‘Then it got down off the mushroom, and crawled away in the grass, merely remarking as it went, ‘One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.
‘One side of what? The other side of what?’ thought Alice to herself.
‘Of the mushroom,’ said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight.’
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Each year, in the autumn, we go funny about fungi.
They present a tailor-made invitation to be more mindful, whilst also illustrating the essence of why mindfulness in nature is so powerful.
Much of the time we rush around in our own bubble of worry, anxiety or thought. Deep in thinking, reacting, or just being distracted. The deeper we are in our absorbed worry bubble, the less notice we take of our surroundings. We also take less notice of ourselves ‘in the present’. From personal experience I know I hardly ever notice much at these times. I don’t really notice things, or smell things…or even really remember things. So wrapped up am I.
In fact I am often guilty in missing mushrooms that pop up all over the place at this time of year. Like kodama (Japanese tree spirits) the woodland glades around trees seem to suddenly be invaded by fairy rings of rotund buttons of assorted colours and sizes.
But why fungi? Our relationship with the humble mushroom tends to be as a supermarket packaged ingredient. The wild variety are a much more challenging endeavour and many people have an inherent fear. In popular folklore they are associated with dampness, death and decay. We avoid touching them, and warn our children not to touch them too. We may even be glad when they escape our notice. They are usually small, blend in with their surroundings and tend to be tucked away at foot level. When we are presented with a toadstool there seems to be an inbuilt temptation to kick them over and destroy them because they are not to be trusted.
But this is just because we do not understand them.
I grant you, many are inedible, some will upset your insides, and quite a few will kill you outright. But this is mainly a defence mechanism to stop them being eaten. I would wager that you might defend yourself from being eaten too? Often fungi are not poisonous to creatures that have evolved with them. Squirrel, slugs or deer often take Lewis Carrol’s advice without any ill effects. They provide an essential food that is full of useful building-block proteins and carbohydrates at a time just before life turns cold and dark.
Now to blow your mind-fullness. If I haven’t captured your imagination yet.
Fungi are magnificent creations in their own right – for a start they go well beyond being food. Fungi are essential in the transformation of dead matter to plant food. Indeed the very health and survival of trees and plants can depend upon them. It is only recently that we have realised just how connected some fungi and plants actually are. In fact 92% of plants (80% of all plant species) have relationship with fungi.
The technical term is a Mycorrhizal relationship, and it is highly symbiotic. Fungi gain energy from the plant’s production of carbs from photosynthesis and what the trees get in return is nothing short of mind-altering. The fungi modifies minerals and elements in the soil that the plant alone cannot do. This is called chelation. The mycorrhizae will also help the plant to access water and other resources that can boost the immune function of the tree. In some trees their relationship means they envelope the roots of the plant in close embrace, in others the meshing is within the cells themselves. In both cases this joining is so fundamental that they can be seen as one not two.
What is mind boggling is the size of some of these mycorrhizae. Forget the blue whale or the giant redwood, fungi are the largest organisms on the planet. By far. Some are bigger than a thousand football pitches, weigh hundreds of thousands of tonnes and were alive since the thawing of the last ice-age. Oldest, largest, heaviest. But just like icebergs, the tip is just the mushroom, the vast threadlike mass are underground. All this inter-connected mycelium – along its length and breadth and depth share the same genes, are linked so they can communicate and act in common purpose. And this leads onto one of its most jaw-dropping aspects of these leviathans: they can actually sense where and when a tree is in need or help. It can then move resources, be that carbon, nitrogen and water, to support that tree. They can even defend the tree. Trees that are part of these organisms are stronger and more resistant to drought and disease. Good news in the fight against Climate Change. Forget innovative tech: welcome to the Wood Wide Web.
It might seem macabre that at the end of our lives we end up probably broken down by fungi and as carbon sequestered into the trees they connect with. The sense of fairy stories about connecting with your ancestors through trees and the popping up of mischievous, rotund little tree spirits now suddenly doesn’t sound quite so far fetched!
Which brings me back to the little fruiting bodies that we don’t notice as we rush over our lawns, across the fields, down paths, through woods and along hedgerows. These are, often, the visible signs of this relationship with the trees. Some fungi like the promiscuous big red ones with white spots (Amanita Muscaria a.k.a. Fly Agaric) team up with any old tree. Others are like the Boletes are more selective, opting for a pine, or a beech, an oak or a birch. These are a sign of a healthy tree and healthy soil.
All of this appreciation of awe-someness of fungi is to inspire you to get out and get your eye in. It takes time. You need to slow down. You need to take notice. You then start seeing the gaudy fly agaric, then then some little brown mushrooms will appear that you would otherwise have missed. With practice getting into this mindful zone, a bit like practicing mediation, can be done quite quickly. Slow, present, being aware. Essential elements of being mindful, not to mention fun. My wife actually gave a cry of delight when she found a tiny purple mushroom in a beech woodland whilst searching for huge edible porcini. It was called an Amethyst Deceiver.
At Aquafolium we like to harness the nurturing power of nature. At this time of year we practice mushroom mindfulness. We have tested our blood pressure and recorded our mood before and after. It really works.
So, get outside for the last remaining days of mushroom season and see what you can fungi. Just be sure to only ‘eat me’ with caution!