Matsutake mushrooms, like many fungi, only appear when they can be entangled with the roots of a suitable host tree in a mycorrhizal relationship. They got on very well with those scrubby pines. Tsing tells how the accidental introduction of the Pine Wilt Nematode on a shipment of American Pine into Japan had devastated the Matsutake’s natural host there, hence its rarity. It is not a serious pest of American Pine. Incidentally, Scots Pine is a good host for Matsutake.
Disappearing mushrooms when a forest changes is familiar to me. All forests and woods are in the process of change, but our two ex-commercial forests, Five Mile and Taymount Woods, are forests in abrupt transition. Before the Commission took out the last valuable trees and wind-throw did for many more, Five Mile Wood was my happy mushroom-hunting ground, the place I’d take people to for foraging walks. I knew exactly where to find the biggest chanterelles, the white Angels’ Wings, the logs where real oyster mushrooms could often break out. The ditches
beside the path were home to many fascinating species, including several edible Boletus including the Cep and the maggot-free Bay Bolete – and, of course plenty of highly poisonous examples too. Some years, the tantalisingly similar but inedible False Chanterelle outnumbered the real one – which is exactly what you need when teaching people not to harm themselves by misidentification. One damp corner was an emporium for the delicious Slippery Jack, which turned up in troops like clockwork, every year in late summer and autumn. I used to dry the ones we didn’t fry up right away, and store them in jars.
The fragile entangled associations which had built up over the decades were shattered by felling. The self-sown birches that are colonising parts of both the woods will eventually reel in their own, interconnected fungal friends, and the chanterelles will surely re-emerge one day, because birch is their main host tree. From experience, it takes at least a decade before mushrooms start to appear in a new wood, and the first arrivals are never the ones you want to eat! The precarity of a habitat for specific mushrooms is alarming – involving water tables, shade, parasitic plants, nematodes, beetles, animals – including mushroom pickers. Tsing’s book includes chapters on the equally precarious lives of the pickers – refugees, indigenous peoples, itinerants. Humans aren’t in control of what the mushrooms will do, because there are so many variables in play. Humans are just part of the landscape, and the landscape is changing because of and despite them.
So, I can only observe and enjoy the new but mushroom-free habitats in parts of our woods, note the changes, watch new worlds forming out of devastation and realise we are not in charge, not that clever, and maybe, not that important either. I scoured the ditches in Five Mile Wood for boletes recently, and right at the end, I did find a couple of lingering and determined specimens. I left them there.
But who knows what will be the mushroom at the end of the wood?