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.