Everything growing is a post-it note left there as a hint to the bigger picture.
Waxcaps: You are on undisturbed land
The fungi of a dozen colours, family Waxcap is bright, obvious, and sensitive. They thrive in old mossy grasslands and churchyard edges that haven’t been ploughed, fertilised or otherwise harmed. If disturbed, they might not return to a site within a human lifetime. If watched, they tell their stories. Blackening waxcap begins with a glow of gold.
Before turning dark, spreading its spores back to the earth.
Wall barley: You are on disturbed land
Thriving on the opposite, this grass and its extraordinary bristles (properly known as ‘awns’) like roughed-up areas. It often appears on urban road verges and cracks in pavements. It is related to the barley species grown on farms.
Stinging nettle: You are on nutrient-rich ground.
That may sound like a good thing, but most of those nutrients will be run-off from agriculture or be leaking from old iron fences. Too many nettles equals an environmental question-mark. They are also fierce to the touch, as most rural children know. But they have been used by many cultures for various things, from medicine to textiles.
Mist: You are in November-land.
It is autumn, and that grows mist. And it is beautiful.
There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.
The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, overgrazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.
Golden waxcap is the most common.
Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.
But it soon changes.
Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.
There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.
Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.
What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.
Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.
The dust has gone, but clouds have taken its place, and there’s little hope of astronomy tonight. But earthly stars thrive in the rain.
This bizarre fungus is an earthstar, which superficially resembles a puffball. Raindrops knock spores from its mouth.
Waxcaps are also thriving in autumnal drizzle. Parrot waxcaps are green with varying flourishes of orange. Like many waxcaps, they are indicator species which signal relatively undamaged ancient grassland.
I have hardly seen the sun today, but when it rose on Tuesday morning, there was still a Saharan edge about it.
I walk fast – my dog expects nothing else. We’ve covered many long miles of the North Downs together and seen remarkable secrets of the wild world. But sometimes, the surprise comes when you pause for breath.
What stilled me was this: a beautiful blackening waxcap. It’s not an uncommon find in this area in autumn but I’ve never seen one such a brilliant buttercup-yellow before.
The grass has so many stories, but I was while reading them, something else was trying to read me.
This is Sooty, the famous alpha vixen of a fox family whom I call the Gatekeepers. This is why.
She watched me from the west, and her mate watched me from the east.
My dog and I were the story being considered between them. Just a small note as the evening gathers pace.
Some artwork is subtle and made to persist, like this composition by lichen and moss. A tree died and became a canvas.
Down in the grass, a blackening waxcap offers brightness, but only for moments. Touched by hand or age, it turns dark. The top of the cap turns first, and the whole structure flushes black.
If the slugs spare it, I’ll keep watching.