Fungi Friday 22nd May 2020
This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. We all have mental health but in general many people lack an awareness of it.
In the UK this is not helped by hundreds of years of toxic interpretations of masculinity and the systematic oppression of women in society. There’s a grave stigma attached to even discussing mental health, due to centuries of extreme societal, political and, indeed, medical responses to psychological ailments.
In recent years, despite severe cuts to mental health services in the UK, the conversation has begun to change.
Nature, or at least our sense of it, has become a counsellor, allowing us to detach ourselves from societal roles and see ourselves as a single species in a vast web of biodiversity. Nature helps us to feel human. Fungi are a big part of that.
While this post is definitely not about hallucinogenic mushrooms or any such trips, dude, I thought I’d take the chance to share how fungi offers ideas that help me to cope with the stresses and anxieties of ‘normal’ life.
1. Fungi and the diversity of life
Knowledge is one of the most important ways to overcome mental illness. For many people a diagnosis is crucial to overcoming a condition. In trying to cope with life generally I have found that small, incremental improvements to my own knowledge, especially around the natural world, can help to build a foundation of resilience through understanding. In a time when we are faced with the potential for a Sixth Mass Extinction, it’s important to appreciate that there is an immense diversity of biological life on Earth worth fighting for.
A big part of that diversity is fungi, it has a Kingdom of its Own. British conservationists are renowned for pummelling themselves with the lack of biodiversity we have. Yes we have lost wolves, bears and lynx, but we have an immense diversity of fungal life in comparison to other groups such as mammals.
In the UK there are thousands of species of fungi, in the world there are known to be around 100,000. Scientists believe there are in fact over 1million species of fungi with a huge percentage of them yet to be identified.
2. Looking for fungi is good for you
Above is a photo of a fungi walk I led in 2017 for London Wildlife Trust. These walks had to be capped each time and extra dates put on (rock’n’roll) because the interest was so high. We are attracted to fungi by its mysteriousness, its beauty, the fact it feeds us, underpins the biosphere, and also that they kill us on rare occasions.
While opinions around foraging fungi are fairly divided, the act of looking for fungi can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. One of the most rewarding elements about spending time ‘in nature’ is that you are distracted by the largely artificial worries that we face in modern life. By that I mean the deadline you have to meet at work, the email you didn’t reply to or the fact you haven’t hoovered your bedroom for a month.
An appreciation of fungi can also help to deal with seismic moments in life. A recent book has shown how learning about fungi and seeking them out can help to overcome bereavement.
Take the example above. This is a patch of sulphur tuft, one of the most common speciess in the UK. I used to pass this garden on the way to work every day. It was very manicured but these mushrooms had burst on the scene. If I were to anthropomorphise, I would say it was a big ol’ middle finger to people trying to control every inch of their gardens. Sorry if that’s you!
The act of looking is an act of defiance, of rejecting the status quo and seeking out something new. For me, what nature brings in fungi is a newness that will never end. There are too many species, too much to learn, even in Little Britain.
3. Fungi feeds humanity
While you won’t find recipes on this website for anything other than life-affirming hiking experiences, we should remember that fungi make up an important part of our food systems. While wild mushrooms don’t really make much of a dent in that, the discovery of a delicious wild mushroom is a thought that can keep you going when the woods are far away.
I have only ever eaten one wild mushroom. It was picked by a friend in Czechia in a very large area of woodland. She gasped when she saw it, took out her pen knife and cut the cap off. ‘Are you sure that’s edible?’ I asked. She was crouched down, stopped what she was doing and glared at me: ‘I have been picking this mushroom my entire life.’
When we got back to her house she battered it in breadcrumbs and fried it. It was incredible.
Fungi does also provide important meat-alternatives to help us to focus on consuming meat from sustainable, local sources. Mycoproteins make wonderful sausages and burgers. Fungi is also needed for cheese, beer, bread and wine. Now many of you would struggle to live without those things!
4. Fungi = time in the woods
Every autumn I make sure to have at least one full day in the woods. I bring lunch, snacks, water and all the camera equipment I can carry. It’s a chance to slow down and tune into the rhythm of the woods. It’s better than I’ve made it sound.
Spending time in woodland is shown to improve our health. The air is fresh, the sounds, colours and textures give us a great feeling of calm. There are also chemicals which trees and plants release which support our immune systems.
Spending time in woodland also teaches us respect. As a woodland warden in south London I witnessed many people making their first visit to the woods and nigh-on trashing the place. They sometimes did that themselves, sometimes with their pets, sometimes with their friends. I remember one volunteer who had become an impassioned defender of wildlife at the wood, even though he probably did things several decades ago as a teenager, that he wasn’t proud of. Even when people are causing harm in nature, not through the devastation wrought by things like HS2, at least they are there and they can develop an appreciation of it. We all must learn these things one way or another.
5. Fungi will save the world – perhaps us, too
Plastic is a blight on our planet. Fungi could help us to manage it and rid its waste from the landscape. Fungi is being developed as a disposable material to replace non-degradable or recyclable plastics. Fungi also has a role in the mass production of a bacteria that scientists recently discovered at a landfill, quietly digesting non-degradable plastics.
While fungi has an important role to play in these issues, it’s good to remember that in many ways, fungi are the world. Fungi have played crucial support roles in the evolution of woodland ecosystems, trees, plants and many more species. We should celebrate and attempt to understand as much as we can about this amazing biological group.
Thanks for reading, wishing you well.