Beatrix Potter, Mycologist: The Beloved Children’s Book Author’s Little-Known Scientific Studies and Illustrations of Mushrooms
By her early twenties, Potter had developed a keen interest in mycology and began producing incredibly beautiful drawings of fungi, collecting mushroom specimens herself and mounting them for careful observation under the microscope. In the winter months, she frequented London’s Natural History Museum to study their displays. Linda Lear, author of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature writes:
“Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.”
There is also something quite poetic about Potter’s obsession with fungi — in her later children’s books, she bridged real life and fantasy by transmuting the animals and plants she observed in nature into whimsical characters and stories, and mushrooms have long symbolized this very transmutation, perhaps most prominently in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, which first captured the popular imagination the year Potter was born.
But her interest went far beyond the mere aesthetics or symbolism of mushrooms — she was studious about their taxonomy, taught herself the proper technique for accurate botanical illustration, and worked tirelessly to get an introduction to the eminent mycologist Charles McIntosh. With his help and encouragement, she continued advancing her microscopic observations, which kindled in her an intense fascination with how mushrooms reproduced — something poorly understood at the time. Potter soon began conducting her own experiments with spores she had germinated herself. She was particularly captivated by lichens, considered at the time the “poor peasants of the plant world,” in the words of the great botanist Linnaeus — a statement itself belying the dearth of scientific understanding at the time, for lichens are not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae. more
We may be hearing a lot more in the future about mycorrhizal fungus. This site is an ongoing story about lichen, and officially, mycorrhizal fungi are not really ‘cousins’ of lichens. But cousins are often the most numerous relatives we have, so I use that term to foster awareness that the fungus Kingdom is varied and vast. Sometimes getting to know one member of a family entails getting to know other members of the family one had not planned on meeting, or even knew existed. At the party called Daily Life on Earth, meeting all the relatives is part of the fun.
I met a mycorrhizal fungus last fall, on a dead tree trunk at the end of the Wintergreen Trail. I believe it is hyphae but do not know the fungus species. If anyone reading this knows, please post your ideas! Even deceased, it was an impressive presence. Long dark threads hung from the leaning tree trunk where the dry bark had separated from the inner wood. The threads formed a complex web several feet long, dangling in the air. The strands were so strong I could not break them by hand. There was yards and yards of this fibrous material. It seemed to have covered most of the surface of the tree trunk, under the bark.
Fiber strings from under tree bark
The picture is blurry, but the very dark strings and dark bark had no noticeable detail, so the picture is close to what I saw. The extent of the fiber mass was impressive.
Why am I talking about this mat of dark threads? Because I was exploring the NASA Global Climate Change site and found a story on mapping the mycorrhizae locations in forests, by mycorrhizae species. Read the story for why NASA is doing this; it’s interesting. There are two mycorrhizal species and trees use one or the other. The forests are regulated by the signals the mycorrhizae send through the trees. They work with other plants too. Scientists think this is important enough to make maps of where each species is in the forest, in relation to the tree species, and they are doing so by satellite images. So that old adage “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is true for us in a much deeper way than we ever understood before. The trees are one part of a vast and complex web of living beings, all talking to each other and cooperating to regulate themselves and their environment. Once we lift the curtain of our preconceptions, amazing things start to show up everywhere. If we only see trees, birds and some flowers, we are missing the major part of the forest. There is far more diversity and number of living beings in and under the soil than above it, and as much metabolic function occurs on and in the ground as above. The Small Ones may be at least as interesting as the large plants and animals we easily recognize.
After reading the article and thinking again about the mycorrhizae, I wonder about the relationships between fungus that don’t make lichen and those that do; between the chemistry created by one group of trees and fungus, and the signals of moisture, temperature, nutrients and more that may be allowing or encouraging certain other living beings to take up residence nearby. We know so little about the extensive activity going on just underground. What similar actions may the lichen be doing? After bacteria, they are the original homesteaders, setting up the terrain to be hospitable to the first mosses and vascular plants. Lichen are very good at getting along with other life forms and have made a place for themselves everywhere on earth. Maybe they have something to tell us about their part in regulating the forest, beyond their original activity of creating soil and available nutrients from rock and wood and air.
So, no lichen pictures today, just questions about this green and shining world we share with unknown others.
Check this blog again soon, for information on our first KVR lichen survey route.