"It's useless to pretend to know mushrooms,'' says John Cage in ''For The Birds.'' ''They escape your erudition.'' The more you know them - about telling, for example, a Spathyema Foetida from a Collybia Platyphylla - ''the less sure you feel about identifying them.''
John Cage should know. Aside from being what was once called an ''avant-garde'' composer, he is something of a mushroom expert. He won a mushroom quiz contest in 1958 on Italian television. In the 1960's he supplied a New York restaurant with edible fungi. He led mushroom outings at the New School. He knows a Lactarius Piperatus burns the tongue when raw but is delicious when cooked. He has even had his stomach pumped. As Marcel Duchamp wrote, inscribing a chess book for his cagey friend, ''Dear John look out: yet another poisonous mushroom.''
So the mushroom's role in the avant-garde needs to be accounted for. As Mr. Cage himself has argued, in the ''Music Lovers' Field Companion'': ''I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.''
A woman once asked Mr. Cage, ''Have you an explanation of the symbolism involved in the death of the Buddha by eating a mushroom?'' Mr. Cage thought: ''Mushrooms grow most vigorously in the fall, the period of destruction, and the function of many of them is to bring about the final decay of rotting material. In fact, as I read somewhere, the world would be an impassible heap of old rubbish were it not for mushrooms and their capacity to get rid of it. So I wrote to the lady in Philadephia. I said, 'The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish. The Buddha died a natural death.' ''Edward Rothstein, "Sounds and Mushrooms." NYT 11/22/1981.
Related: Artists' Conks — tree bracket fungi inscribed by Cage and mushroom-loving friends.
Image: beauchamping: Detail of Gulliver's Mushroom.