Natural navigator Tristan Gooley finds signs and signals in the woods and hedgerows
The blackberries were early in my part of the world, Sussex, and I have heard they were across the country. But we are now in the thick of wild fruiting season, if we include fungi, and we shall. Foragers like to claim this bounty as their own, but they have no monopoly. Natural navigators find a different but equally rich harvest in the berries and mushrooms (and we leave them as we find them, which is fashionable). Wild fruits make a compass. The sweeter a fruit, the more direct sun it has hoarded and the more likely it is on the south-facing side of any path or track. This trend works on a much larger scale too. Sweet fruits point towards the equator. Any fruits near their northern extreme, like grapes in the UK or peaches anywhere north of the Mediterranean, lie on the south side of hills. There is a polite word for someone who plants a vine on the north side of a British hill: debtor.
Fruits make a map as well as a compass. The finest blackberries mark the most efficient routes across a country for cattle drovers. The drovers taking cattle to market, sometimes a journey of weeks, would sample a dozen varieties, but then gorge and binge on the best ones. We need not dwell on the mechanics, but the seeds of the finer sorts would start life again, further down the trail.
Every fruit adds something to our map. Sloes are a sign of old paths. The sloe is the fruit of the blackthorn bush, and blackthorn is a keen coloniser. It seizes gaps in hedges and plugs them. Sloes are adding small blue-black baubles to field edges right now, so revealing these ‘lost paths’. Take care when inspecting these bushes and don’t attempt to bully a blackthorn – their thorns can puncture a car tyre; even, I have heard it said, a tractor tyre. Human flesh under a jacket is breakfast to these pioneers.
When a rookie forager spots fungi it triggers a binary reaction: delicious or death? In truth most fungi lie between the two, occupying a culinary space called dull.
When natural navigators see fungi, we ask: who’s your partner? It’s not a conversation starter that works in all circles, but a little assertiveness goes a long way with a fungus. Most fungi have a close relationship, sometimes symbiotic, with other organisms like trees. And the partner holds the map for us. The fly agaric, the white-flecked bright red toadstool of fairy tales, tells us there are birch trees nearby. Birch trees grow at the edges of woodland. The toadstool taps us on the shoulder and tells us that we’re not lost, we are nearly out of the woods.
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