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The Lost Mushrooms of Oceania

Monday, June 02, 2014 - 03:18 PM

Steve Axford’s photographs seem to come from a slightly enchanted place. It’s a place where the pale brown lumps I think of as "mushrooms" have been transformed into a host of strange new creatures—some shimmering, some translucent, some hairy, some hideous, but all magic.

When I got Steve on the telephone, he did very little to disabuse me of the notion that his home, on the east coast of Australia, is touched with magic. "There’s a creek running through my property, and there are a couple of platypus living in the creek," he reported, making me (I'm embarrassed to say) squeal with delight. "They’re very furtive, they’re difficult to see…you get to see them if you get up very early in the morning, just at sunrise, or watch the creek at sunset."

Could anything be more magical than a glimpse of platypus at sunset? Here's a picture of one…

…or possibly two, I'm not sure. At least mushrooms stay reasonably still.

Steve has been snapping photos of fungi for about 10 years, and he's amassed quite a trove. I asked him about one specimen, a translucent pale-pink mushroom that I particularly liked.

"Yeah," he said, "it's just a very pretty fungus…I've talked to mycologists and they're not sure what it is."

This sounded tremendously exciting to me. Like, you discovered a new species, a living thing even the experts don't know about? Not only a new species, but a beautiful new species—a translucent pink species that looks like it could star in a Fantasia ballet sequence?

Steve laughed a little at that. Turns out he discovers new mushrooms all the time. "Particularly with Australian mushrooms," he told me, "there are lots and lots of them that aren't even identified, let alone anything really written about them."

At the very least, I expected to get what I think of as the bare minimum of mushroom information: can you, or can you not, eat it? I didn't quite realize this until my conversation with Steve, but I've always been taught that mushrooms fall into two camps—either you can sauté it with butter and olive oil, or it will make you bleed from your eyeballs. Which, I wanted to know, was the pink Fantasia thing?

"We don't know. Have no idea."

Here's how it usually goes: once upon a time, someone ate a mushroom. Either that worked out fine, or it worked out terrible. Whatever the case, the information was passed down from generation to generation until it got baked into local culture (and eventually printed into field guides).

But in Australia, Steve says, "there's not much folklore handed down, because we really wiped out most of the aboriginal folklore." Hard-won information about local fungi was lost when settlers, well, settled. As Steve put it, "There was this idea that when Europeans landed in Australia there was no one here. Well, of course there was—we just tended to destroy them."

Unlike North American fungi, which looked a lot like the stuff back home, the fungi in Australia looked alien to Europeans. So they stayed away.

Lucky for us, Steve is willing to get close.

(I did ask Steve, towards the end of our conversation, if he's ever tried eating any of the mushrooms he photographs. "No," he said, "I don't actually like mushrooms. They tend to give me a bit of a gut ache.")

All images courtesy of Steve Axford. More (and I mean LOTS more) of Steve's work can be found here and here. Steve also takes time-lapse videos of fungi, and he has plans to release a documentary soon.


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Comments [5]

Olemara Peters from Redmond, WA

These are glorious! -- both the organisms and the photography. My hat's off to Steve Axford.
Lynn, would you consider doing a related article about Thailand's various endangered little-jewel snails? :
I don't know what it may take (amid Thailand's current political matters) to halt this destruction; but any getting-word-out must help some.

Jun. 21 2014 12:48 AM
CA from Mpls, MN

He seems like a pretty fungi - sorry, I just had to say it.

Jun. 10 2014 11:12 PM
Pascal Pelous

It looks like Oceania is attracting mycologists and photographs this year! Taylor Lockwood just returned from a trip in NZ and OZ with another set of amazing fungi:

And I happened to be there to in May and was able to spot some nice specimens but it was not my top priority and I am not a pro. My mushroom collection from Australia: (view at your own waste your precious time)

Jun. 05 2014 12:48 AM
Rob from Melbourne, Australia

Thanks for showing these beautiful images from Australia, where I live.

A side issue which which fascinated me was about your reaction to the picture of the platypus. I've seen a few in the wild many years ago while canoeing, but mostly in zoos. My reaction to first seeing squirrels (in Europe)or wild deer, chipmunks and Bison (in U.S.) was not that different from yours, even if the animals were *much* easier to find. Conversely, I still find seeing local native animals like kangaroos, wallabies, and echidnas interesting, but I've seen wild ones quite often over the years.

BTW, is there a full text or a recording of the interview with Steve Axford?

Jun. 04 2014 04:29 AM
Dennis Lang from St. Paul, MN

Terrific piece! Here's another superb series of stunning botanical images you may find of interest:

Jun. 03 2014 02:25 PM

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