Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Jennifer Lucy Allan

Jennifer Lucy Allan | 5th January 2021

It’s time for the annual musings known as Shadows and Reflections. Since so many of our lives were lived in thematic overlap in 2020, we’ve asked our contributors and friends to focus on the small, strange and specific as they look back over the last 12 months. Today it’s the turn of Jennifer Lucy Allan.

One morning at the end of March, I got in the shower and something wasn’t right. It took me a few minutes to identify what was wrong, like something had gone numb, but all my limbs were fine. Then I realised, with a head full of foam – I couldn’t smell the soap. I felt otherwise whole and healthy, and was told it would take two weeks to return. Nine months later my nose remains defective. 

There remains a segment of my sense of smell that is effectively in 8-bit, where an odd list of things share a phantom smell that belongs to all of them and none. It is a sour, rotten, acrid scent that now haunts boiled eggs, cigarettes, exhaust fumes, coffee, hoppy beer and raw onions. It’s an odd list; odd enough that I still find it novel. My frustration is mainly focused on a resentment of how many pubs stock nothing but hoppy IPA craft beers, which now smell to me like rot and cigarettes. 

More generally, this state of affairs means I can no longer trust my nose. I have no idea if new smells I encounter are accurate or not — scents might be skewed, distorted, or might not even exist at all. In which case, perhaps this was not the best year to get into mushroom spotting. Because as I learned on a socially distanced mushroom walk with @sporesforthought, to properly identify a mushroom, you often need to use your nose.  

I had no prior sensory knowledge of mushrooms beyond the type from Tesco, and so the general wild fungus smell I learned this September may well be a different one than others encounter. It may also be different to the one I would have learned had I gone mushroom hunting in 2019. 

This smell is to me like the flesh of the earth – not wholly soil or green matter, but with more of a fetid and bodily perfume. Not rotten, but somehow ‘of the underneath’. I started keeping mycological notes: 

Dusky Puffball: Puffball with a brown pebbledash. Smelled powerfully of gas.

Ruby Bolete: Two on leaf litter that had gone over. Grown on beech and oak so was a sure thing in Hockley Woods. Apparently tastes like soap and has maggots. Pores, not gills. 

Driad’s Saddle: Smells like wet flour – confirmed (flour scent zone must be intact).  

Stump Fairy Helmet? Thought it was a Bleeding Fairy Helmet but it smelled like ammonia, was growing on rotting wood. Apparently is edible, doesn’t look great. 

Beefsteak: Bracket that looks like steak and actually bleeds when poked. Dave was disgusted by its gory, oozing, appearance. I will eat it for breakfast tomorrow. 

The only mushroom I ate was the one that was bleeding, where there is nothing toxic to mistake for it. The others may be disguised to me, in fetid, confusing costumes.  As the only potentially psychedelic woodland friends, it feels appropriate that there might be something distorted in my sensory knowledge of these species. I wonder: Am I picking everything up? Which smells would I have recognised last year? Is the smell knowledge I am building wrong, or just different? 

I am curious about the veil I cannot lift, this potentially malfunctioning dictionary of mycological smells I have begun cataloguing. It makes me think about the way language and the senses interact, about the subjective translations between the two, about the power of an accurate description like the wet flour. With my nose still playing tricks, I have no real way of knowing what’s accurate. 

I wonder if perhaps I am constructing new knowledge on dangerous ground, like building a house on marshland. Any change is supposed to be good, and so while the cold and rain keeps me inside, I await a distortion in the mushroom smell of the pockets I filled with mycological samples back in September, when the woodland floor was in bloom with bodies from underneath.