Fungi are unusual. They are easier to define through a process of elimination, by identifying what they are not. They are not animal, mineral or vegetable, but ‘fruiting bodies’, strange forms of life growing out of decay, with their own fecund vocabulary: hymenium, volva, universal veil, inner veil, sporangium, spore, apocethium.
Since beginning my artist residency at Walden School in Essex, I have taken to fungi with the gross curiosity of a child. They seem magical in their ever-changing natures and yet quite base in their physicality, distinctly peculiar whilst recalling familiar forms. Fungi are uncertain substances – they may be ingested to provide nutrient, poison or hallucination. In the Forest School here I have uncovered a whole host of things I couldn’t identify and a few that I could, including candlesnuff fungus, cramp balls and yellow brain fungus.
I first discovered this fungus on the site of a small bonfire inside the Forest School: tiny black wisps turning from black to white at the tips, twisting and branching out from a log on the remains of a fire. I thought them to be traces left over from the burning, little ghostly breaths of smoke, crumpled in the manner of burning paper. However, I realised that these forms were rooted on the unburnt side of the log. I then started to notice them everywhere in the forest, growing straight from the ground as well as on tree stumps and logs. I decided they were fungi only because they clearly weren’t animal, plant or mineral. They didn’t really look like any kind of living being, though in their individual forms I saw echoes of flames, branches and antlers.
Back in my studio with a little tuft I had picked, and musing on its resemblance to a burnt match, I typed the words ‘matchstick’ and ‘fungus’ into Google. I was presented with exactly what I had in my hand – the fungus has many names, each of which analogously liken it to its visual and formal counterparts: matchstick fungus, candlesnuff fungus, candlestick fungus, carbon antlers, stagshorn fungus. I found this ease in identification deeply satisfying as a mycological outsider; this strange thing growing out of a tree stump looks like a thing I have in my kitchen.
Cramp balls are unassuming pinkish purplish brownish felty-feeling stone-looking globules, which I found huddling in clusters on fallen dead trees. I knew their name before I knew them; I’d come across it in a book and delighted in repeating it. Cramp balls, cramp balls, cramp balls. Such indelicate, coarse, clumsy, dirty words. When I did find them, their forms were just as crude and bodily. Balls, breasts, bellies, babies.
They are identifiable not necessarily by their outer appearance, which is akin to various other species of fungi in early stages of life, but by their insides; when the balls are sliced in half, revealed within are concentric bands alternating in dark and light silky silvery shades. These are like the growth rings in tree trunks and brain corals, as each pair of light and dark bands indicates a season of reproduction. The cramp ball I took for myself was approximately twenty one seasons of age, though I’m not sure how long a season lasts. I am also uncertain whether it had been alive or dead when I prised it away from the bark, but either way I regret taking it and cutting into it back in my studio. I think I would have preferred to preserve my fancy of its hard, solid form as impenetrable, and remain dilettante.
At least the origin of the name still holds some mystery. The Latin name for these fungi is Daldinia concentrica, which refers to the concentric rings within their bodies. Other common names are ‘coal fungus’ and ‘carbon balls’ – perhaps because they somewhat resemble lumps of coal, or because, when mature, sooty black spores spread across their surface, or because they can be used to start fire. They also hold the nickname ‘King Alfred’s cakes’, which likens their appearance to the cakes left to burn by the preoccupied king. As for cramp balls, it seems the fungus was once thought to prevent cramp and ague, and was worn or carried on one’s body as a kind of amulet. However I have not as yet been able to find out when, how, or why this belief originated. I like to think that someone thought their huddled forms to channel a cramp-like kind of tension, or saw in their pinkish purplish colour a resemblance to internal organs or even clots of blood.
Inside these fruit bodies are food for concealer moth caterpillars, and home to various insects and animals. I hope that the drypoint etchings I have made in their image might serve as an alternate amulet for those sharing an internal tension of layers and linings.
Yellow Brain Fungus
I found the yellow brain fungus outside the very front of the school, when my boyfriend stopped to light a cigarette. It was cold and it had been raining, and there it was, yellow and jellylike on a fallen branch. A yellow brain atop a branching, be-lichened spine. I picked it up and brought it inside with me.
The next morning it was shrivelled, hard, dark orange and dead-looking. Not knowing what to do, I treated it as though it were a plant: I placed it by an open window and offered it water, whereupon it began slowly to bloom. With each dab of water its crumpled lobes rehydrated and rejellied, fleshed out and yellowed up. Several times since, it has dried up and I have coaxed it back to life, so as to view it under the microscope, make observational drawings and show it to others. In those in-between times it seems to lie dormant, always waiting to transform.
I learned that in England and Scotland the yellow brain fungus once held names such as ‘star jelly’ and ‘starshot’, back when it was known to appear where meteors had fallen to earth, marking the points of contact between alien and terrestrial matter. Perhaps it feeds on whatever strange substance the fallen star is made of, or perhaps it is itself the fallen star. Whichever, this explains both the disappearance of fallen stars and the sudden appearance of fungi within the landscape; where shooting stars end up and what those rootless fungi are grown out of. There is a pleasing correlation between yellow light and yellow matter. When I found this fungus in the dirt it did seem to possess an otherworldly glow.