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The first time a stinkhorn fungus thrusts its slimy red finger up out of your garden it feels like an invasion by phallic aliens. Charles Darwin’s daughter Etty thought so too. She spent autumn mornings at war with gross indecency in the garden, whacking the heads off the fungus with a sharpened stick.
She should have relaxed – the presence of stinkhorns, exploding earth stars and other mushroom bodies are simply the outward sign of the fungal webs beneath our feet that we pay so little attention to but which stitch our world together.
Cortinarius sp. mushrooms.Credit: Alison Pouliot
Kick over damp mulch and you can easily see the fungal threads or hyphae that form a network called mycelium. Not all mycelium is visible to the naked eye. Indeed, the mycelium in just one teaspoon of soil, if teased apart and laid end to end, would reach anywhere from 100 metres to 10 kilometres.
Clearly you don’t have to ingest magic mushrooms to experience the mind-expanding influence of fungi: you just have to read about them, as two recent books about the fungal world make plain.
Hygrocybe singeri, otherwise known as a witch’s hat mushroom.Credit: Alison Pouliot
Entangled Life: How fungi shape our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures by Merlin Sheldrake (The Bodley Head) and Underground Lovers: Encounters with fungi by Australian ecologist Alison Pouliot (NewSouth) are both beautifully written explorations of fungal weirdness and current mycological investigations.
None of the metaphors we use to describe and understand the world are a good fit with the way fungi live. “Mycelium is a way of life which challenges our animal imaginations,” writes Sheldrake. Yet he and Pouliot both argue that learning about – and from – fungi could change the way we think, and operate in the world. “Fungi inspire us to reconfigure our relationship with the natural world and perhaps to imagine another way into the future,” writes Pouliot.
Beyond the revelations about how fungi literally ties us into other forms of life on our planet, both books astonish with the weirdness of fungi. Some fungi, for instance, glow in the dark.
Victorian-era coal miners could see their hands by the light of ghost mushrooms; Australia’s first myco-tourism adventure is a nighttime wander through a Victorian forest by the light of glowing mushrooms.
Other fungi have lives straight out of a sci-fi streamer. Zombie fungus attacks carpenter ants and takes over their bodies, causing them to climb tall grass stems. All the infected ants climb at the same time, clamp their jaws around the stem and in a mass-choreographed event, fruiting bodies burst out of their heads and shower fungal spores into the air.
Cruentamycena viscidocruenta, also known as a ruby bonnet.Credit: Alison Pouliot
In the weird but useful column of fungal life: mycelium can be grown to make packaging, clothing, even buildings; the white rot fungus that produces oyster mushrooms can grow by decomposing used nappies. (Even more unbelievable – the mushrooms that resulted from this experiment were healthy and free from human disease.) More palatably, experiments in India are trialling white rot fungus to break down agricultural waste from palm oil and sugar plantations, resulting in better income for farmers, a healthy food source, reduced waste, and better air quality.
And that pesky stinkhorn? There’s enough force in that thrusting member to lift 130kg, or buckle a road. I won’t be cursing autumn’s crop of fungal fruits, but using them to learn more about the lives of fungi.
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