One last fungus hunt – perhaps?

The gardens and lake at Stourhead

As autumn advances towards winter the fungal glory days gradually begin to dwindle and those ground dwellers that are left are often difficult to find amongst a thick carpet of leaves. The Bath Nats field meeting at Stourhead was billed as a general walk around with the prospect of seeing tree sparrows thrown in as a teaser. I like my quarry to sit still so I’m not much of a birder – feeling totally demoralized when someone names a brown blob flying away fast at 150 yards without even lifting up their £2000 Swarkovski binoculars. No mention of jizz encourages me that I’ll ever get there, although I did have a magic moment yesterday when I spotted a Marmalade Hoverfly and just knew what it was.

Tree Sparrows are something of a rarity around here I’ve been told, and a quick look at a local guide to Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire birding doesn’t even mention them. So off we went with our binoculars to Stourhead along with a group of Bath Nats members with a reassuringly wide range of interests.

And so, after presenting our National Trust membership cards we set off in pursuit of the group, directed by the staff on the entrance to turn off onto an anonymous looking footpath before we got to the places that most visitors go to look at. After a 50 yard yomp uphill through the mud we found our group in a characteristic fungal hunt position – backs bent and eyes firmly on the ground.

Now here’s the surprising bit of our day out. From the outset, Madame with her keen eye was spotting the fungi – amongst the fallen leaves, on bits of fallen dead wood and later on the stacks of cordwood left behind by foresters. For the most part they were tiny. The biggest things we saw were a couple of Dryad’s Saddles – Polyporus squamosus that had fallen off their dead host and lay rotting on the ground. One of our companions said that they stink like rotten fish and unable to resist the challenge I picked one up and gave it a sniff. It wasn’t exactly fishy but it did smell rotten and felt like soft flenched whale blubber in my hands. Later we saw a ring of Shaggy Parasols – Chlorophyllum rhacodes, but beyond that pretty well everything we found was in the 1-2 cm range. Of course these are precisely the road less travelled in fungus hunting, and it was immensely rewarding to find such lovely but tiny species. Here they are, and there’s a photocall at the end of this post.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle,
Helvella crispa, White Saddle,
Ramariopsis kunzei, Ivory Coral,
Mycena rosea, Rosy Bonnet
Crepidotus epibyrus,
Xylaria hypoxylon, Candlesnuff Fungus,
Trametes versicolour, Turkey Tail,
Schizophyllum commune, Splitgill,
Stereum hirsutum, Hairy Curtain Crust,
Bulgaria inquinans, Black Bulgar,
Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank,
Chlorophyllum rhacodes, Shaggy Parasol,

So all in all it was an unexpectedly joyful and accidental fungus foray.

Since our leader was a volunteer with local knowledge, the Tree Sparrows turned out to be something of a done deal; tucked away at a feeding station and nest boxes that you’d never find if you weren’t taken there, but there we are; I can barely tell a House Sparrow from a Dunnock except for the wonderful tuneless chirp of the House Sparrow that fills me with memories of my childhood home.

This morning Madame and I sat in bed with my laptop and the books heaped in the middle and identified the fungi as best we could. Who says that romance is dead? – but please don’t take these photos as definitive. Some of them could be very wrong, but we did our best.

Later we walked around the lake, and by the time we reached the iron bridge it was dusk and Madame spotted something that looked like a Swallow skimming across the water. It was a Daubenton’s bat – an almost triumphal ending to a lovely day. By the time we reached the entrance it was almost dark.

Oh what a whopper!!

Yesterday’s apple was one of the ugliest – this one is one of the biggest I’ve seen – look how big it is in my hand.

I suppose it was inevitable that I’d come away from our weekend in the Brecon Beacons with the thought of cooperatives on my mind – after all we came across three such ventures in a village with less than 100 inhabitants. There was a community woodland, a community allotment, a community council – oh and the orchards preserving and promoting local apple varieties.

Yes, of course, they’re sometimes a complete pain in the backside to participate in. It’s almost impossible to recruit active members, there are always members who think that cooperatives exist to implement their particular vision without regard to anyone else’s wishes, there are those who memorise the articles of association down to the last comma and then use them to prevent any decisions ever being made. You have to cope with both perfectionists and, at the other end of the scale, members who never actually complete a task. But you’d have to deal with these minor irritations in any workplace and none of them are a valid argument against cooperatives per se. We’ve helped set up three over the years, and lived in a couple of communes. My mum was a dedicated Coop member, so I think I’m pretty well qualified to write about them.

Think of it this way. Imagine three or four farmers, each isolated on their own farms but personally dedicated to reintroducing once ubiquitous local grains that have been rendered virtually extinct by agribusiness and chemical dependent hybrids. If they never meet or talk to one another there’s a danger that vital work is triplicated and vital insights are never passed on. But if they cooperate, the work takes off much faster, and if they incorporate as a legal entity they can raise money, enlist supporters and invite other farmers to join them in their quest to revive these vital “Landrace” varieties – that’s to say varieties uniquely suited to the specifics of climate and soil that characterise one localized environment; and voila meet Welsh Black Oats!

The same goes for the apple varieties we saw at the weekend. The apple is a promiscuous hybridiser and probably 99% of hybrids are pretty rubbish, but the 1% may well make it possible to grow apples at 900 feet – I’ve seen them – or in salt laden air, and I’ve seen them too. Many cider apple varieties – aside from having marvellous names like “slack ma girdle” and “Chesil Jersey” each add irreplaceable flavour notes like leather (marvellous) , creosote (don’t ask) or petrol (ditto). Of course you can grow Golden Delicious – apples for people that don’t like apples – or Cox’s Orange Pippin which are so disease prone they need spraying twenty something times to keep them looking good for the supermarket. This cornucopia of varieties and flavours as well as uses would have remained a secret known only to a few farmers and died out altogether as the orchards were grubbed out under EC regulations decades ago, but they began to cooperate and share their centuries of expertise and bring (for instance) craft cider back from the grave.

Ask yourself – who does it suit to kill off all these traditional varieties? You already know the answer. As ever it’s the agribusiness suits who want to sell their overpriced and chemically addicted saplings and seeds. Fighting for changes in the regulations is a losing battle. Allotmenteers will remember when some Ministry clown wanted to ban many traditional varieties of potato like the King Edward. The only way is to organise and cooperate and never accept the high price of collaboration with the giants who, even now, are buying up landrace seeds in the developing world in order to create hybrids that will force farmers into penurious contracts with the seed merchants, artificial fertiliser producers and chemical giants, who are often part of the same conglomerate, behaving like mafia thugs, exacting protection money from the poorest producers.

Think of cooperation as a kind of underground guerilla movement that’s almost impossible to silence or to shut down. Not only are they effective ways of keeping traditional varieties alive – and this will become a matter of life and death as the climate catastrophe stalks up on us – but they are also powerful ways of building up local communities and teaching the skills that will become ever more important as the money runs out. Even a few days in Mid Wales will teach you that what keeps these threatened farms alive on their marginal land, is a rich complex of history, experience and the obligations that flow from generations of mutual help and trust. And yes – before anyone reminds me – these are precisely the communities that are being crushed between government neglect and housing shortages caused by second homers. But even these challenges could be addressed by self-build housing cooperatives run by local people with the stamina to fight the nimbys, working hand in hand with local landowners and local councils, and – though it won’t be popular to say it – many of the most significant full-time incomers only predominate on community councils and cooperative projects because the locals can’t or won’t join in.

The biggest enemy of change is apathy and defeatism, especially when they’re combined with the six words that always foretell collapse – we always do it this way. Let’s do it different!

Where wild means wild!

How about watching a family of long tailed tits; great tits; several robins; nuthatches; blue tits and a wren in about ten minutes of pure rapture, looking out of the kitchen window – 900 feet up a hill on the Brecon Beacons? Autumn gets to me – that’s no secret – the reasons are so obvious that I’m not even bothering to rehearse them here; but there always comes a time, often a single day, when the black dog slinks away and feel I’ve turned a corner.

I haven’t written for a while but that’s not because I’ve been sitting in the corner weeping silently (not my style) – but because we’ve got the allotment largely under control, and we’ve spent hours and days fungus hunting. I’ve been interested in them for years but this year we’ve gone into hyperdrive; photographing, identifying and recording these beautiful and fugitive life-forms. Fungi live on decaying matter; they also share resources with plants and trees and – at this time of year especially – are the tangible evidence of the ever renewing web of life beneath the fallen leaves.

My friend Nick who graciously let me play with some serious machinery.

And so we came up to stay for a couple of days with old friends on the Brecon Beacons where they keep a smallholding. Feeding the pigs and the chickens, moving the sheep around and helping out around the place – oh and eating the freshest eggs and the best organic produce; planking and planing seasoned oak from the woods; keeping the stove going; cooking together with food grown and raised less than a couple of hundred yards away and talking, talking, talking. These are truly – and I’m avoiding the therapeutic cliché – renewing activities. In between showers, the sky cleared and the sun shone through the raindrops, illuminating the landscape with pinpoint jewels of refracted light.

At night the Tawny owls called to one another over the sound of the springwater filling the cistern outside our bedroom in a musical series of spurts and sputters. Even the sound of a dog barking down the valley in the darkness engorges the imagination. The autumn ground was a pointillist painting in ochres offset by dazzling yellows and reds and buzzards and carrion crows called overhead. For three days we escaped the tyranny of linear time and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the greater and lesser cycles of sunrise and moonrise; season and lifespan.

Sheep on the horizon – looking as if they’re about to charge us

Even the farmhouses have their span. In the year I was born, just after the war, this cottage was derelict, and for the past thirty five years we’ve watched it come to life under the care of our friends. It’s been a home, playground and a natural history mentor to three generations of children and their friends. If intuition and imagination aren’t included among the senses how we are ever to understand how neighbourhood, community and mutual aid, along with an understanding of our vulnerability and finitude are the foundation to our flourishing. Yesterday evening we sat in the old parlour and talked by the light of the only remaining gas mantles I know of. The mantles themselves now cost something like £14, but this isn’t a life of self indulgent luxury – their car has done 220,000 miles.

On Saturday we visited a couple of community projects in the village. One of them was an orchard run by the Marcher Apple Network which is a voluntary charitable organisation set up to preserve traditional apple varieties from the Welsh Marches.

They have collected and grafted all sorts of almost unknown apple varieties on to modern rootstocks and have begun to set up a DNA database so they can be identified and propagated through grafting – as a service to the future. I have to confess to scrumping a few, and trust me, they’re not all utterly delicious! One of Madame’s first jobs after leaving Art School was working as a trials assistant in a cider research station and so she was in seventh heaven as we walked around photographing some of the apples for our records. While we were there a couple of young people from the local community run pub were picking up windfalls for the apple bobbing at their Halloween party. This village is rich in community projects. You’ll see below why some apples have rudely descriptive names such as Goose Arse and Pig’s Snout

Possibly one of the ugliest apples I’ve ever seen.

Then we went up the hill to a community run woodland which we scoured for fungi and found quite a few we’ve never seen before. One of the best things about being a relative beginner in any field is the fact that even very common and well known species are exciting first time finds. A fungus like the Panther Cap – deadly poisonous – takes on a whole new reality when you’ve got down and dirty photographing it in a rain soaked woodland. Our friends were generous enough to scout the wood for new fungi for us to see – we had a ball – and then finished up down at Llangorse Lake drinking tea in the cafe as the clouds gathered over Pen y Fan.

So what could be better than eating with friends? Well cooking with them surely comes to the top of the list. I cooked one of my party pieces – Carbonnade Nimoise, and with a free run of the food stores we used some hogget leg steaks. Hogget is lamb in its second year, so it comes between lamb and mutton. Most butchers give you a funny look if you ask for it but it’s worth searching for. It’s more expensive than lamb because it’s been fed for an extra season but the flavour is marvellous. Oh what a weekend!

So here are a few of the fungi we saw – they’re not named because we need to check and double check, but they are so beautiful that they need no justification at all.

And yes, the one at the bottom is almost certainly a Panther Cap – greatly to be avoided when you’re foraging! In fact its neighbour in the centre is almost as bad. The lesson is – never forage unless you’re with someone who really knows what they’re doing (so don’t ask me!). And if you recognise the only innocent one in the ID Parade – good for you. And I hope you’ve had as much joy from finding out as we have.

As for us, we drove home contentedly with a couple of big bags of fragrant sheep daggings in the back of the car. It’s an acquired taste I know, but they’re better than Chanel Number 5 for arousing a compost heap!

Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

The Amethyst Deceiver – and a similar phone app

Meet this wonderfully colourful and easy to identify fungus – just one of the treats we discovered on a wander yesterday through Stockhill Plantation on the Mendip Hills. The books disagree as to whether it’s edible or safe. Roger Phillips says yes and others say no – or at least to foraging them. Luckily we had the heavyweight Collins Guide with us and unlike some of our finds, Google Lens, on my phone, got it right the first time. Now I know that phone apps are a wonderful thing, but only when used with a considerable amount of caution. One or two fungi were bang on the money, but all too often the ID offered by the phone was too dodgy to trust.

I prefer to photograph the fungi carefully, including shots of the full length of the stipe (stalk) from soil to cap, some idea of the size, the gills from below and from the side and similarly the cap. Then I can take the pictures home and with a bit of luck get a sound ID. Any mycologist will object that often a proper ID relies on looking at the spores through a high powered microscope and even measuring them – in microns! – none of which I can do, so nature wins that round. So my photos aren’t taken with aesthetics as the principal aim. They’re a form of electronic notebook. The real work begins at home and it’s such good fun, like reading a fungal Agatha Christie – you know the answer’s in there somewhere!

Where phone apps like Google Lens – there are others that may well be much more reliable – so where they go wrong is in the part of our brains that really wants to trust them. There were two or three identifications yesterday that could have been dangerously misleading. I really wanted to believe that these were respectively Penny Buns – Boletus edulis and Saffron Milkcap – Lactarius deliciosus, and if I’d been a forager relying on the phone I would have given us both a nasty surprise. Another identification included a seriously hallucinatory mushroom – not the Fly Agaric or the Magic Mushroom (we were in woodland) but another deceptively innocuous one which was first cousin to the good to eat one. As I see it, the best use for the phone app is to try to discover the family and the to turn to books.

So it’s peak fungus right now, and as foraging becomes ever more popular, my plea is that we should all be careful and even with a certain and verified identification we should never over-pick at the expense of the fungus’ capacity to reproduce itself. For me, they extend the season for walking and exploring into autumn and that’s wonderful. But there’s always space for wonder at their capacity to conceal themselves in leaf litter or on grass, even though they often display luminous and occasionally garish colours. Picking them just deprives another walker from experiencing that burst of joy. My other suggestion is to join a group – not just a foraging group. There are thousands of fungi out there and some of them will blow your mind – literally if you’re not careful! You’ll learn so much from fungus forays; and notice I wrote foray and not forage.

Here are some yet to be properly identified heroes and villains amongst the racing certainties.

And here’s a shot of where we were, and as you’ll see immediately if you know and love the Mendip Hills as we do, this is yet another post-industrial site; another lead mining area that extends across the road into the Mineries which hasn’t been covered with trees and has its own flora and fauna. It’s hard to believe that over the centuries this whole site was dug over, tunnelled into and polluted with heavy metals. Now, apart from the road through the middle, it’s quiet with just the sound of the wind in the trees and a few dog walkers and nature lovers.

On being an outsider.

Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth beach in the gale yesterday

Notwithstanding the cool welcome at the end of the lane, and the Free Wales stickers on the signposts, my love of Wales is undiminished by any sense of guilt at being English – not least because I’ve never owned a mine or a blast furnace; I’ve never taken a penny out of Wales; my whole investment has been spent locally, and there will never be a time when I will be able to afford land or property here. I would support independence in a breath; and if there was enough time, learn the language because it would give me a whole new field of expression . I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places; plundered to near dereliction and stripped of its natural resources from water (see Dryweryn) through coal, copper and manganese to its language and most talented young people who simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Have I left anything out?? Oh and its poets – the Thomas’s – RS and Dylan; its underrated artists; its folk tales, food and farming history. I think I’ll shut up there.

Is there anything I don’t like so much? Well perhaps a certain lugubriousness at times. Some insularity, which never plays well with me because I live in a street where you can hear six languages in a hundred yard walk – which makes for a rich community. An occasional tendency to self pity – which I regard as by far the most pointless waste of emotional energy ever and finally a love of dressing up; most acute in Anglo Catholic priests and Druids. These mild criticisms probably seem a bit rich from an Englishman but there we are; call me a critical friend. In my defence I’ve never felt at home in an English culture that the media and right wing politicians conjure up under portraits of Winston Churchill. In all our many visits to this country I’ve only once experienced the old and legendary situation where the locals all started talking in Welsh when I walked into the pub; and that was when Operation Julie was underway and Tregaron was about to be turned upside down over an LSD factory run by English hippies. I know this because I was teaching one of them at the time (and in a prison – him, not me).

Anyway I just wanted to describe the place we’re staying at, whilst preserving its location except to say it’s on the Lleyn peninsula. As I write this I’m looking through the window and down a steep sided valley lined on both sides with an impenetrable thicket of Grey Willows, Sloes, Hawthorns and Apples; so shriven by the constant fierce weather that they look as if they’ve just about given up. The valley runs about a quarter of a mile to the Irish Sea and down it runs a brook that, emerging on to the shingle beach, spreads itself generously, sinking into the pebbles. Occasionally we see seals both there and also further up the coast. There are almost always Rock Pipits. The sun is just setting into the sea in a clear sky after 48 hours of constant gales and fierce rain that howled and rattled around the house without ceasing. At the end of the footpath to this little beach we’ve got a favourite mushroom spot, but this time there were no field mushrooms but a rarely reported fungus we’ve never seen before called Agaricus littoralis which has recently been given the English name “Coastal Mushroom”; and another called Macrolepiota excoriata which has been given the English name – “Frayed Parasol” – two for one annoyingly difficult fungi renamed by the radicals!

You might think that the award of an English name was an uncontroversial nod to the growing popularity of foraging but you’d be mistaken. Every pursuit has its Victorian Society or Prayer Book Society for whom the Latin binomials were obviously in the bibliography of one of the lost books of the Bible and must therefore never ever be tampered with. Harsh words have been spoken on this subject. Anyway, these Coastal Mushrooms were a tough gig and even now I’m not totally sure. I’ve been unable to find any reference to them as edible so we didn’t. Personally I rather like the sound of Brain Funguses, Dog’s Vomit and Dog’s Cocks – not to exclude Slippery Jacks. They’re like the Victorian names for moths – descriptive and downright poetic. The last time I allowed myself to be so contrarian in a newspaper article I was thrown out of a fishing club for noticing in print that sewage was getting into their expensive trout stream! Maybe they should have listened.

This is a wonderful place for wildlife. I just went into a local village to pay a bill – cash of course! – and as I parked up I saw this wall, resplendent with hard ferns and Maidenhair Spleenworts, not to mention the lichens.

The little valley below the cottage is a haven for insects, and therefore birds. Kestrels hunt the clifftop, constantly mobbed by Jackdaws and Crows. The understory is a rich mixture of Bramble, Hart’s Tongue ferns and other ferns; Maidenhair Spleenwort and – nearer the stream – Water Mint. There are foxes and badgers too along with a multitude of pollinators and bees. At night we hear Owls.

We started coming to Wales after Cornwall was so badly damaged by tourism – but now, in the absence of RS Thomas and the redoubtable Keating sisters the campsites are spreading along the coastline, and local people are being driven out by the rising price of housing because they can’t compete with second homers and Airbnb rentals. The butcher’s shop where RS Thomas once publicly upbraided the butcher for labelling his meat in English is now a Spar shop. There’s a huge selection of booze on sale at every local shop these days. Are we – the Potwell Inn crew – part of the solution or part of the problem? We’ve received nothing but warmth and kindness from local people here. Dunno, then. I just love coming here – although we could have done with a bit less rain this week.

And yes, the trees in the bottom left photo really do grow at that angle!

Is the climate emergency really a conceptual emergency?

A section of the soil strata on the appropriately named Hell’s Mouth Bay – Porth Neigwl

That’s it folks. That’s all there is!

For three centuries we had been encouraged to consider the earth simply as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs. To be forced to suspect now that it is instead a living system, a system on whose continued activity we are dependent, a system which is vulnerable and capable of failing, is extremely unnerving.

Yet the damage already done undoubtedly shows that this is so. How can we adjust to this change? As I have suggested throughout this book, in conceptual emergencies like this what we have to attend to is the nature of our imaginative visions – the world-pictures by which we live. In the vision belonging to the contractual tradition, the natural world existed only as a static background. It was imagined simply as a convenient stage to accommodate the human drama. That vision radically obscured the fact that we are ourselves an organic part of this world, that we are not detached observers but living creatures continuous with all other such creatures and constantly acting upon them. It blinded us to the thought that we might be responsible for the effect of these actions. In order now to shake the grip of that powerful vision what we need, as usual, is a different one that will shift it. We need a more realistic picture of the way the earth works, a picture which will correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please. I think that we need, in fact, the idea of Gaia.

Mary Midgley – From “Individualism and the Concept of Gaia” in “The Essential Mary Midgley” Published by Routledge, Page 350.

I was totally struck by that sentence about this being a conceptual emergency, but of course it’s a no brainer if you think how much our attitudes and unexamined core beliefs shape our actions. In a conversation with Alan Rayner last Wednesday about his book (See the post “About Glory” for more details), he said that what is needed is no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way evolution works; and I completely agree. Mary Midgley expresses this as a conceptual emergency and urges us to create new imaginative visions; “the world pictures by which we live” – and this is work for poets, artists and dreamers. A shocking piece of American research, featured in the Guardian a few days ago, showed that only 2% of American TV and film even referenced the environmental catastrophe that is barreling down towards us.

There’s a very good reason why changing the description from environmental crisis to conceptual crisis is a brilliant strategy, and that’s because moving the problem up a level takes the search for a solution out of the hands of the unholy trinity of big business, politicians and scientists and moves it back to all of us and the way we do things round here. Only a complete conceptual change supported by new visions , new hopes and an acceptance that we are a part of nature will do. The broken concept under which we are suffering is the same one that is destroying the earth and all that it is capable of doing is offering some new kind of kryptonite widget at great expense and available only to the wealthiest. Like the medical treatments of the past, their cure is to bleed the patient – and if the patient (rapidly becoming the victim) fails to get better, to bleed them again until they expire. In our case the patient is the earth and the doctors are the politicians whose fundamentally wicked attitudes were on display this week at the tory party conference.

I’m happy to count myself among the “enemies of enterprise” if by enterprise they mean the kind of extractive enterprise that impoverishes all but the most powerful and pollutes the earth. And I’m happy to count myself as part of the “anti growth coalition” for the same reason although I’m grateful for the inadvertent gift of a good rallying cry.

Just look at the photograph at the top of this piece and notice how thin is that precious layer on which we are utterly reliant for life itself. There is absolutely no need to turn this into a new religion, dance around maypoles (although that might be a lot of fun) or ingest hallucinogens – although I’m very tempted to do just that, after all at my age what’s to lose? But the identification of fungi is quite a bit harder than you might think. It’s taken me two days to provisionally identify my clifftop find as Macrolepiota excoriata – the delightfully named “Frayed Parasol” as opposed to the “Shaggy Parasol” or the Slender Parasol. Endless lexical amusement and a long draught of poetry after a week of shameful news.

Four seasons in one day

Thrift in flower!

We’re back in Snowdonia on the northern side of the Lleyn peninsula and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the weather has been very Welsh indeed. We arrived in bright sunshine on Sunday afternoon and since then we’ve had driving rain, more warm sunshine, gale force winds, a very warm night and two cold ones. The plan was to get some walking in, and while we were doing that, to look for some fungi, but Monday and Tuesday found us pretty much stuck indoors while we waited for the storm to calm down. We weren’t idle by any means, though. I’ve taken the opportunity of doing some serious reading while Madame drew.

I’ve been reading “The Essential Mary Midgley” edited by David Midgley, published by Routledge; alongside Alan Rayner’s book “The origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux” published by Springer. I often find that there’s an advantage in reading in parallel across a similar theme where one text illuminates another. Anyway – lest that implies that I’m some kind of academic I’m really not; I’m just trying to figure out what practical steps we might take firstly to understand the dodgy ideology that’s led us into the current earth crisis in order best to tackle it with something more effective than depression, banners and a set of counter arguments. Alan Rayner’s book offers a new paradigm for understanding the way that evolution works while avoiding badly understood Darwinism with its endless battles for survival, and also the triumphalist writing of Richard Dawkins and others who, like Vladimir Putin, have declared premature victory just as their new religion runs into winter and endless mud. Mary Midgley was writing with exactly the same concerns and is just a dream to read; scything off bad arguments at the knees with laugh out loud efficiency.

Anyway, between early mornings at an improvised desk and dodging the rain for a bit of fresh air, we did manage to find some Ink Caps and common Puffballs in the garden and then as soon as a wisp of blue sky appeared at lunchtime today we walked off to the clifftop and a favourite mushrooming spot. And yes, we found some field mushrooms but when I got them back to the kitchen they were a bit too wormy even for me. Still, we’ll go back tomorrow to look for some more because there’s a fine circle of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that I’ll pick and dry. They’re as tough as old boots, but dried in a string in the kitchen they make a good addition to stocks because they’re full of umami flavour. There was another fungus there that I brought back to the cottage because I didn’t know what it was. I’m doing a spore print in case that adds any light and I think it’s some kind of Dapperling but I’m no mycologist. Anyway I’ve put some photos below in case anyone can cast any light, and (although I’ve no intention of eating it) there’s no noticeable smell; the stipe is hollow towards the top and swollen towards the base and I didn’t find a ring or any significant sign of one – although it’s a mature specimen and it could have disappeared.

I think it’s really lovely that just as the wildflowers pack up for the year we get weeks of fungus hunting and then we can hunt for mosses and liverworts or lichens. Tomorrow is forecast with fine weather so we’re off to Rhiw where there’s a good fungus field according to our son, and then up to the top of Mynedd Rhiw for some fabulous views and down again to Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth bay to pack in some supplies of wonder and glory to get us through the winter.

About Glory

What ails you?

asparagus autumn chillies climate change climate emergency composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth economic collapse environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis farmers markets field botany food security foraging Fungi garden pests global climate crisis global heating green spirituality herbal medicine intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown meditation Mendip Hills no-dig pickling and preserving polytunnels preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainable agriculture technology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

I’ve been writing this blog for eight years, and ever since I migrated it to WordPress which gives the ability to tag posts and make them easier for readers to find; I’ve occasionally created a tag cloud like the one above so I can get an overview of the topics that have been concerning me. Click on any of the tags above and in moments you’ll be presented with all of the posts I’ve tagged with that term. It’s an incredibly useful tool for locating particular subjects of interest from approaching a thousand posts.

If you’ve ever run writers’ groups or taken part in therapeutic groups – and I’ve done both may times – you’ll know the “back pocket” moment when, after two hours of interesting but rarely illuminating talk, and just as the group is packing up to leave, someone comes up with an idea, a poem, an insight or a memory that almost sucks the air out of the room. Often it’s the beginning of an answer to the hard question “What ails you?” Complete honesty and self disclosure is terribly hard, and only the most heroic can manage it.

The quest.

There’s a reason that the ancient story of the Fisher King provides the inner structure of so many novels, plays, films and folk tales. They’re all quest stories, in which a journey – with all its hazards and reverses – brings resolution at last to the question “what ails you?” Think of writers like Tolkien, Alan Garner and Philip Pullman whose tremendous stories draw upon the structure of the Grail legend. Think of the foundational story of Homer’s Odyssey or the biblical story of Jacob crossing the Jabbok . I have absolutely nothing to add to the millions of words that have been lavished on this idea, and the point of mentioning it is not to add anything but to suggest its usefulness for isolating the right question when you’re trying to find a path through an oppressive cloud of difficulty. The key to the quest story is that it begins precisely with that nebulous and indefinable sense of ill, and that the resolution always demands leaving home because “for a hero a harbour is the place you set out from”. Home – in this case and with my tag cloud – is the place of certainty and settled knowledge; “the way we do things round here.” and leaving it means questioning and sometimes overturning received wisdom. However, received wisdom has its own priesthood and police force, its own pensioners and hangers on and its own ideas of what constitutes heresy. It has its own oppressive tools; belittling and marginalising those who challenge the status quo.

So the tag cloud is, in one useful sense, a mind map of the question “what ails you?” because all of its components are aspects of the greater question. Some tags may represent symptoms, and some may suggest remedies, but none of them are sufficient, and it’s our predisposition to fixing on a single term in the cloud as either cause or cure that paralyses our thinking and befuddles our actions. To take an example of that process from the tag cloud above, it’s obviously completely insufficient, not to mention illogical to take the tag “environmental catastrophe” and couple it with the tag “Composting” and claim to a fanfare of applause that the problem is thereby solved.

So – mainly because I’m not Thomas Aquinas – I won’t be offering a magnum opus on this topic. I remember standing in the library of my theological college and asking the librarian where I could find Thomas Aquinas and she replied with an expansive sweep of the arm across the shelves of the upper tier of the library – up a spiral staircase. Minutes later and slightly out of breath, I found many yards of shelves full of Aquinas and commentaries on his thought. But let me offer a single tentative thought on the significant absence of another possible tag cloud beginning with the concept of glory.

Lost in our utterly materialist and dualist culture we represent ourselves instinctively, (some instincts are the products of long enculturation), as isolated instances of consciousness separated by an unbridgeable gulf of empty space from all other instances of it. We see the earth as an object and we often see our neighbours as objects too. We are deeply suspicious of words like joy, glory and love as non material emotional states which – being unmeasurable – are beyond the reach of science and therefore worthless. Nature – and I’m indebted to *Alan Rayner for this thought – is defined as the subject of an eternal battle for the “survival of the fittest”, although we are arrogant enough to regard ourselves as the sole and final arbiters of what “fitness” might mean.

But what if this idea is completely wrong? he asks. What if the false idea that nature and the earth and all that exists, is there at our disposal, is the ultimate ideological enforcer of most of the tags in my cloud of shame? What if Darwin’s survival of the fittest, deserves the same fate as Marx’s iron laws of history? What if we were to reintroduce the idea of glory to field botany? What would happen to our inner lives if we included the notion of glory within the medicinal or culinary properties of plants? What would it do to our lives if we included much more sentience within the gifts of animals? What if we included within the general field of fitness the capacity of the natural world to acquaint us with glory, joy and love in a completely non-possessive way? What if we abandoned the idea of our separateness from nature and focused on our dependence upon her? What if the natural world is not locked in a grim battle for survival but an almost inconceivably beautiful and creative exchange between life forms?

The epoch changing wrong turn was to fossilize Darwin’s frangible theory into a law of nature and then illegitimately to extend it into almost every aspect of life – Social Darwinism was elevated into a spurious defense for unspeakably wicked political acts and the earth was reduced to abject servitude.

The really important question is about how we change. I think we all know enough about human behaviour to know that cultural change can never be brought about by presenting new “facts”. But there are practices and institutions from which we can learn about glory. Many of them have their own histories of times when ecstatic insight was fossilized into law and went rogue, but that, sadly, is a danger confronting all human institutions. The question is this – were we born to dominate and control nature to the point of self-destruction, or did we just forget where we came from?

Alan Rayner “The Origin of Life Patterns” – several videos also on YouTube

False Chanterelle – “All that glisters!”

Magic Mushrooms

Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria

On Wednesday we went on our first organised fungus foray of the season with Bath Natural History Society. Fungus hunting goes better when there’s a bit of rain beforehand and Wednesday really benefited from the showers earlier in the week. The weather has changed decisively since the equinox, and autumn has taken over with a series of Atlantic lows with winds and showers coming from a more westerly direction.

Smitham Chimney

But this was very far from a foraging expedition for a couple of reasons, the principal one being that we were back in one of my favourite environments; the heavily polluted lead rich spoil covering an old lead mining area. Some specialized plants and fungi have a marvellous capacity for surviving in this dangerous environment and can concentrate heavy metals in themselves sufficiently to cause a serious risk of poisoning. That, of course, is entirely separate from the usual risk of misidentifying a fungus and poisoning yourself over supper. In fact a lively conversation took place about near misses amongst some of us, with Yellow Staining Mushrooms – Agaricus xanthodermus – being a popular mistake, although we had all stopped short of eating them after cooking them and then suffering from serious doubt. Another unexpected danger came from eating St Georges Mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa – which are universally regarded as edible (they’re really good to eat) but two of our fungus hunters had suddenly developed an intolerance for them after years of uneventful enjoyment.

For me, the principal reason for fungus hunting is firstly that they are simply so beautiful. Just look at this False Chanterelle – Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca. Never mind that it doesn’t taste as good as the proper one; just look at the gills and think of a gothic cathedral.

But secondly because they are some of the most impressive organic chemists anywhere in the world. They talk to each other, link up in mutually beneficial relationships with plants which, incidentally, is why you should never dig up an orchid because without its mycorrhizal neighbour it will simply die. Without fungi the earth would be thousands of feet below a layer of unrotted vegetation and, of course, they are both food, medicine and – dare I say – widely valued by many cultures including our own – as a gateway into a deeper spiritual relationship with the earth and with our own most troublesome thoughts. But don’t try this without proper help. I’ve never tried it at all, but that’s because I’m too scared! I should add that the real magic mushroom – the Liberty Cap – can be very problematic for some people. When I was a community worker we dreaded the autumn because the local lads – normally affable if rather naughty – would mix magic mushrooms with cheap cider, becoming highly unpredictable and occasionally violent as a result.

In fact in four hours with fifteen of us searching, we didn’t find a single genuinely edible species. Foragers like to go on about a wide variety of species but many of them are between disappointing and vaguely unpleasant. The most colourful species were the Fly Agarics which could be eaten – but only if you enjoy uncontrollable hallucinations and being sick.

The safest way to learn about them is to go out with someone who really knows what they’re doing, and I guess an ex President of the British Mycological Society is as safe as a safe pair of hands could be. In fact we had a variety of fungus literate members with us, along with a microbiologist, a professional forester and ecology graduate plus a couple of really expert botanists and an entomologist. Not to mention some envy inducing binoculars and cameras. But the great thing about these local Natural History societies is that absolutely everyone is both friendly and completely committed to sharing their enthusiasm. If you live near us there’s a link to Bath Nats on the sidebar.

I would seriously recommend anyone with an interest in natural history to unplug the telly and join their local society. They all have summer field trips and winter lectures, often with national experts, and I promise you’ll soon find that a walk, even through your local park, will be an entirely new and richer experience. And I should admit that when we first joined we were very apprehensive about looking silly or ignorant, hovering at the back in case anyone asked us a question. What we quickly found was that many of these people were doing really important voluntary work by recording plants and wildlife. Volunteers are at the heart of all our efforts to stave off environmental catastrophe because it’s the volunteers who overwhelmingly provide the millions of data records that form the backbone of conservation work. I’d even go so far as to say that – if you want to save the earth – learn enough about plants or birds, insects fish or mammals to be able to submit records. I’ve made some awful mistakes and not once has anyone made fun of me.

Anyway that’s enough about volunteering. Let me show you the most boring picture ever:

Lead moss

Well I did warn you! But in fact it was the highlight of the trip as far as I was concerned because it’s something I would never have found without help from someone who really knows what she’s doing. It’s not a fungus at all but another of my metallophytes. It’s an absolutely tiny moss that grows on the most polluted lead mine waste, and is called Lead Moss – Ditrichum plumbicola. Normally with exceptionally rare plants you’d keep the site obscure but in this instance I’m confident that you’d never find it in a month of Sundays, because it’s absolutely tiny – those are worm holes to give you some sense of scale! plus it’s in the database for anyone to see. Here’s a macro photo that I really struggled to take. Those shoots are not much more than 1 mm tall. What a day!

So here are a few more photos taken on the day. It was inspirational – but then isn’t nature always inspirational? And if you’ve ever wondered what mycelium looks like , just look at the last three pictures. The bulk of the real fungus is underground. Isn’t that stunning? And the beetle is a new and difficult invader called the Poplar Leaf Beetle.

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