June 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Reading the mushroom

By Cate Kennedy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
A walk with ecologist Alison Pouliot exploring the ways fungi up-end our understanding of the natural world

I’m walking in the Wombat State Forest in central Victoria with Alison Pouliot, an ecologist, conservationist and stunningly good photographer. She’s spent decades tracking fungi across hemispheres, hanging out with mycologists and foragers, delving into the growing awareness around biodiversity and the role of fungi in the remediation of damaged environments.

It’s a dry day and the forest trees shake overhead with gusts of cold wind as we wander. Alison ponders aloud why there seems to be – particularly in “the Anglosphere” – such a suspicious and negative reaction to fungi.

“We like certainty, and we don’t like things that sneak up on us that we can’t explain. So, because fungi are growing under the soil – responding to changes we might not be aware of, popping up then suddenly gone again – that was just inexplicable to people for so long. It gave rise to all this amazing mythological association with witchcraft and the supernatural.”

As an example, she contrasts the language that has developed around flowers and fungi. 

“If something is going well – be it a love relationship or the economy – we talk about it ‘budding’ and ‘blossoming’ and ‘blooming’. These are botanical terms. But if you look up the word ‘mushrooming’ on Trove, say, in the allegorical sense it’s always used as something negative. ‘The Mafia is mushrooming!’ ‘Crime is mushrooming!’ Fungi are so often associated with diseases, with rot and decay. Some are hallucinogenic, others are deadly. The default response is often that they are a problem or disease, and we should be wary of them.”

Fungus, in other words, unsettles us. Even when it’s not being put to dramatic use mutating and turning people into brain-dead zombies in The Last of Us, it’s still unnerving and unruly, responding to environmental cues to which we’re usually oblivious, springing forth out of mysterious dormancy, ephemeral and perplexing and unpredictable.

Fungi seldom feature in discussions around conservation, either, because they are literally and figuratively underground. And yet overlooking their key role in ecosystems could mean losing the very foundation that enables aboveground life and biodiversity to flourish, and that’s an apocalypse that probably won’t be coming to Netflix.

As we walk, Alison vividly sketches out the microcosmic interplay between fungi and plants, fungi and mammals, fungi and invertebrates, and the worlds within worlds that open up when you set your camera on timelapse and train it on a single puffball mushroom, as she describes doing in her latest book, Underground Lovers: Encounters with Fungi. (She also describes hoping she won’t be wandering around the forest at midnight having forgotten where she’s left it.) She wears her scientific erudition as lightly in real life as she does on the page – so much so that terms like “binominal nomenclature” feel perfectly comprehensible and casual.

“For a long time, we’ve had the idea of the two kingdoms: one of animals, one of plants,” she says. “But then there were these organisms that didn’t seem to quite fit in either. And that was the fungi. It wasn’t until the ’50s that they got their own kingdom. And yet every eucalypt in this forest will be in relationship with dozens of different fungi.”

She stops and crouches down, pulling away some bark and leaf litter to expose the dirt. “This is as dry as chips at the moment, but if you put your nose down there… you’ll smell it. This soil is full of life – full of invertebrates, full of fungal mycelium, full of bacteria. That’s why it smells so different than a handful of agricultural soil, where most of the organisms and lifeforms have been excluded because of the constant disturbance by tilling and chemical use and fertiliser and irrigation. But this leaf litter…” She stops and checks herself. “There it is again! Negative term. We call it ‘litter’ – litter’s something we discard! But if we had a word for the second-most biodiverse habitat on the planet – second only to a tropical coral reef – we’d have a lot of trouble sweeping it up and burning it, or blasting it away with a leaf blower. This is where all the fungi live that support pretty much every single plant that grows.”

She digs a bit deeper, then sits back on her heels. “It’s dry now, but in six weeks, when the soil temperature drops and moisture levels increase, this area will be full of fungi producing their mushrooms and corals and puffballs.”

The wind roars over our heads, and Alison stops and picks up a piece of wood as we walk, pressing her thumb into it exploratively.

“The fact that I can push my finger into this tells me that mycelium are living inside this wood. Because they’re breaking down those recalcitrant compounds, like lignin and cellulose, that give the wood its hardness. Only fungi can break down lignin – no other organism can do that.”

She weighs it in her hand. “It’s light, because it’s full of fungi that are recycling, breaking it down, unlocking the nutrients, releasing them and making them available for the trees. So, we talk about plants as producers and animals as consumers, but fungi are the great recyclers. They break this down chemically, through enzymes. If it didn’t have the fungi in there, it would sit there, forever.” 

She tosses the wood aside and strides off again, down to the creek.

“Here in Australia, where most of our soil is eroded and blown away, the fact that these fungi are making soil… every gardener should love that.”

She swings her arm at the regrowth forest around us, trying to convey the idea of the vastness of the subterranean mycelia networks around us, under our feet, aerating soil, allowing water to seep through it, binding its particles together, branching and fusing and exponentially mirroring the forest below ground.

“Mycelium is the organism,” Alison says. “When we see the mushroom pop up, the part that holds the spores, that’s just the reproductive part. The mycelium itself exists like this amazing expanding network. It’s like a tapestry, under the soil, looking for nutrients, putting up scaffolding.”

“You make it sound like it’s sentient,” I say, “this mysterious thing which is not quite a plant and not quite an animal.” 

“Well, people often refer to ‘intelligence’ but that word, I think, is always controversial, because it refers to the brain, and the brain is the pinnacle of the nervous system. Whereas with a fungus mycelium, it’s decentralised, and that’s where it’s fundamentally different.”

She pauses, speculating. 

“How would it be,” she says with a grin, “if we thought about it as a metaphor for human social systems? What if we didn’t have this hierarchical, linear form of government, say, and instead had this decentralised system? That’s where it becomes really interesting.”

It’s clearly becoming really interesting for a lot of people, for a lot of reasons. Alison sees increasing fascination in fungi coming from every direction – botanical, aesthetic, ecological and, of course, most recently, pharmaceutical, as clinical trials begin using psilocybin (the active ingredient in “psychedelic” mushrooms) to treat depression and psychiatric disorders. For her, the taxonomy itself comes with its own mind-altering challenges.

“What I love is how fungi wobble all the assumptions on which I put my whole understanding of life,” she says. “Nature, and how we categorise it, and how we think about it… fungi just undo all those assumptions. The idea of something having a given lifespan, for example, and being categorised as male or female, animal or plant… all these rigid dichotomies suddenly get shifted by fungi.”

Initiatives designed to mitigate against habitat loss and deforestation, she observes, also tend to focus on flora and fauna, especially those species with “beauty, cuteness and charisma”, while fungi have taken much more time to infiltrate the conservation agenda. And yet most of the organisms we’re keen on conserving, as we’re only now starting to learn, are inextricably linked with fungi in some way.

“Well, the fungal network is not immediately spectacular. It’s nuanced, it takes time, it takes close observation. You don’t get the immediate hit. In this age of perpetual distraction and impatience, we’re all, ‘Where’s that waterfall? Where’s the green canyon? Where are the colourful tropical fish?’ A lot of the study of fungi now is molecular mycology. It’s incredible what this has revealed in terms of genes and the diversity of species and their histories, but it’s incredibly hard to convey that to the public by looking at a gene sequence in a laboratory. We need the molecular end, but we need to get people into the bush too, to care about it. All conservation needs care. We need to fall in love with it to have passion for it.”

As for her own passion, with an eclectic background in ecology, philosophy, literature and photography, she says she’s never sure, now, what to put in her bio.

“I feel the way I relate to the forest and understand it is more as a naturalist, although my interest initially was an aesthetic one, through photography. I guess I straddle an ecologist’s understanding, a naturalist’s appreciation and a photographer’s aesthetic sensitivity to it.”

She laughs, and looks out at the tree canopies, still being tossed and shaken by gusting wind. 

“I’m into the flux and fizz, the processes, the underpinning of systems and relationships. It’s more the verb than the noun. Maybe I should put: ‘I like rolling around in the dirt.’ That kind of encompasses it all.”

A few weeks after that walk, as the weather is changing, Alison is in motion too. She’s on a book tour, talking conservation and care, then off to Switzerland where she spends half her working year.

Each morning, as the temperature continues steadily dropping, I think of that forest floor, and stretches of earth around it, forest and field, the fallen timber and the erosion gullies, the moisture levels rising, the spores everywhere. Up they will come, sudden and startling, from underground, their caps damp with dew. We might look down and interpret what we’re seeing as a “fairy ring” or a delicious patch of chanterelles or a poisonous toadstool. But what we notice and what’s actually going on, like so much in the flux and fizz of the dynamic, endlessly ticking natural world, are two entirely different things.

Cate Kennedy

Cate Kennedy writes fiction, poetry and nonfiction, and lives in Central Victoria. Her short-story collections are studied on the VCE English and Literature syllabus.

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