This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine December 2020
There is nothing quite like a walk in the woods in Autumn. The pattern of the leaf litter is a thing of immense beauty. Nature creates pleasing forms and consistent shapes of leaves, lichen, acorn cups and moss, then scatters them on the floor in a mosaic more abstract than Jackson Pollock and exquisitely pointillist; composed of perfectly shaped tessera of many-colours, sweet chestnut’s spiky outer cases, fungi, acorns, twigs and all. It is suffused with the smell of earth and pepper so profound one can almost taste it, while every bough and mound of moss invites you to savour their sumptuous textures of velvet, cashmere or Moroccan leather. Leaves rustle and fall like the gentlest snow while scattered Robins sing of Summer’s decline.
Blackbirds were the avian companions of summer; the Robin mourns its passing and saves us from seasonal sadness with its melancholy song. But, like the sudden blue-sky stillness of some days scattered through the season, Wrens burst your eardrums in alarm. Never heard in my youth, Cetti’s Warblers now whisper across seven fields from the woodland edge. Even my song blind ear knows their call.
My dad filled my infant ear with dread, telling me that nature can be as deadly as it is beautiful. Had he not, perhaps, I would dare to collect and eat the fungi I have foraged this year. As birds desert whole swathes of wood to flock and forage elsewhere, I’ve taken to spotting fungi instead. Given my curvature, it’s easier for me to look down than up and fungi’s don’t fly off, so are easier to photograph, allowing me to try and identify them.
I’m approaching my fiftieth fungi species after just a few weekly forays. Every ID is provisional and, even were I less in the shadow of my dad’s dire warnings, I’d still be too unsure to try what I think is edible. I’ve definitely found a number of ceps which I know from restaurant meals are superbly tasty. However, I’ve also found many other species that are not only two different species, but one is delicious and the other deadly.
On early Autumn mornings sixty years ago I would walk the dog in the local fields and come home laden with ‘horse mushrooms’, each big enough to fill a pan and dad and I would eat our fill. Freshly gathered mushrooms fried in bacon fat would impress a gourmet. But, so profoundly cowardly am I now, that I dare not even pick those easy to be sure of fellows. Adding a bird to your year list carries no danger, unless perhaps the ridicule of your birding mates. If you call it wrong you might never hear the last of it. Adding some misidentified fungi to your plate could be the last thing you ever do.
Several times, in the Autumn woods I have, from a social distance, spotted fungi foragers with brimming pails. Oddly, when asked if there is ‘anything about’ they are as cagey as some twitchers. A German friend tells me that she covers some fungi with sticks and leaves in the morning as they are too small to harvest, hiding them from rival pickers so she can return in the evening and collect them fully grown. Fungi spotting can be as competitive as birding.
Head down I also see crushed polystyrene cups, crisp packets and coke cans littering the wood. Every layby is half heaped with house-clearance rubbish. A puffball turns out to be a plastic door knob and a Fly-agaric an abandoned doll’s red-and white spotted, nylon dress!