Damp mornings, heavy with dew. Cobwebs - or to give it the local name, slammach, - hangs wet on the gorse bushes like pieces of cloud ripped off and caught up in the spines. Cows loom out of the fog, strange in the half-light. And in the undergrowth, something odd is appearing. Overnight, they have appeared, aliens from another world. They troop through the woodlands, small trolls transfixed by daylight, or raise their strange heads through the grass of suburban lawns. One or two are breaking through the pavement in the village. Others emerge from the bark of trees, or cluster in whispering congregations as the rain drips from the leaves on their heads, raising small clouds of fine dust to be carried away on the slightest breeze. They are friends, killers, and clean-up merchants.
It’s a great time of year for them, and after the warm summer, this damp autumn has brought them out in their hundreds. Much misunderstood, coveted by some and reviled by others, it’s time they had a proper place in our everyday lives. In fact they do - we just aren’t aware of it most of the time.
So, some years ago, a group of us got together to develop a programme for schools which looks at the wonderful weirdnesses that are fungi, to help children understand how they grow, and their place in the natural and unnatural world around us.
This week has seen ‘The Good, the Bad and the Fungi, 2006’. (Yes, I know! Groan!!) We have discovered spores and how they travel, how they grow into fungi, the mystical world of mycelium, how fairy rings develop, how the fungus got its spots. We have come face to face with a wide variety of the real thing - the red and white fly agaric waiting for the fairytale to begin: white-weeping ugly milk caps: the solid shelf of the birch polypore: clusters of yellow sulphur tuft: the delicate glistening white of porcelain fungus, high above our heads on the dead branch of a beech tree: the blotches of tar spot, breaking down the fallen sycamore leaves, and a host of others. We have discovered how fungi help trees and other plants to grow by exchanging mineral salts for food, how they break down dead material, and how some can kill through parasitism. We’ve considered how this fits into the environment, how dead wood provides food and shelter for other creatures and how fungi fit into food webs. We’ve played parachute games, blown up balloons, made badges, discovered the small beasties that appear when you leave fungi to rot - and we’ve had to clean up some of the aftermath too!
And we’ve learned to look very carefully into the undergrowth.