Alison Pouliot’s new book, Underground lovers—encounters with fungi has been described as ‘taking fungal storytelling to a whole new level’, and that’s pretty right: but the ‘stories’ are not just there to entertain. They are entertaining, of course, but the book is serious: a powerful argument for a better understanding of fungi and the part they play in keeping us all alive.
That last phrase may seem strange, given that humanity’s default position on fungi is as a menace to be eliminated—look at the number of products available encouraging us to wage war on them. Alison Pouliot is savage on this, as she is on the tendency of humanity to see nature as an enemy. Take this: ‘…the Queensland (poisons information) centre’s 2019 report records insecticides as causing almost three times as many calls as the insects themselves. In Victoria in 2018, there were 226 calls for suspected mushroom poisoning, fewer than those for soap, glow necklaces or nappy rash products.’
One approach to this book is to see it as a reflection on language. Alison asks Yorta Yorta elder Aunty Greta Morgan if there is a Yorta Yorta name for the white dyeball. ‘We don’t have a name because our ancestors were forbidden from speaking language…and passing on knowledge about land…’ Loss of words is loss of knowledge, and one of the interesting themes here is on the nature of Indigenous knowledge systems, the ways they differ from and overlap with Western science. She discusses the efforts of mycologist Peter Buchanan to collate and systematise Maori knowledge of fungi, and fill gaps left in lost traditions. ‘Language is one key to unlocking historical knowledge of fungi. Peter and his team, and Sonia and the Yorta Yorta elders, are gradually reviving it, one fungus at a time.’
Indigenous people are not alone in having to deal with language gaps, says Alison: ‘The lack of vernacular terms for fungi in the English language means these organisms lack not only our awareness but our regard.’ It’s hard to argue with this. Lack of knowledge is a major theme here, and it’s closely linked to lack of appreciation.
There’s plenty more in this book, to go on with: you’ll find a few extra reasons to be annoyed by leaf blowers, or disturbed by clearfelling of forests, or worried by those beautiful Fly Agarics, ‘the world’s most photographed fungus’. There are intriguing reflections on the importance of protection of remnant vegetation, and inspiring stories of people who are delving into the mysteries of fungi—of which there are many.
And there’s the story of the three goths in a coffin, in a hearse, drinking champagne. You’ll have to get the book to check that one out.