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I have been experimenting with mushrooms. Not the recreational kind, although I would argue that growing any species of mushroom is fun. In fact, the first experiment is an attempt at another kind of magic—a fairy ring. If you've ever seen a circular arrangement of little mushrooms in a lawn, chances are that you have come very close to crossing into the land of the fairies. Or to being trapped in a time-warping dance with pixies. Or to treading where a dragon's tail had rested. The legends vary.

Shaggy Ink Cap primordium (baby mushroom) nestled in amongst grass and wild-flower seedlings.

So, of course, I had to tame one. I have chosen to use a species that is at least a candidate for ring formation, the Shaggy Ink Cap mushroom. I have other reasons for choosing this species though, it is edible, it eats wood, it deliquesces (think wicked witch of the west in water) into ink. I am feeding it science, the printed word on paper at least. I print out articles of favourite inspirational works, my own science contributions, and the science of creativity, then I shred them and grow fungus on the mix. Will I be more imaginative if I eat some idea-fattened mushroom foie gras? Will the muse guide my hand if I write with this ink?

The first trial almost worked. Fruiting bodies arrived in amongst grass in my round mini-meadow. They showed up everywhere rather than in a neat ring, but I wasn't complaining. Then they accidentally got caught by frost and the fairies stopped dancing.

Crocheted mushroom snuggy.

The current incarnation takes place inside a giant orange crocheted annulus. It's a kind of fungus-cozy. It's not to protect it from frost, more to encourage rings to form and to create damp microclimates in the troughs. The culture is almost ready to move in, I just need to shred some more ideas to feed it.

Speaking of microclimates, I didn't make the leap to rotting large, freshly minted, time-consumingly handicrafted fabric in one go. I made smaller crochet pieces shaped to fit into cheap glass vases I had scattered about the apartment - the glass keeps everything moist and fungus-friendly. Once stuffed with compost or wood they are inoculated with mushrooms I find growing on my way to work.

The gift. Image by Anna Andersson.

The fungal 'roots' - mycelium - grow through the yarn and look a bit like the yarn itself. Wispy and white, sometimes wiry like roving. The crochet shape itself is another experiment - how to make stuffable forms that are interesting to look at. Tubes are easy, but making them branch so that the internal space is continuous was a fun problem to solve.

Some fungi glow in the dark. These are the source of another legendary phenomenon - fox-fire, or will-o'-the-wisp. I hope the test-tubed inoculum I put in the top of a ball of crochet (see gallery) will grow through and make me a lantern. Fairy-in-a-bottle.

Has any of this really worked yet? Well, no and yes. The fungus grows in petri dishes but hasn't shown up elsewhere yet. I don't know if the gas exchange in the glass is too low for good growth, or if there is something in the yarn (like lanolin?) that suppresses fungi - I mean, did you ever see a moldy sheep? However, one of these critters really really did work. I made an antler-like shape filled with reishi-mushroom inoculi as a gift for friends. (Making gifts is such a great motivator for trying out the new and the wacky and getting them finished and for making them look fabulous.) The white mycelium bloomed out from the surface and crept along the branches in a matter of days. Perhaps I am hovering over the new experiments too much, like an over-anxious mother, and they won't show up until they're ignored. I will just have to wait and see.

 

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Natalie Andrew is Inside Out: Artist in Residence for September 2013.

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