It is mushroom season in Norway and the last few weeks I’ve seen pickers quietly combing the forest floor and waysides, bags and baskets in hand in search of rare culinary delights. I passed one man striding jauntily out of the forest, a basket filled with giant mushroom heads flung over his shoulder. His hunters pride was so evident as he came toward me that I was momentarily relieved when my brain registered that his spoils weren’t from the animal kingdom, but rather harmless fungi.
It was in Mr. Rasmussen’s sophomore biology class that I first became acquainted, and smitten, with the fungi kingdom. These great decomposers of the world are fast at work recycling the debris of nature with miles of imperceptible root-like networks of mycelium forming large underground nutrition highways. Since they can’t produce energy via photosynthesis like plants, they find their sustenance through reprocessing other plant matter. When the mycelium produce fruit (or reproduce), viola! Up springs the pinhead that mushrooms (literally) into a cap with gills that contain tiny microscopic spores. These spores can endure all manner of disaster (frost, fire and famine) and spread imperceptibly in nature and when the conditions are right they eventually grow into mycelium – setting up shop as a new underground energy-converting factory. That means for every mushroom we see, there is an entire unseen tribe of mycelium underneath of it performing the slow, silent and mysterious work of salvaging life from death.
As I stalked the fungi growing around my apartment building and through the still forest (yep, mushroom paparazzi), I started to think about how crazy it would be if a mushroom spent their short life pining to be a different one. What if that gnarled ghostly white mushroom wanted to be a bright artistic swirling one? Or if the large round brown caps thought that being red and seen was the only way to really live? What if the mini gray tribe growing on the log refused to “do their thing” until they could be just like the large half moon ovals growing in the lawn?
But what if those very mushrooms had a really important job to do that another mushroom couldn’t do? What if the gnarled ghostly white had a special chemical property that could revolutionize vector control? What if the mini gray tribe had an uncanny ability for breaking down oil waste? What if the plain old browns grew the secret ingredients for a highly effective antiviral that could change the outcome for cancer patients? (Yes, mushrooms can do all of that and more! See this moving TED talk).
It would be a disaster – all of the hidden potential going to waste because the mushrooms refused to be what they were, thinking some other form of existence was better. There would not only be the danger of missing out on their exclusive properties, but they would miss out on the fact that they were just plain amazing in their own rite; each one uniquely formed, painted in different hues, growing in the most whimsical and uncommon of places. I had a special affection for each one I spied; how sad if they never realized how great they were.
The implications of this imaginary scenario astonished me. Isn’t that just what we humans are so good at? Always looking at everyone and everything else with envy. But the truth is that we are special in our own rite, worthy of admiration and respect no matter our color, shape or size. And what is it that is hiding in us that the world would gain if we embraced our own giftedness?
I keep seeing them everywhere – scattered across the lawn like a village of sand-colored tepees, stacks of shiny golden brown luxury apartments on stumps, wavy white caps washing up on the forest floor – and each time I look a little closer, with a bit more admiration and I think, You are special, go ahead and be you.