March 30th, 2023From furniture to philandering: a fascination with fungi
Words: Eve Lamb | Images: Kyle Barnes
FOR countless years the mysterious world of fungi has been the domain of a fairly
exclusive handful of boffins.
But now it seems our world is undergoing something of “a fungal awakening” and many more are
beginning to realise the truly huge potential and importance of fungi.
From using fungi to achieve environmentally sound food production and incredible new medical applications, to furniture and building material uses that may avoid the felling of forests,
or use as alternatives to plastics to help prevent marine life choking to death, the
list of emergent applications for fungi is awe inspiring.
One woman who has for three decades marvelled at fungi and the way they fit into the wider ecological picture is ecologist Dr Alison Pouliot who has just launched Underground Lovers – her third
published book focused on fungi.
Through her extensive research, Dr Pouliot illuminates the crucial role fungi
play in our ecosystems, from transforming nutrients to make them bioavailable to
regulating invertebrate populations and even helping to prevent landslides.
Based at Mt Franklin near Daylesford when in Australia, Dr Pouliot launched
her new book in Daylesford this month. In it she explores why fungi are suddenly
infiltrating fiction, film, design, biotechnology and some interesting counter-cultural
She also charts the fascinating cultural histories surrounding women’s knowledge
of mushrooms, including which fungi cured the ailing – causing women shunned as
witches, and which ones used to subdue a philandering husband.
Having spent the last 30 years researching mushrooms, mycelia and their
interaction with all of life on earth, Dr Pouliot’s fascination with fungi has taken her
from the Australian desert to Iceland’s glaciers and America’s Cascade Mountains.
She’s particularly interested in what fungi can teach us about our wider natural
world. Could they, for example, hold answers to helping us tackle the climate crisis?
“I selected the themes in the book very carefully, identifying gaps in what’s been
written previously to include aspects like the indigenous uses of fungi, women and
fungi, fungi and fire, fungi and aesthetics, fungi and land restoration,” she says.
The role fungi may have in terms of cooling the earth, stabilising ecosystems
and helping avert runaway global warming is one important fungal facet explored in
Underground Lovers. Straight away it’s making a whole new audience sit up and take
notice of this emergent mega-science.
“If we can keep the fungal networks intact they can play an important role in
helping to stabilise landscapes,” Dr Pouliot says.
Following the launch of her new book, this very busy ecologist tells me how she
spends half her time in Australia catching the southern fungal season (just starting
now) and the other half in the northern hemisphere, generally based just out of Bern,
Switzerland, catching the northern hemisphere’s fungal season.
“Fungi underpin pretty much every ecosystem on the planet,” she says.
“If we continue to ignore these organisms then we’re not really looking at the big
picture of what nature is and how it works.”
Dr Pouliot has a long list of public appearances and talks scheduled ahead
including at The Moorabool Mushroom Festival happening in Ballan on April 15-16.
Underground Lovers is published by NewSouth Books.
The Local has a copy of Underground Lovers to give away. For your chance to
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