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October 2008
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corvi [userpic]
The gospel of the small

I have now been mushroom collecting with tylik several times. By which I mean I tagged along while she conjured mushrooms from thin air, and put them in bags. You look at a patch of perfectly plain grass, and you turn around to look somewhere else, and when you glance back over your shoulder, she has pulled four pounds of mushrooms from your square foot of plain grass and is already nibbling on one of them.

After the most recent time, the universe came all apart at the seams: suddenly there are mushrooms everywhere! I can see them now. Little slatey purple deer mushrooms. The pale frost-ringed lactarius glyciosmus that flakes like glass and smells like peppermint. The russulas with their broken magenta caps, and inky caps unwriting themselves in long black streaks. Sulfur tufts pale and yellow-green like malachite in a fire, suillus slimy and wider than my handspan, luminous pale gold honey mushrooms, and fairy-ring mushrooms marking out their circles underfoot.

It's like learning to read a new language, where all the words are written in the lacy skeletons of fallen leaves and the hidden feather tracks of tree roots and the ghost-pale smudge of spores against dark red earth.

There's this oft-quoted study - they were testing how well people could remember the placement of pieces on a chessboard, and - surprise! - chess players were much better at it than non-chess players. Which seems obvious, but it means that the chess players aren't just memorizing combinations of piece and location. They're looking through the crackle-glass depths of the board, to where meaning lives. They're reading it, like the rest of us take irregular ink blotches for love letters and limericks and livejournal posts.

So: somehow I have learned to read the gospel of the small - the way light curls around a leaf, the way soil catches between your fingers, the bone-pale carven labyrinth of daedalea gills. This makes me very happy, even if I suddenly have to be terribly careful where to put my big, clumsy feet. :)

Current Mood: happyhappy

I have often thought of that effect as being akin to having the dew rubbed on your eyes that allows you see into fairy.

i finally remembered what this reminds me of: there's a tribe of amazonians who make this horrible glop people rub into their eyes. it messes with human color perception something fierce, with the net effect that it makes seeing in the jungle a whole lot easier.

Huh, do you remember any details that might help me track down references to this? Google has been unhelpful so far.

best i can come up with is that it was probly mentioned in the national geographic august '03 issue, which has an article on the amazon. the lead paragraphs are available for free, but not the bit i'm remembering. it looks like if you subscribe, you get the whole article.

i'm pretty sure that's the source, 'cause the table of contents mentions an article about the atacama desert, which sounds familiar... i think i read the issue in a doctor's office about a year ago. :)

I thought the most interesting part of the chess study was that the chess-players' advantage applied only to real game arrangements; when the arrangement was random and did not correspond to a possible game state, the chess players had no advantage.

I've assumed, and that tends to reinforce the assumption, that what they're actually doing is looking at a game and taking from it a sense of where it is, from which they can reconstruct where the pieces are. Being an expert at a symbolic art means you can break it down into its representative pieces, get at the underlying causality, and that massively reduces the work in remembering the details. When I look at a clay sculpture I see this amazing, complete work full of complexity; when I look at a glass bead I see a paint-by-numbers of colors I know, applied in an order I can calculate. I unroll the bead into its atomic units. It'd be neat to be able to do that in more fields. One of the reasons I've always envied mechanical engineers is their ability to do that with almost anything mechanical: unroll it into a simple set of manufacturing steps and a simple set of analytic processes for determining strength and durability.

The same concept (experienced chess players remembering more pieces of boards that can be created) can exist for remembering a string of letters. If they look more like words or other familiar letter strings, you still have that conceptual breakdown and increase in memory.

Like IBMACLUCIABS is harder to remember than those looking at it like

Yes. Understanding and being able to recognize the patterns of the game, or medium, or program, or whatever, makes it much easier to grasp the overall image and thus remember it. A screenful of pixels is impossible to memorize; the image of your friend's face on the screen is easy to recall.

neat! the phase transition between merely seeing stuff and reading it is always impressive. :)

i remember a similar study about go, since i was attempting to learn to play when it came out. i thought it was cool that i could actually read the example boards, and distinguish meaningful positions from noise.

Ah, I am jealous; I have never played go and keep meaning to get around to it someday. Depending on your coefficients for tolerance-of-bad-fantasy and bad-fantasy-written-by-people-you-kind-of-know, you may find a silly story I wrote about go and reading amusing.

oh, i don't play at all well; worse than i play chess, even. :)

the story is entertaining. i have a lot of tolerance for fantasy (bad or otherwise) by people i know. especially my own, tho i have no ability to write anything longer than a few paragraphs.

I have also had the experience of tagging along with an experienced mushroom hunter, and at first being unable to spot the mushrooms. I remember noticing that he kept finding morels where I saw a particular purple flower, and thenceforth looked for the flowers, which were much easier to see than the morels. He was impressed at this tactic, since he hadn't noticed the association.

hee! i had no teacher, just the greater book of st arora. i was wandering around maybe 12th and 52nd and mentally bitching about how come *i* never saw anything like the stuff in the books (it was, iirc, late july). and i looked across the street, and there in front of a pink boarding house, under a rhododendron bush, were three A augustus about the size of dinner plates. the world has never been the same since :)

Hm. I think crossing into the Mushroom Universe entirely on one's own might be even more satisfying, if a bit of a break from standard fantasy tropes involving wise mentors.

I am also unsurprised that you of all people managed it. :)

*grin* it has indeed been extremely satisfying.

some other time i will tell you about the epiphany in front of the architecture building, just as a dawn was breaking on a rainy day november, as i yawned my way towards a cuppa coffee after one of jaime diaz's fabulous neurophysiology lectures :)

this is one of the most beautiful posts that i have read.

and i am delighted at your mushroom divinations. :)

Yay gathering! I wonder how many other items there are that are actually all around, but you have to learn how to see. Street sweeper bristles, for making lockpicks with, are the same way.

Damn things are everywhere! I had to train myself to *stop* noticing and collecting them (I mailed my collection to Jens-hringr).

I've heard that about Go players, too - and experienced it. I can remember far more moves now than I could years ago as a worse player, because before they were stones placed anywhere on a 19x19 grid, but now they have a logic and a flow to them.

I don't like mushrooms, but I love reading about you learning to read them.

I try to explain this sort of thing to people who don't see things I do -- it's not that you are stupid, we are just looking at things differently! I think your post is one of the better descriptions of the phenomenon that I have seen. :)

Mushroom picking!
I think that's the first time I've come across somebody in america talking about going to pick mushrooms (outside of a book or a TV show), whereas it was so very commonplace in the USSR.
Just reading this post was a small delight :)
Where do you go to pick them? What state & metro area? Was it a park, or a private property?

I'm in Washington State, and usually pick in and around Seattle, in park areas inside the city, or sometimes up in the woods in the mountains.

Unfortunately, when I worked at the hospital, we used to hear about Russian immigrants picking mushrooms here sometimes - they'd find and eat mushrooms they thought they recognized, but it would actually be a poisonous relative native to this continent, and they'd end up in the hostpital. tylik, who taught me about mushrooms, made a chart for doctors at one of the hospitals here to use - you ask the sick guy what mushroom he thought he was eating, and then the chart tells you what local mushrooms looks like it, so the doctor knows what mushroom he actually ate and how to treat it (usually just rehydrate the guy and send him home).

But, that gloominess aside, I'm glad you enjoyed my post. :)

Makes sense!
I bought a US Mushroom guide for my father (as there are a lot of mushrooms on our property), and glancing through it, it keeps saying "Edible in Europe, Poisonous in the US!" for so many mushrooms.

Perhaps off topic for this entry, but I just wanted to say hello.
I made you dinner a few nights back, in a little hole in the ground apartment.

Two things - it just occured to me to ask if you've read or heard of the book White Crow by Mary Gentle (it's on Amazon). Aside from being apt given your identity, you might actually enjoy it.

Also, you have a very nifty LJ colour scheme.

You in ther?e

One day?
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