The magical mushrooms of Abbotsford

The other day whilst bruising my legs riding a bicycle machine I was also improving my mind by listening to the episode of The Habit podcast in which Jonathan Rogers interviewed essayist Amy Baik Lee (you can listen to it below or anywhere you get your podcasts). An essay Amy had written for The Cultivating Project about Beatrix Potter was the jumping-off point of their conversation, which was encouraging, inspiring, and made me want to write. What actually prompted that urge to write, however, was the tangential mention that Beatrix Potter was a mushroom fan.

Beatrix Potter, in case you didn’t know (or have forgotten), was the creator, writer and illustrator of Peter Rabbit and all of his friends (and enemies). Her delightful stories were hugely influential on my imagination when I was a teeny wee girl and still shape my views on squirrels, chipmunks, hedgehogs and cherry twist. I don’t remember offhand whether she ever actually mentions mushrooms in any of her stories, but, given her love for the natural world and her exquisite attention to detail, it’s not surprising that she also loved mushrooms.

Mycological illustration of the reproductive system of a fungus, Hygrocybe coccinea, by Beatrix Potter, 1897.

For some reason that I’ve never been able to explain, I absolutely love mushrooms … except when it comes to eating them. Then I’m very picky. But when it comes to finding them in the wild, I’m endlessly fascinated by the vast array of shapes, sizes and colors they come in, their intricate details, their growth habits, uses and dangers. They’re one of my favorite things to find and photograph on a walk through the woods, and I’m always excited to discover them in our yard after a rainy spell (except for the nasty-looking variety that pops up on our front lawn every year, that is. I could do without that one).

Unlike Beatrix Potter, however, I’m not a mycologist — I’m thrilled when I find mushrooms, but I don’t go foraging for them. Because of this — and, most likely, because of where I live — I’d never come across those gorgeous bright red toadstools you always find in fairytales. But then we went to Scotland.

Now, if ever in all the world there was a romantic, Sir Walter Scott was assuredly he. Abbotsford, his Gothic Revival-style estate on the banks of the River Tweed, would be ample evidence of this even if he’d never written books like Ivanhoe, Rob Roy or Waverly (though in that case the estate would never have existed, as he had to work desparately hard to keep himself and his family out of debt as it was). It really feels like you’ve wandered into the ancient seat of a Scottish laird and might come upon himself stalking the halls, wondering why his stronghold has been overrun by a bunch of ill-favored sassanachs.

You could easily spend an entire day taking in the house, the gardens, the river and the rest of the grounds, but, sadly, we had to save such an extensive exploration for another year. As we made our meandering way back to the carpark we passed a bank grown over with ferns and ivy, and there, peeping out of the tall grass below, were the fairytale mushrooms of my dreams.

They were a bit blousy and imperfect, to be sure, nibbled on and past their prime, but I thought they were magnificent, and I could hardly have been happier had they not been holey and disshelved-looking.

Abbotsford was breath-taking and awe-inspiring, but I think my favorite part of our visit was those magical mushrooms. I felt as though they were a special gift God had hidden there just for me. The world truly is full of wonders, if we’re careful to keep our eyes open and go slow enough to see.