Monday, October 23, 2006

I came to eat, and stayed to learn

This Saturday, I went on a fungus foray and identification workshop on Hampstead Heath, run by Andy Overall of

Beforehand, my main motivation was to gather enough wild mushrooms for a risotto, and to learn enough do the same under my own steam without dying or accidentally tripping. But by the end of the day, I was just as fired up by having had a whole world of biodiversity revealed to me, and also at having learned a new skill. (And we only got enough mushrooms for toast.)

If you look, there really are an immense number of fungi out there, and they’re beautiful. The prettiest ones we found were the sulphur tuft and the wood blewett (the photos don't do them justice). Also, staring at the ground intently really expands your world — Hampstead Heath went from being somewhere nice for a stroll to a universe

Two things struck me. The first is that, to an outsider, the abilities of a skilled naturalist seem almost magical. Andy, armed with years of experience and that marvellous pattern-recognition system known as the human brain, was able to name most species at sight. It's a huge privilege to see someone like that in action.

I would guess that even he might not know how he does it — I am reasonably good at identifying birds, but when someone asks you how you know that something is a heron, or a kestrel, the only answer I can give is that, having seen lots of herons or kestrels previously, perhaps in less ambiguous circumstances, I know one when I see one.

(A bird’s hard-to-define-but unmistakeable signature is what birders call jizz (or jiss, or giss; a quick google reveals that the web is hot with discussion on this topic). Fungi have much the same.)

But the second was how quickly, as a beginner, one accumulates knowledge. Before this, my fungus-identification abilities ended with fly agaric and giant puffball. But now, even though I’m a long way from being able to distinguish between the 100+ different British species of Mycena or Russula, I reckon I could — armed with Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms etc. — assign more than 90% of what I found to a genus.

I’ve also learnt — armed with Richard Mabey’s Food for Free ( a lovely book, although this edition isn't quite as nice as the one I first encountered, an old B&W hardback we found in a holiday cottage) — that the number of good-to-eat species is relatively small, and most are distinctive (no reason to be blasé about safety, of course). When you don’t know anything, you can learn a useful amount of something pretty quickly, and easily.

And, even though I’m no great shakes as a naturalist, it’s tremendously satisfying. It’d be nice if people thought of natural history knowledge as culturally valuable — if people thought that knowing what a hawthorn, or a red admiral, looks like were as important as knowing who wrote Hamlet, or what Pythagoras’ theorem is. It adds another dimension to your enjoyment of the outdoors and, presumably, it’d help us conserve wild plants and animals if more people could recognize them.

1 comment:

postblogger said...

Yup, wouldn't it be great if natural history was on the national curriculum? I'm not sure which subject it could replace - perhaps a bit of PE as it gets children outside...

Which species did you eat on your toast?