6th September: Fields above the Crags
Head down, tune in.
A few steps further, I notice a jewel of glistening jade tucked in the grass. I kneel in the damp tussocks, lowering my vision, and peel back the blades to reveal a small mushroom. I pluck the mushroom’s stem from its socket in the earth. Tendrils of mycelium hang off the end of the stipe. Under the slimy cap, a crowd of lemon-yellow gills, all fleshy and filigree. I am caught by this little mushroom’s gradations of colour from deep forest green with tinges of bluey-purple to acid lime and lemon yellow. Each colour seems to glow from within, as if an artist has spent years, millennia, mastering the balance of opacity and translucency within the pigment.
I pull out my ‘key’ to help me identify the mushroom in my palm. Certainty in mushroom identification can be elusive. To be accurately identified, many fungi require spore analysis. The colour of the cap whittles it down to two possibilities: parrot or citrine. I bring the mushroom up to my lips and lick it, then rub my fingers on the spit-covered patch. A sticky slime rises with my fingers. The presence of slime means this mushroom is a Gliophorus psittacinus, a parrot waxcap, from the Greek -glia, meaning glue, and phoros, meaning bearing. The characteristic features of different mushrooms can vary greatly with different weather; very dry autumns can make identification-by-slime difficult.
14th September: Hardcastle Crags
We are gathered in a clearing of oak and birch trees in a steep wooded clough in the Upper Calder Valley of the South Pennines, managed by the National Trust. We stand in a circle, strangers, connected with a passion for the weird world of fungi. Steve is one of those tree-like people; tall, calm, each word considered. His grey-silver hair is held back in a ponytail and his thick beard is adorned with two tiny plaits. He introduces us to the kingdom of fungi and the ‘wood-wide-web’ of complex associations beneath our feet; the unseen queendom of mycelium. Mycelium is the vegetative part of the fungus, a network of fine filaments, or hyphae. Mycelium is a ghost-white mass of branching threads — it is the form of communication between species of fungi, and specific fungi to trees and plants in mycorrhizal relationships. Mycelium is like the bronchial tree of lobes, tubes and exchange surfaces within our lungs, or the aerial image of a river’s delta system of branching channels, or the complex networks of associations in our digital communication systems. A form that recurs.
Steve goes on to describe the unique value of the Upper Calder Valley with its abundance of fungi that are on the UK and EU Red lists for threatened species. Brightly coloured waxcaps, club and coral fungi, the pinkgills, the crazed caps and earthtongues all thrive in the nutrient-poor pastures around here. The grasslands are living evidence of a small pocket of human-nonhuman interactions that have changed little over the centuries. Due to the steep hills, these fields have escaped the effects of industrial farming that have blighted much of the UK. No intensive ploughing has cut deep into the soil. Few fertilisers have been sprayed out of juggernaut tractors. No heavy machinery has compacted down the soil, destroying its structure. Just the nibbling of sheep and cows at its surface, this land is still traditionally grazed and used for hay-making. The steepness also means nutrients flow downhill and the soil is well-drained. The result: ancient grassland high in biodiversity and an excellent store of carbon.
In-between the breathing out of summer and the breathing in of winter, in this small and remote field, autumn briefly blooms with fruiting bodies. Within two hours we have identified common crazed cap, white spindle, parrot waxcap, mealy pinkgill, penny bun, golden waxcap, oak-bug milkcap, blackening waxcap, meadow waxcap, liberty cap and frosty funnel.
17th September: On the tops above Mytholmroyd
The lane up to the field is cobbled and pitted with potholes. Today is unusually warm and sunny. High up, three murmurs of cloud thin into rippling strands. The rest of the sky is a blue lens expanding over us and, symbiotically, our valley-minds expand, curving up in reflection. We look up to see a kestrel pinned to her prey.
We jump over a squat stone wall into the field. The land is flat at the bottom, steepening up towards the tops. Steve notices that this field has been improved with fertilisers as ryegrass is abundant. We walk up and down the field, dodging patches of bog. Almost immediately, my head slows down from its mania of worry about my new job, my old job, my sister’s depression, my mum’s isolation, slows down to think ‘mushroom’. Where would I grow if I were a mushroom? Where would I grow if I were a waxcap mushroom? If I were mycelium where would I fruit? We look up to the steeper slopes, imagining what we’ll find, knowing that they prefer well-drained soil to this more saturated sward below.
We approach a cluster of pale mushrooms. Their caps are ivory white, flat but slightly convex, the size of two-penny coins. I pull one out of the ground and consult my key. A white cap and white stem leave me with four possibilities. The gills stretch down the stem, leaving me with three. I rub the cap between my fingers, then smell where I have rubbed, no distinct smell. I am left with two possibilities. Now, the slime test. They don’t seem slimy to me, even with a quick lick of the tongue, but the warm weather might have dried them out. Steve calls an end to the confusion, ‘it’s a snowy’, Cuphophyllus virgineus. ‘Snowies do better than others in soil that has been changed, added to’. I hold the snowy waxcap up so the sun is behind it, the gills look like the marble arches of some miniature ice kingdom, then from a different angle, they look like the packed-in white flesh of cod.
We identify snowy waxcaps, silky pinkgills, yellow clubs and parrot waxcaps.
30th September: Blackstone Edge
Another mild day, the distant towns of Greater Manchester are submerged in a grey-blue haze, and further, I can just make out the huge chimneys of Runcorn’s power station. I am practising my new fungus language, as much about the body, the senses, as the mind. How does mushroom feel, smell and taste? It feels too warm for mushrooms.
Mushrooms are measures of rain, of cool temperatures. I think of the mycelium underground all year round doing its steady and patient work, and then the majestic and fleeting display of the mushrooms, the fruiting bodies. Mycelium can live for hundreds of years until it fruits. Like a breaking of silence, the mushrooms are voices surfacing. I think of mushrooms as voices hostage to the right conditions. What does it take for one person to speak, another to remain silent?
I walk up a small bank near Cow’s Head Drain, heading back towards my car, having given up on the hunt when I spot a yellow-black mushroom the size of a small fist. The cap consists of many black fibres that flare at the base like a threadbare witch’s hat. Then another, next to it, cap the colour of charcoal, and underneath the gills curl and crimp like the pages of old newspaper singed by fire. I pinch the stem and after a few seconds, it bruises from pale yellow to storm-cloud grey. Unmistakable: blackening waxcap, Hygrocybe conica. Easily bruised.
18th November: Above the Crags
Squalls of mizzle. I meet Steve, Carola and Sheila at Hardcastle Crags. We walk up a path until we are looking down on the wooded valley below. The temperature is lingering between 4-7°C. A patch of fog sulks down in the valley like a teenager. I can hear the soft applause of rain on my hood. Today the rain is so light it hardly falls, but wafts about, soaking you without realising.
We are hunting in a field bisected by a track, which leads up to the landowner’s farm. The whirr of a quad bike gets louder until we are met by a man in his 30s in a thick chequered shirt. A wave of guilt curses through me as I assume he is coming to tell us to get off his land. He stops the engine.
‘Me dad said you were coming. I’ve seen loads of mushies this year. Good year for ‘em. Don’t stay out too long, you’ll catch ‘er death’, then he carries on his way down the track.
There are droves of meadow waxcaps in this field. The young specimens look like knobbly conkers, crunched into themselves and chestnut brown. They are hard too, compact nuggets of mushroom waiting to flesh out and open their gills like wings to the world. The older specimens sit alongside, with their caps fully open and flattened they are the largest waxcaps I have come across so far; some are the size of my palm. They pale with age to a buff creamy apricot, and their yet paler gills reach down the stem. One meadow has been nibbled by weather and grub so much that some of the gills are exposed from above. It has the same pattern as the white radial spines of a sea urchin washed ashore.
Then, a clump of ivory coral, robust and antlered, adds to the feeling of being underwater. Our feet are soaked, our hands stiffening with the cold and damp. I find the remains of an old parrot waxcap, half of its cap is moon-white having been exposed to the elements, the other half glistens deep green having been tucked under the shelter of the grass. We, humans and fungi, are vulnerable to wind and rain, the inherent exposure of living.
20th November: Blackstone Edge
The green uniform slope of the reservoir dam is studded with huge fairy rings of gnarly, leather-brown mushrooms. I notice a cluster of russett brown, muscular tongues poking just above the grass, then more and more, protruding like the fingers of a bog body. I send Steve a photo, and excited by it, he visits the site a week later with an ‘earthtongue expert’. They conclude that the slope is covered in swathes of Microglossum rufescens, one of the species that make up the rare olive earthtongues, a UK priority species with hardly any records of them, not just in the UK but the whole world. Right here, on this unassuming bank, the largest colony ever recorded of this species silently grows, extending their fertile tongues into the air.
8th December: Pecket Well
The dirty sludge of old snow lies banked up the hedges. I traipse the fields and find the odd mushy remains of crimson and heath waxcap. The freeze and thaw of winter has damaged their inner structures, their inner scaffolding. As the light tips into darkness around 4pm, I return home and listen to sound ecologist and musician, Michael Allen Z. Prime. He amplifies the faint electrical currents of mushrooms, creating bioelectrical compositions. Mushrooms still attached to their mycelium give diverse rhythmic patterns of sound, whilst mushrooms picked from their mycelium give only a static tone. I listen to his piece, ‘Ha, Ha! Your Mushrooms Have Gone?’, and wait for another year.
Sammy Weaver is the author of Angola, America (Seren, 2022), which won Mslexia’s Poetry Pamphlet Prize 2021 and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2023. Her poems have appeared in The Irish Times, The Moth and Anthropocene. In 2020 she was awarded The Moth Magazine’s Nature Writing Prize. In 2021 she was shortlisted for a Northern Writers’ Award and Nine Arches Press’ Primers scheme. She lives in West Yorkshire. Follow her on Twitter or on Instagram (@sammyjweaver).
Find out more about waxcap mushroom surveying in the Calder Valley on the National Trust website.
Photograph by the author.