As I began to write these notes, heavy rain was falling on my thirsty garden. From September 4th to October 4th I recorded only 5mm in my rain gauge (an inch would be 25 mm.) – no wonder the countryside is so dry.
A walk in Strid Wood in early September was a subdued affair. Leaves littered the paths and fell all around me as I walked – drab and brittle – cast off before they had assumed their autumn glory, a safety mechanism by which trees conserve moisture. Apart from the chuckle of the shallow river water and the rattle of the leaves it was quiet too; only, every fifty yards or so, a plaintive wisp of song – a robin establishing its winter territory. Scanning the river for dippers, my eye was caught by the stealthy elongated form of a heron as it stood midstream, its whole body straining forward, tense with anticipation of fish. It was very scraggy and, with greyish head and no crest, probably a youngster just learning its craft before winter bites.
Because of the drought I had little hope of finding any of the fungi that make a walk in autumn woods so exciting. However, on a section of oak trunk felled and dumped near the path years ago, I was delighted to spot a huge bracket fungus. It was rich tan above and lighter below – thick and succulent – an aptly named beefsteak fungus.
Then on, October 6th,, came the rain – 22mm in 24 hours – so I made a foray into Middleton Woods full of hope of more finds. Perhaps the rain had not had time to penetrate the hard earth below the leaf litter, or perhaps there’s a necessary time lapse before things get started. Whatever the reason, this wood seemed as drab as the other. However, just as I was about to give up, I spied the first signs – little bright yellow mushroom shapes decorating a path-side log – soon to be a glorious display of sulphur tufts. A rummage in the leaf litter revealed a newly emerged russula, its browny-mauve cap already nibbled by slugs but the stem and tightly pleated gills a pristine white – a charcoal burner. To complete my list, I found some wonderfully fresh specimens of jelly ear fungus. As is usual, these were growing on the slim branches of elder and, with their delicate dark red whorls and folds, seemed more like exotic flowers than the human ear they are supposed to resemble.
As I left the wood, I thought with anticipation of the life thrilling through the webs of filaments that spread through the tree stumps and underlie the paths and leaf litter across which I walked. The vivid colours and fantastical shapes we are about to see lighting up our woods are just the fruiting bodies: underneath this brief show, the mycelia continue to get on with their job of recycling dead wood and fallen leaves, making the nutrients once more available for use. Many of nature’s systems are built on such cooperations – a good thought for a dull day.