Portrait

No one loves getting down and dirty more than mycologist Tom May. By Romy Ash.

Earthly delights

Tom May is shifting leaves, digging his hands into the soil. Beneath the dry leaf litter, the earth is damp and spongy. It smells nice, an earthy version of a eucalypt peppermint.

We’re looking for a type of fungi that’s barely visible to the human eye. It will resemble tiny spots on a wattle leaf. They only grow on wattle. Under the magnifying hand lens that Tom wears on a lanyard around his neck we’ll be able to see the disc-shaped fungi, rimmed on one side with what looks like black eyelashes.

“Ah-huh, Torrendiella eucalypti,” he says. “A lot of our fungi were named by people in Europe in the early 20th century. They would have just collected it, dried it out, sent it over to Kew Gardens and the guy who described it would have thought it was a eucalypt leaf. But in fact, it’s a wattle – the blackwood leaf. So it has the very unfortunate name of Torrendiella eucalypti – we can’t change that.” He draws the leaf and the hand lens to his eye.

“It’s an interesting fossilisation of that history,” he says. The Torrendiella eucalypti was first described in 1859 from material collected in Tasmania. The journey to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew is one that many of the fungus specimens kept at the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne would have undergone. Across the ocean, from one side of the world to the other, and then back again. 

Under the hand lens the fungi, looking like a scattering of fungus eyes, reveals its perfect lashes. “Cute little thing 0.3 millimetres across,” Tom says. “There’s probably about three million species of fungi on the planet – and all of it really hidden.”

We’re both still crouched down in the dirt. His glasses are held tightly to his head with a red string, so that they don’t fall as he leans over to examine mushrooms. His hair is pulled into a stringy, grey ponytail. 

He passes me another leaf. “That’s a ruby bonnet – and that’s attached to some of the same litter. It only grows on native plant litter. I’ve never seen it on oak litter. When they’re fresh, they’re slimy. See how it’s really shiny, slicked.”

The fungi wavers, it’s nearly impossible to hold it still enough to see it clearly. When I do get it in focus, there’s its bonnet, and its long stem. All of it is a shiny, ruby red.

“You start to get smaller and smaller and smaller. These are absolutely miniature.”

This is the realm of the invisible or the almost invisible. A strand of mycelium can only be seen under a microscope. Mycelium is the body of the fungi. A mushroom is simply the fruit. The fine, white mycelium that Tom points out and that we can actually see as we dig through the top layer of the soil, are clumps of mycelium, hundreds of strands woven together. 

Fungi has the record for the biggest organism on earth: the honey mushroom, found in the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon is as big as 1665 football fields. It’s hidden beneath the surface, only in the autumn showing its presence through the fruiting body of the mushroom. At one point, as we continue our walk through the scrubby bush surrounding Blackburn Lake, east of Melbourne, Tom points out a mushroom and then spreads his arm out to encompass the bush all around us. The mushroom is only the tiny, visible tip. 

“The common ancestor of humans and mushrooms is the same organism, whatever it might have looked like – a unicellular animal/fungi-like thing. The similarities are at biochemical level,” he says, explaining to me that it was only in 1969 that scientists allotted mushrooms their own kingdom. Previous to that they were placed within the plant kingdom. 

“These moss banks often have really nice things in them,” he says stopping by a mossy rise in the forest floor. Looking closely, nestled among the moss are little coral fungi. They have almost luminescent tendrils. 

We make our way through the bush, walking very slowly, in what seems a natural pace for Tom, a mycologist who has spent his life looking for and cataloguing mushrooms. We stop at each mushroom, shifting leaves from around it.

“I did a degree in genetics. I was working on fruit flies but I didn’t want to end up with life in a laboratory. I was in Canberra, being a technical assistant but living out in the bush and there was this burst of rain in the autumn and this flush of mushrooms. There were green ones, red ones, and I thought I’ll just grab the mushroom book and they’ll all be in there. I discovered there wasn’t a mushroom book. So I got started cataloguing and making a list of all the fungi in Australia. I thought it would take two weeks and it took about 15 years. I still haven’t finished that actually – because there is no checklist of Australian fungi. The last one written is from 1895,” he says.

“Look, another Amanita, this one’s white with little pyramidical warts – it smells quite anty,” he says, cracking open the stem of the mushroom, and indeed it does smell unmistakably anty. Other mushrooms smell of cucumber, sump oil, or Camembert. We don’t pick every mushroom, but if we do pick them, they are smelt first, then examined, flicked, scratched, bruised, snapped open. It feels like an autopsy, but the mushroom doesn’t always give up its secrets. Mycology is a field where there are still discoveries to be made – so little is known about it. 

At the herbarium in the Botanic Gardens, Tom sits back at his desk, the same desk he’s been sitting at for the past 25 years. He is surrounded by cabinets of specimens. “They’re breeding,” he says of the looming cabinets. This is a dark and quiet corner of the herbarium. The rest of the building bustles above him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 7, 2014 as "Earthly delights". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.