The Wine-Dark King

The jazz arrangement of the forest is a counterpoint to the symphony of the garden, and mushrooms are the common elements of entropy, efficiency, and opportunism linking the two. Mushrooms have, do and will bring life to all of those that seek out their company.

Anna Tsing states that mushroom picking is a ‘preindustrial livelihood’ that is often overlooked by those that track these things because it does not contribute to progress (Tsing, 22). It contributes directly to the living of the humans that engage in it, to their sustenance and wealth. Mushrooming does not contribute to the capitalist paradigm, yet it benefits from its structure.

I think a lot about community in my day job, it is how I define a lot of what I do and who I work with and the dynamics that I exploit. In speaking of these preindustrial livelihoods, Tsing introduced me to the ecological term, assemblage. She states that:

“Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological ‘community.’ The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other — if at all — is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible; still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them. They show us potential histories in the making.” (Tsing, 23)

I am still getting my head around this concept. I understand ecological niches and niche construction. Are assemblages a collection of ecological niches? Do niches exist within assemblages? Are assemblages limited by niches? Can niches be wider and exist (or influence) beyond an assemblage. Is niche construction (perhaps primarily) concerned with friction while assemblages (I think) are concerned with (perhaps [yes certainly] incidental) harmony? Tsing continues, pulling in the mushroom forager again, stating that:

“Foraging for mushrooms is a way of life — but not a common characteristic of all humans. The issue is the same for other species. Pines find mushrooms to help them use human-made open spaces. Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways; they make them. Thinking through assemblage urges us to ask: How do gatherings sometimes become ‘happenings’…?”

Assemblages don’t just gather lifeways, they make them. Some entities in an assemblage work to help each other and others just find themselves in the same place. I feel that my global community of chaos magicians possesses similar dynamics, and perhaps chaos magic itself is the cause. We all use different techniques and those techniques change (or should) as we find strategies to be ineffective. Sometimes we come together to put out fires and other times (most times) we just exist within the same magical space — but our existing within this same reality often translates beyond a gathering into a more synergistic power. The pines that Tsing is referencing are a species that take advantage of the aftermath of fires and the mushrooms both take advantage of the pines and work to bring nutrients to them. Then humans come in and collect the mushrooms to bolster their own sustenance and to trade their labor and expertise in finding them into wealth.

Tsing’s cohort, Donna Haraway, speaks of assemblages as well when she states:

“I use holobiont to mean symbiotic assemblages, at whatever scale of space or time, which are more like knots of diverse intra-active relatings in dynamic complex systems, than like the entities of a biology made up of preexisting bounded units… in interactions that can only be conceived as competitive or cooperative… all the players are symbionts to each other… with varying degrees of openness to attachments and assemblages…” (Haraway, 60)

Knots of intra-active relatings (is that a noun or a verb? Probably both knowing Haraway), in a complex system — so assemblages are clusters of niches but also the empty space in between them. Assemblages can probably only be attached to the chaos magician then, as other traditions are more focused on community, certainly any initiatory tradition is. Community is a group that work together for the groups benefit. Assemblages are a group that can exist in a matrix of symbiosis and empty space — only when the (certainly incidental) symbiosis occurs within the gathering and the assemblage is lifted out of its boundaries to something greater, does the gathering become a happening. (Haraway, 60)

Mushrooms just exist. They have their own agendas, which include propagation of self (a very diverse sense of the word ‘self’, a thousand similar yet completely different selves) and the selfless recycling and exploitation of their immediate environment. They assist the higher lifeforms around them. In our analogy, think of the magician assisting the local dead to find their way to peace and power as ancestors, without asking for anything in return. This assistance optimizes the environment so that the mushrooms have a place for their many selves to live and grow and propagate and die.

Mushrooms just exist. Take these Toothed Cups that I found among my wormwood seedlings today.

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I did not propagate them, I had to investigate them as I didn’t know what they were. Tarzetta cupalaris — little inedible spirit-forms that had been part of the soil or the recycled seedling pots I am using — I provided the light and water they needed without knowing they needed it. They grew. They just are. Their agenda and mine have nothing to do with one another, yet we exist in the same space. They exist in a micro-niche that I (in a very human way, with a mind towards progress [an anti-capitalist progress towards food security]) created. We are, together, an assemblage of spirits.

Phil Hine, in his work Condensed Chaos, has some relevant thoughts here when he states:

“Magic is a two-way process: you use it to change yourself and in return, it changes you. Letting yourself enter a magic reality is not about creating an enclave of magic beyond your everyday life, but of allowing magic in — allowing for the intrusion of the weird, the irrational, the things you can’t explain… Encounters with strange lights, half-glimpsed figures, rushing presences… these are very much associated with the wilderness…” (Hine, 37)

The sense of creating a ‘space away’ from reality, that enclave of magic Hine references, that is the perspective of the niche constructor and, frankly, one we cannot avoid. We will always have this sense of defense, of protection, of exploitation, when we do magic — it is our human (read: animal) nature. What Hine is saying here, however, is that the reality is that our niche exists within an assemblage of spirit-forms and the empty space between them. He is suggesting that we shift our animal perspective to that of the mushroom. A mushroom lets it all in, exploits what it can, and either observes or works with other entities to change the rest. When Hine states that:

“A magician is constantly aware of his inner structures and that which is around him. He constantly strives to extend his possibilities for action — patient, yet aware of the necessity, sometimes, of going too far in all directions. Magic, in some senses, is the science of extremes…” (Hine, 40)

He is describing the magician as a being with this mushroom nature, sending her network in all directions until the tendrils die of malnourishment. She finds the boundaries and reaches past them in the chthonic realm, above ground her spore-sigils are carried on the wind landing where chaos takes them, exploiting only those new areas with the optimum conditions for growth.

Let us return, for a short time, to the principle spirit-form of the Myconomicon, Baba Yaga. The old woman of the woods is old and tough, with evidence suggesting that she existed well into antiquity. Take the following statement from the article, ‘Baba Yaga and the Mushrooms’:

“Written documentation for Baba Yaga extends only to late 17th — early 18th centuries, but philological studies and comparative folklore suggest her presence in folk belief considerably before then, plausibly originating from Baltic, Uric and/or other non-Slavic sources. Linguistic and ethnographic analyses firmly link ‘baba’ and ‘witch’ to various mushrooms in Baltic and Slavic countries… Baltic myth contains a ‘Mother of Mushrooms.’ Pre-Slavic Balkan… artifacts include figurines of bird-women, and mushrooms sculpted from rock crystal.” (Dugan, Abstract)

So our analogy of the magician-as-mushroom is not a new one, it is a very old form, indeed. The article goes on to state that:

“‘Baba’ may even connote a specific kind of “mushroom,” e.g., Boletus edulis (an eminently edible species) in Polish babka… In Slovak, ježibaba is the equivalent of Russian Baba jaga (yaga, iaga)… [and when systematically reviewed there are] multiple interpretations of “baba” and “iaga” [with] connections to "certain kinds of mushroom." (Dugan, 10)

In Tsarist Russia, the (lower-case ‘i’) inquisition of magic-kin was much less covert in its imperialist motivations. Take the following examples:

“witchcraft trial of mushroom powder used to bewitch crops. In 1671, a woman was accused of trying to poison the Tsar's wife with a mushroom, and tortured on suspicion of magic; possession of herbs (a mushroom in this case) was a frequent attribute of those accused of being a witch ("female magician … midwife … baba”)” (Dugan, 10)

This is evidence of class-based mycophobia, where the upper-class, not understanding (or rejecting) the ways of the lower-class, vilify the possession of mushrooms as magic. The mushroom, therefore, should act as a firebrand for the magician, Those among us that count ourselves in that out-group should relish and cultivate (both in the imaginal and in-the-real) the association with these spirit-forms.

The associations do not stop there either. The article goes one to describe:

“a Russian forest spirit (and sometimes associate of Baba Yaga), the leshii, [that] would assume the likeness of a mushroom or alter the appearance of mushrooms with a whip; in the north, such spirits were associated with storm winds… the Slovenes had a ritual of rolling on the ground at ‘first thunder’… to promote an abundant harvest of… mushrooms. The first mushrooms found during a mushroom harvest (‘first fruits’) might be offered as a sacrifice to a forest spirit… with addition of Christian prayer…” (Dugan, 10)

Offering us some solid mushroom-mage tech to be put into practice during our journey through the Myconomicon. The magician-as-mushroom analogy goes both ways, there is evidence of the mushroom-as-magician in the historical record as well:

“in some Russian tales there is a villainous wizard, Mukhomor, sometimes equated with the equally bad Koshchei the Deathless… Mukhomor "means 'Poison Mushroom’… Koshchei and Baba Yaga can appear in the same tale. Baba Yaga is either his aunt or his mother” (Dugan, 12)

Before moving on to our spirit-form for the week, I’d like to pay homage (and set the stage for the next scene in our investigation) to our principle spirit by offering this arrangement of Mussorgsky’s ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs’ by Sir Henry Wood:

Our spirit-form for this week is the Stropharia rugosoannulata. The Japanese call him Saketsubatake, which possibly means Bursting Mushroom or, more interestingly, Warding Mushroom (from the Japanese word ‘sakeru’)— but probably means Salmon Mushroom (or Salmon Bamboo Mushroom) in reference to the mushroom’s coloration. In English we call him either the Wine-Cap Stropharia or the King Stropharia. He is edible and widely cultivated as a food source.

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Our Wine-dark King, while being popular as food, is still quite a mystery when it comes to the magic hidden in his flesh. Researchers have discovered proteins (called lectins) that have shown anti-fungal (paradoxically), anti-tumor, immunomodulatory, anti-insect and anti-viral properties, although the mechanisms they work through (like most magic) are still not known (Zhang et al, 19881). Other properties of our Wine-dark King are mechanisms that suppress stress to the endoplasmic reticulum and the formation of osteoclasts. (Wu et al, 2013, 1779) Osteoclasts play a role in bone resorption and the acceleration of osteoclasts are one of the principle causes of osteoporosis. The Endoplasmic reticulum is a network inside cells that is charged with the absorption of proteins and fats. In essence, it is the super-highway where fuel is delivered to cells. In neural cells, stress and degradation of this super-highway is a cause of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (Wu et al, 2011. 1631). Our Wine-dark King’s magic, then, stands between us and some of the more pernicious ravages of age.

He does not only use his abilities to serve humankind. In the wild, he is found individually or in large groups from forests into our lawns and gardens.

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He is equally at home at the jazz club, the symphony, or the dead monotone of the Western lawn (Cortez and da Silveira, 52). His presence is impressive wherever he is found above ground, but beneath the soil, a bloody battle rages. Stropharia rugosoannulata (and to a lesser extent, all Stropharia mushrooms) posses a type of hyphae (individual branching filaments that make up the whole of a mushroom’s mycelium) called an acanthocyte (Cortez and da Silveira, 37). The acanthocyte is, in essence, a brutal morning star. The Wine-dark King has thousands upon thousands, depending on the size of his mycelial net. Acanthocytes, these Chthonic Beholders, exist (for as much as we can tell) solely to trap, lacerate, kill and digest nematodes in the soil.

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Nematodes, also known as roundworms, are known carriers of plant viruses and certain species have been the cause of massive crop failures. They are known as ‘free-living’ organisms, which means that they do not contribute to the decomposition of organic matter but rather feed on living plants. Wine-cap Stropharia are one of the only known predators of nematodes. S. rugosoannulata has been observed immobilizing and killing nematodes within hours of their introduction to a controlled environment (dish of agar inoculated with S. rugosoannulata mycelium) and decomposing the roundworms in as little as twelve hours (Lou et al, 2982). It has been reported that:

“some acanthae resemble a sharp sword causing damage to the nematode cuticle, resulting in leakage of nematode inner materials. This indicates that mechanical force is an important factor in the immobilization and killing of nematodes. On the basis of our observations, we are convinced that the acanthocytes are more than an antifeedant structure for protection. They function as a nematode-attacking device that helps the fungus to obtain nutritional supplementation.” (Lou et al, 2983)

This feeds the symbolism for King Stropharia as an aggressive defensive archetype, a chaos shield, protecting the magician from those malignant creeping influences that seek to sap off her strength and sources of nourishment. Similarly, this archetype derives sustenance from the very act of violently defending his territory. This king is a vampire hunter that draws power from each one of his kills, Highlander style.

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The Wine-dark King is known to be very easy to cultivate. You can easily obtain a culture of S. rugosoannulata and inoculate wheat straw or sawdust after pasteurization. Following this initial colonization, the straw or sawdust can be mixed with alder chips (Klemm, 2). While it has been shown that our Highlander will fruit indoors, his feral nature means that he prefers an outdoor environment, either in full sun or in ‘garden shade’ (Cornell University, 1). Given his crusade against the nematode orc hordes of the planet, giving him a home in your garden can only be of a benefit to both you and the soil your plant allies call home.

His sigil is tight and covered in spikes, like his signature weapon.

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The Wine-dark King’s sigil can be used for rituals that are designed to stave off the influence of age-related diseases such as osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s. Similarly, as mentioned above, it can also be utilized as a ward against parasitic influences (either spirit or human-based) in one’s life and the more parasites that come up against the power of this ward, the more magical sustenance is returned to the magic-user that casts it.

Sigil courtesy of Ghostly Harmless’ Sigilizer

References

Cornell University (2016) Method for Cultivating Stropharia Mushrooms. CornellMushrooms.org pp 1-2

Cortez V G and da Silveira R M B (2008) The agaric genus Stropharia (Strophariaceae, Agaricales) in Rio Grande do Sul State, Brazil. Fungal Diversity (32) pp 31-57.

Dugan F M (2017) Baba Yaga and the Mushrooms. Fungi (10, 2). pp 6-18

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Hine, P., & Carroll, P. J. (2010). Condensed chaos: An introduction to chaos magic. Original Falcon Press.

Klemm T (2015) A King in the Garden. Fungifama (18, 2) pp 1-14

Lou H, Li X, Li G, Pan Y and Zhang K (2006) Acanthocytes of Stropparna rugosoannulata Function as a Nematode-Attacking Device. Applied and Environmental Microbiology (72, 4) pp 2982-2987.

Tsing, A. L. (2017). The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton (New Jersey) Princeton University.

Wu J, Fushimi K, Tokuyama S, Ohno M, Miwa T, Toyama T, Yazawa K, Nagai K, Matsumoto T, Hirai H and Kawagishi H (2011) Functional-Food Constituents in the Fruiting Bodies of Stropharia rugosoannulata. Biosci (75, 8) pp 1631-1634

Wu J, Koori H, Kawaide M, Suzuki T, Choi J, Yasuda N, Noguchi K, Matsumoto T, Hirai H and Kawagishi H (2013) Isolation of Bioactive Steroids from the Stropharia rugosoannulata Mushroom and Absolute Configuration of Strophasterol B. Biosci (77, 8) pp. 1779-1781

Zhang W, Tian G, Geng X, Zhao Y, Ng T B, Zhao L and Wang H (2014) Isolation and characterization of a novel lectin from the edible mushroom Stropharia rugosoannulata. Molecules (19) pp 19880-19891

Mushroom Images are from cmy610 and are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.