Mushroom Eyes

Connected to one another through an invisible mycelial web

Story by
Tarun Nayar

The fresh Pacific air moves through the cedar boughs overhead like papery wind chimes. I can hear my breath.

Today, I’ve wandered deep into the forest in search of fungi. It’s early enough in the spring that the creek next to the path is loud and playful. Sweat trickles down my back, even in this cool air. There is less wind here, among the shade of these giant firs, and my gear is heavier than it looks. The sounds of the forest begin to outweigh the drone of Vancouver in the distance. The clicks and whirrs of the ravens, the knocking of the pileated woodpecker, the chirping of the chipmunks, the incessant buzzing of the insect world. The fresh Pacific air moves through the cedar boughs overhead like papery wind chimes. I can hear my breath.

Looking for mushrooms in the forest, there’s a moment when I leave my city eyes behind. My city mind behind. A softening. A widening. An opening. This is when they appear. When the mushrooms move from the background to the foreground. And all of a sudden they’re everywhere. The tiny parasols of conifer tufts popping out of a rotting fir. Huge red belted polypores – shelf mushrooms on tree trunks appearing like stairs to the upper canopy. If I’m lucky, a yellow-orange chanterelle tucked into a bed of mountain fern moss, a shock of colour amidst the greens and browns.

My fiancée taught me how to forage. She calls this phenomenon mushroom eyes. It took me a little while to find them, my mushroom eyes. I had to learn how to relax, to breathe, and to open to the forest. To make my gaze soft like the clouds overhead. It almost feels like my actual eyes become less important, and that instead, I’m seeing with my whole body. Senses intermingle – touch, smell, sound, blending into a haze of perception..or perhaps reception is a better word.

I’m nearing the place where I saw them last year. I can see the treetops swaying gently in the breeze when I look up, encouraging me to slow down. And then I spot them. A whole cluster of Turkey Tail mushrooms, Tramates versicolor, there must be 20-30, proudly emerging from a rotten alder just off the path. Brown, white and gold halos mark their caps, connected to each other through an invisible mycelial web. 

As I set my things down on the soft earth, I reflect on this strange obsession that sees me trekking through the forests surrounding Vancouver with a bag full of oscillators and filters in one hand, a portable power supply in the other, and a backpack full of recording gear – on a quest to make music with the fungal kingdom. Sometimes I get the feeling that they’re in control and not me. The mushrooms.There are more fungal cells in our bodies than ‘human’ cells. Could they be acting through me? Are they the ones seeing through my mushroom eyes? Taking me for a field trip, out here in the forest, to find their distant relatives? To make music with them? Am I just the vehicle for their jam session?

Gently unpacking my modular synthesizer, I’m struck by how closely it resembles a life form in its own right – the exposed cables like neurons, transmitting electrical impulses from one body part to another. Under the knobs and dials, a hard skeleton houses fragile chips that come to life when fed with electrons. Although I know its tender heart speaks in binary, somehow when these thousands of circuits act together they seem to behave with the complexity and unpredictability of what can only be thought of as a living being. 

My synthesizer awakens when I connect the electrodes to one of the larger mushrooms in the cluster. The blinking lights signal that the circuit has completed itself through the body of the fungus, the electrical field of which is now controlling the music I’m hearing in my headphones. I find a dry piece of wood to sit on, start recording, and sit back comfortably. I’m now an audience member, but somehow intimately connected to the bubbling analog bleeps and bloops produced by this unlikely collaboration. I close my city eyes. My mushroom eyes stay open. The sounds of the forest merge with those of the synthesizer, creating a slowly evolving ambient soundscape that expresses this moment in a way which is immediate and yet transcendent. As my senses blend, I can almost see-hear-feel the electrical fields of the mushrooms, the synthesizer, and myself, interwoven – birthing a new entity; a kind of collective consciousness. 

Perhaps this is how mushrooms always experience the world, connected as they are to each other and to their environments through vast mycelial nets. Seeing, hearing and feeling with their whole bodies. Merging and combining with ease. With edges blurred, perhaps they are not even aware of what it is to be separate. Perhaps there is just ‘more’ or ‘less’, ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’, but never ‘me’ and ‘them’. My city eyes can’t understand what that would look like. How that would feel. But out here, deep in the forest, listening, I’ve left my city eyes behind. I can hear my breath. My gaze is soft like the clouds overhead. And through my mushroom eyes, I see a world rich with hope and possibility.