“Grief grinds slowly, it devours all the time it needs.” Long Witt Woon: The Way Through the Woods.
Five years ago my friend died. Not without notice, but it was fast and I felt riven. I’d lost good friends and family before and grieved desperately for them, then and now, but this loss blew me sideways in a different way. It wasn’t just about the loss of my friend, it changed who I was and how I saw the world.
I sank into something more than sadness. I suppose it was depression, the pointlessness of existence was suddenly overwhelming and inescapable. Any existence, not just mine. I obsessed in a lacklustre way about the impending death of everyone I loved. The world revolved around the truth of endings and the nothingness that followed.
People going to work, parents playing with their children in the park, even birds squabbling over the pecking order in our birdbath, I would watch them idly and wonder why they bothered. They were all just passing time.
It was hard to get past.
I envied my friends who believed in a god, because I imagine whatever the failings of its institutions, if you’re on board with that kind of stuff, religion gives you purpose and comfort and community. I just couldn’t manufacture personal belief on the basis of personal need.
I envied my mother, who was also grieving for the same friend, but she’s a hippy so when there’s a death in what she calls her ‘gypsy circle,’ she doesn’t feel they’re gone in the same way.
“He’s still here,” she would chuckle, dragging happily on a cigarette, at the memory of how during their own long friendship they would bicker for hours about past lives and reincarnation. He thought she was very weird but begrudgingly adored her anyway. She thought he was equally deluded as a result of something inflicted in this or another life.
I on the other hand didn’t believe anything except he was gone. I was so sad. He was so absolutely gone.
Worried, my husband took me to Pemberton, a beautiful small town in the south-west for a holiday, where he felt the old growth forests would soothe me. We walked everyday, down long gravel tracks. We walked through the tall trees, climbed through scrub and clambered down narrow paths that led to hidden misty lakes. We turned our phones off and played scrabble at night and watched birds hop among the grasses and shrubs outside our cottage in the morning. But most of all I felt peace when I was deep in the heart of the forest.
The air smelt of earth and home, the trees towered protectively around me. The ripple of birds as they moved among the trees, the whisper of wind through leaves, the crackle of an unseen creature crawling along the forest floor, sounds that were welcome rather than the assault I had been feeling in the city. Our footsteps fell in with the natural rhythm of the forest and I began to breathe a little more deeply.
Slowly, something happened that had not happened in any of my previous visits. I found myself staring more and more at the ground. I noticed, with a sense of interest that grew to wonder, the mushrooms and fungi that lived there. So many varieties, tiny yellow toadstools, bright and clear as a sour sally. Huge flat plates of fungi that looked like omelettes jutting out of random tree trunks. Brown fancies frilled like a Victorian lady’s nightgown, small red caps with white stems like you read about in fairy stories as a child.
The more I looked the more I saw. We walked past trees that stretched to the sky, in their prime. Breathtaking in their reach. But it was the old and the broken, the long dead stumps too wide for me to put my arms around that I saw now. Fungi was everywhere. At every stage of life, small and easy to miss on the side of a 60 foot marri tree, dotted among the leaf litter on the forest floor, smothering fallen old trunks in bright green moss, drawing them slowly, slowly into the ground. And all around new life was springing forth, fed by those that had come before them.
The process was beautiful. I started to feel an almost spiritual connection that I didn’t understand and didn’t need to, because it was speaking to me at a level deep beneath my skin.
It was different to my mother’s surety that in death my friend still existed somewhere as I knew him, but it was comforting, because it felt real and it took me out of myself. Everything spiritual that made sense to me in the past, about striving to ultimately release ego was here and happening all around me. Quietly, slowly, inevitably. But not without purpose. The idea the essence of everything would eventually be absorbed into the earth illustrated to me, profoundly, how we are all connected.
It didn’t make me less sad, but it did help the pointlessness that was crushing me.
And I began to heal. I went home. I forgot a little about my mushrooms and stopped staring at parents pushing their child on a swing and wondering why they bothered.
Now five years later I have picked up a book. An epiphany in itself. And a reminder.
The Way Through the Woods; of mushrooms and mourning is written by a Malaysian writer, Long Litt Woon, who went through devastating loss when her husband went to work one day and didn’t come home. She describes her own understanding and relationship with death and grief and she talks about how she found her own way back to life through fungi also. Long Litt Woon’s passage through loss led to her becoming a student of Mycology, the branch of biology concerned with fungi. Her book is both a study in grief and healing and an exploration of this incredible form of life we still know so little about. Science and what it means to love and to be human all rolled into one.
It’s magical. I have been reminded of what it means to connect and I have a renewed fascination with these incredible organisms that play such a role in life and death.
I actually don’t think it matters, really, how you find your way back to connection after loss. I know many don’t like the idea of comparison and will say it’s relative. I’m sure it is but I would not compare my loss with a woman whose husband died. That is just more. I can only speak for my own experience.
There is, for me, a deep selfishness that overcomes you when you grieve. Not the kind you choose where you take the biggest piece of cake or steal someone’s carpark or don’t appreciate your loved ones. This kind of self-absorbtion is involuntary and suffocating. You lose the ability to connect with anything but how you feel at that moment and how you think you’ll continue to feel tomorrow and the next day and the next. Grief makes its home in your chest and it’s heavy, so even something as natural as breathing becomes an effort. The worst of it is the loss of connection. To anything in yourself other than your loss, to anyone around you. You feel utterly alone.
Nature has a gentle way of reminding us that you are not. That everything is intertwined and you are a part of something bigger than yourself. It’s mystical, peaceful and deeply healing.
To me, it was something as small and as vast as a mushroom that led me back to connection.
Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, of mushrooms and mourning, is published by Scribe. She is coming to Literature and Ideas for Perth Festival in February 2020.
(photo: Albert Shaart, Flickr)