The arrival of a newborn son has inspired no few poets to compose works preserving the occasion. When Neil Gaiman wrote such a poem, he used its words to pay tribute to not just the creation of new life but to the scientific method as well. “Science, as you know, my little one, is the study / of the nature and behavior of the universe,” begins Gaiman’s “The Mushroom Hunters.” An important thing for a child to know, certainly, but Gaiman doesn’t hesitate to get into even more detail: “It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement / and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.” Go slightly over the head of a newborn as all this may, any parent of an older but still young child knows what question naturally comes next: “Why?”
As if in anticipation of that inevitable expression of curiosity, Gaiman harks back to “the old times,” when “men came already fitted with brains / designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,” and with any luck to come back with a slain antelope for dinner. The women, “who did not need to run down prey / had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them,” taking special note of the spots where they could find mushrooms. It was these mushroom hunters who used “the first tool of all,” a sling to hold the baby but also to “put the berries and the mushrooms in / the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. / Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.” But how to know which of the mushrooms — to say nothing of the berries, roots, and leaves — will kill you, which will “show you gods,” and which will “feed the hunger in our bellies?”
“Observe everything.” That’s what Gaiman’s poem recommends, and what it memorializes these mushroom hunters for having done: observing the conditions under which mushrooms aren’t deadly to eat, observing childbirth to “discover how to bring babies safely into the world,” observing everything around them in order to create “the tools we make to build our lives / our clothes, our food, our path home…” In Gaiman’s poetic view, the observations and formulations made by these early mushroom-hunting women to serve only the imperative of survival lead straight (if over a long distance), to the modern scientific enterprise, with its continued gathering of facts, as well as its constant proposal and revision of laws to describe the patterns in those facts.
You can see “The Mushroom Hunters” brought to life in the video above, a hand-drawn animation by Creative Connection scored by the composer Jherek Bischoff (previously heard in the David Bowie tribute Strung Out in Heaven). You can read the poem at Brain Pickings, whose creator Maria Popova hosts “The Universe in Verse,” an annual “charitable celebration of science through poetry” where “The Mushroom Hunters” made its debut in 2017. There it was read aloud by the musician Amanda Palmer, Gaiman’s wife and the mother of the aforementioned son, and so it is in this more recent animated video. Young Ash will surely grow up faced with few obstacles to the appreciation of science, and even less so to the kind of imagination that science requires. As for all the other children in the world — well, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to show them the mushroom hunters at work.
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via Brain Pickings
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, and the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.