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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.

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