The new Featured Writer is Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn whose wonderful novel Unravelling has won awards. Her next one, The Piano Player’s Son, is to be published by Cinnamon Press. Writers are always on the look-out for clues….any day last week, in the soft mizzle of Dartmoor, people were walking very slowly with their heads bowed, eyes searching the ground. What (on earth) were they after? Why walk so slowly in the rain? Why quarter the ground in this methodical fashion? The answer must be the tiny toadstools sometimes called ‘magic mushrooms’ or Psilocybin, to give them their official name. Slender stems, pointed caps… I can’t tell one toadstool from another but they are so pretty nestling in clumps: those little, rubbery, fleshy excrescences that mysteriously rise out of the earth overnight in delicate shades of brown, beige, buff, almost orange. So perfectly formed on their delicate stems with the cap held aloft and wobbling slightly in the wind. The black spores almost invisible unless you touch the underside of the cap at the right time.
Such a strange composite word when you think about it: TOADSTOOL. Wondering why they are so-called I did a little research into the name, associated with fairy lore and even witchcraft in our culture –
In other languages the name is not dissimilar: Norwegians and Danes speak of the toad’s hat; the Low Germans, of the frog’s stool; the Dutch say toad’s stool; and the Frisians refer to an old fungus as a toad’s hide. The Irish term is the frog’s pouch; the Welsh, toad’s cheese; the Bretons, toad’s cap, but by the addition of a single initial sibilant, their term becomes toad’s stool. Here are the words in these tongues: in Norwegian and Danish, paddehat; in Low German, poggenstohl; in Dutch, paddestoel; in Frisian, poddehud; in Irish, bolg losgainn, with bolg meaning pouch; in Welsh, caws llyffant, with caws meaning cheese; in Breton, kabell tousec. Their word for toad is tousec. It comes from the Latin toxicum, and therefore means ’the poisonous one’.
If the word ‘toad’ descends etymologically to us from toxicum, then in English as in the Breton tongue a ‘toadstool’ means a ‘poison stool’, and the idea of poison was first applied to the wild fungi in the Anglo-Saxon landscape. (And toads can deliver poison as my husband will testify….bending down to simply touch a large one in the mountains in Italy he was suddenly and dramatically throwing up within ten minutes.)
And stool? In Old English and all the other languges stol, stoel, stuhl is a chair or seat but could also be faeces.
So delicate and so ephemeral and sometimes poisonous. Frost stills them and then they wilt and blacken.