STEPincLogo A

Sunday, 03 September 2023 01:13

Book review: Underground Lovers: Encounters with Fungi

Prepare to appreciate the world under your feet (well, your feet grounded on the earth, maybe not on a concrete slab).

There is a network of mycelia that belong to their own kingdom: Fungus. Lacking chlorophyll, they grow from the tips of microscopic hyphae and digest nutrients externally (underground) before absorbing them into the mycelium.

One hypha is a microscopic filament but together they form a fungus mycelium (the network). Hyphae can not only branch but also fuse, or ‘anastomose’ and exchange genetic material. The cell walls are made of chitin, a hardness also found in arthropod exoskeletons. The mycelial scaffold essentially mirrors exponentially the life forms above ground. Mycelial networks bind soil particles while also aerating the soil, creating spaces in the soil. This architecture allows water to penetrate soil’s deepest horizons.

The fungi also form alliances with plants, or even digest other organisms. Fungi and algae, forming lichens, create soil on rock – as on exposed rock left by the retreating Vatnajökull ice cap in Iceland.

Many plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi – the fungi forming beneficial relations with roots: hyphae extend the roots’ absorbable surface; the tree provides sugars from photosynthesis while the mycorrhizal fungi make nitrogen and phosphorus available to the tree.

The author gives us good reason not to clear-fell, nor burn our forests in super-hot conflagrations, nor overheat the earth with global warming, nor over-fertilise and apply weedicides to our monocrops; even the high-velocity gale of the leaf-blower dislodges spores, let alone grasshoppers, beetles and frogs. It kills the fungi.

Some ‘old growth’ trees reach hundreds of years of age; but the fungi beneath them are at least as long-lived. Old forests support a greater diversity of fungi than young, or obliterated, forests.

Interesting allusions – Pouliot mentions her US Northwest rented V8 Dodge Charger not being the ideal field vehicle ‘with the clearance of an echidna’.

The ninth chapter Women as Keepers of Fungal Lure fills a gap. I searched for books on fungi and nearly all the citations are of men’s studies.

The tenth chapter Restoring Fungi is apposite given the fungus talks by Emeritus Prof Michael Gillings and Vanessa McPherson of Macquarie University. They observed that sites where works such as a drainage pipe had been laid hosted far fewer fungi than undisturbed (or merely weeded) sites. A property owner demonstrates that we need to create diversity and reduce stresses. On her property she supplied diverse organic matter of different species, size and age, and eliminated tilling, digging, excavating, heavy machinery and even hard hooves of stock.

Mistletoe contributes to restoration, providing nectar for butterflies, gliders and possums; and when it dies its leaves enrich the soil with phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium.

Lichens colonise bare earth and are part of the cryptogamic crusts essential for forming a film that reduces wind and water erosion. This crust of fungi, algae, cyanobacteria and mosses over the soil fixes carbon and nitrogen – and is destroyed by stock. The property owner, Kazuko, observes ‘We should be starting with soil crusts rather than trees when restoring ecosystems’.

Fungi have infiltrated Landcare! Officially restoring waterways, agricultural and natural areas since 1989, the movement now recognises the necessity of healthy fungi.

The author has travelled the globe and gives examples of mycophiles’ world-wide fungus hunting throughout the book. There is a species register with common and scientific names of fungi and lichens, plants and animals; a glossary, selected sources and an index. The editor might have picked up the constant misuse of ‘among’ and ‘between’. Despite the listing of 11 images, there are no photographs. Our desire for pictures and descriptions of so many intriguing species and descriptions probably needs a mini-encyclopaedia!

Alison Pouliot, NewSouth Publishing, 2023; 278pp (reviewed by Margery Street)