Steak trees & flying salt shakers of death
Hello there :)
Welcome to issue fifteen of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected and often delightful things I’ve recently encountered.
Grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Good Things I’ve Encountered Online
Dear reader, I have a confession for you:
Seeing mushrooms or fungi in their natural environment sends a shiver down my spine.
I find them to be disquieting, creepy, and disgusting.
But at the same time I’m drawn to them. I’m morbidly fascinated by them.
I think I enjoy the disgust they provoke in me.
Side note: I felt like there really ought to be a word for “a feeling of enjoyment gained from looking at something that repulses you”, and as a result I disappeared down a bit of a rabbit hole. Thanks to the wonders of google I found Hathos; a word coined by journalist Alex Heard in 1987. A blend of hate and pathos, he originally defined it as “a pleasurable sense of loathing, or a loathing sense of pleasure”.
But hate isn’t quite what I feel about mushrooms - what I feel is disgust or repulsion. Andrew Sullivan provided an alternate definition in 2008 which feels closer to the mark: “Hathos is the attraction to something you really can't stand; it's the compulsion of revulsion.”
When it comes to mushroom, maybe you can relate, maybe you can’t, but to illustrate my point, take a look at these guys:
According to The Woodland Trust, Chicken of the Woods (laetiporus sulphureus) is edible, although it does not agree with everyone.
I find it nothing short of incredible that anyone thought to try eating this.
WHY ON EARTH WOULD YOU PUT *THAT* IN YOUR MOUTH STANLEY?*
*The first person to eat Chicken of the Woods may or may not have actually have been called Stanley. It just seems to me like a very “Stanley” thing to do. Silly old Stanley.
Possibly, like Stanley, you think Chicken in the Woods looks delicious.
That’s cool, you do you.
How about this guy though?
According to the Woodland Trust, when young, this bracket fungus (fistulina hepatica) looks like a tongue poking out of a tree trunk. As it matures, it begins to look more like a piece of raw steak or liver.
The fungus apparently oozes a blood-like substance when cut, and although it’s considered edible, it does not live up to the promise of its appearance, having a strongly acidic flavour and rubbery texture.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a person who eats meat, and I like steak a lot. But I also understand where it comes from.
I know that it doesn’t grow on trees.
If I encountered a thing growing out of a tree that looked a bit like steak, my reaction would not be:
YOU GUYS! I’VE DISCOVERED A STEAK TREE! LET’S EAT!
Perhaps you’re thinking, yeah, but Hannah those are extreme examples - what about more regular looking mushrooms?
Sure, ok, we can talk about those.
THEY. GROW. IN. RINGS.
These are often referred to as fairy rings, and quite understandably, there’s a whole bunch of folklore surrounding them.
Whilst they are sometimes linked to good fortune, more often they are seen as hazardous or dangerous places, and linked with witches or the Devil in folklore.
Here’s an except from Wikipedia (yes, I know that’s a terrible source):
“In German tradition, fairy rings were thought to mark the site of witches' dancing on Walpurgis Night, and Dutch superstition claimed that the circles show where the Devil set his milk churn.
In Tyrol, folklore attributed fairy rings to the fiery tails of flying dragons; once a dragon had created such a circle, nothing but toadstools could grow there for seven years.
European superstitions routinely warned against entering a fairy ring. French tradition reported that fairy rings were guarded by giant bug-eyed toads that cursed those who violated the circles.
In other parts of Europe, entering a fairy ring would result in the loss of an eye.”
Wikipedia also references this traditional Scottish rhyme which sums up the danger:
“He wha tills the fairies' green
Nae luck again shall hae :
And he wha spills the fairies' ring
Betide him want and wae.
For weirdless days and weary nights
Are his till his deein' day.
But he wha gaes by the fairy ring,
Nae dule nor pine shall see,
And he wha cleans the fairy ring
An easy death shall dee.”
Sometimes these fairy rings look positively other-worldly, in this image from Iceland there are no mushrooms visible, but these necrotic zones are caused by the fungus underneath the moss:
I think these look like the footprints of a strange and terrifying mythical being which stomps around on nights where there’s a full moon.
Given most folkloric traditions hold that it’s a bad idea even to enter a fairy ring, I feel like it’s pretty safe bet to assume that snacking on the mushrooms which make up said fairy ring is also a pretty terrible idea.
So erm, yeah. I guess that was a really long-winded way of saying that I’m a person who indulges in a compulsion of revulsion when it comes to fungi.
As such, I was absolutely delighted to come across this article on the London Review of Books. Written by Francis Gooding, it’s an essay about Merlin Sheldrakes’s book: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures*.
*Dear reader it won’t surprise to learn that I have ordered Sheldrake’s book and I am really excited to read it.
You should definitely read the whole article because it’s ace. I’ve cherry-picked some of the bits I found most fascinating below:
Fungi might be alien life forms from outer space:
“…fungi are strange and challenging organisms. A biological kingdom unto themselves, they do not behave like plants or like animals. They habitually form intimate partnerships with other species, changeable and volatile relationships which slide ambiguously beyond the bounds of the more familiar symbiosis or parasitism.
Lichens, for instance, whose existence is often glossed as a symbiosis between plant and fungus, are such compressed bundles of life that it might be better to think of them as miniature ecosystems in themselves, comprising numerous different tiny plants and fungi in dense and inseparable embrace.
Lichens are some of the hardiest beings on earth, thriving in the most extreme environments. There are lichens that are impervious to radiation, to burning heat, to freezing cold. Some can happily survive periods in space, unprotected from solar radiation – evidence, for some, of the plausibility of panspermia*, the idea that life arrived from outer space.
Perhaps it was tiny lichenous ecosystems, dormant for thousands of years on chunks of spinning rock smashed out of distant planetary collisions, that crossed the abyss between worlds to seed the cosmos with life.”
*Isn’t panspermia a brilliant word? Challenge yourself to use it in a sentence this week. Or don’t. I might though.
Fungi are everywhere and you cannot escape them:
“…[fungi] are everywhere, all the time: coursing through soil and seabed, ‘along coral reefs, through plant and animal bodies both alive and dead, in rubbish dumps, carpets, floorboards, old books in libraries, specks of house dust, and in the canvases of old master paintings hanging in museums’.
If the mycelial threads in just a teaspoon of soil were unravelled and laid out, they might stretch anywhere from ‘a hundred metres to ten kilometres’.
Mycelium is a continuous mesh that envelops the earth – strangely, differently, alive and alert.”
Fungi behave more like animals than plants, and can solve puzzles:
“Take the proficiency of fungi at problem-solving.
Fungi are used to searching out food by exploring complex three-dimensional environments such as soil, so maybe it’s no surprise that fungal mycelium solves maze puzzles so accurately.
It is also very good at finding the most economical route between points of interest. The mycologist Lynne Boddy once made a scale model of Britain out of soil, placing blocks of fungus-colonised wood at the points of the major cities; the blocks were sized proportionately to the places they represented. Mycelial networks quickly grew between the blocks: the web they created reproduced the pattern of the UK’s motorways (‘You could see the M5, M4, M1, M6’).
Other researchers have set slime mould loose on tiny scale-models of Tokyo with food placed at the major hubs (in a single day they reproduced the form of the subway system) and on maps of Ikea (they found the exit, more efficiently than the scientists who set the task).
Slime moulds are so good at this kind of puzzle that researchers are now using them to plan urban transport networks and fire-escape routes for large buildings.
‘Solving mazes and complex routing problems are non-trivial exercises,’ Sheldrake writes. ‘This is why mazes have long been used to assess the problem-solving abilities of many organisms, from octopuses to bees to humans.’
Fungi ace these puzzles because ‘solving spatial and geometrical problems is what they have evolved to do.’ They are diffuse, plastic beings: they reform themselves around the problem at hand.
‘Mycelium’, says Sheldrake, is a body without limits: ‘a body without a plan’.”
Fungi can lift* way more than your body weight":
“A fruiting stinkhorn mushroom can crack through asphalt, exerting a force sufficient to lift about 130 kg.”
*I’m not sure lifting is quite the same thing as exerting a force. As such this statement is a little bit wrong. I was going to put “fungi can bench press way more than your body weight” which would have been way more wrong but sounds cooler I think.
Fungi can turn living creatures into zombies and use them for their own nefarious gains
“The fungus Ophiocordyceps infects carpenter ants. Inside the body of an infected ant, it begins to develop a mycelial network. Hyphae travel through the ant’s body cavities, into its limbs and organs: an infected insect becomes about 40 per cent fungus.
Once this fungal growth is complete, the normally ground-dwelling ant leaves its nest and climbs the nearest plant. At a height of around 25 centimetres – ‘a zone with just the right temperature and humidity to allow the fungus to fruit’ – it orients itself towards the sun; at high noon, it clamps its jaws round a leaf vein, in a ‘death grip’.
Mycelium grows out of the ant’s feet, plastering it to the leaf.
Sutured into place, jaws rigid, the ant’s body is then digested by the fungus: a small mushroom grows out of the ant’s head, releasing spores which drift down onto the ants passing below, beginning the cycle again.”
It’s not just carpenter ants that are affected by fungi though.
There’s a type of fungi that makes cicadas extra horny so they rush around trying to have sex with lots of other cicadas.
Perhaps you think that’s not so bad. But let me tell you: IT IS REALLY BAD.
That same fungi rots away those cicadas’ genitals.
Not only are those poor cicadas’ sexy times fruitless (and likely woefully disappointing) unions, those extra horny cicadas are actually “flying salt-shakers of death” because all that sex they keep trying to have actually results in a bunch more infected cicadas:
“Massospora, a species completely unrelated to Ophiocordyceps, infects cicadas: it rots away the abdomen of an infected insect, leaving it tipped with a yellowish plug of spores that looks like a mass of pollen.
Infected cicadas are not incapacitated or ill: in fact they become ‘hyperactive and hypersexual despite the fact that their genitals have long since crumbled away’.
Rushing between mates, they become ‘flying salt-shakers of death’, dusting other cicadas with Massospora’s spores.”
Wait. Is there a type of fungus that can control the minds and bodies of humans?
“…‘Do psilocybin fungi wear our minds, as Ophiocordyceps and Massospora wear insect bodies?’ Sheldrake asks.
It’s a marvellous, disorientating notion.
But his answer is a qualified ‘no’: science has not found any evidence of a long-term evolutionary advantage for fungi in using psilocybin to form a symbiotic relationship with humans or their minds.”
I’m clearly no expert, but to that, I’d respond:
“Ha! That’s obviously the fungi in your brain talking. You’ve already under been taken over by them, and your mind is no longer your own.”
One moar serendipitous find:
Artist Ememem patches up broken asphalt creating beautiful puddles of colour:
From his website:
“Born on a damaged sidewalk in 2016, Ememem is one of those sons born out of the asphalt who has disorder running through his blood.
In arts events or undercover by the light of the street lamps, Ememem patches up the broken asphalt and inserts doors toward wonderland.
His terrestrial works of art, called "flacking" from the french word "flaque" (puddle) let a glimpse of light through the homogeneous pavements which entomb our cities.”
This reminds me a little of Kintsugi - in that it emphasises and celebrates fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them.
Dear reader there was more I wanted to include here, but according to Substack this email was too long to send. More links next time I promise :)
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
Having just watched Shirley (Netflix), (more on this in the section below), I felt compelled to re-read Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson.
I can’t recall when I first read this book, but I do recall loving it; and I’ve since re-read it maybe once or twice prior to this, my latest re-reading.
Shirley Jackson is an author you’re likely familiar with - she was thrust into the spotlight when The New Yorker published her short story, The Lottery in 1948. In addition to short stories, she also wrote six novels, including the Haunting of Hill House which was reimagined in the 2018 Netflix series of the same name.
Hangsaman is Jackson’s second novel. The official publisher's description claims the novel is “loosely based on the real-life disappearance of a Bennington College sophomore in 1946," referencing the case of Paula Jean Welden. At the time, Jackson was living in Bennington, Vermont, as her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was employed at Bennington College, where Welden had been a student.
But this is not a novel about a missing girl, it’s closer to being a coming of age novel, and despite frequently being described as a gothic, the horror within these pages has no supernatural origin. It’s a compelling, chilling, and strange story of a young woman struggling to understand herself and others, to make sense of her world (polite society), and what her place might be within it.
Our protagonist is Natalie Waite, a seventeen-year-old who is attending an exclusive women-only, somewhat progressive college. In the foreword, Francine Prose says:
“Natalie is lonely at school. And because of who she is, and because of what kind of novel this is, her loneliness is terrifying. The dangerous power of awareness, quotidian social brutality, loneliness, and existential fear propel Hangsaman toward the edge of becoming a psychological thriller, rather like one of Patricia Highsmith’s, only less physically violent, funnier, more lyrical, imaginative, and interior.”
It’s also a book that is endlessly quotable. For example, I imagine anyone who has ever tried to create any kind of art has felt like this:
“The gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable…”
And there’s this:
“It had suddenly come to Natalie that when people were sober they repudiated everything they had done when they were drunk, and when they were drunk they repudiated everything they had done when they were sober.”
“I wonder where people find words for all the funny things inside their heads.
I keep turning around in circles and finding how well things fit together, but nothing is ever complete.
I think if I could tell someone everything, every single thing inside my head, then I would be gone, and not existing any more, and I would sink away into that lovely nothing-space where you don’t have to worry anymore and no one ever hears you or cares and you can say anything but of course you wouldn’t be any more at all, and you couldn’t really do anything so it wouldn’t matter what you did.”
I’d highly recommend getting your hands on a copy :)
I also read The Butterfly Lampshade by Aimee Bender. This novel’s protagonist Francie, on three occasions during her childhood, has witnessed strange phenomena: a butterfly seemingly materialises from a lampshade, a beetle from a photocopied worksheet, and roses from a curtain. All three emerge not as living creatures (or flowers in the case of the roses), but dead.
Such an occurrence, though “fun to imagine in a story,” Francie insists, “is terrifying in real life.” The butterfly “had to gain internal functions and an external structure, had to come out of an entirely different plane of existence to make itself, but somehow it did,” she thinks. “It was an active psychosis.”
She spends the novel trying to comprehend and understand these strange visitations.
Toward the end of the book Francie recalls a further similar memory - two humans, or human-shapes, with whom she shares a bizarre interaction. She says that it was as if they were “speaking in another language that was still pretending to be our language.” Did they like the butterfly, the beetle, and the roses somehow cross over into our plane of existence?
As reviewer Kevin Brockmeier notes:
“One finishes the novel with the eerie sense that we too are objects who have slipped accidentally into being and that, like the butterfly, the beetle and the dried rose, we really ought not to be here.”
If you enjoy magical realism, I think that like me, you’ll love this book.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
My friend Jaz introduced me to a new generation of Riot Grrrls: the Linda Lindas, (thanks Jaz!) and I watched their gig in the L.A. Public Library on YouTube. They are seriously talented, and their love of performing filled me with absolute joy.
I also came across this video interview with artist Bisa Butler whose work I shared in issue 13 of this newsletter. Within it she explains a little more about her process, and how her professors at Howard University (who were part of the Africobra movement) influenced her work. Right at the end of the interview she says:
“I see how much of a responsibility you have as an artist:
You are the reflection of our times so whether you're a writer, or a dancer, a filmmaker, painter, or sculptor, you're reflecting the times that you live in, and after you're gone all that is left is that reflection.”
I’m a couple of episodes into The Underground Railroad, (Amazon Prime). The series is based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel which I was utterly blown away by when I read it in 2016.
I was prompted to watch it thanks to this article by Scott Woods which you should definitely check out. Woods does a great job of explaining the series, here’ a quote direct from his article:
“…[the] series, like the book it is based upon, is a lot of things at once — journey tale, historical touchstone, matriarchal reckoning — but what both works do better than perhaps any film or show dealing with slavery to date is interrogate the very real relationships Black people have proposed, agreed to and attempted to realize with America itself.
Nearly every episode presents us with a new, pointed, difficult question:
Here, it proposes at the outset, you tried running from slavery. How’d that work out?
Then, when Cora and Caesar make their way to the town of Griffin, where slavery is outlawed but scientific experimentation is the order of the day, it asks, Here’s integration and exceptionalism. How’d that work out?
Then, when Cora arrives at the idyllic Valentine farm, which has negotiated away its independence and economic leverage to a nearby white town to keep the peace, the show asks, Here’s separation and capitalism. How’d that work out?
The genius of Mr. Whitehead’s novel lies in how he reimagines the various relationships America maintains with Black people in education, labor, religion, policing and protest — all through the literary lens of magical realism.
Mr. Jenkins’s direction transforms those allegories into observations that don’t seem very far-fetched at all. In doing so, he manages to shrink the distance between the history we labor to forget and a reality in which Black people still find themselves carried along: a vicious school-to-prison pipeline, trapped in systemic inequality and tyrannized by over-policing that smacks of overseer roots.”
As I said, I’m only a couple of episodes in, but so far it’s an incredible translation from book to screen, and it’s a series that I’d highly recommend watching.
Finally, I absolutely loved Shirley, (Netflix), a film based on Susan Scarf Merrell's novel Shirley. In this film we see inside the marriage of author Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, through the eyes of a fictional younger couple who come to live with them in North Bennington.
The film is not a biopic, instead it’s a film about Jackson, told in the style of one of her Gothic short stories. There are echoes of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” but it’s a much deeper, darker, and nastier take. At this point in her life, Jackson is writing Hangsaman, and, we see many of the themes she explores in that novel, play out in the film.
In one scene Jackson sits on a couch at a faculty party, staring with unabashed hatred at the other partygoers. Apparently not content with expressing her displeasure thusly, and in no mood to play nice, she elects to very deliberately pour a full glass of red wine onto the silk couch she’s seated on.
She then commences rubbing at (as opposed to dabbing at) the stain.
The hostess is horrified: "Don't rub it! Dab!" she implores.
Tellingly, perhaps; this hostess is more disturbed by Jackson’s apparent lack of knowledge about how to deal with said stain, than with the stain itself.
For my money, Jackson knows full well how to deal with a stain like that. Her rubbing rather than dabbing is a further deliberate act of vandalism. She knows full well how polite society women are expected to behave, but she has zero interest being one of those women.
Whilst Jackson’s protagonist in Hangsaman might daydream about acting out in this way, in this film, our fictional Shirley feels no such compulsion to bury any such impulses.
Elisabeth Moss is absolutely on fire in this role - deftly mixing cruelty and kindness, and incredible strength alongside extreme vulnerability.
It’s worth noting that the film has been quite rightly criticised for portraying Shirley and Stanley as childless, when, in fact they had four children - a bizarre choice which I can’t fathom the reasoning for. Nevertheless it’s a film I’d highly recommend watching.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
One for digital PR and SEO folks, this report from Aira is ace. Within it you’ll find the results of their industry-wide survey, plus commentary and insight from a vast array of wonderfully smart people, and there’s also some words from me in there.
It's brilliantly put together, I loved reading the results and all the comments from the other contributors.
There’s still time to book your spot for June 3rd! I’m giving a talk and Q&A on my first love: fiction.
Where do stories come from? And why do we write them at all?
In this session, I’ll be sharing some of my own fiction writing, and the story of how that particular story came to be. I’ll also share why I write, what inspires me, plus some things I’ve learned about writing along the way.
If this sounds like your bag you can sign up here.
I bought myself a children’s origami book and have been attempting to make creatures from paper:
The creature on the left was supposed to be a swan, but thanks to my ineptitude looks more like the Loch Ness Monster. Note also Billy Bob’s wonky folds. Hopefully I will improve with practice.
That’s all from me for now.
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PS Wanna find out more about me and my work? Head over to Worderist.com