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Chatty mushroom nets $20,000
for Anchorage essayist

“I think creative people have some susceptibility to being engulfed by other people’s sensibilities and people’s feelings. …
If I’m working on something that’s important to me, no one else is allowed to have anything to do with it.”

— Diane Brooks Pleninger

By Sonya Senkowsky
A tongue-in-cheek interview with a tiny, dung-dwelling, black-capped mushroom helped an Anchorage accountant with some of her own accounting this fall — to the tune of $20,000.

Diane Brooks Pleninger won the award in an international essay contest cosponsored by the British magazine The Economist.

Pleninger, 62, a board member at the Eagle River Nature Center and 27-year Alaskan, learned of the contest through an ad in the New Yorker. She entered, she says, mainly because “the prize money was impressive.” Even third prize was $5,000. After reading previous years’ winners, she thought she might stand a chance of placing.

But when she saw the essay topic — “Do we need nature?” — Pleninger wasn’t impressed. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. How could you avoid being corny and broad and overgeneral? And I got cranky.”

It was in this crankiness that Pleninger got her prizewinning brainstorm: “The question is not do we need nature, but does nature need us?” From that point, she says, “I just scribbled and scribbled. I built up a whole bunch of ideas and started to go.”

Pleninger, who is also a mushroom hobbiest (though she leads occasional mushroom walks, she claims she doesn’t know enough to be called an amateur mycologist) fashioned her essay as a Q & A interview with Pilobolus crystallinus, a mushroom that in her fictional universe is both fungus and author of the award-winning bestseller: Do We Need Mankind? A Fungal Perspective.

She chose this particular mushroom, says Pleninger, because to her it looks like a little man wearing a black beret. “He’s a cute little guy … and I’ve always enjoyed the pictures I’ve seen in mushroom books. It’s a personable little mushroom.”

In the interview, however, Mr. Pilobolus is not very personable. He calls humans “a failed experiment in individualism” and argues — with convincing examples — that, considering all the havoc wreaked through agriculture, animal husbandry, transportation of exotic organisms and other activities, as far as the fungi are concerned, mankind is “expendable.”

Not that Pleninger really believes the picture is quite that grim.

“It struck me as amusing I would come up with a doomsday essay,” she responds. “When you sit down to write about environmentalism, there’s a risk of that happening. [But] I felt that that was the way that the story was unfolding, and to be true to the story and true to Mr. Pilobolus and the world of the fungi, I was going to turn the world over to them.”

She takes a beat.

“If the fungi ever were to get their act together and judge us, they’d probably judge us very harshly and would probably do away with us.”

Pleninger’s entry was judged the best among nearly 6,000 entries from 163 countries, according to a press release issued by organizers at the Economist and Shell.

The judges chose the essay for its quality of writing and creative content, said Economist editor Bill Emmott in a written statement, callling Pleninger’s piece “a beautifully written and imaginative inversion of our question.”

The competition was judged by a panel of experts that included Emmott as well as Peter Warshall, editor of Whole Earth Magazine.

Pleninger found out about her award by e-mail, but because she had signed up to be notified of the winners, she assumed at first that the note in her in-box Oct. 17 was a general notice. When she read that she was the first-place winner, Pleninger felt frozen in place.

“I was unable to move in any direction,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do. Of course, it said we want you not to share this with anyone, so I told a few people.”

What did she do with the money? “Any sensible person sits down and makes up a list,” says Pleninger, and so she did — though she does not reveal what was on it. The money went for things that were needed, said Pleninger, but not to any big writing projects on the horizon.

Though she has some ideas for essays, Pleninger says she is content to let these develop naturally. “I don’t think of there being a big market for essays out there, and I don’t undertake to be a fulltime writer,” she says. “I only write when I have a specific project before me.”

“Writing to me has been something I've just done all my life as a tremendously personal thing.”

Pleninger takes the “personal” part seriously. For example, she says, though she will participate in writers’ groups and workshops, she tends to keep certain important projects, like this contest entry, “very close to my vest.”

“I don’t let anyone interject any thoughts. I don’t even let anyone see it. … I think creative people have some susceptibility to being engulfed by other people’s sensibilities and people’s feelings. I feel that I’m constantly at war with American culture, with people who are trying to recruit me to lighten up and watch television and go to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, and I have always felt there was some pressure on me to be other than what I am, and it tends to create noise and static in my head. If I’m working on something that’s important to me … no one else is allowed to have anything to do with it.”

This is not Pleninger’s first writing award. In 1989, she won the national Paul A. Witty Award (which came with a $1,000 prize) for a children’s story.

In addition to the $20,000 prize, Pleninger’s essay appears in The Economist’s annual publication, The World in 2004, published worldwide on Friday, Nov. 21. Two second prizes of $10,000 and five third prizes of $5,000 were also awarded.

>> Read Pleninger’s “Interview with a fungus” here, or see all eight prize-winning essays at www.shelleconomistprize.com.

Photo courtesy Diane Pleninger.

About the Author
Sonya Senkowsky is a freelance science writer based in Anchorage and founder of AlaskaWriters Homestead. She offers advice, coaching and a home on the Web to Alaska writers of all kinds. And she aspires to someday know even a quarter of what Diane Pleninger knows about Alaska mushrooms.

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