I delight in the tiny black pebbles of a Rosellinia; I clap my hands at the sight of a Kretzschmaria (=Ustulina) deusta, the so-called Carbon Cushion; and I gasp with pleasure every time I encounter Peridoxylon (=Camarops) petersii, which looks not unlike a dog’s nose (for a comparison of the two, see p. 93 of my book Fascinating Fungi of New England). If any of these species could talk, it might tell you that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The Peridoxylon might also tell you that it’s quite proud of its perithecia (asci-bearing structures), and that perhaps you should appreciate them, too.

If I happen to be in the woods, I’ll investigate barkless white pine logs in the hopes of finding Pseudomerulius aureus, a species whose yellowish surface is as wrinkled as a Dovzhenko peasant’s face. And if I do in fact find this captivating fungus, I might repeat my old friend Sam Ristich‘s favorite utterance upon finding an interesting or unusual species — “Hallelujah!”

Images from this Dovzhenko exhibition and this website of Japanese fungi by Kutsuna Masanori.


Sarea resinae, courtesy of Jason HollingerCertain fungi are not so much rare as overlooked. How many people have gazed upon Sarea resinae, for example? This orangeish ascomycete, seldom more than half a millimeter in diameter, makes its home exclusively in conifer resin. Then there’s Coltriciella dependens, the Wasp’s Nest Polypore (see my book Fascinating Fungi of New England for a description), which typically fruits on the inside rather than the outside of a log. I dare say few fungophiles — or anyone else — go about prying open logs in search of this species, which does indeed look like a wasp’s nest, albeit an upside down one.

Alas, I can imagine a day in the not too distant future when Bridgeoporus nobilissimus — a species whose fruiting body is sometimes five feet wide — might be overlooked, assuming it doesn’t go extinct first (its substrate, the Noble Fir, is much in demand as a Christmas tree). You might wonder how such a giant fungus could be overlooked. A person could just as easily not see an elephant, a giraffe, or a charging rhino. Precisely. For we live in the first era in human history where a sense of the umwelt — defined by that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, as “surrounding world” — has all but disappeared.

Go out onto the street, and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about. Most of the population will be moving about in what might be called the iDevice Saunter whilst engaged in a colloquy with another saunterer somewhere else. Anyone who isn’t moving about in this mincing, halting, self-absorbed pace, punctuated by sidesteps, runs the risk of smashing into the saunterer… or mimicking the progress of a Galapagos tortoise. If I wanted to be unkind, I could refer to such individuals as digitally-fixated zombies hypnotized by the diminutive screens somehow glued to their hands.

But I don’t want to be unkind. Quite the contrary. I would like to help these aforementioned individuals. I want them to be aware of the sights, smells, and sounds of the natural world. Maybe even notice a mushroom or two. Plus, I’m worried that their obsession with their iDevices is putting their lives at risk. A tornado or tsunami could be approaching them, and they wouldn’t know it until it was too late. Or a real Android, as opposed to the digital sort, could be getting ready to grab them, and they would be absorbed in Kevin’s latest posting on Farcebook, er, Facebook that the Android would make mincemeat (or whatever Androids do with their victims) of them.

As for myself, I’m just content to wander about in search of odd organisms in our increasingly diminished natural world. I don’t own an iPhone, iPod, Android, Blackberry, or Bluetooth. But I do own two reasonably good eyes and a pair of legs, which, to me, is quite enough. After all, I used both of them to find a Sarea resinae a week or so ago.

My thanks to Jason Hollinger for kind permission to use his photograph of S. resinae.