United by… Mushrooms?

The fascinating world where science, culture and art collide

      – Photos and article by Aidan Brushett

Perhaps no class adventure has better embodied the interconnectedness and diversity of all things than this week’s simple theme: mushrooms.

This week’s teachings featured a mushroom foray led by our very own Diane Borsato, with special reappearances by Arboretum interpretive biologist Chris Earley and naturalist intern Rachel Irwin. Equipped with wicker baskets, pocket knives, and identification keys, the class had the unique opportunity to enter the Arboretum’s nature reserve, designed for research and conservation purposes and inaccessible to the public.

There were several instructions. First, do not eat any of the mushrooms, many of which are lethal. Second, collect small and fascinating samples of any fungi that we might discover. Third, keep an eye – and nose – out for the Skirted Stinkhorn, a pungent, phallic species of mushroom. Chris and Rachel are currently authoring a book on the fungi in Guelph; forays such as this one can help gather valuable photos they need of species like the Stinkhorn.

We investigated a variety of habitats: swampy forest, rotted logs and tree trunks, and shady undergrowth. Hidden up high and down low, some of these fungi were brightly coloured, others dull; some were massive, others tiny; some had distinct smells, others did not. The experience demanded attention to all of our senses (except for taste), proving to be a valuable exercise in mindfulness. Those elements of nature which are often overshadowed – the dirty, the ‘gross’, the rotting, the undesirable – were brought to our focus and appreciation through a slower pace of life, seldom found in the day-to-day.

Upturning logs, leaves, and investigating a variety of habitats high and low while searching for fungi in the forest.

After exiting the nature reserve, our curious collection was sorted and identified. With guidance from Chris, Rachel, and Diane, the mushrooms were divided into two piles: gilled – having soft ‘ribs’ under the mushroom cap – and non-gilled. Identifying mushrooms proved to be a much greater challenge than foraging, as it required acute focus on minuscule variations in spore colour, striation, and texture. Notable fungi included the Deadly Galerina, a poisonous orange-brown mushroom, self-explanatory ‘Red Raspberry Slime’, the deliciously edible Giant Puffball, but alas – none of the elusive Skirted Stinkhorn. Within minutes, it was clear that countless diverse species lay in our pile.

The class sorts and identifies the various fungi collected over the time of roughly an hour.

Yet, equally fascinating is the diversity of scientific, cultural and artistic perspectives that mushrooms represent. As described by Prof. Borsato in her article Mushroom Forays,

“Mushrooms literally embody the connections among organisms and across species, and between life and death. And they are described by so many of our human tools for knowing: biology, environmental science… the arts, superstition, and myth.”

From big to small, edible to deadly, mushrooms are incredibly diverse. Featured on the right is a mature Giant Puffball.

The class learned from Diane that mushrooms’ gills – or polypores in non-gilled fungi – are used to spread spores, which enable them to occupy many forest roles. Some are parasites, which feed off healthy trees and kill them. Other fungi may digest rotting logs, returning beneficial nutrients to the soil. Some exist in the form of a vast, blooming underground network called mycelium, at times stretching for kilometers. A common theme to the CBC Ideas: Natives and Invasives podcast, labeling diverse species like mushrooms as ‘good or bad’ fails to truly encompass their being. Our class was lucky to catch a glimpse of the numerous complex ecological roles fungi play in nature.

Mushrooms are also deeply rooted in folklore. A single network mycelium can cause huge groups of mushrooms to fruit overnight, in formations known as fairy rings. Historically, many European cultures saw these sites as mysterious, enchanting places where faeries came to frolic in the night. The hallucinogenic and psychoactive chemicals in some mushrooms have been used by shamans, healers, and in religious ritual for centuries. All this history, collected into our baskets in no more than an hour!

Even artists are drawn to the idea of mycelium, the true heart of the organism. The very nature of mushrooms reflects urban society, and interconnectedness between individuals, communities and life as a whole. The symbols that mushrooms represent create inspiration for countless art forms.

When the foray reluctantly ended, one thing was very clear: mushrooming has the potential to form true bonds between science, culture, and art take form.

Searching for fungi serves as a humble reminder of the connections between all things.

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