On National Fungus Day 2020 I should have been leading the first ‘artistic fungus foray’ held by Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group (LAPWG). Instead, another idea was coming together – a photographic foray to share.
The original plan
Early in the year, our wildlife group had sat comfortably together under one roof, preparing a varied programme of walks and talks throughout 2020. We had reached October when I piped up that it would be nice to do something creative and artistic, such as drawing, painting or writing about wildlife. Someone suggested that it would be a good idea to combine this with a fungus foray, and so our first ‘artistic fungus foray’ was added to our schedule.
As the nominated event leader for the foray, and anxious to get everything right from the start, I gained the permission, approval and blessing of the Duchy of Cornwall, who own the woods. With the help of our hardworking volunteer LAPWG Vice-chair Jen Bousfield, the necessary safety procedures and checks for a potentially quite large group event were soon in place. I invited Cornwall Fungus Recording Group, who were very positive about the idea and keen to come along. I was already vaguely thinking about what equipment, tea and cakes we might need by the time COVID-19 struck.
A new plan
As the months wore on and various restrictions remained in place, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that the artistic fungus foray could happen as we had envisaged. We thought about holding a socially distanced version, but with the usual level of interest it might have been difficult to manage groups of six, with each person distanced. I had been imagining close collaboration and a group atmosphere, walking and sitting close together, viewing each other’s work, and helping each other with identification. In September, a final decision had to be made.
Out in the woods
I cancelled the event, but decided to scour the woods for fungi alone, taking photographs and then sharing them with the others. We could share any fungal artwork we felt inspired to create, too.
For a couple of weeks leading up to the day of the event, I walked many beaten and less beaten woodland tracks, photographing an array of fungi to the best of my ability. I found rich purples, chestnut browns, dusky pinks, brilliant whites, rich yellows, reds, buffs and subtle greys galore.
I was expecting to find the usual bracket fungi, but there were also many ‘classic’ mushrooms or toadstools, some with spots, some with skirts or shaggy stems or caps, some found singly and some in crowded clumps, changing over a few days from masses of little stalked buttons to stacks of flat plates. What our local fungi had in common was individuality. They could be sleek, or dry and puffy, or slimy, or soft and delicate, or hard like wood, or blobby, or black and burnt-looking, or jellylike, or crumbly like old polystyrene. Some were scattered in drifts, some small and cuplike; some were bulky like cakes, while others resembled cocktail umbrellas or the soft antlers of tiny fairy stags.
Their habitats varied too. Some fungi seemed happy to grow on muddy paths where they were spattered by passing dog walkers’ boots, while others found a foothold further into the woodland on patches of bare or mossy soil. Some grew among deciduous leaf litter, while others preferred starker areas of evergreen plantation. Some covered stumps or perched on fallen logs, protruded from trunks, formed lines along rotting twigs or perched high on living trees. Many were hiding in dappled shade along the banks of the woodland edges.
While looking, I found signs of more mobile wildlife that roam the area by night – stashes of cherrystones in a hollow tree stump and nuts hidden under an overhanging slate, maybe left by wood mice. Paths traversed the woods where humans rarely ventured, made by wild creatures. Deep in the woods, heaps of loose soil, little paths and tracks, claw marks and hoofmarks indicated activity by larger mammals. One dry day, a handsome fox emerged from the path where I and my dog had been a minute or two earlier. It strolled slowly into the middle of the pasture field adjoining the woods and lay down to relax on the grass, stretching its nose appreciatively towards the early autumn sun.
The day of the original planned event – 4th October – arrived and I set out on the final foray. Trudging uphill and downhill along muddy pathways in strong winds and cold rain, I realised it wouldn’t have been suitable weather for drawing or painting fungi that day, even if the pandemic hadn’t struck.
A photographic montage
After my soaking, and with muddy memories plus a few scratches and minor bruises from clamberings to get a closer shot, I gathered my dozens of fungi photographs together and sent 30 or 40 or so to Jen. They ranged from ones I knew (Fly Agaric, Chanterelle, Sulphur Tuft) to some that were new and strange.
Jen chose a selection encompassing better known and unknown specimens, compiling a pdf montage of 12 species to share. She circulated them to LAPWG members by email and on the website, giving people the option of just enjoying the variety of fungi in the photos, or trying to identify what they saw. We also invited people to do a bit of fungal artwork if they felt like it.
Pauline Penna, a knowledgeable enthusiast from Cornwall Fungus Recording Group, put in time and effort trying to identify the species in our fungal montage (and a few more) just from photos. She reminded me that fungus identification usually involves almost all of one’s senses, as well as taking samples to test spore prints and do further microscopical analysis.
Using Pauline’s ID of the obvious species, her best guesses about others, plus suggestions from members of our group, we ended up with a non-definitive ID list, and we had a couple of pieces of artwork for our newsletter too.
What happened next
Subsequently the Cornwall Fungus Recording Group arranged their own foray in the same woodland later in October, with social distancing rules in place and ID as the focus. They have kindly sent me a long list of the names of species they found, which I will gradually look up and compare with my photographs. One species I found will join the official records with my own name, photo and grid reference.
Now with hundreds of fungus photos in the camera and on my computer, I know I have found at least three probable rare specimens. This makes fungi finding all the more addictive.
My forays left me appreciating the sheer range of fungi around us, how much individual mushrooms change as they expand, and how each species has its own smell, its own texture, and its own way of fruiting. I now notice the variety of stems as well as caps and gills, and that some stain a different colour when damaged.
I am more aware of how much fungal mycelium is alive and active throughout our woodlands, waiting until the optimal moment to fruit in extraordinarily varied and often colourful ways.
People are now coming to realise that fungi are vital components of an ancient ‘wood wide web’ of communication that makes a wood or a forest into a sort of group entity that is more in touch as a community than we had realised. This wondrous complexity makes ongoing casual destruction of woods and trees for human ‘development’ all the more tragic.
Even the experts are learning and discovering all the time. However, I’ve learned that anyone can find spectacular and rare fungi. You don’t have to be an expert to look deep into our world and begin to realise how amazing it is.