When I was a child, I would spend many hours each day playing in the fields and woods surrounding my home in Usk, in south Wales. During the course of my wanderings, I would often come across puffballs, which my friends assured me were deadly poisonous, so these fungi would be pulverised with sticks and boots until there was nothing left but mangled scraps and a drifting cloud of spores to mark the place where we’d encountered these strange-looking growths.
Years later, I found myself working on a farm, where the farmer’s wife would often give me sandwiches made from the cooked flesh of giant puffballs. I still remember how delicious these meals were and I also remember my surprise when I was offered such food, having grown up believing that puffballs were creations of Satan himself. This was the farm where I once encountered the Little People in a field bordered by a stream, while the Welsh name for Usk – Brynbuga – means ‘Hill of the Monster’ or something similar and a walk known as Puck’s Lane ran just a few yards away from the end of the back garden of the home I lived in until I left for good in 1979.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was browsing through one of the ancient reference books in my collection here and I learned that “….puffball is a corruption of Puck or Pouk ball, anciently called Puck-fist. The Irish name is Pooka-foot, (Saxon Pulker-fist, a toadstool). Shakespeare alludes to this superstition when Pros’pero summons among his elves –
“You whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms.”
Shakespeare, Tempest, v.1.
My view of the world around me has long been shaped by the writings of men such as the incomparable William Blake, but it is a further pleasing ornament to be able to see the wild countryside and its various inhabitants through the eyes of my ancestors, whose visions were imbued with all manner of exotic and alluring tales that helped to explain the many curiosities, wonders and terrors lurking in the fields, woods and streams of this magical island.