Steve Axford’s Kingdom of Fungi
Eight years ago Steve Axford quit his job, sold his house and moved to the remnants of the Big Scrub in far north New South Wales. ‘I bought a house with about 3 hectares of land surrounding it. I was 56 at the time and wasn’t ready to fully retire so I started to plant trees on my property, which was part of an old dairy farm, to regenerate the native rainforest, or a slightly open, human approximation of it,’ explains the ex-IT guy. And as he worked the deep, volcanic clay soils Steve noticed strange life forms: creatures belonging neither to the plant nor animal kingdoms.
So he got his camera out and started shooting.
Over the intervening years, hundreds of species of fungi have crossed into the focal length of Steve’s macro lens – and one look at the resulting images gives you the impression of peering, for the first time, through the Hubble telescope into outer space. It is another world down there amid the decomposing leaf matter and decaying wood. ‘There are an estimated 4 million species of fungi on Earth and we know almost nothing about them,’ Steve says.
They are essential for life as we know it, and play an integral role in most plant and animal ecosystems, yet they are essentially unknown to us.’
The deep mystery of fungi echoes across many fields of human endeavour. Until 1969, we scientifically classified fungi within the plant kingdom but, on a genetic level, fungi have been demonstrated as less plant-like and more animal-like. Then there’s the magic: one misinformed bite of a mushroom can kill us, or at very least induce vomiting and solid hallucinations. American poet Mary Oliver wrote about the taciturn force of mushrooms with “red and yellow skulls / pummeling upward / through leaves, / through grasses, / through sand; astonishing / in their suddenness.”
In a hypnotic scene from mycophile Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), the vampires Adam and Eve (played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, respectively) notice a colony of red and white capped fly agaric, fruiting out of season. ‘Amanita muscaria,’ says Eve. ‘How odd. Adam, have you noticed these?’ ‘Yeah. Fly agaric. They’ve been behaving rather strangely,’ responds Adam. ‘They kind of appear and then disappear and then reappear those caps, as though they were receiving information from the atmosphere via antenna. It just goes to show, we don’t know shit about fungi.’
‘Without fungi, all ecosystems would fail,’ is how American mycologist Paul Stamets puts it in his book, Mycelium Running (2005). Fungi, he says, are ‘the grand recyclers of our planet, the mycomagicians disassembling large organic molecules into simpler forms, which in turn nourish other members of the ecological community. Fungi are the interface organisms between life and death.’ A critical purpose, certainly, for organisms that we recognise most often as small protuberances poking through the lawn or forest floor.
Fungi appear to be small, but that is just because we generally only see their fruiting bodies, or mushrooms,’ says Steve.
In fact, the world’s largest living organism is thought to be a fungus, a 3.8-kilometre-wide honey fungus (Armillaria solidipes) in the Blue Mountains in Oregon, which is somewhere between 1,900 and 8,650 years old. Its great mass consists of an underground mycelial network with information-sharing capabilities that predate the internet by a few deep sleeps. There is a multitude of connections, communications, world-building and earth-breaking going on constantly, quietly under our feet.
Steve’s images of mushrooms permit us a privileged glimpse of the world that exists beyond us, beneath us; one that we rely so unwittingly upon. His photography shows us a vibrant slice (though still just a slice!) of the great diversity of fungi. Remarkably, most of it exists in his own backyard. ‘A lot of my photography is done at or near my home, since there’s a wealth of fungi here. I do travel too and have visited Tasmania, New Zealand, China and Russia specifically to document fungi.’ Time lapse sequences Steve has captured in the Big Scrub are even set to appear in David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II later this year.
‘What fascinates me about fungi?’ Steve says when prompted. ‘They are a world within a world.’ A world within a world. ‘Often I go into the woods thinking after all these years I ought finally to be bored with fungi,’ experimental music composer John Cage once said. ‘But coming upon just any mushroom in good condition, I lose my mind all over again.’
All images by Steve Axford. The featured image shows Anthracophyllum fungi.