Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Fungi_at_war_3

Fungi Friday 14th August 2020

For a while I’ve wanted to draw attention to the amazing relationship Slavic people have with fungi, to shine a light on the troubles we have in the UK, especially in England. In ‘Slavic’ I include Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Czechia. Mycophilia (a love of fungi) also extends through more central European countries like Germany, France and further south to Italy.

Bear with me on this one, it’s quite a complex topic which I am trying to understand more about. Even though this blog is a long one, I intend to do more work on it in future.

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Zuzana Veverkova with baby Riza in Czechia

The only mushroom I’ve ever eaten was picked for me in Czechia by my friend and conservationist Zuzana Veverkova in a huge area of woodland known as Chriby. Zuzka covered it in breadcrumbs and fried it in butter. I don’t know what species it was, probably a parasol or an Agaricus species (like the larger white mushrooms you get in the supermarker), but it was absolutely delicious.

When she picked it I asked her if it was safe to do so. She glared at me:

“I have been picking this for my entire life!”

In England, there is an overriding sense of mycophobia, a fear of fungi. We also have a knee-jerk reaction to foraging, usually translated by right-wing tabloids as an eastern European criminal underworld stealing English mushrooms. It has been the case that people from other countries have been harrassed for foraging mushrooms in English parks, woods and the countryside.

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In England we live in a nature-depleted country and people are disconnected from more natural landscapes and the wild plants, animals and, indeed, mushrooms that inhabit them. Could it also be that in Britain, higher standards of living have (in theory) been maintained due to a lack of war inland (1066 was the last land invasion) and we have not been subjected to the economic boom and bust resulting from the shifting between revolutionary communist and capitalist systems. What I mean by this is that our supplies of food have been industrialised and well-maintained without a dependency on foraged food. Then again, the impact Covid-19 has had in Britain suggests poverty is far more widespread than people realise, or Government would like to admit.

I know someone who is in their mid-80s and is fluent in Russian, a veritable Russophile. When they learned that I had an interest in fungi, they showed me a copy of a Russian medical book they own. Beyond pretty grisly images of physical ailments are pages of both edible and toxic fungi. Another thing people commonly have told me on public fungi walks I’ve led, is that you can go to pharmacies in countries like Italy and get an identification of a mushroom.

In England, you will never get anything of the kind. I wonder why that is. One of the main reasons could be that Slavic nations enjoy far greater woodland cover. In England we have 13% woodland cover, while nearly half of Russia’s vast landmass is covered by woodland.

Look at this graph and you’ll see how wood-depleted Britain is. I appreciate it’s complicated.

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The Transylvanian Carpathians, Romania

In Britain our lack of reliance on foraging has led to a plummet in nature knowledge and species awareness, something which is improving. In Romania you will find some of the highest levels of plant ID knowledge among local communities, especially ethnic-Hungarians in Transylvania. This is because Transylvanian hay meadows, the botanically richest grasslands in Europe, if not the world, are managed by hand, cut with scythes and have been for a very long time. Knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.

My link to family who lived in a similar way goes back to my Irish grandfather who grew up on a farm in the 1920s in the West of Ireland. On the English side, it’s probably the 1800s when my family were sheep farmers near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.

I knew my Irish grandfather and I spent time with him in Ireland. But his generation moved beyond that old way of living without any whiff of nostalgia in later life, and he did not pass on farming or plant knowledge to me. Why would he? I lived in London and he spent most of his life working in construction. We didn’t talk about fungi, because he had dementia by the time I was involved with woodlands and he didn’t quite get what conservation was, more for cultural reasons of how he saw the land.

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Ceps and chantarelles at a Russian market: michael clarke stuff / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Some of the only people I know in Britain who have said they once ate mushrooms in a way that could be tied to a way of life, rather than a newly inspired, 21st century interest in nature, remember foraging mushrooms as children in fields. One of those people had an Irish mother who taught them how to forage!

Could a lack of knowledge be what drives that fear of fungi, like so many issues. If you have a basic level of species ID then you would know what is toxic and the uncertainty can be controlled. That fear also masks what is in fact a deep fascination, which is beginning to reignite in Britain just as we are perhaps losing our grip in the face of the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Fungi don’t just appear in Russian medical books. I was astonished to see a thread on Twitter recently that showed a book by a Ukrainian illustrator Ohrim Sudomora entitled ‘War between fungi and beetles’.

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The thread was published by Anton Savchenko:

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As Savchenko notes in his thread, the species representation in the book is impressive. Looking at the illustrations I could identify milkcaps, boletes, brittlegills, chantarelles, morels and, of course, fly agaric. You can enjoy the book here. Unfortunately I’m not yet able to get a translation of the folk tale, but the pictures speak for themselves.

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Savchenko points out that the illustrator, Sudomora, was interred in a gulag by Stalin, possibly because of these drawings! I studied Russian film at university which naturally led into literature. I know that the poet Osip Mandelstam died in the gulag after writing a poem describing Stalin’s ‘cockroach’ moustache. Likewise, Isaac Babel, one of the greatest short stories writers you’ve never heard of, also Jewish, was murdered by Stalin. He killed around 40,000,000 people.

The good news here is that Sudomora survived because Stalin died and people were set free. The scary thing is if I was writing this in Stalin’s Russia I would probably be sent to a camp.

Returning to the English distrust of fungi, two people have written an entire book about this issue and the contrast with Slavic cultures: Mushrooms, Russia and History. Interestingly, could the word ‘toadstool’ help to understand the Anglo-Saxon worries about fungi?

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Fly agaric, the classic toadstool

As a quote taken from the book states:

If ‘toad’ descends etymologically to us from toxicum, then in English as in the Breton tongue a ‘toadstool’ in its ultimate meaning is a ‘poison stool’, and the idea of poison, rather than the toad, may have been dominant in the minds of those who first applied this term to the wild fungi in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The Anglo-Saxons ruled England after the Romans left around AD 500. The Germanic tribes of the Angols and the Saxons arrived as pagan cultures, later becoming Christianised. It’s interesting that cultures that will have worshipped nature may also be the root of a deep-seated fear of fungi. To an Anglo-Irishman, it kind of makes sense.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

5 Responses to “#FungiFriday: Why do Slavic cultures love mushrooms?”

  1. Linda Dolata

    My Father was Polish ( one of the many Polish airmen who got to England when Poland was occupied -it never surrendered- fought with the Polish RAF Squadrons) and as a child (I am now 66), when visiting his relatives in Gniezno (in the 1960s) and the surroundings…an area of beautiful sunlit pine forests and lakes, we went mushroom hunting with my uncle Stachu (Stanislaw).

    He (and his son Edmund after him) was totally knowledgeable of the fruiting bodies, the appearance and names (which I remember in Polish… Prima-‘the best’, Trefle- truffle, Sowa-‘owl’), and so on. We filled a basket each time (it was September)- he knew exactly where to look- and in the case of the truffles, which trees to dig around . He knew which were tasty, which merely edible, which toxic to humans. His generation had survived occupation by the Nazis, and I am sure knowing so much about the forest products helped.

    In so memorable a day we caught fish from the lake, and my aunt cooked up the most delicious meal, there and then in the forest.

    Thank you for bringing back that magic day,

    Linda Dolata

    Reply
  2. Daniel James Greenwood

    Hello Linda,

    I am really moved by your comment and am so happy that you posted it. I was up after midnight writing this article and it is hugely pleasing to see that it meant something to someone else.

    I loved reading about your memories of childhood summers in Poland. I have seen those pine forests and lakes when I have visited Poland so I can imagine them also. I am in my 30s and my generation do not have the same memories of September, it is more of conkers from chestnut trees! Hopefully this knowledge can make a comeback.

    Having visited Auschwitz I have a sense of the impact Nazi occupation had in Poland and I wonder how much solace the forests and mushrooms gave to people who suffered through that time and, like your family, did survive.

    It is a travesty how little respect people in Britain give to Polish people who served in the RAF and the British military during the Second World War. I will always make that point!

    I have visited Poland several times, I have Polish family and friends, and can speak a little bit, troche! When I visited Zakopane the hostel owner taught me the name for jay – sojka – and I never will forget it!

    Thank you once again for your comment, Linda, it meant a lot to me to read it.

    Very best wishes,
    Daniel

    Reply
  3. writefunnydramatrue

    Thank you for the post, Daniel! I had my first mushroom foraging adventure into the woods this year and got to try two types of Chanterelles. I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to confidently identify a good Bolete, but saw some Oyster Mushrooms and a Turkey Tail. It was almost as much fun finding them as it was trying them. I have a family member, also from Poland, and I love the idea of regaining some of that knowledge how to live off the land.

    Reply
    • Daniel James Greenwood

      Hello! Thanks for your lovely comment. I saw lots and lots of mushrooms in the past week in eastern England and am hoping things will start to get going soon. I know a trumpet chanterelle patch which I am going to visit this year but think I have missed my only known chanterelle spot. Boletes are out in force at the moment, especially in grasslands. My Polish family member is keen on mushrooms and so are my Polish friends. I have always been amazed by how much of a part of non-British culture fungi and foraging can be. Good luck with your forays!

      Daniel

      Reply

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