Mushrooms, grassroots, tall poppies

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    “What the hell is that?” asked my partner Greg. There was an alien in my geranium pot – an odd looking mushroom, determined and missile shaped. In a few days it had forged its way up through the leaves before opening like a parasol and drooling black goo everywhere. 

    Liv Sisson’s Guide to the Fungi of Aotearoa provided the ID; the stranger was a common inkcap, and the black goo makes a decent ink, if a smelly one.

    Tourists to Waiheke might be taking a rain check this week, but the rain will, fingers crossed, bring us another kind of guest. ‘Mushroom rain’ is short, light, and not too cold; if the soil stays wet without getting waterlogged, our open spaces will be flecked with field mushrooms. 

    As young children, my brother and I were sent off by ourselves every autumn to fill buckets with mushrooms. Our instructions were to avoid mushrooms with white gills, or mushrooms growing under trees. There are, it turns out, gourmet mushrooms which break these rules, but Dad’s mushroom law ensured we didn’t poison the family with a stray death cap (Amanita phalloides). 

    Although poisonous mushrooms often come with parp-parp warning names like ‘funeral bell’, ‘poison pie’, ‘death cap’ or ‘destroying angel’, even ‘edible’ mushrooms can have different effects on different people. Sisson describes the shaggy parasol as edible, although she suggests trying a small, cooked piece first in case of “gastric upset,” code for vomiting for hours while terrified you are going to die. 

    “The ways in which we try to make sense of fungi often tell us as much about ourselves as the fungi we try to understand,” writes mushroom guru Merlin Sheldrake, in his book Entangled Life. “[A certain mushroom] is described in most field guides as poisonous. A keen mushroom hunter once told me about an old guidebook he owned, in which the same mushroom was described as ‘delicious, when fried’, although the author did add as an afterthought that the mushroom ‘may cause a light coma in those of a weak constitution’. How you make sense of this mushroom depends on your physiological make-up.”

    Fungi can be mind-altering, antibiotic, antiviral, deadly, nutritious, bioluminescent, magical and futuristic; they “make worlds,” writes Sheldrake, but “they also unmake them”.   

    This week the journal Science News hailed a vegan leather made of fungi which can repair itself, although it might be a while before leather jackets made from it are on sale – researchers need to figure out how to control their living fungus. “Someone could walk out in the rain, and then all of a sudden find [their] jacket [has] mushrooms popping out of it.” 

    The self-healing leather is made from mycelium, the underground ‘tree’ from which mushrooms grow like apples. Mushrooms are fruiting bodies on a network of threadlike mycelia, and beneath any forest floor there are kilometres of the stuff per hectare, superhighways called mycorrhiza carrying water, carbon and other lifegiving substances between plants. 

    Mycorrhizal networks would make a useful metaphor for human collaboration, if ‘mycorrhizal’ wasn’t such a tongue twister. But perhaps, if commentators used more mushroom metaphors, and fewer hackneyed expressions like ‘tall poppy syndrome’ it might help them think more collectively.

    Here’s a classic example of ‘tall poppy’ in use, in one of the conservative ‘tax takes’ which sprouted like horse mushrooms after the IRD revealed average wage earners are taxed at twice the rate of the wealthiest New Zealanders. ‘Envy taxes will make all Kiwis poorer,’ warned a column published in the NZ Herald, written on behalf, it suggested, of the alarmed mega-rich. Wanting to tax these heroes more, wrote the columnist, was an example of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. 

    “Our collective distaste for tall poppies is a longstanding and negative part of the Kiwi culture,” he insisted. “Motor racing great Denny Hulme summed us up perfectly. ‘New Zealand is like a lawn,’ he once said. ‘If one blade of grass is higher than the rest, New Zealanders get 50,000 lawnmowers and chop the whole lot level again.’” 

    But does this still work if other countries do it too? In his book Brilliant Orange, David Winner quotes a Dutch architect: “When your head is above the level of the grass, it will be cut off in the Netherlands. We have a lot of grass here, and we always have to cut it. It is very Dutch not to like people who really excel in something.”

    A friend once told me: “New Zealanders who imagine that tall poppy syndrome is unique to us are actually saying something unflattering about their fellow Kiwis – that other people are envious, bitter and inadequate. Surely it’s just that fame and success invite scrutiny.” 

    And maybe there is nothing wrong with the grassroots.

    I accept that ‘mycorrhizal networks’ isn’t going to send ‘tall poppy syndrome’ to the compost heap any time soon. But New Zealand is nurtured by its community groups and on Waiheke, volunteers like the Waiheke Resources Trust, the Citizens Advice Bureau, Home Grown Waiheke Trust and Piritahi Marae māra are among many mutually beneficial networks in our midst, as good for the earth as they are for us mushrooms – like them, we are separate but forever connected, happy to share, and not afraid of a bit of rain.

    • Jenny Nicholls

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