4 Oct 2010

It was a fungi sort of a day

As I posted about in my previous photograph-based blog, I love to walk in woodland and feel that trees are vitally important to my emotional and physical well-being.

We spend a lot of time in the English Lake District and have just spent some assorted days there over 2 weekends. This particular walk, Revelin Moss at Whinlatter, north west of Keswick, is another favourite and a more gentle walk than some we do and is consequently one we often do when we’ve either done something else earlier in the day, so have limited time, as was the case this last Saturday, or by its location, we often do late in the day, also the case this last weekend – so light levels were an issue for the photographs.

Please click on the photographs to see a larger copy, they’re rather dark here on the page.

The previous woodland blogged was well established and largely deciduous and in places mixed, where this one is more plantation style coniferous woodland and is owned and managed by the Forestry Commission. I have always felt that it has a slightly Alpine feel to it, it’s a little higher than other walks and the smells and atmosphere often transport me across Europe. It’s a looped walk designed for disabled access and pushchairs, so the paths are wide and well-maintained, so easy walking, albeit quite undulating. It also has a newly installed mountain bike route which crosses the path in places.

When you stop to look closely at the steep banks of moss and heather adjacent to the path in places where it carves through the hillside, you can see a massive variety of species growing shoulder to shoulder.

The last week has been both much cooler and some days have been incredibly wet – autumn arrived in no uncertain terms. Walks often have a theme to them – particular things are in season, or the weather highlights particular features. On Saturday the stand-out theme was fungi. The damp weather and changing season had caused all manner of woodland fungi to fruit and there were some fabulous specimens.

I had to take this from some distance and through foliage, and with a long focal length, as they were the other side of a stream from me and growing from the top of a dead tree stump.

I love to see them growing and think they’re fascinating things of great and diverse beauty, but I can’t claim to know much about them – I just like to see them, take photos and largely keep my distance. I would never know what might make good eating – it seems to me that the difference between and good meal and certain death (or at least an extremely unpleasant experience) is often a very subtle one, requiring serious expertise.

This was the largest patch of fly agarics I think I’ve ever seen, just nestled at the roots of some well established conifers. But the larger specimens of the group, off to the left and the size of dinner plates, were all kicked over and broken.

These large brown specimens seem to start very small and button shape, growing and opening until they curl upwards with undulated edges.

One thing that always saddens though is that I see so many kicked over and damaged. I’ve never known if this is people who are concerned by them for some reason, or just for sport, dogs routing around near them, or even wild animals like deer or badgers kicking at them to see if they’re edible. But it seems a common sight when walking in woodland, that whilst there are many lovely specimens – and some walks are especially good for the variety of species seen growing – there are always many that are broken up and damaged – and clearly not in a manner that suggests natural wear and tear or weather damage.

The dramatic looking red and white spotted fly agaric mushrooms shown earlier and above are perhaps one of the most recognised species and that is as many as I’ve ever seen on one day. Further along the walk I spotted three very new mushrooms just emerging from the ground at the base of a tree. One was barely breaking the ground and the other two were still tightly closed and only just above ground.

I had always thought that their redness was an indicator of their toxicity, but apparently they’re unpleasant, rather than deadly – you’d need to consume quite a lot of whole fresh mushrooms to actually be in real danger. But they are thought to have hallucinogenic properties when the flesh is properly prepared (and some of the techniques to do so are quite unsavoury) and the ‘fly’ of the name is less to do with insects and more to do with the likely resulting hallucination involving yourself flying.

There is even some speculation that their red and white livery is responsible for the traditional red and white attire of our modern Father Christmas / Santa Claus – thought to have arisen from the combination of many factors over time, from the fondness of reindeer to eat fly agarics (I wonder if they hallucinate about flying?), old stories of Siberian shamen spirits who visited yurts down the smoke hole bearing little leather bags of dried agaric pieces to tempt those below and their traditional appearance in fairy tales and folklore as a token visual and easily recognised mushroom – and often used as a decorative element around the festive period.

I think I prefer to see them nestled at the foot of a tree, just doing what nature intended.