I recently came across a book for school-age kids, recommended for fifth graders (10–11 year olds), called The Living World of the Plants: A Book for Children and Students of Nature, by Dr. Gerbert Grohmann. Doctor Grohmann (1897-1957) was influential in the early days of the Waldorf educational system, and wrote a treatise on biodynamic farming, among other things. First translated into English in 1967 (translated from the German — I believe the original edition was Kleine Pflanzenkunde für Kinder, published in 1939, but it is hard to track down), this book has been reprinted many times (the one I have is from the year 1999), and is still used as a resource for teaching botany to 5th graders in some Waldorf schools, as well as being popular amongst homeschoolers.
I want to focus on the section of this book about mushrooms and fungi. I’m going to ignore the obvious fallacy of the inclusion of fungi in what is essentially a botany primer, because of the context of the time that it was written, and because I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to expose kids to fungi in the same space that they’re being exposed to plants; there is a natural alliance there, in terms of education. But the treatment of fungi in this book is… problematic, to say the least. (There is also much that could be said about the treatment of plants in this book, but I’ll leave that to the botanists.)
To put what is to follow in context, we need to understand that Dr. Grohmann frames his children’s botany primer around the idea that plants are the products of a metaphysical union between Earth and Sun. Whether or not this is pseudospiritualist metaphysics or colorful metaphor is never quite clear, but given the Anthroposophical origins of the Waldorf educational system, I am leaning towards the former. Let’s take a look at the introductory text:
“When the sun shines upon the earth, everything comes to life. The air, being warmed, begins to move, and in the water, too, all is astir. The sun-warmed earth steams, and its moist breath surges upward; the water rises, and the rain falls. Even the stones are taken hold of. Frost and heat burst them open; then, the water dissolves them and carries them along in its current. In this way the sun brings the elements — earth, air, and water — into activity.
“But the sun can do still more when it works upon the earth. Its magic wand makes the plants spring forth in manifold colors, and each spring we experience anew the great miracle.
“The plants are the children of the sun, growing upon the earth. The sun gives them their stems and leaves and forms finally the most beautiful part of all — the colorful, fragrant blossoms. Only the roots bury themselves in the dark ground, for they belong to the earth. But the blossoms lift themselves up into the light, whose creation they are.”
While I like the imagery of the earth breathing, and the poetic language about weathering of rocks, I am put off by the positioning of the sun at the center of what starts to sound like a heliocentric plant cult, and the dichotomy that is set up between earth and sun. I’m also immediately bothered by the use of valued language to describe different plant parts: in this introduction, flowers are set up as inherently better than roots, and that dichotomy is explained through this pseudomystical reverence for the sun.
The sun — and by extension, flowers (“When you consider a flower, you see at once that it belongs to the sun. Creations so bright and sweet-smelling can come forth only from the light and warmth.”) — is continuously glorified throughout the book, while the earth is considered a bit more ambiguously, referred to as “dark” and with other negative imagery at times, and as a solid, foundational, nurturing and maternal “force” at others.
I think we need to be very careful when employing metaphors like this with our children. Many children will accept such metaphors as facts; this is not necessarily bad — we can use such tricks to teach lessons about ethics embedded in the teaching of the natural world or history, and the transition from believing the metaphor to recognizing it as such can come organically to the developing child. Do you remember learning that Santa wasn’t real? I don’t remember when I learned that there was no such person, though I know I believed in him fervently as a small child. The metaphor of Santa Claus teaches children an ethical lesson (a simple one, about the rewards of being “good”, but also a more complex one about the value of the gift to the giver and selflessness in giving), which is untarnished by the realization that the metaphor was never literally true. The danger here is that some children will believe the metaphor of botanical sun-worship as literally true, and may never realize the fault in this worldview as adults; others may recognize the metaphor as such as they age, but take the lessons inherent in the metaphor permanently into their subconscious.
The general Western conflation of light with “good” and dark with “bad” has been heavily racialized in modern European-American history, and as such lies at the root of much systemic racism. The Judeo-Christian foundation of this conflation , and the sun-worship metaphor in Dr. Grohmann’s book, is obvious, and unsurprising given the origins of Waldorf pedagogical thought. Internalization of the moral lesson here, that things closer to the earth and the dirt are of less value, can have far reaching consequences — how do adults that have internalized these lessons view sanitation workers, or farm hands? How do these lessons affect perceptions of people with different skin color?
And then we get to the treatment of the Fungi. This book, which is explicitly intended to instill in children a love of the natural world and illustrate the wondrous beauty inherent in life, embodies the worst fungiphobia I have seen in recent years. David Arora discusses fungiphobia up front in his book Mushrooms Demystified (considered the go-to guide for mushroom identification since its publication 30 years ago): it is literally the very first topic in his introduction. Arora notes that “like snakes, slugs, worms, and spiders, they’re regarded as unearthly and unworthy, despicable and inexplicable — the vermin of the vegetable world.” This prejudice is obvious throughout Grohmann’s text.
The section on mushrooms and fungi starts with this value-laden paragraph:
“It is no wonder that the sun does not trouble itself with the Mushrooms and Fungi, for they grow mostly in the shade of the woods and hardly come out of the ground as a plant should. Indeed, it would be impossible to set out a Mushroom in the garden as one would a green plant. It could not take root there at all. The green plants reach out with their roots to the rocks, for out of broken-down rock, earth-soil has arisen — meadow land and garden land, even loam and clay. The sun loves in a special way those plants which can grow in a mineral soil. It is able to give them the fullest leaves and the most beautiful stems and blossoms. Now you can easily see why Mushrooms and Fungi do not quite belong among the special favorites of the sun. They grow, as you know, in places where the sun penetrates only with difficulty; in fact, they have no need of the sun for their growth, and you can cultivate them — for example, the Agaric — in absolute darkness.”
Personally, I am perfectly fine with fungi not belonging among “the special favorites of the sun”! The implicit value system used through this book, the dichotomy of light and dark being equated with good and evil, has been used here to paint fungi in a subtly derogatory way. This text is clearly written by someone that finds fungi faintly disgusting, and in trying to make the language appropriately entertaining for children, the author transmits that disgust to his readers.
There is potential here to set up stories about growth in darkness as a valuable thing, and combat the prevailing association of darkness with badness. There are opportunities in the Fungi to teach subtle lessons that combat systemic racism, instead of reinforcing them. Instead, the Fungi are presented as essentially lazy plants, without the energy to even send up proper stems and leaves, or do the work to make reasonable flowers and fruit.
“The Mushrooms are, in fact, at the same time both flowers and fruit. They are too happy-go-lucky to behave as the higher plants, whose flowers come before the fruits. … Mushrooms and Fungi cannot properly make a distinction between pollen and seeds. … If the Mushroom spores fall to the moist ground, new Mushroom threads sprout forth, as if each spore were a tiny seed. It serves to propagate the plant, although it is as fine as flower pollen. … So you see that, in the case of Mushrooms and Fungi, not only are flowers and fruit identical, but pollen and seeds are likewise one and the same.”
The glorification of the sun throughout the text leads to the obvious conclusion that anything growing in the dark must be bad, or evil: “Need one wonder that many are poisonous, since they do not allow the sun to shine through them?” There is, incidentally, hardly mention of poisonous plants through the rest of the book. In the discussion of the Autumn Crocus, the fact that it is poisonous is mentioned right at the end of the discussion: “Is it any wonder that the Autumn Crocus is poisonous and spoils the fodder when there is too much of it! Like the Mushroom, it is penetrated too little by the sun when it blooms. It would very much like to be a Tulip, but it gets stuck half way.”
This light/dark dichotomy continues throughout the chapter, subtly encouraging the reader to dislike mushrooms and fungi:
“But you must not forget the most important fact! The flower of the Higher Plants open up towards the heaven and take the sunlight into themselves. They have actually been formed out of the sunlight. Mushrooms, on the other — creations of the darkness — open downwards towards the dark earth and keep themselves closed on top by means of the cap.
“Mushrooms and Fungi are the flowers and fruits of the sunless earth. What corresponds in them to the pollen is not borne by the sun-filled air but strives downward toward the moist, dark soil. No insect has any interest in mushrooms and Fungi. Flies and beetles, at best, come and seek the sticky slime. Since the flesh of the Mushroom is spongy, it is easily consumed by maggots.”
There are so many places where fungi can be used to teach positive lessons. At the time that Dr. Grohmann was writing, the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants was known — there are lessons about cooperation, communication, and sharing in that symbiosis, if only we can teach them. The relationship between various fungi, such as the stinkhorns (which “infect[s] the whole neighborhood with their odor of carrion”), and their dispersing insects has been described since the mid-1800s. We now know of many fungi that are actually pollinated, just like flowers (I’m thinking specifically of Epichloë here, but there are many more). Not to mention the intricate dance that is represented by actual sex within much of Basidiomycota; a colorful description of tetrapolar mating systems might serve to help children realize that strict binaries in sex and gender are an artifact of culture, not a reflection of the way the world works.
I think the most upsetting thing about this treatment of fungi is the closing analogy: fungi as babies. The patronizing tone, and monumental misunderstanding of what fungi actually do in the world, is simultaneously shocking, and horrifying.
“Comparing Mushrooms and Fungi with other plants, one finds them somewhat like babies. They can do almost nothing. They can form neither green leaves nor stems — not even roots. They are quite unskillful and awkward. Babies cannot yet stand up; neither can the Mushrooms get a foothold on the solid earth, since they have no roots. So they are unable to stand erect by means of their stems.
“Babies can, at best, only drink, sleep, and grow. Mushrooms can suck up nourishment from their mother-earth and likewise grow extraordinarily fast. They mix together everything possible — for example, flowers and fruit.
“In babies the soul-light is not yet kindled, and so they, too, have learned almost nothing. Mushrooms and Fungi must grow without the outer sunlight, which gives other plants their sterns and leaves. For this reason they, too, have learned almost nothing.
“A little school girl once said: ‘It is because the Mushrooms are babies that so many of them, too, have milk inside them.’”
This final line, a reference to Lactarius, is the very last line in this chapter, and a singularly odd place to end. Perhaps milk-caps are more common in Germany, but I have not found them particularly common, nor particularly noticeable to school girls.
Following the section on Mushrooms and Fungi is a short section on Lichens, which is only better in that it is more descriptive, and slightly less judgemental. It does, however, still contain passages like this:
“Wherever Lichens grow, the sun is at work; it would like to call forth plants, but it cannot penetrate deeply enough into the earth. The earth, too, would like to produce plant life. In the places where Lichens spring up, however, the earth has so little force that there arise those strange crusts or patches which lie only on the surface or appear like half-dried Mushrooms.”
Importantly, the lichen section entirely misses the opportunity to use symbiosis as a teaching opportunity, pointing out the beautiful relationship between the fungi and the algae. This relationship was known (though controversial) by the end of the 19th century; in fact, Beatrix Potter, the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and other children’s books, was one of the early mycologists in Britain to work with lichens, and likely recognized that lichens were composed of two partners living in symbiosis. Being a woman in Victorian England, she was not taken seriously as a scientist, however, which ultimately led her to focus on her career as a children’s book author — a great loss to science! I would love to see the version of this book that Potter might have written, had she been able to continue in botany and mycology.
But, since Beatrix Potter did not write it, we will have to. There are, inherent in the fungi, many stories of worth and interest, not just to those of us that have grown to love these peculiar creatures as adults, but also as lessons for children. There are, after all, an infinite number of facts in the world, and the ones we choose to teach our children have profound effects on their development. Why don’t we teach kids the beauty of mycorrhizal relationships, the intricate interplay of lichen symbioses, or the complexity of fungal mating systems? All of these things serve to teach moral lessons, about cooperation, about contribution to your community, about diversity.
I have begun putting together a children’s book, aimed at 10-12 year olds, that teaches kids about the roles that fungi play in the world using beautiful language and meaningful metaphor. You all can help: this is a call for ideas, for themes, for stories, for illustrations — help me teach kids to love fungi as much as plants or animals, and in doing so teach them real, important lessons about the world.
 I recognize that there is debate about the origins of the light/dark racialization, but the fact of that racialization is not under dispute, nor is the role that European Christian religious expansion played in the promotion of white supremacy. See:
Goldenberg, D. M. (2009). The curse of Ham: Race and slavery in early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press.
One thought on “The Living World of Plants: a review”
I love this and I’m so glad you are writing this. I recall that you told me about this book at Melvyn’s wedding, but I had no idea it was so extreme! It’s wonderful that you are addressing it in this clear and metered manner and I very much look forward to your children’s book!