Celebrating Women as the Original Scientists


This wonderful month of April is coming to an end, and so is National Poetry Month and the official Week of Action follow-up to April 22nd’s March For Science.  However, there are still plenty of opportunities for those of us who would like to see our governmental policies based on science instead of….well, let’s just say “something else”….to make our voices heard.  I will continue to write about some of those opportunities and resources in the days to come.

However, let’s end the month on a high note.  In a different collaboration between the March For Science and poetry besides Poets for Science, on April 24, the Academy of American Poets, in collaboration with writers Maria Popova and Janna Levin, sponsored The Universe in Verse.  It was an evening of poetry about science and scientists, designed as another protest against the silencing and defunding of both science and the arts by the current Administration.  All proceeds from the event were donated to the Academy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.


As with Jane Hirshfield’s “The Fifth Day,” which was written for and read at the March for Science, The Universe in Verse had a special poem that was written specifically for the event.  The evening concluded with Amanda Palmer, a singer/songwriter/performer who also happens to be married to writer Neil Gaiman, reading a poem by….you guessed it…Neil Gaiman.  Entitled “The Mushroom Hunters,” it looks back to the earliest days of science and posits….well, I’ll let you read it on your own and figure it out:


Science, as you know, my little one, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe.
It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed.

In the old times, they say, the men came already fitted with brains
designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run,
to hurdle blindly into the unknown,
and then to find their way back home when lost
with a slain antelope to carry between them.
Or, on bad hunting days, nothing.

The women, who did not need to run down prey,
had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them
left at the thorn bush and across the scree
and look down in the bole of the half-fallen tree,
because sometimes there are mushrooms.

Before the flint club, or flint butcher’s tools,
The first tool of all was a sling for the baby
to keep our hands free
and something to put the berries and the mushrooms in,
the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers.
Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break.

And sometimes men chased the beasts
into the deep woods,
and never came back.

Some mushrooms will kill you,
while some will show you gods
and some will feed the hunger in our bellies. Identify.
Others will kill us if we eat them raw,
and kill us again if we cook them once,
but if we boil them up in spring water, and pour the water away,
and then boil them once more, and pour the water away,
only then can we eat them safely. Observe.

Observe childbirth, measure the swell of bellies and the shape of breasts,
and through experience discover how to bring babies safely into the world.

Observe everything.

And the mushroom hunters walk the ways they walk
and watch the world, and see what they observe.
And some of them would thrive and lick their lips,
While others clutched their stomachs and expired.
So laws are made and handed down on what is safe. Formulate.

The tools we make to build our lives:
our clothes, our food, our path home…
all these things we base on observation,
on experiment, on measurement, on truth.

And science, you remember, is the study
of the nature and behaviour of the universe,
based on observation, experiment, and measurement,
and the formulation of laws to describe these facts.

The race continues. An early scientist
drew beasts upon the walls of caves
to show her children, now all fat on mushrooms
and on berries, what would be safe to hunt.

The men go running on after beasts.

The scientists walk more slowly, over to the brow of the hill
and down to the water’s edge and past the place where the red clay runs.
They are carrying their babies in the slings they made,
freeing their hands to pick the mushrooms.

Isn’t that a beautiful poem?  As well as a wonderfully feminist statement by an incredible male author?  To me, it is an inspiring reminder of what our ancient and unheralded ancestors handed down to us, which increases my determination to protect our planet so that we have a healthy environment to turn over to those who will come after us.

This modern poem calls to my mind the time-honored wisdom expressed in the Great Binding Law in the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations:

In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the past and present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

May those of us who seek to safeguard the Earth for future generations become as pervasive as the humble mushroom and as successful as the original mushroom hunters!


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