Photographing the tranquil beauty of mushrooms helped this professor cope

By Jennifer Warner

Almost Certainly a Yellow Unicorn Entoloma (Entoloma Murrayi) Photo by Denise Danford

During the global coronavirus pandemic, no two stories of time spent quarantined are the same. Early this year, public places were closed with the exception of essential businesses, and communities faced stay-at-home orders enforced by their local governments.

In solidarity, those quarantined navigated new ways to work and learn. Together they pursued innovative means to create, decompress, connect, socialize, and more.

DCCC communications professor Denise Danford was among those trying to adapt to this new normal. This abrupt switch to virtual learning was a first in her 21-year career teaching communication studies at the college.

Upon learning the campus would not reopen, Danford decided to stay local to her country home in Leverett, Mass. In between her work, she would visit Fiske Pond Conservation Area with her two dogs for regular walks.

On one of her daily strolls with Simon and Cody, Danford observed an abundance of mushrooms, something she had never noticed before.

She took out her phone to snap some photos, not realizing the beauty she had captured until she arrived back home and put them on her computer. This marked the start of Danford’s project, “The Mushrooms of Fiske Pond.”

Definitely a Common Earthball (Scleroderma citrinum) Photo by Denise Danford

In a recent telephone interview, Danford reflected on her months long experience capturing and documenting the intriguing world of mushrooms.

Q: Tell me about your inspiration for this project.

I was walking the dogs one day and the mushrooms had just exploded overnight. We had that hurricane this summer and two days after the hurricane the mushrooms just went crazy. It was just a bumper crop of mushrooms all over the woods. And so I took a couple pictures as I was walking the dogs. I came home and didn’t think much about them. On the camera themselves they didn’t look that special, but when they were on the computer and they were bigger I thought, oh wow, that’s amazing. Getting closeups of those mushrooms, seeing underneath them, seeing the fins and gills, that was when I started doing it as a project. I got really into it.

Q: What is your connection with photography? What did you use to shoot your photos?

I have none! I am not a photographer. I am a self-taught painter, a self-taught artist. I’ve taken some classes here and there but mostly taught myself. Usually I work in oil pastel or watercolor crayons. That’s what I typically do, so this was brand new for me. These photos were shot on the new iPhone SE.

Maybe an Orange-Gilled Waxy Cap (Humidicutis marginata) Photo by Denise Danford

Q: Do you regularly paint nature? Have you always had an eye for it in your artwork?

I mostly do portraits of people and of animals, stills. I do the occasional landscape. I have used photographs in my painting. I have used the camera to get a shot so that I could later work on my art. I’ve played around with a camera a little bit, but not much.

Q: What did you learn about what you were photographing in this process?

There were a couple things. I had never paid attention to mushrooms before and there were so many in one area. There was such an intense variety in terms of shapes, sizes, colors, that kind of thing. That was just mind boggling to me that there were so many different kinds in maybe a two- or three-square mile area. That was amazing. But it was also amazing to watch how they came up out of the earth. They come up with such a force that they push up all the pine needles and the sticks and the compacted ground that are around them, and it’s just an amazing thing to see, the birth of these mushrooms. The mushrooms came in stages in terms of their life cycle. The first life cycle lasted about three weeks. There were many mushrooms that I photographed every single day, or every other day. I would go and basically visit them and see how they were doing; it was very cool. For example, there was one photo I took of the yellow unicorn mushroom. This mushroom is very fragile. Their stems are less than an eighth of an inch in diameter; they are so small. They’re the size of a finger in terms of the length, and they’re also very thin. That one mushroom lasted three weeks and I just could not believe it. I was stunned that mushroom survived so far. It’s classified in one of my reference books as a “fragile mushroom.”

Possibly a Vermilion Waxy Cap (Hygrocybe miniata) Photo by Denise Danford

Q: Would you say this photo was your favorite? Are you able to pick a favorite?

It’s very hard, but I can tell you that mushroom was my favorite for sure. It may not be my favorite photograph from an artistic sense, looking at composition and all that, but that mushroom was my favorite. There are actually two there. The taller one outlived the short one which is wild. Some of my favorite mushrooms are actually the ones where you can see the evidence of it being somebody’s dinner. I have lots of photos of mushrooms with teeth marks.

Q: Had this been the first activity you were venturing out to do after the stay-at-home order?

I walked my dogs throughout the stay-at-home order. I’m in Massachusetts; I came here over spring break. I have a house here out in the country and so when we didn’t go back to campus, I stayed here. I would take the dogs every day for a long walk because we have a lot of protected land in this area. I had been taking them out for walks daily, but with this project my walks became much longer. One day I was out photographing mushrooms for three hours; I completely lost track of time. It was so much fun. It was cathartic too, because here everything in the world seems to be going wrong, but the mushrooms were doing fine. It was an incredible stress release for me because I knew I was going to have to teach all five sections online in the fall. I had never taught online before except for when we had taught online in March. So, I was really stressed thinking, how am I going to make it? How will I get my classes prepared? I also have a brother who is only a few years older than me in a long-term care facility in Illinois. I was hearing in the news every night that the virus was just sweeping through the nursing homes and patients were dying left and right. So I was just stressed out of my mind thinking about whether Covid-19 was going to get in. They didn’t have tests at the time, so patients and employees weren’t being tested yet. My mother, who is 80 years old, would go visit my brother every day and in March, she had to stop going to see him. It was just really stressful. They’re both hard of hearing and cannot talk on the phone, so they would visit each other by looking through the glass and writing on a whiteboard. So going out into the woods was very therapeutic.

Russula of some sort (Possibly Russula rosacea) Photo by Denise Danford

Q: So, you’re doing online learning, and you’re going on long walks with the dogs. How else were you coping with everything going on with Covid-19?

These photos were the main way I was managing my anxiety. I wanted to paint, and earlier in the summer I did a portrait of a dog. My neighbor asked me if I could paint her dog. Her dog had passed away and so I had a picture of her dog. I got the oil pastels out, and I was able to do that. I kind of thought that I would continue making art, that I would spend the rest of the summer making art using the pastels. But I just didn’t seem to have the creative energy to do that. I think the anxiety of the pandemic was eating up all my anxiety. So, the camera, the photographs, it was wonderful because it was so immediate and accessible. You don’t have to clear your desk and get your supplies out. You can just pick up the camera and start.

Q: Looking at when everything first closed down and where we are now, have you been happy with the way the pandemic has been handled? In other words, are you happy with the precautions that have been taken to keep things under control on both a state and a national level? How about the college?

I was definitely happy with the school. I was really pleased with the school. Our school president got ahead of the curve. She didn’t wait and see what other places were doing. She didn’t drag her feet. She made decisions. She was decisive. And she made those decisions based on evidence and science, such as the CDC guidelines and things like that. I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about what was going to happen because she made the decisions. It’s important. We had plenty of notice that we were going to be online in the fall. We didn’t go into it the way a lot of schools did where they didn’t know the plan until a couple weeks before and then it changed again. We didn’t go through that. So I was really happy with the way the president of the school handled it. And the governor of Pennsylvania. One of the things I found really stressful though was just watching the news. I thought it’s just been handled really poorly on a national level. We’ve lost more than 200,000 people now. There’s just no excuse for that.

Q: The issue of Covid-19 is a hot button for the election debates to come. Climate change is also a huge hot button. You’ve just spent a summer marveling nature. Has your experience trickled into your political opinions?

Yes, absolutely. I’m very aware of climate change. Where I live in Massachusetts, we have been impacted by climate change. The physical environment has changed over the years. It’s worrying, very worrying. And so, when I don’t hear politicians talking about it and when the POTUS is doing everything to deny it, it definitely increases my anxiety.

Q: Do you think climate change should be at the forefront of the deciding issues in this election?

I do think that it should be. I think it’s being overshadowed by the pandemic, but I think that climate scientists would argue that the pandemic is actually a symptom of climate change. Or that in the future there will be more of these because of climate change. Part of my anxiety this summer was the pandemic, but it was also who we have for a president and how poorly our national government is working. [President Trump] is taking the decisions out of the hands of the scientists and making decisions that are political and not science based.

“There’s no politics in the woods.”

Denise Danford

Q: What have you done with your photos? Have you shared them, or has this been something you’ve sort of kept to yourself?

I have shared them with friends. I put them onto Google Drive and shared the link with friends. I just had about 40 of them printed in 8×10 color prints. Those were my top 40. Ideally, I’d like to have an exhibit, “The Mushrooms of Fiske Pond,”but I don’t know if that will happen. The other thing I’ve been thinking of doing and working on has been making a book of them. I think they would look great as a book. One of the things I’m doing right now is looking at the photos and deciding which ones should be bigger and which ones look better actually cropped.

Q: How many photos did you take in total?

I have about 1,000 photographs. It’s just astronomical the number I have. I’m in the process of getting rid of the ones that aren’t special or are fuzzy and picking the best ones. It’s a long process. It’s amazing how many photographs you can take in such a short amount of time. I would come home and have 200 photographs and be shocked. I’d end up taking maybe 10 photos of one mushroom, because I’m getting all these different angles. The thing about photographing mushrooms that is really interesting to me is that you don’t really know what you’re going to get when you put the camera down there. You can’t see down there. It’s too close to the earth. I’m 55 so I’m not quite limber enough to get down on my hands and knees and on my stomach to take a picture. I have to squat and put the camera down there and try to see what I’m getting in the viewfinder. I take a lot of pictures blind and then bring them home, put them on the computer and see what I’ve got. I get a lot of surprises. Sometimes there will be the pleasant surprise of taking a photograph of a mushroom and in the background, there is another mushroom that I didn’t see before. But here it’s in the photograph. That’s happened a few times, so that’s fun. There’s sort of a surprise element. It’s just wonderful.

Probably a Brown Birch Bolete (Leccinum Scabrum) Photo by Denise Danford

Q: There is something poetic about the way that you spent your time, and the way that you were able to connect with yourself, with your art, with the earth, and with all of the things that keep this all moving forward in a happier and healthier direction. What did you learn about yourself in this process?

I felt like I was fighting for the health of my psyche. My mental health was on the line. It was under incredible stress as everyone’s was. And so, going out there and looking at these mushrooms every single day, and befriending these mushrooms, was just incredibly cathartic and put things into perspective for me. There was no Covid-19 in the words. There’s no politics in the woods. I’m aware of the fact that I am privileged that I was able to spend this time in the woods. I’m not a front-line worker or an essential worker. Because I’m a teacher, I had the time off. That’s a privilege. I feel blessed. That’s the closest word I can think of to describe it.

Q: However you choose to share your photos, when people are standing before them and seeing them, what do you want their biggest takeaway to be? What do you envision them feeling?

Just how important the natural world is. How important it is that we take care of it. These mushrooms have been coming up like this for so long. I’m not a biologist, but I think they live under the earth and have a whole life system underground that we don’t even see. And they’ve been coming up for years and years. I just think it’s incredibly important that we take care of the earth.

Contact Jennifer Warner at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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