October 31st – The Festival of the Fungal Heart

At this time of year there are plenty of mushrooms around in the forests and fields, and plenty of Buentoillitants will happily go out in search of them, especially on days when the weather is bright and dry. There are chanterelles and morels in the forests, field blewits and wax caps in the fields, honey fungus grows in great conglomerations and chicken of the woods hangs from the trees. At this time of year, nature truly is a larder for all comers, and whilst there are some more dangerous specimens hiding amongst the delicious, most Buentoillitants are taught how to tell the difference at a very young age, both with their parents and formally at primary school. Bearing this excellent education in mind, it is always surprising that so many go out searching today for the Fungal Heart.

The mushrooms that we see and eat are actually just the fruiting bodies of the fungal growth that lies beneath; mycelium. This root-like structure can be very extensive, especially beneath forests where it can interlink in a ‘mat’ just below the topsoil, spreading for miles and growing mushrooms where the conditions are right. This explains why mushrooms grow so quickly and seemingly from nowhere; there is a near-invisible structure lying beneath the leaf mold just waiting for the right moment to produce them. According to most of the Heart-hunters out in the forests today, the mythical ‘Fungal Heart’ which they search for is essentially a tangled, concentrated ball of these mycelial tendrils, from which all the other mycelium supposedly sprouts. There are no documented instances of anyone actually finding a Heart, but the myth persists nonetheless.

There are actually various theories about what a Fungal Heart is; some think that it is another fruiting body, not part of the mycelial mat, and that it is something like a very large truffle. Others think that it is where the mycelium grows around some other object (a stone, a dead tree, a buried heart?) or that it is some other part of the fungal life-cycle, entirely separate to mycelium, mushrooms or spores; that it is the ‘mother’ of all fungi. To fully understand all these differing ideas, we have to look back to what they are modifying; where did this idea of a ‘fungal heart’ come from in the first place?

There is an old story, which features in both Escotolatian and Helican mythologies (that is, in the myths of both of the major ancient cultures which intertwined to create Buentoille). It varies a little between the two, but in both a god-like figure is slain, and its heart is buried underground. In the Escotolatian version, the figure is a forest spirit, whereas in the Helican he is a giant whose domain is a forest. The Helican giant was slain by one of the gods, and has its heart buried by another giant ‘as was their custom,’ but this causes its ‘malign influence’ to spread, causing rot and decay where none existed before. The Escotolatian forest spirit’s ending is stranger, but perhaps more positive; it was slain by a monster, who wished to eat its heart later, when it had ‘softened up’ in the earth. When he returns, however, the heart has sprouted fungus, and the monster is disgusted enough that he leaves. The good creatures of the forest, however, see that these fungus are a gift from their murdered protector spirit; a way of turning the rot and darkness of this world to some good.

The most probable cause for both of these cultures developing very similar myths is that they talked, and the story passed between them. The idea that the two were entirely separate until the development of Buentoille is a nonsense; despite the physical distance between the two groups there was still trade and conversation, probably more so than Buentoille has with its neighbours now, proportionally at least. Still, this idea of virginal civilisations persists in some sectors to this day, and it was certainly a belief held by Basten Weerwyrd, the so-called ‘cultural historian’ who is behind today’s festival. Weerwyrd made several logical jumps with little or no evidence when he theorised that the reason for the similarity in the two myths must be that there is some natural phenomenon, the Fungal Heart, which inspired both stories.

To help explain the inconsistencies in this theory, such as the glaringly obvious ‘why has nobody seen a Fungal Heart in living memory?’ Weerwyrd suggested that firstly they are very rare, and must be very tasty, so have been ‘hunted’ almost out of existence. He also said that small details from each tale (or rather, very specific versions of each tale, which, being oral tales originally, have been modified many times before and since) suggested that the Hearts would only appear on a day a year, when they raise from deep in the earth beneath a forest to nearer the surface. That day, ‘the final day of October,’ is, not surprisingly, today. According to Weerwyrd it is ‘only a matter of time’ until someone finds one, but despite it being nearly three hundred years since he wrote that, three hundred years of Buentoillitants travelling to the centre of the local forests with spades, digging random holes here and there, nobody seems to have had any luck just yet. Perhaps this year will be different? If not, there’s always next year.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of the Dark Corridor
  • The Annual Live Worm Eating Competition
  • The Modeller’s Day