September 13, 2007

Fungi: The Final Frontier

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In 1966 director Bruce Brown traveled the globe with surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August to document their search for “the perfect wave,” and the result was the film The Endless Summer, which exposed surfing to the rest of the world. Almost 20 years later, in 1984, photographer Taylor Lockwood set off with a similar journey at bay: to travel the world in search of the most perfect mushroom, and to photograph his finds.
By now, Lockwood has traveled to over 30 countries and all 50 states, started three fungi websites, produced two DVDs and educational videos and written two books. His second book, Chasing the Rain: My Treasure Hunt for the World’s Most Beautiful Mushrooms, chronicles his adventures around the globe.
The first time Lockwood saw a mushroom in person, “It went BINGO! Just like that,” he said. It was that first Amanita mushroom he saw in December of 1984 — “It was big, clean and beautiful” — that sent his wheels spinning into motion, he said.
That same week Lockwood bought a 35 mm camera and lens and started taking pictures of the mushrooms in Mendocino, Calif. “I wanted to see the most beautiful, pristine — the best aesthetic examples of that kingdom,” he said.
Just one year later, Lockwood set out on his first international adventure to the Soviet Union with one mission in mind: capture the prettiest mushroom pictures possible.
“Fungi are the last great frontier of biology,” said Prof. Kathy Hodge, mycology, and director of the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium. Experts estimate that over 1.5 million species of fungi exist in the world, and yet “we know so few of them,” Hodge said. Only about five percent of fungi even have names.
Complete with his camera and Indiana Jones adventurer hat, Lockwood set off to travel the world and pursue a passion, a task that he thought needed to be done.
“I’m going to [go out and] do it,” Lockwood said of his impending journey.
Many clicks of the camera later, Lockwood has managed to transform the documentation for identification of mushrooms from a mechanical science into his own breed of poetic art. In his travels to the far corners of the world, Lockwood has captured pictures of many terrestrial fungi species that look like typical mushrooms. But some seem like manifestations of the imagination. For example, the crystal white Amanitas of Nigeria resemble fairy castles; the Dictyophora multicolor of Thailand could be extraterrestrial growths; the Cyptotrama asprata of Indonesia recall flaming yellow dust bunnies.
Lockwood’s contribution to the scientific community, however, is questionable. “It’s not scientific documentation and it doesn’t pretend to be,” Hodge said. She went on to explain that although Lockwood has photographically documented many previously unknown species, he does not abide by a scientific process. To work in the vein of science, he would have to collect vouchers — or samples — of his subjects.
There is no reason to criticize Lockwood for his lack of scientific methods — “The highest function of Lockwood’s photos is to stir passion for fungi. The photos are very beautiful and I hope more people see them,” Hodge said.
Yes, these mushrooms are magical. And yes, Lockwood’s pictures are beautiful. But, mushrooms?
“It has something to do with my background,” Lockwood said when asked about his devotion to mushrooms. “I’ve always been into kind of eclectic stuff.” Born into a family of artists in New Orleans, Lockwood grew up playing drums and violin. After becoming “a wild gypsy rocker” in Los Angeles and then moving to northern California, Lockwood mused, “I was ripe for something like [mushrooms]. Something really interesting, artistic and very natural.”
“We found each other,” he said. Lockwood’s passion and drive stems from an appreciation of the fungi kingdom, but also — if not more so — from his desire and dreams of artistry.
“The wonderful thing about mushrooms is that it allows me to have a creative artistic outlet,” he said. “I like to know the names. I forget a few once in a while, but it’s not important. I’m a photographer and I know my main job is to get the pretty pictures and to capture the beauty of the fungi and show them to the rest of the world who haven’t seen them before.”
Lockwood loves meeting scientists from around the world, but he does not pretend to be one himself.
“I’m part of the art department,” Lockwood said.
Beyond the world of mushroom experts and enthusiasts, Lockwood claims his aims are to “melt the frost of fungophobia” from the masses. But as he travels the country presenting his slides, Lockwood has become more than an educator — he has morphed into a political lobbyist of sorts, for, what else but mushroom rights!
“The U.S.A. has never featured mushrooms on a stamp,” Lockwood said. “It’s just sad!” One of Lockwood’s plans for the future is to convince the U.S. government to honor fungi with a set of mushroom stamps.
Lockwood is almost vehement in his lobbying for a mushroom stamp set.
“This is a kingdom of fungi,” he stressed. “You know, they estimate over a million species! Thousands and thousands of mushrooms that are really important […] and they won’t honor the beauty and variety on a stamp.”
Like Lockwood, fungi interests Hodge because, she likes “things that are weird, parasitic and small.” But no matter how strange or freaky mushrooms may seem to the rest of us, for Lockwood, “Mushrooms will always be there. And the farther I go, the more I want!”
“I’ve got a knack for photography and I just kept doing it,” he said. And after 20 years of searching, Lockwood is still on the trail — with a few more stories to tell and lots of pictures to show. As Hodge said: “It just goes to show what someone can do when they find their passion.”