(Thoughts of a Naturalist in a Technological Era)
(First published in Mushroom the Journal, Fall 2005)
Although trout season in New York State begins on April Fools day, in the Catskills it doesn’t come into it’s own for another two months. May Flies make their appearance in May, particularly in the Borscht Belt next to the Delaware River, but if you had one month to fish in the heart of the mountains, it would be June. And it was almost precisely in the heart of the month, in the heart of the mountains that I was stopped by a mushroom in the middle of the path leading to one of my favorite pools on the Esopus.
A casual glance told me it was Amanita vaginata. If this were August or September I would have passed by without a second thought, but here , at an odd time (mid June), in an odd location (a sandy path in a flood plain), vaginata just didn’t make sense. It was a combination of these factors, and something else, subtle and difficult to describe, that led me to stop and carefully lift the mushroom from the ground.
Upon close inspection, the pink, free gills, the soft structure of the pileus, and the musty smell of Pluteus became evident. It could have been a pale cervinus (atrocapillis my editor will say), the Deer Mushroom, by the smell and feel, but from the pronounced volva at the base of the stipe I knew immediately it was a Volvariella. The key conceptual features were very well marked, and I could see in my minds eye two images from field guides which had all of the salient characteristics of this specific mushroom illustrated. What was its name??
Since I would be leaving the stream after dark, and wanted to be able to bring it home, I carefully put the mushroom on a white-walled tire washed up by some past flood. Though I could not as yet call up its specific epithet, I knew that in over forty years of serious and systematic collecting, this was the first time I had seen it and wanted to be sure I would find it in the dark. I was as excited as a birder about to add a rare passerine to his life list!
My fishing companion of the day, Joe Allen, is a professor of English. He is also a collector and historian of Hip-Hop, a DJ and a bang-up digital whiz: A post modern deconstructionalist, so to speak, although I have yet to accuse him of this face to face.
From the very moment I stopped on the path to eye this mushroom I could sense his interest, bordering at times on vexation. Why was I wasting time with a mushroom when there were fish to catch? Remnants of the March Brown hatch was still emerging in the riffles, a few early Tricos were coaxing Browns to sip in the center of the big pool, and in the slick at the tail Sedges were skipping from the surface like flat stones snapped from a young boy’s wrist. Joe was quite anxious: Let’s go!! His vexation seemed to say.
The more time I took with this single mushroom, however, the more he sensed the apparent power of what I was doing and seemed to warm to the task. When we left the stream in the dusky grasp of night, it took both of our flashlights to find the whitewall. In the car ride home he couldn’t resist the temptation to cast question after question for that passionate trout that must have migrated into my mind. So, is it edible? Poisonous? If neither, why the interest? How can you tell one from another? What will you do with it now? Who else cares about these things? I rose to the bait.
Where to begin? Taxonomy, concepts, and concept formation were easy enough; straight ahead left brain stuff; so too with picture books and the catalogue of images stored in the subdominant hemisphere.
It was that third part that remains the most nebulous and hard to describe: The emergence of the form from the flux of experience, that subtle crystallization of concept and image into a tenuous gestalt that cries out to be investigated. Poets know it and do it all the time. Sculptors speak of carving into the geography of a dream. In science, it comes as the formation of the hypothesis.
With a relaxed gaze a subject can often glance at a page of print and know if his name (or other object of deep personal meaning) is contained on it. Psychologists and students of information theory often refer to this part of the process as the sensory store, that potentially infinite amount of information stored for a fraction of a second at the retinal interface. Blink and it’s gone, but attend to it and it flows into the short-term memory bank for further processing.
My previous experience with Volvariella came to mind. The concept, a volvate pluteus, is perhaps best exemplified by bombicina, a large amanita-like mushroom growing out of a tree. Three times I have found it in the wild, each time from the driver’s seat of my car as I was whizzing along at highway speed. The first time it appeared waist high on a half dead maple near the Cary Arboretum where I had been collecting for the NYBG, the second, on a stump in the yard of the Parsonage on Parsonage Street in Rhinebeck New York, and the third, at the base of an ash, on a side road high in the Catskills near Arkville returning from a foray near Beth Waterman’s house. In each case the name “Volvariella bombycina” just appeared in my mind, full blown, without a moment’s hesitation. Traveling in a car at highway speed is not necessary for this to happen, but a prepared mind is.
Back at home, I was able to verify my specimen as speciosa. I worked up a set of notes, took a few photos and began to check the records available to me of its occurrence. Lincoff, for example, (#118 p.678) describes it as “widely distributed” but is silent as to its frequency. I had never collected it before, and have no photos of it from forays. My frequent collecting partner, Peter Katsaros remembered seeing it only once, some 20 years ago, near Elizaville NY. Between the two of us nearly 90 years of collecting and only two sightings!
I googled “Volvariella speciosa + NY” and found only one herbarium record, a single specimen, at NYBG, collected by Clark Rogerson from Manhattan Kansas in June 1954, determined by R. L Shaffer the following April. A phone call to John Haines, curator emeritus of the Peck Collection at the NY State Museum in Albany indicated a similar scarcity: a single collection from Cautauqua County from the turn of the nineteenth century was the sole New York collection. * This collection then becomes only the second from New York State in over a century. Volvariella speciosa is a rare bird indeed!
* although collections from several western states are also part of the museum’s collection. See John Haines’ sidebar.
TAXONOMY: A QUICK TRIP TO THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE
The discipline of a naturalist as I explained to Joe on our way home from the stream involves not only familiarity with morphological forms, but also a conceptual framework into which they assemble. And here, the fields of taxonomy, concept formation, and neuroscience converge.
The names of the mushrooms are, of course, symbols: that is, they are abstractions that refer to specifics. The field of taxonomy organizes these names in a systematic way, and a good taxonomic scheme attempts to mirror or “map” reality. Here is where the fun begins.
There are lots of maps and map designs. Axioms differ. Geometries and topographies differ. Projections differ. Mathematical models and logical paradigms differ; so to do our subjective experiences and fields of references. Deciding upon which map to follow is one part of the problem. At this point the discussion in the car turned to “splitters and lumpers” and distinctions between hatchery and wild trout. I could see that Joe was getting the point.
At home I had the point reinforced when I checked into “Volvariella speciosa (Fr. : Fr.) Singer var. speciosa”. Singer in his discussion of Volvariella in The Agaricales (fourth edition p. 455f) discusses how one map maker (Spegazzini) wanted to make a distinction between two territories based upon a characteristic of the stem, placing “continuous” stipes into an autonomous genus Volvariella, leaving the others along with the type specimen (V. argentina) in Volvaria. Singer, however, demurred and along with Schaffer, seeing “no correlation between spore size and viscidity” kept all of Spegazzini’s territory undivided flying under a single flag, albeit a flag colored, stitched and woven by others; Fries, Roze, Kummer, Murril, and Quelet. Good and familiar cartographers all.
This is the concept that struck me on the path to the trout stream: “volvate pluteus = volvariella”. It conforms to the map of reality carried in a more or less unbroken form for at least a hundred years or more. It is the concept found in field guides, the one of most use to naturalists, dependant upon the immediate sensory experiences of the human nervous system and cognitive maps that emphasize analogous reasoning.
There are other maps, however. Consider, for example, one explicated and drawn from a more modern set of axioms based upon the restrictive enzyme fragmentation of the DNA code. The following makes the point exquisitely. * Kuo, M. (2004, November). The genus Volvariella. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site: http://www.mushroomexpert.com/volvariella.html
“Field guides, and even the current Dictionary of the Fungi, list Volvariella as a member of the Pluteaceae family, which also includes Pluteus--but it appears that the genetic jig is up, since DNA studies have revealed that Pluteus and Volvariella could not be much farther apart, genetically, and still share membership in the orderAgaricales. Volvariella, it turns out, lines up very near to "schizophylloid" mushrooms like Schizophyllum commune, at the far southern edge of the Agaricales (see Moncalvo et al., 2002)”
FROM ARGENTINA TO MERCURY: FURTHER AFIELD WITH THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE.
“At the far southern edge of Agaricales” indeed, considering that the type specimen, Spegazzini’s Volvaria argentina, comes from Argentina. Oh well, better not to get too punny about this, as it is an important matter given that our axioms, those fundamental starting points that shape our beliefs, not only often differ, but are often unrecognized and unexamined. And herein lays a story that bears upon the current state of mycological nomenclature.
It is a tale of the death of Classical Newtonian Physics and the corresponding birth of Modern Science, often recounted to demonstrate how the explication of axioms is so revealing and powerful. One of the more seminal tales of modern science it revolves around determining the location of Mercury in its orbit around the sun.
A little over a hundred years ago, when viewed through powerful telescopes Mercury just didn’t seem to behave properly. Sort of like an unruly child it sped up and slowed down at odd times and in apparent disregard of “Natures Laws”. Physicists could only begin to understand this phenomenon when they carefully examined differences in their method of measuring the position of the planets as they mapped the celestial heavens.
When plotted by a calculus based upon the laying down of a rigid rod, end over end (Euclid’s method), the orbit of Mercury described a smooth orbit around the sun. However, when viewed from earth by the light energy collected and focused by precise, state of the art, telescopes (a modern method) it appeared to hover, wander and speed up when in the vicinity of the Sun. “How could this be?” wondered the astronomers. Light energy, they postulated, must have mass and was being affected by the Sun’s gravitational fields… Or wait, was it that space is curved in odd ways… Or… perhaps Mercury is actually in two places at the same time. If you had to answer this question on a multiple-choice exam, the correct answer would be “All of the above”.
Sorting out the discrepancy between where Mercury should have been and where it “really was” was accomplished but at a cost. The security of the static, God Given world where nouns are nouns, verbs are verbs, and the word of god was final just had to go. It was replaced by notions of curved space where sunlight had weight, parallel lines converged, and E=MC2. The thought process did not discover as much as it invented.
This way of thinking led ultimately to ways of getting into the tiny spaces of atoms and the large spaces of the galaxies. Three generations later Buckminster Fuller was led to his anthem… I seem to be a verb! It was a way of thinking which sparked a revolution as profound as that of Copernicus when he uttered those dreaded words to the Church…..”Sorry about that, Pope, but it doesn’t look like we are at the center of the universe after all”. The Culture Wars of today seem, in part, to be child to these revelations of the new belief systems. That symbolic world which informs, maps, our place in the universe is a human invention not one where God gave names to all the animals.
Determined never to be caught that sort of pickle again science and the bulk of the rational academy initiated a number of changes designed to clarify our thinking in the mapping of reality. Fine, but how does this apply to Volvariella you might ask.
SEMANTICS: WE GOTTA USE WORDS WHEN WE TALK TO EACH OTHER.
One of the cardinal sins of semantics is to equate the “meanings” of terms that sound alike, but have different “referents”. Words, mushroom binomials included, are symbols, and as the linguist S.I. Hayakawa and the psychologist Roger Brown were to put it …The symbol is NOT the thing symbolized. Put directly to our mushroom, the name “volvariella” is not the mushroom. “Volvariella ( in the sense of Singer)” is not the same as “Volvariella (in the sense of Montcalvo)”. The names sound alike, indeed are spelled exactly alike but refer to different “things”. In one case the term refers to a set of gross naturalistic markers, in the other it refers to a subtle set of microscopic, highly processed and digitalized markers. One assumes an underlying unifying reality, but that is an assumption, not necessarily a fact.
The Scientific Method underscores this understanding by requiring that the actual operations used to measure the variable be spelled out in excruciatingly precise detail. These operational definitions not only allow for the results of the work to be verified by replication but also serve to warn that the meaning has changed. When you change how a term is measured, you change what that term refers to and thereby alter the fundamental meaning of its concept. A good scientist, semanticist, logician or taxonomist is aware of and remains alert to this understanding, but to the wider audience these distinctions are often winked at, watered down, neglected or simply abandoned.
It might help here if we were to consider our own definition: “Who are we anyway”? In our culture our “identity” - our name - is usually a marker of our breeding record traced through the fathers side. It may or may not correspond to our family or cultural identity, a marker of a more contemporaneous grouping. We are also identified in many other ways. Identity theft today usually involves the lifting of one of our digital names, our social security or credit card number for example. So too can we be located by our telephone or fax number - or more precisely by our cell phone which has built in GPS transmitters and is often carried on our person. My address was recently changed by the US Postal service to be more accessible to the statewide 911 system. UPS knows me by a particular digitized bar code embossed upon the packages delivered to my door. Having a hand held scanner allows them to track my package and map its location with precision. I can read part of that code. It says I am, in part, “P: GREEN S: LEFT “, a marker undoubtedly shared by many others with whom I am related by the UPS UBC system.
But wait, you might say. These measures are not of who we are, but only tell where our bag of skin may be found. “I” reside inside my skin and only those markers that penetrate can identify “the real me”. In our attempt to sort out the aliens amongst us we increasingly rely upon a variety of biological markers, blood types, retinal patterns, DNA typing and so forth, and the abiding belief is that these fractions of our being are true markers of our “real” identity. Perhaps. I certainly wouldn’t deny the power that modern digital technology has given us in manipulating our world. Nothing in our rational, materialistic, secular world beats it for producing shock and awe, and here I would include “awe” in its original sacred sense.
So, does the DNA analysis really define our underlying reality? A good case for this can be made, and the integration of DNA analysis with the larger body of scientific biological knowledge certainly has logical consistency and integrity. My personal belief is that it is probably correct, but that does not mean that my acceptance of this frame of reference is without skepticism or criticism.
ON SEEING: SQUEEZING MUSHROOMS THROUGH THE PORTALS OF OUR SENSES.
As a rational, materialist I also believe that all of our knowledge of the world, by definition and design, must come through the sensory portals of our being. Our nervous system terminates and interfaces with the world at the sensory level: eyes, ears, receptors for heat, pain, touch, etc. The broad range of the actual variability of the “real” world must be squeezed into and forced through the very narrow range over which these organs can operate.
In vision, for example, the ROYGBIV frequency range of visible light energy is but an octave in the entire spectrum of the electromagnetic sphere. The honeybees that I keep and the pigeons that roost near my house can “see” infra red. I can detect some gross levels via my skin, but would need special “heat sensitive” goggles to “see” it with my eyes. Likewise, we can map parts of the outer world with infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays or radio signals, but these all must be translated into visible light if I am to see it. The translations mediate; that is, they stand between me and the world.
A similar situation exists when trying to make sense of the very tiny parts of the world. These must be bulked up, magnified and amplified to be perceived by my sense organs. DNA evidence, for example, collected by restrictive enzyme snipping, PCR amplification, separation by electrophoresis and other treatment methods unknown to me, is highly processed information. It is not immediate, and requires several leaps of faith prior to acceptance.* (*Making all of this “shop talk” explicit does give to those on the other side of the culture wars ammunition for their attack on the rational, but that is another issue, best left for another time.)
So, what about Volvariella? Is it really "schizophylloid” as suggested by the DNA evidence cited? Well, am I really related to those of you whose UPS coding system identifies a common “P: GREEN S LEFT” component to our identity?
As a layperson, on the fringes of both of these worlds, I can no more make definite pronouncement about each of their coding systems than I can about the 250 or so red -capped russulas in the northeast. I am aware however that different snippets, both symbolic and “real”, fragment the whole quite differently, and that “reality” can be infinitely fragmented, reified and processed. And I know that powerful personal, economic and institutional interests come into play in the funding and publishing of research and the translation into the popular press* further processing, further mediation … *this article included.
ON KNOWING: THE COGNITIVE TEMPLATE
Say then that I am agnostic on the ultimate reality of Volvariella. I have no dog in this taxonomic fight, as a southern politician might declare, even though I may have a keen desire to watch the action. I do however have a distinct preference, a belief system if you will, for the practical, working taxonomic models that I use in the field, ones based upon immediate sense data. You might say that they make sense to me. Here is why.
The retina of the eye, as I understand it, is an outpost of the brain which upon being stimulated sends electro-chemical messages to a highly specialized area (the area striata of the occipital lobe) of its parent organ (the cerebral cortex) where they are decoded. From there the decoded messages must be reassembled into a meaningful array that is read and processed elsewhere in the brain. There is a lot going on all at once, the effect of which may be described as a perceptual-cognitive process.
The point to be made here, one that Joe and I first breached in the car ride home from the stream, is that this cognitive perceptual process is a two way street. The ideas that I have in my brain actually shape what I see with my eye. Those of us, who have no knowledge of a “flying buttress”, for example, may travel throughout Europe visiting church after church without ever seeing one. In the same way, the ability I have to “see” Volvariaella is because of the redundant visual and mental maps I have of it stored in my brain. It is the interplay of these constructs that shape my perception and immediately call out a name for what I see.
It is also why, try as I might, I have never quite developed the knack for “seeing” Lyophyllum, a genus defined by the presence of siderophilous granules in the basidium, granules that become apparent only under when treated with heated acetocarmine reagent viewed under magnification. Obviously, those who can see this reaction in the laboratory will be able to see the similarities between the large meaty clusters of L. decastes and the small fragile pallustre.
What I “see” i.e. recognize, is another hard to identify tricoloma or clitocybe (decastes) and an equally hard to identify mycena (pallustre), although the habitats become good avenues to pursue when, back in the lab, I attempt to identify these finds by the meridians posted by mycological cartographers.
Here then is a final point: A conclusion of sorts. Many, if not most, taxonomic maps are not only calibrated by a finer grid than I need to find my way in the field. They also take time and skill to navigate, and increasingly demand instrumentation far in excess of what I, and probably most of us, can use and understand. As a naturalist/collector what I invariably carry with me into the field is my mind and my senses. The most valuable parts of the numerous monographs available to me are those field characteristics that generalize from observation to observation, from place to place and that fit comfortably within the architecture of my everyday experience.
This flexible mental map may be of coarser grid than that of the laboratory specialist, but I am led to the conclusion that it is not inferior. In fact, the wider grasp is what allows it to see, as in this case, the significance of a misplaced amanita, and grasp the meaning of a volvate pluteus. Just as the platform of the observer shows Mercury to be in different places, so to can the platform of the taxonomist revel the mushroom we have collected to be situated differentially. When we cleave religiously to the most technologically sophisticated, advanced and nuanced of pronouncements, we may loose as much as we have to gain.
Not to be too short with the knowledge cooked up in the lab, but as the German recipe for Hasenpfeffer dictates, “First, Catch you a Rabbit”. That’s the job of the naturalist. First you catch a mushroom. Argentina, Mercury, and DNA fragmentation come along later.
This is John Haines' letter on the subject.
Concerning your interest in Volvariella, we have V. speciosa, V. bombycina, V. surrecta, plus probably a few more species lurking under Volvaria.
Under Volvariella (and Volvaria) we only have one New York
collection. It was sent by E. B. Sterling around the turn of the
nineteenth century from Westfield in Cautauqua Co. In addition we have 7
California collections, and one each from Oregon, Colorado, Iowa, and
Washington, D.C. All were sent between 1895 and 1913.
I did a little digging into the letter files and found a reference
to the Westfield Volvaria. E. B. Sterling was a very wordy soul and
wrote several hundred pages of letters to Peck.
The first mention is June 6, 1901
"My dear Prof Peck,
I am here at Westfield for a short time and out this day wit Miss
Lydia M. Patchen of Westfield on a toadstool trip furthermore, I send
you under two separate covers, some very choice specimens & some very
large ones, in fact larger I think that you describe. I also send a few
other items for your consideration that we should like some light upon.
viz. no F. Volvaria speciosa. found growing from ground. grassy spot
under Locust tree. roadway leading from Barcelona to the Lake front.
only specimen I have ever seen or found."
Despite some interesting punctuation and capitalization, he gets his
Later on I found the following in a footnote to a letter to "My dear
Prof. Peck" dated 6. 30, '05. The letterhead is " The National Tile Co.,
Eastern Sales Department, Trenton, N.J." I don't know if he actually
worked there as he seemed to have a penchant for using borrowed paper.
"P.S. Yours from the 29th just received. Very glad you have been able
to name the Colorado specimen of Volvaria speciosa. Fr. The only
Volvaria ever found by me was at Westfield, NY. June 6, 1901 which
you identified as Volvaria speciosa and mentioned by you on page 950
55th report 1901. I never found it in New Jersey."
I looked up the report and just as he said it states "Volvaria speciosa
Fr. Westfield, Chautauqua co. June. E.B. Sterling."
I hope all this makes your quest for Volvariella more interesting.