Fungal Fabulation

January 2019 reflections compiled by Narda Nelson

The educators and children in one of the programs with our CAN inquiry have been attending to mushrooms for many months now. In January they hosted one of our CAN educator conversations and led us through an evening of fungal fabulations!

With our inquiry work of late, the children have taken very clearly to know not to touch mushrooms in the forest. In fact, today when a child was looking at a mushroom identification book he told me, “I am looking at a mushroom book.” I said, “oh yes, what can you tell me about mushrooms?” “No touch-a mushroom!” The thought that came to me, as I heard his very definitive answer was “but there is so much more to know about mushrooms!” And what if we touch the mushrooms (that are purchased at the grocery store or market) the ones that are deemed “safe” to touch? What can we learn? What if we touch them and explore them and eat them? What else can we teach children to fully know about mushrooms? By not touching them exclusively what are we excluding? We can give the mushrooms in the forest space and room to be as we do other living and non-living things in the forest and still consume and be present with the offerings that mushrooms have. What can we learn as educators and co-learners and what can we share about mushrooms? I know from a mushroom workshop that fungi grow toward harmful toxins in contaminated soil, grow toward and consume the toxins to the point of the mushrooms still being edible afterwards. I know that mushrooms are full of umami.  “Umami is the fifth basic taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning “delicious,’ umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is described as a savory, brothy, rich or meaty taste sensation. … Cured meats, soy sauce, aged cheese and mushrooms are rich in it.”  Mushrooms are full of potential health benefits that are numerous, including one of the only non-animal sources of vitamin D

Anna Tsing (2015) is helpful to think with about mushrooms within the context of climate change and our intra-relationships with Haro Woods trees and other forest inhabitants, including the children.  In trying to come to a fuller understanding of ‘mushroom-ness’ (umami-ness, fleshiness, gills, spore tracks, etc.) can we do it in a way that also opens up understandings of them, their mycelium and diverse fruiting bodies, as fellow co-respondents to constantly changing conditions, that is: expressions of how they respond to trees, moisture levels, weather, drought as they respond to climate change?  We have chosen to focus on trees through our CAN research project, but as Tsing says,  

rather than limit our analyses to one creature at a time (including humans), or even one relationship, if we want to know what makes places livable we should be studying polyphonic assemblages, gatherings of ways of being.  Assemblages are performances of livability.  Matsutake stories draw us into pine stories and nematode stories: in their moment of coordination with each other they create livable-or killing-situations…Matsutake is nothing without the rhythms of the matsutake forest…Organisms don’t have to show their human equivalence (as conscious agents, intentional communicators, or ethical subjects) to count.  If we are interested in liveability, impermanence, and emergence, we should be watching the action of landscape assemblages.  Assemblages coalesce, change, and dissolve: this is the story.   

(Tsing, 2015, pp. 157-158) 

Paying attention to the story of mushrooms also draws attention to the histories of this place and the way death cap mushrooms arrived here in the first place.  Agnes Lynn with the Victoria Natural History Society (VNHS) gave a guided tour of a park next to the experimental farm along the Pat Bay Hwy and talked about all of the beautiful trees that were imported by colonial settlers which brought death cap mushrooms with them, which laid dormant for decades before emerging.  How has the experience of encountering mushrooms in Haro Woods been shaped by these histories?  What about the experiences and relationships of the Lekwungen peoples in this place?  

Fabulous fungi

Thinking with mushrooms spore tracks (something one of the educators has been doing with the children) moves mushrooms into the realm of something we tend to associate with animals: leaving tracks.  Spore tracks can invite new reimaginings then of these beings, as we talk about them “helping trees to talk with each other, eat, etc.”.  Yet picking them in the forest for the sole purpose of examining their spore tracks can also bring us closer to “instrumentalizing” them (i.e., picking them for children’s intellectual growth).  How might we navigate these tensions?  Makes me think back to that moment of finding spore tracks on an ivy leaf in the forest with one of the educators, and one child’s response upon seeing it: Do you want to see ‘our’ tracks?”. This could be an interesting direction to take the conversation too.  What does it mean to think about mushrooms outside of their forest context?  Does knowing an oyster mushroom, for example, bring us closer to knowing the mushrooms we encounter in Haro Woods?  Perhaps it does both: simultaneously does and doesn’t bring us closer.  What do we risk by doing this with the children?  What might we risk if we don’t? 

Fungal flesh

In our coming together, two educators shared their knowledge and cultural perspectives on mushroom relations, including what they see as a very different approach to “living with” mushrooms in this part of the world as compared to their experiences growing up in China.  We learned about fungi medicinal properties, trace mineral and vitamin nutrients, and speculated on why children do not seem to eat them here as much.  Another educator talked about her personal experience sorting, grading, buying, selling and eating mushrooms in her family’s mushroom business and the way she carries those experiences and memories with her in educational practice (re-emerge through this inquiry).  

Cleaning gills

What is it about mushrooms that creates such a draw for the toddlers? How can we navigate the tensions between honouring these interests and mushrooms as co-inhabitants while being cautious to not minimize the risk of encountering poisonous bodies?  Is it possible to follow spore track curiosities (pick mushrooms for this purpose) while not instrumentalizing them?  Conversely, can we engage with mushrooms without perpetuating the Euro-Western “nature vs. culture” binary and terra nullius, which suggest nature exists somewhere “out there” devoid of human contact (similar notion used by colonizers to steal so-called “empty and under-utilized” Indigenous lands).  Many perspectives from other centres were shared as well, including reading from the illustrated edition of The Hidden Life of Trees describing the oldest (2,400 yr old fungus in an Oregon forest!) and largest living (3.8kms!) organism in the world:  One humungous fungus!!! 

Medicinal mass

Examining more closely mushrooms and the worlds they co-create makes visible children’s desires to be taken seriously in the wider community.  Encountering a senior’s walking group in the forest while looking for mushrooms, one of the children corrected a woman’s comment that the children were “playing in the forest.” “We are looking for mushrooms!”  Children seem proud of their mushroom discoveries and photo-documentation and want to share their own knowledges as well as engage with “adult” field guides in identifying mushrooms and other fungi in Haro Woods. 

Thinking wall