Foreward to Field Guide to Tasmanian Fungi, published 2016
MYCOLOGISTS call them the “orphans” of the wild, the fungi that live at the fringe of our consciousness when we tramp forest and glade. In search of a metaphor I prefer to call fungi Cinderellas of the woods.
You find Cinderella working away in the dim, dank basement of the forest floor, often being bullied and threatened, at least in my Hobart valley in the shadows of Mount Wellington, by the ugly sisters of introduced gorse and broom.
Fungi are delicate but robust, ephemeral but consistent in the times they show their beauty when they spring to life in the autumn and early winter.
We look to birds and mammals, and to flowering shrubs, for our inspiration in our quest to connect with the natural world. Cinderella remains hidden off the beaten track and, looking skywards at the singing birds, we hardly give her a glance.
My lifelong passion has been the study of birds, and it is only in recent years that I have put the checklist aside and explored the wider reach of nature. Trees, shrubs and flowers first; I was determined to expand on my basic botanical knowledge of the tall, the showy and obvious like the blue gum and the waratah.
Signing up for one of the Bush Adventures run by the Hobart City Council, to study flowers on Mount Wellington, I realised later how the knowledge gained from this outing was enriching my bird walks on the mountain, especially when the birds weren’t singing or were keeping a low profile.
After one of the botanical walks I decided to join a “fungi foray” led by Dr Genevieve Gates and Dr David Ratkowsky and discovered a new field for study. Fungi was one I had never seriously considered, an omission I suspect many amateur naturalists make, and I soon learned there was treasure to be discovered amid leaf litter and fallen bough.
Fungi, as I often tell the uninitiated about birds, are not just attractive and fascinating, they are vital to the construction and survival of our forests, woodland and grasslands.
Without fungi fallen trees would not rot and be broken down into nutrients to fuel rebirth. Fungi are vital to the magic circle of life, its beating heart even if on initial observation they do not pulsate and vibrate with life.
And fungi have certainly never been appreciated for their beauty, at least until more modern times. I recall from my childhood in Britain that the “toadstool” of Victorian children’s stories, the beautiful red one with white spots, was merely part of the scenery in elaborate artwork, and never central to the plot. The fungi were a backdrop, of which largely they remain today for the casual wildlife enthusiast.
The mysteries of fungi were largely confined to the darker side of human nature and nature itself. Witches, the occult, poisons, potions and brews. Fungi were known more for the harm they could do to you than for their benefits to the wild world at large. Yes they were eaten – with caution – and used in medicine but the world of fungi seemed far away from everyday life. If you’d have asked me about fungi just a few years ago I would have immediately said “magic mushrooms”, from an ill-spent youth growing up in the Swinging Sixties of suburban London.
Well, the mushrooms have certainly brought some magic to my life in later years and as my interest grows I’m grateful to Genevieve and David for producing this book to enhance my study further.
The study of fungi can be painstaking and difficult. A book such as this is necessary, especially as it has beautiful colour photographs and keys to aid identification so that the amateur fungi fan does not have to resort to the microscope to identify individual species. With its breath of coverage, I’m sure the book will be a vital aid to the fungi professional, too.
We are lucky in Tasmania to have not only a prolific collection of fungi, but also largely untrammelled and unspoilt wet forests in which fungi flourish. I remember Genevieve telling participants on one of her fungi walks of a lecture she gave in Denmark, where she casually mentioned that she had found 800 species of fungi in a square hectare of forest in Tasmania. There were gasps from her audience, who couldn’t believe there could be so many species in such a small space. In Denmark, she observed later most forests had been converted to plantation, and in these neat and manicured environments there was no course woody debris left on the forest floor to provide a home for fungi.
This rotting vegetation, along with fallen tree trunks, and its attendant fungi not only create nutrients for plant roots, and lay the foundation for fungi’s symbiotic relationship with plants, but provide food for insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds and mammals. The fruit bodies of fungi provide food and shelter for many insects.
Genevieve delights in telling the story of an echidna she saw on the mountain ripping at a rotting, fungi-adorned tree truck to get at the insects. It is not just the present, however, that’s important with fungi. These organisms help us understand the past. I was fascinated, getting back to the fungi foray adventures, to learn that two species found in Tasmania were first described in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina. In fact we share quite a few polypore species with South America. Our fungi reveal the Gondawana connection, when the ancient giant continent broke apart and fungi common to the area that is now Tasmania went with its fragments to other parts of the globe.
Our fungi has another inter-continental connection in more modern times. In the way that birdwatching “twitchers” travel the world in search of rare species, fungi fanatics travel from overseas to see particularly beautiful species here, the enchanting anemone stinkhorn (Aseroe rubra) among them. Unlike in many parts of the world, the fungi are found in pristine habitats, and Tasmania’s wild and wonderful environment is part of the experience.
For me, I am happy on my walks on Mount Wellington to appreciate the less showy specimens, like dead man’s finger (Xylaria polymorpha) in the same way I do not necessarily seek out showy bird species. The dusky robin is okay with me, over its more flamboyant cousin, the flame robin.
The dusky robin, the pademelon, the blanket bush, and now dead man’s finger – they are not icons, poster children to excite the jet-setter in our clichéd world but they excite me all the same.
A short time back I would have just mentioned the first three in that list but Genevieve and David have given me a new subject to play with, with cliché and metaphor.
With Fungi in Tasmania they open the window on the world of fungi even further, and for me provide the last piece of the environment jigsaw. It’s past mid-night, and Cinderella’s slipper has been found in the woods.