Monday, December 2, 2013

Be-wondered and Bewildered

I'm a convert . . . I willingly admit it.  I'm a total convert to the power, beauty and vital necessity of mycelium, or, as it's better known, fungi.  And, as every convert is gripped with a compelling desire to convert others, may I share some fascinating facts with you?

"I see the mycelium," writes the mycologist, Paul Stamets, "as the Earth's natural internet."

It's a mind-blowing concept.
In my ignorance I'd thought of fungi only in relation to mushrooms, which I much enjoy, toadstools, which add to the beauty of the woodland floor, and the largely unseen fungi which carry out the necessary work of breaking down dead matter.  Little did I appreciate their complexity . . . or their essential role in our survival.

Although we have named our planet 'The Earth', we seem to give little thought to the earth itself.  How rarely do we stop to consider the soil beneath our hurrying feet.  Yet, with the exception of fungi, every living thing, in order to survive and flourish, extracts nourishment from the soil.  Plants draw out its goodness, animals graze on what it produces, we feed from it and exploit its concealed energy sources and minerals.  Without the soil, a source that we plunder so unthinkingly, life on the planet would not exist.

All of which brings us to the vital question:  what creates and sustains soil?
Yes, you've guessed . . . only the fungi perform this essential role, thereby producing a fertile environment for the creation of life.

Forget the Redwood, the Totara and the Cedar of Lebanon,  the largest organism on the planet is not a species of tree, but fungi.   Incredible as it may seem, a single field of fungi has been known to stretch out to one thousand, four hundred acres . . . a positive suburban town of underground organic growth.

But could it be that fungi has something else to tell us, something on a completely different level?

When we look at a hollow tree it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that it has lost its heart.  This, in fact, is the reverse of the truth.  A tree, as one might say, wears its heart on its sleeve.  The centre of a tree is no more than dead wood.  The 'heart' . . . the living, growing substance . . . is the layer nearest to the bark, the layer in closest contact with the outside world.  When fungi devour the centre of a tree and create a space, they are, at the same time, removing what is no longer needed and rendering the tree more flexible and supple.

A hollow tree, cleared of its dead interior, can withstand the storm that will topple its rigid neighbour.  A hollow tree, in addition to providing warmth and shelter to many woodland species, will also live considerably longer than those who remain intact.

Might it be wise were we to follow their example . . . to discard the dead elements of our past and move forward unencumbered by their rigidity and weight?

I thought of fungi the other day.  Investigating a rarely opened drawer in my bureau, I came across a package of letters tied up with string.  They were the letters I'd sent home from boarding school, letters cherished by my parents as proof of their daughter's enjoyment of her new life.  I won't say how many years they'd lain there forgotten in the drawer.

Had I opened even one of those envelopes and started to read, I wouldn't have been able to destroy them.  But they were 'dead wood', my parents were no longer here to value them, the letters represented the past . . . a happy period, but the past.

I thought of the fungi as, without undoing the string, I dropped the package into the re-cycling bag.  Am I a little more flexible without them . . .?   I hope so.

Perhaps it's wildlife photographer, Louie Schwartzberg, who best sums up my feelings on the amazing world around and below us,

"I am lost in be-wonderment and bewilderment," he says, "at the complexity of nature."

Be-wondement and bewilderment . . . I completely agree.
Wo knows . . . a regular bowl of Mushroom Soul might help me to absorb the wisdom of the fungi!