Small white pillows were erupting from the earth, pushing their way up through the pine needles, rotting leaves and pungent moist earth. Evidence of their battle to reach the open air was evident on their caps. Bits of black soil and segments of spruce needles lay captured on their tops, raised aloft as they thrust themselves up out of the earth. Thanks to the weather, they had transformed themselves from a secretive organism that spends most of its time underground as a network of fibrous filaments. It seemed a liberation of sorts, similar to the one that my college president spoke of so many years ago when he addressed me and 400 other freshmen on our very first day of undergraduate life.
The sprouting mushrooms caught my attention time and again as I hiked through the woods of Virginia last weekend. Not only did I see the snowy-capped varieties, but also flaming orange emanations – asymmetric and ruffled – and otherworldly masses of mini-stalagmites – faint yellow coralline structures forming a semi-circular trail on the forest floor. Dead logs and tree trunks held semi-circular shelves with velvety tops, ringed in beige, ivory, brown and dusky green. And, more. So many more, their abundance due to the bank of clouds that’s been hanging over this part of the country for much of the past two months. The extreme humidity enabled the fungi to experience a sexual heyday, to send their fruiting bodies – the mushrooms – out into the open, dispersing their spores with the wind. It gave them license to sow their seeds.
Whenever I see wild mushrooms in the forest, I think of my brother, an amateur mycologist, aficionado of all things fungal. I have many stories about David’s mushroom pursuits, but the one that comes to mind is the one that almost prevented me from hearing the very first lecture of my college career. It was the lesson about serendipity, the speech that President Strider gave to every group of incoming freshmen during his almost 20-year tenure at the helm of Colby College. He suggested that when in the library, we let serendipity guide us to true learning. “If the random page of a book – not the page we were looking for – catches your interest,” he’d say, “follow it and let it take you where it will. That’s the essence of a liberal arts education, and one that will serve you best in this world.”
Wise words, but what’s the connection between an abundance of wild mushrooms and a valuable college education? David, the fungus fanatic. The summer before I was to enter college, I was in Maine on vacation with my mother, stepfather and brothers, just two hours from where I’d be going to school. Instead of my parents taking me there, helping me unpack a U-Haul full of appliances and conveniences and setting up my room for me – as parents do these days – my mother asked my brother to drop me off at Colby on his way home to New York. He’d help me carry my two suitcases into my dorm room and make sure there was a bed for me. That was all that was needed, she felt. I had no reason to think otherwise. I just knew that I was expected to be there and settled in by 3:00 pm, in time to attend the President’s welcome speech.
The drive to Colby is along Interstate 95, which, in Maine, is fully forested on both sides. It’s a beautiful forest, a tall lush one – great for mushrooms, especially if it’s been a cool or rainy summer. I’m not the only one to notice that fact. David did too, and decided to check out his instincts that there might be some fascinating mushrooms to be discovered along the way. Midway through the drive, he stopped the car on the shoulder of the highway, grabbed his knife and his basket, and scampered into the woods on a foray. I was in no mood to join him. I was excited about going off to school, but also nervous, as I’d never even seen where I’d be spending the next four years of my life. So, I chose to stay by the car and wait. As he took off, I called after him to remind him that I did have somewhere to be at 3:00, and that he shouldn’t dally too long.
Well, dally he did. The minutes ticked by and David, who had so easily disappeared into the dense evergreen-coniferous forest of central Maine, did not return. At one point, I left the car and venture to the woods edge to try to find him, but had no luck. I grew impatient and worried that I’d miss the entrée into my new life, the first step in a successful college experience. Where was he? Why didn’t he take his responsibility to deliver his younger sister to college more seriously? Didn’t he remember his own nervousness when he first went to Harvard some ten years earlier? Why didn’t he come back? It was almost 2:00 pm.
Eventually, David did return, grinning broadly as if he had made a praiseworthy conquest. He had several mushrooms that were new to him, and his wicker basket was nearly filled. He was eager to show them to me, but in spite of their neatly cut stems and varied colors and textures, I was not in any mood to show my appreciation. “Let’s get back on the road,” I growled. Unfazed, he returned to the driver’s seat and took me to school. We arrived just in time for me to drop my bags, give him a quick and annoyed hug, and run off to the chapel where my new classmates were listening to the opening words of the President’s speech.
I managed to catch the serendipity story, and it has stayed with me ever since. During my college career and beyond, I have experienced serendipitous moments – in the library, as well as outside. In unknown ways, they have brought me to where I am now. President Strider’s words invited me to maintain an open mind, to allow the new and unusual to penetrate my awareness and meet my consideration. I did that with those mushrooms in the forest last weekend, and like them finding their freedom from life underground, I felt liberated. And as I examined the strange forms and shapes on the forest floor, I experienced the serendipity of countless coral fungi, boletes and polypores.