The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer
By Maria Popova
“We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry,” the great astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science, wrote in her diary in 1871. Nearly a century and a half later, I hosted The Universe in Verse in collaboration with astrophysicist and writer Janna Levin and the Academy of American Poets — an evening of poetry celebrating science and the scientists who have taken us to where we are today, and a kind of symphonic protest against the silencing of science and the defunding of the arts, with all proceeds donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
To our astonishment, eight hundred people poured into Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works and thousands watched the livestream of the sold-out show — a heartening testament to this seemingly unsuspected yet immensely fertile meeting point of science, poetry, and protest, featuring poems about Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Oliver Sacks, Caroline Herschel, Euclid, neutrinos, and the number pi, by poets like Adrienne Rich, John Updike, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Wisława Szymborska, read by beloved artists and writers, including Rosanne Cash, Diane Ackerman, Ann Hamilton, Brandon Stanton, Jad Abumrad, and Elizabeth Alexander.
The readings concluded with something very special: “The Mushroom Hunters,” a feminist poem about the dawn of science, written by the inimitable Neil Gaiman especially for this occasion and read by his wife, the ferocious musician, artist, and my dear friend Amanda Palmer — what a generous gift and what a perfect finale, tying together an evening whose unspoken yet deliberate theme was the often untold history of women in science. (The image I chose as the backdrop for Amanda’s reading of “The Mushroom Hunters” comes from children’s book author Beatrix Potter’s little-known yet revolutionary mycological work — another fragment in the canon of women’s underheralded contribution to science.)
In this excerpt from the show, I frame the significance of the poem in the context of the evening and Amanda tells the story of its composition. (The isolated audio of the poem appears below the video.) Please enjoy.
And the poem by itself:
THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS
Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.
In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.
The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.
Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something 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.
And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.
Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.
Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.
And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.
The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.
And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.
The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.
The men go running on after beasts.
The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.
For more from The Universe in Verse, see astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and playwright and actor Sarah Jones’s astonishing chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, based on a poem by Campbell McGrath.
For more of the gorgeous poetry performances I mention in introducing Amanda to the stage, hear her readings of “Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, and “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, then join me in supporting the wonderful nonprofit artists’ space Pioneer Works so that they may continue to open their doors to such elevating events.
Published April 26, 2017