Winter in Northern California means rain, and recently the winter skies have been releasing buckets of it. On a single day 6 inches had fallen in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and several creeks in the North Bay surpassed their flood levels spilling onto surrounding streets. With our rains come the greening of the hills, the forests floors and the slopes that face the coast. All this tells us that the recycling of life is under way.
During these wintry days I love to photograph what becomes prolific during and after the rain, especially beneath the oak, pine and redwood trees – the fruit bodies of the fungi world, wild mushrooms. Currently there are over 10,000 known types of mushrooms. That may seem like a large number, but mycologists suspect that this is only a fraction of what’s out there! Each mushroom falls into one of four categories: mycorrhizal, saprotrophic, parasitic, and endophytic.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with trees and other plants. Their underground “fiber-optic-like” network of mycelia enters into a beneficial union with the roots of plants and trees, bringing additional moisture, phosphorous, and other nutrients to their hosts. In return they gain access to sugars produced by the hosts.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms help plants to grow bigger, faster, and stronger, and so it’s no wonder that an estimated 95% of plants form partnerships with this type of fungi. Because they are difficult to cultivate, these mushrooms are found almost exclusively in nature.
Saprotrophic mushrooms are decomposers. They release acids and enzymes that break down the dead tissue around them, turning it into compost and rich soil.
Parasitic mushrooms also take plant hosts, although in this case the relationship is one-sided. These fungi will infect the host and eventually kill it. Most parasitic fungi do not produce mushrooms and are too small to be noticed on a tree until it’s too late.
Endophytic fungi partner with plants by invading the host tissue. However, unlike parasitic fungi, the host remains healthy and seems to benefit by increased nutrient absorption.
Obviously, some of these mushrooms offer relationship models that could help us humans get along with nature, raising awareness of our need to create policies and practices that will keep our world sustainable.
Recently I woke up in the middle of the night. Unable to fall back asleep, I turned on the TV, and Channel 9.3 was showing the documentary, “Green Burial,” produced by Denise Schreiner. It is the story of psychiatrist Clark Wang who, like most of us, didn’t think much about death. When he did, he wanted to be buried next to his mother in Michigan, but, he thought, that would be at a time far in the future. Then he found out he had an inoperable fast-growing cancerous tumor.
Wanting his death to have as much meaning as his life, Wang became an advocate for the growing movement in the United States called green or natural burial. Instead of burial in an expensive space-consuming metal casket sealed in a vault – or cremation which spews contaminated dust residue into the air, Clark opted for a biodegradable coffin made from salvaged wood. He was buried in a forested area newly set aside as a memorial garden, and, as planned, his decomposing and un-embalmed body would, in a short amount of time, be adding nutrients to the roses above him and the trees around him. Wang created a wonderful symbiotic relationship that will help weave a healthy web of life.
In some cultures, mushrooms are seen as reminders that there is growth during the dark times in our lives – out of darkness comes life. In other cultures, it is considered to be a symbol of immortality and eccentricity. In China, the mushroom symbolizes long life, happiness and rebirth. Some African and Siberian tribes regard mushrooms as symbolic of the human soul. In Mexico, the sacred mushroom signifies knowledge and enlightenment.
Is it possible that the mushroom can be a sacred symbol for you? As for me, I like to get on the ground and touch and smell and photograph the mushroom as art and as a partner in the greening of the earth. It feels symbiotic.