Ellen Diane Bloch is the Collections Manager of the Cryptogamic Herbarium, part of the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium. The Cryptogamic Herbarium includes the fungi collection.
One of my favorite discoveries in the 30 years that I have worked in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium is an odd and beautiful collection of fungi. Packed away in a charming box from Hink’s Department Store in Berkeley, California, is an assortment of nearly 40 specimens collected in Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1935. How did these dried fungal specimens from Maine come to be placed in a box from a California retailer and then end up at The New York Botanical Garden?
To answer that question, it helps to know that the fungi were collected by Elizabeth Eaton Morse, who devoted much of her life to collecting and studying fungi. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1864, Morse taught elementary school for several years before entering Wellesley College, where she graduated with a diploma from the School of Art in 1891. After decades of teaching and supervising in Massachusetts and New York City schools, Morse returned to Wellesley College, receiving a B.A. with a major in botany in 1926.
Many people know John Cage (1912-1992) as one of the foremost experimental composers and musicians of the 20th century, but he was also a dedicated amateur in the field of mycology, the study of mushrooms and other fungi. When he was asked to teach a music course at the New School in New York City in the late 1950s, he said yes, but only if he could also teach a class in mushroom identification. He taught the class for three years.
A letter from Cage, now kept in The New York Botanical Garden’s archives in the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, shows how committed he and his New School students were to their mycological studies. Dated November 6, 1961, the letter was addressed to Dr. Clark Rogerson, the Garden’s mycologist at the time.
Cage announced that after three years, the people involved in the New School classes wanted to form a society to “continue the field trips in suitable weather but which would add winter study periods with emphasis on the literature and work with microscope (sic). In addition we want to have a series of lectures given by authorities in the field. We would like to diminish the gap between ourselves as amateurs and the professional mycologists, knowing full well that we have much to gain, and hoping that our activities in the field can become more useful to the science itself … We would call ourselves the New York Mycological Society … We would have a Secretary and Treasurer but no other officers. We would not employ parliamentary law. Our wish is that the Society would function without dependence on leadership, focusing its attention directly on fungi.”