Justin E. H. Smith (a professor of philosophy whom I quoted here on Nabokov) has a nice essay called “Mushrooms and Literature” that begins: “Surely the single largest category of folk names for mushrooms is the one having to do with evil and death, and with the beings who bode and bring these…” I bridled at that, thinking “In English, you mean,” but he eventually addresses my point, saying “[R. Gordon] Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, argued in their monumental Mushrooms, Russia, and History of 1957 that the Indo-Europeans can be further subdivided into mycophilic and mycophobic cultures, with the Slavs standing as the clearest example of the former, and the Anglo-Saxons of the latter.” Russian does have some names “having to do with evil and death,” like мухомор [mukhomor], literally ‘fly-killer,’ for fly agaric, but most of them are descriptive, often relating to the trees or other botanical elements they are associated with: боровик Boletus edulus (also called белый гриб, ‘white mushroom’; these are the most highly prized by Russians): бор ‘pine forest’, подберёзовик Leccinum scabrum: берёза ‘birch,’ подосиновик Leccinum aurantiacum: осина ‘aspen,’ опёнок Armillaria mellea: пень ‘stump,’ моховик Xerocomus subtomentosus: мох ‘moss.’ There’s рыжик (Lactarius deliciosus) ‘little redhead’ and сыроежка (Russula) ‘eaten raw.’ Dahl, in his great dictionary, lists a great many mushroom names under Гриб ‘mushroom’ (the link goes to one of the many online versions of the second, bowdlerized, edition of his dictionary; unfortunately, nobody seems to have digitized the 1903-09 edition edited by Baudouin de Courtenay, which is by far the best but which was not reprinted in Soviet times because of its inclusion of “bad words”). Dahl has a brief but impassioned rant in his entry: “Ученые названия грибов несколько запутанны, а с ними и народные; школярство даже откинуло самое название гриб, а придумало переводные: пластинник и скважник; первому отвечает гриб, второму губа” [The scientific names of mushrooms are somewhat tangled/confused/complicated, as are the popular ones; scholasticism/pedantry has even rejected the very name grib (‘mushroom’) and has thought up transferred/translated ones: plastinnik and skvazhnik; the first means mushroom and the second tree fungus].
But I digress (as usual). Here’s a snippet from the essay itself:
Nabokov famously told the story of the Cornell student who beseeched him to divulge the secret of great writing. ‘Learn the names of plants’, Nabokov is said to have said. He surely did not mean the Linnean names (though those can help to add an extra flair of erudition); he meant the Russian-English-French names that turn the things into repositories of human lore and values and fears.
I’ve always found plants boring and have not managed to learn the names of more than a handful of them. I raced through Aristotle’s five books on animals, but could not bring myself to read his disciple Theophrastus’s Enquiry into Plants or On the Causes of Plants, which were supposed to complete the Aristotelian project of investigating the living world. Animals jump out at me, sometimes literally; they are phenomenally salient, as the cognitive scientists say, whereas plants just fade into the background. We might suppose it shows Nabokov’s great subtlety of mind that he picked them out for attention anyway (though we should follow up with the point that his greatest interest among living beings was for that most sensationally salient of creatures, the butterfly). Still, the advice is excellent, perhaps the best ever given in the history of literary instruction. Nabokov’s novels themselves (especially Ada) are vividly botanico-entomological, or, better, they are showcases for a sort of phyto-entomonymical mastery. Nabokov understood how to draw essences out of names; he understood that what makes literature live is precisely the theory of nomenclature, the philosophy of language, that had to be repudiated with the rise of modern science, one of the great achievements of which was the arbitrary naming scheme of the System of Nature of 1735.
(Via wood s lot, and have I mentioned what a wonderful photographer Mark, who runs the site, is? That gorgeous shot at the top of today’s page, “St. Lawrence River,” is his, as is everything modestly labeled in light gray “photo – mw.” How does he find time for it all?)