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  • Ellen King Rice

Kittens of the Forest: "Naked Came a Fungus" delivers Small Joys

Sean Williams is a musician, writer, traveler, and professor who plays more than thirty instruments and sings in four languages. She is also Captain Grammar Pants on Facebook; this "Pseudohydnum gelatinosum" meditation is Sean’s first visit to the rich forest of mushroom writing. She is currently finishing a world music textbook. Contact Sean at

On her 80th birthday, Sheila left the house for her customary walk into the grove nearby. She traced this route every day, eschewing the hindrance of an umbrella but well covered in her long coat and cap. The summer had been a long one. Now the rains of The Big Dark appeared to have begun with a vengeance. It wasn’t that she disliked the rain of the Pacific Northwest; in fact, it always made her feel deeply contemplative and creative. The appearance of the mushrooms, without fail, was a powerful reminder of the forest’s many cycles of death and rebirth, and she sought them out on her walk, silently reciting their common and Latin names as she spotted each one. The further she stepped into the forest, the more of them she saw. She noticed one type that had eluded her for a time; they stood upright in near-luminescent clusters of creamy white, spread out like a kitten’s tongue reaching for a taste of milk. Hesitating for a minute, the name came to her: Pseudohydnum gelatinosum – cat’s tongue fungus. Her own grandmother had shared with her some of the local stories about this particular fungus, back when she was a little girl: Each tongue represented a kitten alone in the world. She peered deeper into the forest. So many tiny tongues; so many kittens. She noticed a small group of them, sagging and darkening back into the decaying tree from which they had sprung. What a joy! She knew what this meant: the kittens represented by those tiny tongues were now growing up with loving families, and no longer needed the forest for nourishment. Her grandmother would have been proud of her for holding this memory.

She sat down with satisfaction on a stump and opened her thermos of strong Scottish breakfast tea with milk. Its smoky flavor always connected her with her grandmother, commander of the peat fire at her small cabin, and she felt her grandmother’s presence here among the kittens of the forest. Bending down, she plucked one and ran her finger along the top; she noticed its almost gelatinous feel. It was soft and smooth. She held it up to the light lancing down from the forest canopy above, and watched the brightness turn the creamy fungus into a translucent beacon. Delicate spines on the underside were the perfect mimicry of the roughness of a feline tongue as it studiously scrubs a paw, or perhaps a hand

The wind began to pick up a little, showering her with drops of moisture from the tips of the Douglas fir branches that waved gently overhead. She stood, brushing off the needles adhered to her clothes and tucking the last of her tea into her bag. The wind felt colder than she liked; perhaps a fire would warm her up nicely.

Back inside her home that afternoon she warmed herself, book in hand. She dozed. The fire crackled. Waking to the soft purring of her feline writing assistant as the little one snuggled inside her sweater, Sheila stretched, rose, and went back to her desk, one hand bracing the kitten against her body. Her walked had cleared her mind and freed her creativity, as it always did. It was time to write again. Ah, kittens! Learn how local volunteers help Thurston County and Mason County cats here: Donations via Paypal are always needed and most welcome.

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