Taming of the ’shrooms: Meet the fungi trackers in the north-east | Travel - Hindustan Times
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Taming of the ’shrooms: Meet the fungi trackers in the north-east

Jan 29, 2021 05:26 PM IST

Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak have been studying mushrooms for years, and recently spent two months documenting some of India’s vast variety. A new film captures their adventure.

During a walk in the Bush some 13 years ago, Stephen Axford, a software engineer in Victoria, Australia, noticed a row of purple mushrooms on the forest floor. He had never seen fungi that colour; he was back the next day with his camera.

The Roridomyces phyllostachydis, a luminous mushroom from Mawlynnong, Meghalaya. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)
The Roridomyces phyllostachydis, a luminous mushroom from Mawlynnong, Meghalaya. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)

“Mushrooms are not rabbits, they don’t run around. I took a few quick pictures and put them up on my website,” says Axford, 69.

From the questions he was peppered with online, he realised he was onto something of interest. What started off as an accident became a hobby and then a vocation. Axford quit his job and began to spend all his time documenting mushrooms, scouring, asking questions, observing and taking photographs and time-lapse videos, which he uploaded to his website (steveaxford.smugmug.com ).

Stephen Axford photographs a stinkhorn in the gardens of the Balipara Foundation headquarters in Assam. The Foundation invited Axford and Marciniak to the north-east. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)
Stephen Axford photographs a stinkhorn in the gardens of the Balipara Foundation headquarters in Assam. The Foundation invited Axford and Marciniak to the north-east. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)

As his work became known, BBC called in 2014 to talk about his time-lapse techniques. Axford and his partner, filmmaker Catherine Marciniak, 62, have since been invited to document fungi in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and Chile. Some of their time-lapse footage was also featured in David Attenborough’s award-winning Planet Earth II documentary, released in 2016.

Then, over a month each in 2018 and 2019, the two travelled across three states in north-eastern India, Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh, on the invitation of Balipara Foundation, which works to restore forests in Assam. Axford and Marciniak were invited there to identify edible mushrooms as opposed to poisonous ones. Lack of knowledge on this score was leading to deaths in the region every year.

On the ground, they worked with Gautam Baruah and Saurav Malhotra of Balipara Foundation, translator Linza Marngar from Meghalaya and local village mushroom experts to identify and document 58 species that are edible and 64 species used elsewhere in the world in traditional medicines. “Many of the edibles identified particularly in Meghalaya were shown to us by local people. We assisted in documenting those mushrooms for people in other regions of the northeast who did not know they were edible,” Marciniak says.

The 50-minute documentary of this adventure, Planet Fungi: North East India, was released in November.

In remote places like the island of Majuli, a film like Planet Fungi, he believes, will help residents identify, use, consume and protect. Identifying new species takes time. Axford’s photographs are also being studied by local mycologists, as research aids.

The Marasmius bambusiniformis, a tiny mushroom that grows on dead bamboo and is found in Assam. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)
The Marasmius bambusiniformis, a tiny mushroom that grows on dead bamboo and is found in Assam. (Stephen Axford and Catherine Marciniak)

“The idea of working with Axford was to document the biodiversity of the region and use his photographs and the film as awareness tools,” says Gautam Baruah, rural futures lead with Balipara Foundation. The photographs will also go into an encyclopaedia the foundation is creating.

So far one new species has been confirmed from among those found by Axford and Marciniak — the luminous Roridomyces phyllostachydis from Mawlynnong, Meghalaya. It takes time to confirm new species, so there could be more. The Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences is collaborating, with mycologists from the institute helping analyse and classify the collected fungi DNA.

Planet Fungi’s most evocative moments relate to those who depend on mushrooms for survival. People like Bilinda Kong, a widow in Meghalaya with five children, who goes into the forests to pick mushrooms and herbs to feed her family or sell.

“Once she ate a mushroom and she broke into a sweat. It was clearly not meant to be eaten even though it looked good. She survived it,” Axford says. In interactions with the team, Kong was able to learn more about identifying local fungi too.

Axford admits he’s a selective mushroom-eater. He does have one named after him, though — the Panaeolus axfordii. It grows in China.

“Found in the grounds of the Kunming Institute of Botany, it was named after Stephen in recognition of the work he has done in documenting fungi in the Eastern Himalayas,” Marciniak says.

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