Friday, 9 May 2014

Fungi and the World Wide Web

Some months ago I was at a local trash and treasure market and couldn’t resist a bargain of a garbage bag full of wool. It was in long loosely tied skeins and rather an odd selection of colours but it was only $5.00 and I felt sure I could do something with it. I like nothing better than turning something considered as excess rubbish into something value added.

What I discovered though is that I love bringing order to things. I am persistent and patient no matter how many loose ends I find.

 My life’s work seems to be about fighting entropy, the encroaching weeds, the overwhelming disorder of laundry, groceries and refuse.

So it was quite a surprise last weekend to find myself becoming passionate about one of the agents of entropy. I took part in a field survey of fungi in the Apollo Bay area with a passionate group of amateur naturalists as well as extremely knowledgeable professional expert guides including Alison Pouliot
We got to eat Lawyers Wig mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) for breakfast which were delicious. They were once a source of ink and so I made some ink from them by leaving them in a strainer to leak their inky juice and then made this painting of them.

I love to discover how much more I don’t know and believe me I haven’t even scratched the surface. It’s not surprising because in Australia there are literally thousands and thousands of unnamed and unclassified life forms. We just don’t have enough resources to do the work and government funding for scientific research is a very slim wallet.
A tiny little Ruby Bonnet (Mycena viscidocruenta)

When Britain set out to conquer the world and expand the empire she sent scientists to collect specimens from all the lands she invaded, just like humans have done with space travel ever since. It seems we can keep expanding our horizons, and the search for a Goldilocks planet is part of that endless quest to expand empire or to find a replacement for our own for when we have trashed this one. But there is just so much here to explore and to know.
Possibly Aminitis

Some of our greatest advances in medicine have come from fungi and moulds. Penicillin, cyclosporine (used in transplants) and where would we be without yeast for bread and beer and moulds for cheese?What we don’t know about the world of fungi is much greater than what we do know. Much of our knowledge of the plant world came from much earlier botanists and biologists who made their discoveries with the most rudimentary scientific equipment.Modern technology is making it more possible to see up close that which was only theoretical or blurrily similar to another. And yet we have never been more separated from real life up close than we are at this time in history. 

Children don’t wander around picking flowers and tugging at weeds, nor climb trees and share a limb with other wildlife. They dig in sanitised little plastic clamshells where their experience of digging to China is limited to the edges of Trueville. Their vegetables come in plastic packets so they never have the morbid thrill of finding a caterpillar sampling their peas in the pod first. They don’t poke and prod the earth to find potatoes and carrots for dinner or slip their hand under a warm hen to find a fresh egg. Everything in the most networked time in history is at the same time disconnected from its natural interconnectedness in the web of life.Fungi are the agents of entropy but are paradoxically agents for new life and new beginnings. They break down the carbon of trees and dead grass and leaves, animal excrement to make it available for new life. They work in partnership with other life forms, balancing populations, slurping up toxins, acting as a go between for neighbouring life forms, and also signal, to those who are attentive, changes in the state of the planet. Their mycelium are an endless trail of tiny white fibres hidden out of sight and act as electrical and nutritional networks for the plant world-the literal world wide web.

When we are always looking into the distance for the next new thing, the next thing to fill our insatiable desire for novelty, we fail to notice the wonder and novelty at our feet. We are constantly encouraged to embrace progress and technology and to keep marching forward leaving the past behind. The past contains old knowledge and old skills and in an interconnected world we must not forget that everything is connected through time and space. The beginnings of our universe are visible every night for us to see. Lichens and fungi originally converted the star material into a habitable place for us to live and still continue to convert our detritus. 
 There is an elegant classification system for all these life forms thanks to the early science of botanists and biologists. Seeing this structure briefly unfolded last weekend was a magical experience a bit like first learning to read. Each little structural element from gills (or none) to stipe(stem) and spore shape and colour has a hash tag just like Instagram. The hash tags need to be collected and compiled from all around Australia so that we have an inventory of just what is here. Fungi Map is working with professionals and citizen scientists to accumulate this knowledge. After all we may have the cure for cancer under our noses or new drugs to combat medically resistant viruses.

Meanwhile I have been exploring hash tags on my new Instagram (Cranky Ceramics) and hammering them for all they are worth.