Coprinus comatus poke their heads into the world through grass or wood chips, exposing scalps of thick supple dandruff, carnal remnants of their universal veil. They crown from the foliage shoulder to shoulder. Their caps shoot outward everywhere, exposing and splitting their ivory stems, which grow longer and flower delicate frills called annuli. The cap edges fray into inky threads, and the stems weaken and buckle. They turn black. They gurgle away into a shriveled gelatin in the hole through which they’ve sprung. This all happens over two or three days.
The first group I see has sprouted from a fungal substrate that feeds on a corpse. The cadaver was a middle-size tree, between 25 and 30 years. It had begun to sag. It could have hurt someone in the underpass. So they — some crew or other — chopped and mulched it probably more than a year ago. It was initially obvious, a big blonde tumor in the grassy, stream-cut stripe that cleaves the apartment buildings. But as the blackland muck rose and swallowed it, it began to turn colors: the green of non-native grasses wove its way like fingers through hair, the reds of various weedy plants, the crawling disgorgements of woodlice, snails, millipedes.
It blends in now — you might not even notice any longer if you weren’t looking for it — and it gets help from this detritivorous fungus sprouting the shaggy mane. She pops up her sentries in a thin spot in the corpse when it’s still cold enough for jackets and the smell of the humus is not thick enough to register. I take some photographs and place my hand on the mulch, which holds the warmth of biological processes.
I’ve begun to root for the mushrooms as a spectacular display of life that madly outpaced everything else that seemed to be growing in the tree corpse. They have appeared suddenly and in a large bunch occupying a space the size of a dinner plate. They take the nutrients from the tree and will spoil them back into the world through decomposition and the digestive tracts of the arthropods that will chaw them.
Each time I come back, always with several days between, something is different. And not only different but wrong for the mushrooms, which I’ve started in this bizarre pandemic reality to call friends. The original ones are rudely scooped and leveled by some animal — an opossum, a human. Or, they’re wasted, liquified, run all together in an inky chaos of collective putrefaction.
Alain Bellocq writes in his 2013 book Astounding Mushrooms that there are certain qualities that make a fungus a fungus. Its cells have a nucleus and walls of chitin, a substance they share with insects. It forms a mycelium, the structure that sprouts what we call mushrooms. (In other forms of fungus, the mycelium manifests simply as a fibrous mass.) It reproduces using spores. It digests its food outside of its body and absorbs it through osmosis. The world’s oldest fungus, Bellocq writes, is more than 2,400 years ancient, weighs 661 tons, and covers three and a half square miles. The sporophore — the mushroom — never lasts more than a few years and more often only a few days, as seems to be the case with my shaggy manes.
A younger stand of shaggy manes replaces the first in some other part of the bigger corpse, white bulbous shags emerging from the grounded womb. They have the job of breaking down into spores and flying away on the wind to clone their own mycelia. They start by erecting their caps, and if you were smaller, you could enjoy an afternoon under one thinking you were in a beer garden, the pungency not wholly unlike that of fermenting hops. The sun would shine through in rays striated by the black spokes that project from the stems.
But by the time I find these new mushrooms, a finger swiped across the gills comes off black — they’re already transitioning to ink. Many mushrooms with wide caps begin to dissolve like a candle that’s melting unevenly, a pizza dough that’s too fat on the edge and thin in the center. Sunlight shines through cap holes. A robust, leathery integument becomes a weathered stretch of oiled-black canvas, beaten by wind. It collapses around its stanchions, which go on a little longer, little pieces of leftover obsidian cap flesh waving at passersby.
Except it isn’t beaten. The sun dissolves it. Gravity, a force proportionately kinder to most life, sucks these sad gillish threads into a drying gelatin. It may be consumed by insects or kicked apart by a child. The wood chips are mostly extant.
Another stand grows across the creek, on a stump. It begins to disintegrate. Another grows on the side of the original mushrooms, nearer my apartment.