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The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Subversive Feminist Celebration of Science and the Human Hunger for Truth, in a Gorgeous Animated Short Film

A lyrical journey into the history of our species as the sensemaking animal who hungers for knowledge and advances by love.

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Subversive Feminist Celebration of Science and the Human Hunger for Truth, in a Gorgeous Animated Short Film

Every year at The Universe in Verse — the charitable celebration of science through poetry I host each spring — we have the immense honor of an original poem composed for the occasion by one of the most beloved storytellers of our time: Neil Gaiman. For the inaugural show in 2017, dedicated to trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and celebrating women’s underheralded contribution to science, he delivered something of singular enchantment — a work of lyrical storytelling tracing the history of our species as the sensemaking, truth-seeking animal who hungers for knowledge and advances by love. At its heart is an imaginative antidote to women’s erasure from the selective collective memory we call history.

Titled “The Mushroom Hunters,” lovingly addressed to Neil’s newborn son Ash, and originally performed by Ash’s mother — my dear friend and frequent poetic collaborator Amanda Palmer — the poem went on to win the Rhysling Award for best long poem and has now been brought to new life in a soulful short film, animated by artist Caroline Rudge and Creative Connection Animation Studio, narrated by Amanda, and with music by the otherworldly talent Jherek Bischoff.

With great subtlety and sensitivity, the art reverences science, embraces the many shapes and colors of womanhood, stretches the poem between past and future, between our ever-dueling human capacities for creation and destruction, and reminds us, as Maya Angelou so poetically affirmed, that “we are neither devils nor divines.”

THE MUSHROOM HUNTERS
by Neil Gaiman

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.

Observe everything.

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.

Amanda’s work (like my own) grows from the mycelia of patronage — this magical short film was wholly funded via her Patreon, of which I too am a proud and grateful supporter. Complement it with Neil’s masterpieces from subsequent years of The Universe in Verse“After Silence,” composed for the 2018 show, dedicated to the life and legacy of marine biologist and ecological patron saint Rachel Carson, and “In Transit,” paying bittersweet tribute to the queer Quaker astronomer Arthur Eddington and composed for the centennial of his historic 1919 eclipse expedition that confirmed relativity, uniting war-torn humanity under one sky and catapulting Einstein into celebrity — then savor other highlights from The Universe in Verse.

BP

The Mushroom Hunters: Neil Gaiman’s Feminist Poem About Science, Read by Amanda Palmer

An ode to humanity’s unheralded originators of the scientific method.

“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.

Amanda Palmer with her reading as the audience packs into Pioneer Works (Photograph by Amanda Palmer)

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.)

Amanda Palmer

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.

Observe everything.

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.

Photograph by Molly Walsh / Academy of American Poets

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.

BP

Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

“Was he mute a while, or all tears. Did he raise his hands to his ears so he could scream scream scream.”

Amanda Palmer Reads “Einstein’s Mother” by Tracy K. Smith

The forces of chance that chisel reality out of the bedrock of possibility — this improbable planet, this improbable life — leave ghostly trails of what-ifs, questions asked and unanswered, unanswerable. Why do you, this particular you, exist? Why does the universe? And once the dice have fallen in favor of existence, there are so many possible points of entry into life, so many possible fractal paths through it — so many ways to live and die even the most ordinary life, a life of quiet and unwitnessed beauty, washed unremembered into the river of time after this chance constellation of atoms disbands into stardust. There are, after all, infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

Every once in a very long while, chance deals a life out of the ordinary, islanded in the rapids of collective memory as one of lasting and profound legacy — a life that has seen far beyond the horizon of its own creaturely limits, into the deepest truths of the universe. Such lives are exceedingly rare — think how few of the billions of humans who ever lived are remembered and studied and revered a mere hundred years hence, how few the Euclids and Shakespeares and Sapphos.

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) lived one such life. Yet in such rare lives, the shimmering public contribution eclipses the private darknesses of life’s living, filling the opacity with our guesses, some generous and some not, none of which verifiable. We hardly know ourselves, after all — we can never really know who anyone is in their innermost being, much less how they came to be that way: What was the rarest genius like as a child — one among many in a classroom, in a city, in a civilization? What troubled and thrilled the pliant young mind, that neural bundle of pure potential about to burst into genius?

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne

That is what Pulitzer-winning poet Tracy K. Smith takes up in a short, stunning poem titled “Einstein’s Mother” — a preview of the fourth annual Universe in Verse, streaming worldwide on April 25, 2020. (Smith, whose father worked on the Hubble Space Telescope as one of NASA’s first black engineers, read her gorgeous ode to our longing to know a universe we might never fully know at the inaugural Universe in Verse, shortly before being elected Poet Laureate of the United States.)

Tracy K. Smith (Photograph: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Smith writes:

I’ve often heard that Albert Einstein struggled as a child. He came to language late, was unsuited to the classroom setting. And yet, in the narrative of Einstein’s life, his genius is often tied to the difficult or confounding features of his child self. My poem bears witness to the occasional challenges of motherhood. Sometimes narratives like Einstein’s offer me hope; more often, I fear they urge me toward a kind of magical, and potentially counterproductive, thinking.

Originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ wondrous lifeline of a newsletter, poem-a-day, “Einstein’s Mother” is read here by Amanda Palmer in the company of her own bundle of pure human potential, with original music by the generous and talented multi-instrumentalist Jherek Bischoff — a quilt of collaboration across the fabric of spacetime Einstein revealed, as the three of us found ourselves scattered tens of thousands of kilometers across the globe in our respective quarantine quarters while stitching The Universe in Verse together.

EINSTEIN’S MOTHER
by Tracy K. Smith

Was he mute a while,
or all tears. Did he raise
his hands to his ears so
he could scream scream
scream. Did he eat only
with his fists. Did he eat
as if something inside of him
would never be fed. Did he
arch his back and hammer
his heels into the floor
the minute there was
something he sought.
And did you feel yourself
caught there, wanting
to let go, to run, to
be called back to wherever
your two tangled souls
had sprung from. Did you ever
feel as though something
were rising up inside you.
A fire-white ghost. Did you
feel pity. And for whom.

Join us for the 2020 Universe in Verse, livestreaming around the world on April 25, for more poems celebrating the science of the universe, the people who make it, and the questions we live with, read by a glorious human constellation, including Neil Gaiman, Patti Smith, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rosanne Cash, astronauts, artists, astrophysicists, and other rare makers of meaning and seekers of truth.

Complement with another preview of the 2020 Universe in Verse — astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s sublime poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” read by the poetic astrophysicist Janna Levin — then sit back and savor the full recording of the 2019 Universe in Verse (which closed with a poem titled “Einstein’s Daughter”) and Amanda’s soulful readings from universes past: “The Mushroom Hunters” and “After Silence” by Neil Gaiman, originally composed for the 2017 and 2018 shows, and “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich from the 2019 show.

BP

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

Steadying solace for those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another.”

“Today, Another Universe”: Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Stunning Perspectival Poem of Consolation by Calibration

It is our biological destiny to exist — and then not. Each of us eventually returns their stardust to the universe, to be constellated into some other ephemeral emissary of spacetime. Eventually, our entire species will go the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and the Romantics; eventually, our home star will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, taking with it everything we have ever known — Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and the guillotine and the perfect Fibonacci sequence of the pine cone.

Meanwhile, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, we busy ourselves with survival and with searching for beauty, for truth, for assurance between the bookends. The feeling of that search is what we call meaning; the people who light our torches to help us see better, who transmit our discoveries from one consciousness to another, are what we call artists. Artists are also the ones who help reconcile us to the fragility that comes with our creaturely nature and strews our search with so much suffering. Suffering — biological and psychological, in private and en masse — has always accompanied our species, as it has every species. But we alone have coped by transmuting our suffering into beauty, by making symphonies and paintings and poems out of our fragility — beauty that does not justify the suffering, but does make it more bearable, does help the sufferers next to us and after us, in space and in time, suffer less, in ways the originating consciousness can never quantify in the receiving, never estimate their reach across the sweep of centuries and sufferings.

“Perspective” by Maria Popova

Few search-artists have served as greater agents of transmutation than Jane Hirshfield — a poet of optimism and of lucidity, a champion of science and an ordained Buddhist, a poet who could write “So few grains of happiness / measured against all the dark / and still the scales balance,” a poet who can balance and steady us against those times when we “go to sleep in one world and wake in another” with her wondrous new collection Ledger (public library).

As we wake in another, searching for sense and stability, practicing the practice of life within chaos theory, I asked Jane to read for us one of the most beautiful and perspectival poems from this miraculous book — a poem of consolation by way of calibration; an invitation to broaden our perspective — scientific, temporal, and humanistic — and weigh the immediate against the eternal.

TODAY, ANOTHER UNIVERSE
by Jane Hirshfield

The arborist has determined:
senescence      beetles      canker
quickened by drought
                           but in any case
not prunable   not treatable   not to be propped.

And so.

The branch from which the sharp-shinned hawks and their mate-cries.

The trunk where the ant.

The red squirrels’ eighty-foot playground.

The bark   cambium   pine-sap   cluster of needles.

The Japanese patterns      the ink-net.

The dapple on certain fish.

Today, for some, a universe will vanish.
First noisily,
then just another silence.

The silence of after, once the theater has emptied.

Of bewilderment after the glacier,
the species, the star.

Something else, in the scale of quickening things,
will replace it,

this hole of light in the light, the puzzled birds swerving around it.

A quarter century later, the poem echoes Hirshfield’s short, stunning poem “Jasmine” from her indispensable 1997 collection The Lives of the Heart — one of the truest, most beautiful perspectives ever polished in language:

JASMINE
by Jane Hirshfield

Almost the twenty-first century” —
how quickly the thought will grow dated,
even quaint.

Our hopes, our future,
will pass like the hopes and futures of others.

And all our anxieties and terrors,
nights of sleeplessness,
griefs,
will appear then as they truly are —

Stumbling, delirious bees in the tea scent of jasmine.

Complement this fragment of Hirshfield’s altogether re-saning Ledger with other poetic masterpieces of perspective — “Singularity” by Marie Howe, “A Brave and Starling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Immortality” by Lisel Mueller, “Cold Solace” by Anna Belle Kaufman, “The Mushroom Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, “When I Am Among the Trees” by Mary Oliver, “You Can’t Have It All” by Barbara Ras, “The Everlasting Self” by Tracy K. Smith, “Theories of Everything” by Rebecca Elson — then revisit physicist Brian Greene on the poetry of existence and the wellspring of meaning in our ephemeral lives amid an impartial universe.

BP

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