Thursday, October 12, 2017

Hyphae and the Tree

Earth stars, earth tongues, russulas and chantarelles
Ergots, flask fungi, coral fungi and morels
Amanitas, death caps, ink caps and mottle gills
Web veils, fan fungi, wax gills and parasols
Oyster mushrooms, magic mushrooms, laccaria and stink horns
Tooth fungi, club fungi, split gills and curry punks
Jelly fungi, stomach fungi, basket fungi and skin fungi
Puffballs, travesties, pretty mouths and bracket fungi.

Above, trees embroidered the sky, crown shy, jacquard patterns of light between their canopies as they politely gave each other space. Rambunctious cockatoos flung honky nuts onto the tin roof and a tiny black snake basked on warm granite. Like the sea’s opaque skin, what lies beneath is concealed from our eyes. Below, beneath the messy, decay-scented litter, beneath the house, the track, the car, the snake, beneath our boots, lies the world of mycelium.

It seems trees are not that into Darwin’s theory survival of the fittest. Instead they nurture each other in order to create strong, diverse communities. We could call trees socialists, at the risk of anthropomorphising plants, to force them akin to ourselves in order to divine their inner, secret lives.  ‘Mother’ trees suckle their young by feeding plant sugars to the roots for up to a decade. Trees can feel and express pain. They live in families, communities, where they support sick neighbours, make decisions and fight off predators. They do these things in Tree Time, a different scale of time to us; ponderously, they speak slowly and inevitably to truth.

Sentient beings are capable of perceiving events, of signalling to others and responding to them, and this is an argument for the sentience of the tree … sensation, awareness, information processing, memory, adaptive learning and finally, intercommunication. But to achieve these things, to express pain, to succour an unwell friend or alert the community to predators, there must be a way of speaking.

Silvery strands of mycelium thread through the forest humus, underground, clot together and fall away into singular lines of hyphae. Mycelium furls around the root tips of trees, passes sugar and gossip to a neighbour tree and the next and the next. From tree to tree, hyphae pass resources and information. A tree under insect siege sends electrical ‘data’ through mycelium to its neighbours, so they can produce insecticide in time to defend themselves. In payment, the tree will feed the fungi (which, in being nourished by animate matter, is more animal than plant-like in its nature) nutrients gleaned from photosynthesis.

Visible renderings, the stories, are the fruiting bodies of one of the largest living organisms on earth. Fungi shoulder their way through leaves, wood, bitumen roads, yielding beds of sheoak needles or stoic brick paving. They push their soft white fists through the crust, silently, overnight. From subterranean webs of gossip, nurture and early warning systems, they force their way into the dappled light of a forest morn, newly born, perfect in form. They are the manifestations of hunger and battle and succour beneath us, the tangible stories we can see.
The armillarias killed the old marri down by the inlet shore in the winter. Armillaria mycelium is no friendly communicant for trees but its aggressor and will feed on the decaying carcass for decades. The thugs of the fungi kingdom. The mushrooms, beautiful sheaves of gold, perfect and succulent, climbed the craggy bark like marauders up the castle keep, relentless, until they cancered the ancient king.

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth,
Our foot’s in the door.

Pink, frilly chantarelles grow in seams between stands of karri hazel and are yummy cooked up with garlic and butter. Hebalomas feed on bones. Coriolus flare on logs like a Spanish dancer’s skirts. Earth stars squat in leaf litter, little colonies of star critters.
Sometimes I feel closed into this forest country and yearn for an open sky, megalithic granite fronting an ocean, a horizon. There is my discomfort in not being able to see the Southern Cross at night for dark, feathery screens.

And yet, and yet. As I slept in the forest I dreamed of swimming inside my house, the same night a lost and found friend’s brain bled. I drove through the forest and heard the music, and was transported through the canopy to the hospital bedside of another friend. I don’t remember the intensity of these experiences on coastal heathland or sand dunes.

Fungi hunting through the emerald karri understory, wilding it down to the level of a honky nut, or a ball of kangaroo poo with a whole city of bugs and mushrooms aboard. The forest moves quickly through decay and rebirth. Underneath it all is the invisible chatter, the inter web of mycelium.

Sylvia Plath, Mushrooms, The Colossus and Other Poems, William Heinemann, 1960
Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, Black Inc, 2015
Robert Macfarlane, The Secrets of the Woodwide Web, The New Yorker, 7/8/2016
Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, Penguin, 2016
Professor Suzanne Simard, Do Trees Communicate?


  1. Thank God for fungi. Without them, my parents would still be here, mutely staring at me, accusingly.

  2. Hebalomas would be just as effective as a lime bath, yes?