Alison's Amazing Underworld
BY RICHARD CORNISH
Alison Pouliot changed the way I see the world and she continues to do so. A trained ecologist she is an expert in mycology. Fungus. “What a lot of people do not understand is that in taxonomy there is an entire kingdom devoted to fungus,” says Alison. “You think about the animal kingdom and the plant kingdom but there is also a kingdom to which fungi belong.” Alison is a woman whose enthusiasm for her subject is palpable. With her there is always a sense of engagement and she has a way explaining the mysteries of the world of fungi in a simple way that is never patronising. “When we think fungi, people think about mushrooms and what are called ‘toadstools’,” she says over a cup of tea in the Glenlyon General Store. “But these are just the reproductive bodies of the fungus,” she says. “The fungus itself is a web of underground threads called mycelium, that can extend over hundreds of square metres.”
She spends her time between central Victoria and Switzerland. There the culture around fungi is so developed that there are professional mushroom police or pilzkontrolle who check foragers’ baskets for poisonous species. She leads tours and workshops in Europe and here in Australia educating people that fungi are an integral part of broader ecosystem. “Those mycelium, those underground threads are amazing,” she says, her eye widening as she speaks. “They actually hook up with the roots of plants and trees. The trees give the mycelium (fungus) sugars that they have made in their leaves through photosynthesis and the fungus in turn gives the trees trace minerals,” she explains. “By hooking up with the mycelium a tree can extend its roots a thousandfold!”
Alison has just released a new book with the CSIRO. Although brilliantly researched and footnoted it is way beyond dry scientific reading. Called The Allure of Fungi: 1000 Days in the Forest it recalls conversations, some random, with people who have a relationship with fungi in the wild. She travelled to 12 countries including Austria, France, Italy, Portugal including Madeira, Turkey, Sweden, Finland and Australia talking to the locals and finding out about their local fungi. The book starts right here in the Central Highlands with Alison exploring the native forest with a five-year-old companion, a child who sees the world with a sense of wonder. You get a feeling reading her book that the same sense of wonder has never left the author.
For those wanting to explore this part of the world through the eyes of a fungus expert Alison is holding several workshops and seminars around this region and the state over autumn and winter. Do not expect to pick a single mushroom. Her tours are not gastronomic. Instead they are designed to open the mind and expose you to the truly amazing world of fungus. Over the years Alison has shown me liver shaped bracket fungus that live on trees and were a source of food to the indigenous people of the area. She has shown me a broad fungus with well-defined gills that glowed a lilac hue at night. Then, on the top of Mount Macedon several years ago she showed me a tiny fungus growing from a caterpillar. “The caterpillar eats the fungus,” she explained. “The fungus infects the caterpillar’s brain and makes it bury itself underground. The fungus then feeds on the caterpillar and emerges as that tiny mushroom from its head.” Her work still blows my mind.
For tours and workshops visit alisonpouliot.com