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Friday, Jun 21, 2024

In pictures and in words, Meg Madden brings mycology to Middlebury

Madden holding a specimen of Reishi Mushroom, Ganoderma Tsugae
Madden holding a specimen of Reishi Mushroom, Ganoderma Tsugae

Floristry, cabinetry, jewelry making, photography and everything in between, Meg Madden has done it. Most recently however, Madden’s work has turned to something unexpected: mushrooms.

A Middlebury local, Madden has extensive experience in the world of art and has continued to try out different mediums. This time, she is adding is “author” to her resume. I met with Madden last week at her mycology photography exhibit held at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theatre to learn more about her work.

Raised in Middlebury, Madden spent her childhood in the woods, where she grew to find comfort. Briefly straying from Middlebury to attend art school, Madden explored various careers such as jewelry, landscape designing and carpentry.

Upon returning to Addison County, Madden purchased a house overlooking the Battell Woods and continued her artistic endeavors. When the pandemic struck, Madden, like countless others, found herself with an abundance of free time.

On one pandemic day, a walk in the woods turned into a life changing moment. Trying to kill some time, Madden and her daughter wandered aimlessly in the forest — until her daughter unexpectedly called her over to examine something on the forest floor: a patch of bright red mushrooms. Madden was shocked — she had never seen mushrooms so vibrant.

The sight inspired the pair to give the fungi mystical names, like “scarlet fairy cups” or “scarlet elf thimbles.” Continuing their walk, Madden noticed more unique, intriguing fungi popping up in her own backyard. Once she returned home, Madden searched online for the vibrant little mushrooms, which she discovered were called Scarlet Elf Cups, shockingly like the name she and her daughter had invented for them. Madden’s interest was piqued.

From then onward, Madden began bringing her camera into the woods every day to capture the beauty of her own backyard, and then posting those pictures to her Instagram.

@MegMaddenDesign started off small, with around 1,000 followers. When she began posting the images, Madden expected nothing more than a few likes and comments. As she soon discovered, there was a serious intersection between the worlds of mycology and extreme close-up photography — Madden had hit the sweet spot. Her account soon exploded to over 40,000 followers, and Madden received endless support for the photography she had started on a whim.

Meg Madden Mycology (1).jpg
Photograph Madden captured of green elf cups, Chlorociboria aeruginascens

An artist by trade, Madden described her photos as cereal box packaging. When you enter the grocery store, you may not know what cereal you want, but if the packaging stands out, that’s the one you will pick. Her mushroom images draw people in visually and make the forest more accessible to all followers.

Madden shared how one of her followers, an 80-year-old woman, sent her a message saying that she likes how the page makes her feel like she is in the woods too, even though she can no longer physically explore.

Motivated to share her newfound experience of the forest with others, Madden also began leading mushroom walks around Middlebury in an effort to empower locals through education and break down some of the negative associations with mushrooms. For those who do not have much familiarity with the woods, mushrooms can be scary, and recent pop-culture portrayals have not helped with that.

Madden cited “The Last of Us,” a new video game and show featuring Cordyceps — a fictionalized version of a real-life fungus that zombifies insects in real life — as an example of this negative portrayal. In the game and show, Cordyceps is capable of turning humans into zombies. Madden hopes to break down some of the barriers between humans and nature.

One day upon opening her Instagram direct messages, Madden found a note from the publisher Running Press expressing interest in turning her work into a book. For Madden, this presented an opportunity to not only entertain nature-lovers but also teach those who know nothing about the world of fungi. Her reaction to this message was pure shock at being granted free rein to turn her passion for mycology into a guide for readers — from budding mycologists to seasoned veterans.

When asked how she felt about jumping into the deep end, making another change to her career path, Madden said she did not have a choice. She said she has found her calling, finally discovering the perfect combination of art, teaching and science. Madden had a few words of wisdom for people confronted with substantial change. “Embrace being uncomfortable,” she said.

For her, the feeling of discomfort means she is doing something right.

Describing her book as “accurately whimsical,” Madden said she hopes for it to be something between a field guide and a work of art. The connection between art and environmentalism is essential, Madden said. Breaking down preconceived notions and hoping to connect humans to their environment changes the way people see the world around them and hopefully inspires them to take better care of it, she added.

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Madden shared that if she could be any of the mushrooms she has photographed, it would have to be Green Elf Cups or Green Stain Fungus. These vivacious turquoise (her favorite color) mushrooms appear all throughout the woods of Vermont, leaving a blue stain on the wood they grow upon. Madden said she feels they are speaking to her, providing her encouragement to leave her mark on the world everywhere she goes.

Madden will present her new book, “This is a Book for People Who Love Mushrooms,” at the Ilsley Public Library on March 7 at 7 p.m. for those interested in learning more about her mycology journey and the fungi surrounding Middlebury.