This article was first published in May 2014–I am republishing it today (May 2016) to promote Alison Pouliot’s upcoming fungi workshops and because Alison Pouliot is tomorrow night’s guest on RRR’s Greening the Apocalypse.
‘I became an amateur mycologist years ago when I had a very nice plate of pappardelle and wild mushrooms in a restaurant in New York, and by midnight all my internal organs were beginning to shut down. I was rushed to hospital, and if I’d gotten there one hour late I would’ve been gone. So I became very interested, and I discovered how much we didn’t know.’ – Jim Jarmusch 
I was ecstatic to learn of a connection between my favourite director (Jarmusch) and my favourite kingdom (fungi). I was equally overjoyed to interview ecologist and photographer Alison Pouliot last weekend before taking part in one of her advanced fungi workshops.
What drew you to fungi?
AP: Well I guess it is all part of the ecology, it’s all connected. So it’s not specifically these organisms called mushrooms and toadstools, or jelly fungi or whatever. It’s more about they connect up all ecosystems. So just about every single tree, most of our tree species, every orchid, many grasses… all have these relationships with fungi- it’s just that we don’t see them because they’re going on under the soil… so it was more about the processes and the connectivity of systems that really intrigued me about fungi.’
So do you have a photography background or…
I originally worked in ecology, trained in science, but then I moved across to environmental photography, so I’m still working in those same ecosystems, and documenting them, but rather than counting and identifying what was there it was more about trying to portray that and capture it visually. So to show people changes over time in ecosystems.
And so how long have you been doing these courses?
The fungi ones I’d say about fourteen or fifteen years.
Can you talk about what courses there are available?
The one I did yesterday was I guess a basic introduction to the kingdom, so making people aware, or hoping to help people to understand the great diversity of different fungal forms that are out there. It’s not just your cap and stalk style mushroom but all these other bizarre forms as well- and in particular what their function and importance and ecological role is, though I do touch on the cultural aspects as well, such as the edible fungi and the toxic ones and the psychotropic ones and the history and mythology. Today it’s a little more advanced. We’re looking at how we actually go about putting fungi in to different groups based on their morphological forms, or based on their trophic lifestyles or based on whether they’re toxic or edible. It’s about the different ways we categorise and put fungi in to different groups based on their different features. I also do some that have a little bit more I guess survey, conservation, ecological approach that I often run with uni students about how we actually go out in to the environment and survey fungi; how we find out what is there and how we document that. Some of those are coming up in the Otways. And then I do the odd one where there’s always a lot of interest in edibility and wild foraging though that’s always tricky in Australia because we don’t know a lot about what’s edible and what’s toxic because we don’t have that long history of cultural association that you see in countries in Europe and also in Asia. I still do a workshop where there’s much more focus on how to recognise some of the more easily identifiable edible fungi and their toxic counterparts.
Great. And do you do cooking in those workshops?
I’m not really a chef. I don’t do cooking. What I’ve done is teamed up with some people who are good chefs and good with fungi. I did that last year at a couple of wineries where we go out and have a forage and we also have some commercial species as well as wild picked species and we have a chef there who shows how to prepare fungi, how to preserve fungi and how to cook fungi- and I’ve just got one of those this year with a fantastic chef up near Albury, a place called Kergunyah, at Waddington’s Restaurant, so I’ve got one of those happening in May.
Great. Do you travel the world doing any of this stuff?
Yeah. At the moment they’re pretty much based in Victoria. I’ve got a couple of in the ACT and NSW. And I also spend half the year in Europe so I get a second Autumn over there. I get Autumn in Australia then Autumn in Europe and I’m running them in Switzerland and France, in the Jura regions.
So every year you go half half?
Pretty much yeah.
So you’ve built your life around fungi availability.
You could say that!
Do you have a European heritage?
No. I’m about six generations Australian, so originally yeah but I pretty much consider myself pretty Australian really.
What started it? When you were a kid were you interested in fungi and science?
I was just interested in nature. It was nature full-stop. It was crawling ‘round the bush and whether it was sundews or orchids or beetles or fungi it was all interesting. Also it was also aesthetic. You know. The fungal forms are so beautiful. Same with whether it’s insects or orchids or whatever so that scientific curiosity was there really young but it was also just wow this is so exquisitely beautiful or incredibly bizarre or absolutely revolting or whatever it was like this fascination and all of these forms and trying to understand why is it purple or why has it got spikes or why is it jellylike? So I guess it was a combination of the aesthetics and the science. It started pretty young I think.
I found out yesterday- my favourite film-maker is Jim Jarmusch- and his new film has a character who is obsessed with mushrooms. And he said in interviews his whole life he has been interested in the life cycle of mushrooms because he ate a poisonous one and he nearly died! So I love that um there’s so much art in a mushroom.
I guess one of the great joys in doing these workshops is when I give someone a ten times magnifying lens, nothing fancy, and they look at something and you hear this squeak of excitement. That makes me so happy when someone sees something that they hadn’t seen before simply because it is magnified. They see all of the intricacy and the beautiful forms and so that is a great pleasure when you see someone discover something, beauty in something, that they weren’t able to see just with their eyes.
Do you have any favourite mushroom books?
Wow! I’ve got about a hundred.
Yeah I bet.
I mean I’ve got those that are favourites because they’re so, so detailed and comprehensive and have documented so many species. They are amazing for the work behind them. But I think my favourite ones are the old, the books of old illustrations, 17th and 16th century first illustrations of fungi so again it comes back to the aesthetics and the simplicity of those early diagrams. And then there’s those that have beautiful photography. l like different books for different reasons but again a lot of it is about aesthetics more so than the content of the science that is in them.
Have you been to Japan or China to see mushrooms?
I haven’t. I’ve travelled quite extensively in Asia but not in China or Japan, but certainly the Chinese, and the Japanese, know their mushrooms incredibly well and have those amazing very ancient histories of their usage both in a culinary sense but also medicinally as well.
What are you going to do next? What’s next?
After fungi? Is there life after fungi?
I used to do this with invertebrates, with those little spineless creatures, you know the crustaceans and insects and all those sorts of things and again it was the same reason as I do this with fungi. They are the overlooked organisms. They’re not the charismatic mega-fauna. They’re not the koalas and the organisms that we see on TV that get promoted. These are the sort of obscure ones that I guess fall through the cracks of conservation and slip out of our consciousness. So I like batting for little guys, whether it’s insects or whether it’s fungi, which we don’t think about a lot because most of them are underground. I spend quite a bit of time doing underwater work. Again it is a sphere that only some people get to explore because it is not that accessible for many people to go beneath the surface of the ocean. I’m not sure what I will do next. I guess it’s about always trying to strive to find ways to show parts of the world that perhaps are less seen and to inspire people that they are worth caring about, and conserving, and protecting. It comes from a very strong conservation focus there, but I think you can’t just tell people about conservation, you can’t preach it, you’ve just go to let people work it out and be inspired by what they see and experience. I guess it is about developing that awareness. That’s what I see my role as trying to do.
Do you think that most of the people that do the course are involved in permaculture in some way? Who is doing these courses?
That’s a great question. They come from a spectrum of backgrounds but I guess there are two main groups. There is those who have an ecological interest because I’m promoted as fungal ecology rather than edible mushrooms or something. There is always a strong ecological or conservation interest but then there’s an equally strong interest in edible fungi. There’s a whole sort of new wave in the last couple of decades of wild edible foraging and harvesting whether its weeds or fungi or whatever so there’s always a lot of people interested in which species can they wild forage. I also get lots of aesthetes, so you always get lots of photographers, illustrators, and painters. That’s great to get that perspective as well, where they’re not coming so much from a knowledge or ecological base. It’s more from an aesthetic base. And then you get a few who are interested in the whole history and mythology or indigenous use of fungi so then I get people who have a pharmacological interest so…I had a person who once was a forensic mycologist. I’m amazed. This is a person who basically looks at bodies that for some reason are no longer alive and looks at the fungi on them to solve a crime situation!
Oh that’s fascinating.
Yeah so it’s amazing! As I say we get chefs, forensic mycologists, your painters, permaculture people…so it’s an amazing…People come to fungi from a lot of different backgrounds which I’ve realised in doing these courses. They are a really fascinating kingdom of organisms and I love to introduce people to them and to share this amazing kingdom. Over this Autumn there’s a whole heap of workshops coming up so if people are interested they might want to have a look at quick look at my website.
Did you say that they are in Victoria and other states?
I’ve got mostly in Victoria. I’ve done a couple already in Canberra and one in NSW coming up in a month’s time.
Great. And what is your website address?
Audio of this interview is available at https://soundcloud.com/thefourthnoodle/alison-pouliot-interview
The Bizarre and the Beautiful- A Deeper Exploration of a Curious Kingdom
Woodend Neighbourhood House Sunday April 13 2014
Photographs by Alison Pouliot, Grace Brown and Sarah Coles
A room of tables laden with the freshly foraged. Morels, books, magnifying glasses, Amanita muscaria, slime moulds, lichens, cordyceps, fungi themed playing cards, pine mushrooms, death caps, mythology illustrations and a woman proudly holding a damp log. The workshop participants are diverse: A new Dad, a cop, an ex-chef, a fashion designer, some goat-farmers. In 2012 I attended the Fungi- An Introduction to a Curious Kingdom workshop and the participants included a Hungarian engineer, a survivalist, a Hansard reporter, a jazz musician and Todd, founder of Fungi Culture. The Bizarre and the Beautiful- A Deeper Exploration of a Curious Kingdom kicks off with a lecture. The woman cradling the log (which is covered in exquisite green and teal fungi) turns out to be Cathy, Pouliot’s assistant, a learned microbiologist. The group talk about their links to fungi. The ex-chef can spot an edible mushroom at fifteen paces. A man tells the story of how lichen destroyed his roof, ‘They wrecked my roof. Colorbond steel!’ Pouliot talks about the cultural side of fungi, how folks ate mushrooms for subsistence during the war, how in France they eat chanterelles, morels, truffles. In Italy its porcini o’clock. The goat-farmers are at the workshop because they are worried their goats are going to eat something poisonous.
Smelling a morel I get to wondering why am I here? What started this? Why do I want to be a shiitake farmer? As a kid Dad took me foraging one time at the local golf course. We found a lot of golf balls. In my twenties I watched my friend collect mushrooms in a Frisbee and nibble one before we walked home. By the time we reached home the mushrooms had turned powdery and yellow. I phoned poisons information and after describing the mushroom and knowing that my friend was not going to die the woman on the end of the line dryly remarked, ‘The next time your friend wants to get mushrooms can I suggest he go to the supermarket.’ That friend went on to learn quite a bit about foraging and a few years later cooked me puffballs on the BBQ at All Nations Park. I got into fungi reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma where he wrote, ‘Without fungi to break things down, the Earth would long ago have suffocated beneath a blanket of organic matter created by plants.’ Lynden showed me his copy of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World by Paul Stamets and declared his love for Dusty Yao. I house-sat for someone with a Terrence McKenna book. A lover bought me a truffle omelette. I worked as a cook making shiitake stock using dried imports from China. Someone appeared carrying a box of slippery jacks. I got to thinking about mycoremediation. Game on.
Pouliot projects her brilliant photographs as Cathy hands round a basket of Agaricus xanthodermus (aka poisonous Frisbee mushroom ‘o’ death) The lecture about the Order Agaricales is perfect because Pouliot explains something difficult simply. She seasons with interesting facts such as: there is a type of mushroom in the Family Coprinaceae that when consumed makes alcohol impossible to digest so they make them into tablets for alcoholics/ the Cordyceps species of fungus attack caterpillars and then parasitise their dead bodies/ the biggest organism in the world is a fungus. Pouliot describes fungi as a ‘great matrix or tapestry…connecting up ecologies’ and explains that tree roots need fungi to ‘provide an interface’, in order to absorb nutrients and water. Pouliot demonstrates the role of mycelium using a piece of PVC pipe, several pairs of pantyhose and volunteers from the first two rows. She explains that beneath the soil are networks of fungal threads represented by the stretched tights. After witnessing this I will forever know that a tree needs fungal interactions for optimum growth. Pouliot talks about how Europeans tend to use their senses to identify a mushroom. They’ll smell it. Run their fingers along it. Snap a piece off to hear it. Put a little bit on their tongue. ‘In Australia we don’t tend to be as intimate with fungi. A lot of us come from a mycophobic background.’ Cathy passes round a basket of mushrooms and Pouliot urges, ‘Don’t be afraid to sensorially engage.’
We divide into groups and gather round tables for a fungi identification session. With the lecture fresh in our minds we know that some mushrooms smell like phenol and that the death cap which killed those people last year has a broad volva. Coprinus comatus looks like a lawyer’s wig and will self digest if left on the backseat. The fungi that freaks me out the most is Cordyceps- killer fungi that featured in a David Attenborough documentary that showed an ant’s brain being controlled by a Cordycep. The ones on the table look like a bony human finger. When I am faced with categorising the puffball as edible or inedible I slide it into the edible area alongside the Saffron Milkcaps before one of the group tells me that they are poisonous. When they are young they are edible. I think back to the BBQ and am hit with the realisation that I have possibly eaten a poisonous mushroom and survived. But according to our teacher people with European heritage can sometimes tolerate toxic mushrooms. (My family of Europeans is riddled with so many autoimmune diseases it was nice to finally find an upside to being a Coles!) I love mushrooms and I want to eat them all the time. Pouliot says that in Australia ‘We probably have a huge range of culinary fungi but we just don’t know what they are yet.’ Only 20-30% of Australian fungi have been identified. ‘Australia has one of the most diverse fungi spectrums in the world.’
Next is the wild part. We drive in a convoy up the mountain. On the dashboard is Nicholas P.Money’s book Mushroom. According to the author mycologists have named 74 000 fungal species but more than a million await discovery. We walk. Michael Pollan has written about ‘getting his eyes on’- that moment when you are foraging and you begin to be able to see the mushrooms. It happens as soon as our group walks from the car-park to the area beneath a tree.
An hour into the walk and dozens of species later I dare Sonny the new father to eat an unidentified mushroom,‘I’ll give you five bucks.’ I ask the ex-chef George, ‘What’s your favourite mushroom?’ and adore his answer, ‘The one in front of me.’ I talk to the goat-farming lady. Amateur mycophiles are on their knees, bent over sideways like windswept trees, with magnifying glasses inspecting Polypores. I overhear Cathy say she was up all night looking at slime moulds. I’m starting to get very hungry. Back in the car-park we part ways with grins on our faces and I feel like we are mycelium being sent out in to the world to tell people about fungi.
A character in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive says, ‘We don’t know shit about fungi.’ He should go to one of Pouliot’s workshops. The workshop has forever altered the way that I look at a tree, where I used to imagine all of the roots that lay beneath, I now see the mycelium. The workshop forged new pathways in my brain, a new ecological matrix, and I am keen to learn more about the unseen things. Pouliot mentioned writings by an ecologist called E.O. Wilson. I believe that is where I will start.
 Quote lifted from an interview with Jarmusch by Tom Huddleston. You can read it here http://www.timeout.com/london/film/jim-jarmusch-interview-as-we-film-my-movies-just-get-funnier
NPR podcast interview with Nicholas P Money author of Mushroom
Study on alcohol intolerance after mushroom consumption http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21370948
Scientific American article about world’s largest organism http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange-but-true-largest-organism-is-fungus/
Books by Paul Stamets
Watch this to develop a deep-seated fear of Cordyceps
About Todd Mansfield- founder of Fungi Culture