The eastern slope of the Rockies isn’t an easy place to pursue a passion for mushrooms. It’s dry and windy. Some biomass will practically mummify before it can break down. Currently we haven’t had a wetting rain in weeks, and if feels like years since conditions gave us a good crop of chanterelles or any other good edibles. Recently, however, I’ve wandered across a couple surprises.

The common stinkhorn is probably the most infamous member of an already maligned kingdom of life. In 1597 it was listed under the descriptive moniker “fungus virilis penis effigie.” To this day, its (im)proper scientific name is Phallus impudicus: a shameless you-know-what. Honestly, when I found this cluster, my mind didn’t go there and I don’t think it ever would have. I was distracted by the smell, which attracts flies by its resemblance to carrion or dung, and really a mixture of both. (Actually, I find it to almost perfectly resemble stinky cheeses, specifically one I bought at a Wisconsin dairy that was called “German Brick.”) The flies walk around on the sticky, dripping surface of the head, and when they leave, they distribute the spore-laden gleba wherever they go.

Stinkhorns come out of “eggs” that consist of a soft, rubbery shell, over a slippery mucus covering. Beneath that are the beginnings of the stalk and gleba-covered head, looking as alien-fetus as possible. And yet they’re edible, pickled, fried, and sometimes treated as a delicacy. The stinkhorn family is possibly the greatest cast of freaks in the entire fungi kingdom. The common stinkhorn, as gathered by its name, is your standard model. Other species, which are mostly tropical in habitat, make wild attempts to visually resemble the carrion they otherwise resemble in smell. But they look like nothing else on earth– cages of fleshy scarlet, dripping with brown gleba. Or white honeycombed veils.

I really enjoyed the fact that my stinkhorns (which I never expected to find in Montana, by the way) were growing out of one of the most carefully manicured lawns in this town: no trees, no shrubs, chainlink fence, fertilized and mowed. In other words these mushrooms were doing what mushrooms do best. Making an art of decomposition; showing us that when things are natural and come full circle they are also gnarly and untamable and full of surprise.

This from Thomas Mann (and thanks as always, wikipedia, for making the connection): “…its form reminiscent of love, and its odor, of death. For the stench given off by the impudicus was strikingly like that of a decaying corpse, the odor coming from greenish, viscous slime that carried its spores and dripped from the bell-shaped cap. And even today, among the uneducated, this morel was thought to be an aphrodisiac.”

***

In the shade of a huge, creek-side spruce tree I found an isolated specimen of this yesterday:

It totally stumped me.

The easiest go-to for classifying a mushroom is by looking at its gills, or lack there of. Plenty of mushrooms don’t have gills– morels, for example– but they have tubes or bellows or crenelated surfaces or gleba. This one just seemed to be breaking the rules. It had the structure of a gilled mushroom, but in the place of the gills was a barren membrane. Meanwhile it had a tight little cap and piled underneath, like a powdered doughnut, were the cinnamon-colored spores. It was almost like, when the gills never came through, the spores were so eager to escape they blew the top of the mushroom off.

Battarrea phalloides, or scaly stalked puffball, it’s called. Yes, it’s actually classified as a type of puffball, which makes sense when you think about it, but it’s still a very strange and rare type. The top ruptures tidily all the way around and just pops off at some point. Now the hydrophobic spores are ready to be propelled by raindrops or carried away by the wind.

Water: an emulsifier of the imperceptible and perceptible.

Where hidden flows of energy takes form, light, and color. Hypnotic to the eye, it’s proof of something, the more subtle the better. In evening calm a shoreline of timber is accompanied by its negative, lava lamp style, dripping downward in pitchy, molten gobs.

Illusions promise deeper levels meaning: at the limits of perception, they show our reality to be interacting with another reality. For their powers of abstraction they offer the purest aesthetic. To perceive them is personal and uncommunicable artistic practice.

In nature there are no illusions, only an illusion of illusions. That is, there are only shortcomings of our senses, and the degree to which we take them literally.

What water does: I sit in front of a lake with my mind in a way that is possible nowhere else.

I see only the surface. But if I keep looking, it says, I might stop seeing and see beyond it.

Sunrise, sunset. Five days on a lake.

Water hemlock contains a compound called cicutoxin, a compound unique to plants of its genus, Cicuta. This is one of the most violent, naturally-occurring poisons in North America.

Cicutoxin works as a stimulant to the nervous system. By blocking chloride channels it creates runaway cell overactivity. Seizures. The rapid onset of seizures may be the first symptom of poisoning, and in lethal cases, they can continue for as long as 96 hours before the victim dies of heart or respiratory failure.

Water hemlock is a member of the Apiacea, or carrot, family. It shares attributes with well-known edibles such as parsley, caraway, dill, celery, and, of course, carrot. Native Americans harvested the roots of a particularly close relative, the hemlock water-parsnip, for consumption, as well as parts of many other members of the family. In fact the Snake River, where the most famous water hemlock poisoning in our area took place, was known by the Shoshone as Yampa Baa, or Wild Carrot River. But all parts of water hemlock are poisonous.

In the roots, though, the poison is concentrated. The literature warns of “foul-smelling, oily, yellow sap.” In my opinion it smells strongly and precisely of carrot. Edible. More diagnostic are the stacked, horizontal chambers seen in a cross section of the root, as above.

Another identifying characteristic of water hemlock is found in the leaves. The veins terminate at the notches of the leaf, rather than the teeth– although, as seen above, it’s a fine line that separates the two.

***

Aconitum columbianum: one of many closely related species with nicknames that include women’s bane, queen of poisons, devil’s helmet– and the more innocuous monkshood, by which I’ve always known it.

The genus name comes from Greek for dart, referring to the way this plant’s sap was once used to poison arrows. It is also known as wolf’s bane, since it has also been used to poison wolf bait.

The toxic compound is called aconitine. Here, it’s your sodium channels that get depolarized. The symptoms aren’t quite as violent as hemlock but it’s just as deadly– as little as one gram of the plant can have enough aconitine to kill you.