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Breaking New Ground by Stephan Harding

puffball

There is a small woodland plantation in North Woods very near Schumacher College called Newground plantation.

Perhaps it was given this name around 1925 when the Elmhirsts, the owners and founders of the Dartington Hall Trust, planted up what must have been an ordinary agricultural field with western red cedars, a species of pine tree native to the damp forests of the North American Pacific north-west.

Since then these trees have grown well and created what at first sight seems to be a very dull, lifeless conifer plantation of the sort that British-based ecologists, including me, love to hate.

But just recently Newground plantation has helped me to expand my perceptions of such seemingly desolate places.

The other day whilst tramping through it in the autumn rain on my way to the more interesting precincts of the luscious river Dart I noticed a line of smallish white spheres, the largest of them about the diameter of a small, dainty porcelain tea cup.

Intrigued, I bent down to explore. To my delight, I discovered that these were puffball mushrooms, Lycoperdon perlatum, making their living by decaying organic material on the woodland floor. 

     "These were puffs of beauty in what was otherwise, to my eyes then at least, nothing more than a dark, dull plantation of light guzzling alien pine trees." 

When ready to reproduce, myriads of otherwise invisible Lycoperdon fungal tubes living underground had coalesced into these pearly white spheres spangled with small equally white conical spikes, making little puffball villages of twenty or so mushrooms, sometimes in clumps, sometimes in lines.

Small dark holes had opened right at the centre of some of the puffballs and I watched amazed as a raindrop fell on one of these with enough energy to effect the release of a mighty puff of brown spore-smoke from the gaping aperture.

I pondered how this miraculous bellows-like reproductive adaptation might have evolved over perhaps millions of years and bent down low in reverence to these humble mushrooms who had taught me never to dismiss any part of nature, no matter how damaged, inert or hopeless, as unworthy of attention.

The puffballs helped me to find other wonders in the plantation – islands of biodiversity brimming over in light gaps where trees had been felled; old tree stumps gnarled and weathered by rain, wind and time into weird woody moss covered sculptures.

What is more, by opening my eyes to its strange unexpected beauty the puffballs have shown me that Newground is the perfect place to play the various deep ecology games I am currently developing for the postgraduate students here at the college.

The mostly bare ground and lack of shrubs and brambles make it tick-free and easy to walk through, whilst myriad trees create great hiding places for the various treasures – such as artificial bee nest sites or cashes of fungal food, that I ask the students to find without words as they become swarming bees or teeming fungi.

Perhaps Newground should be re-christened Newview plantation. Thank you puffballs, Lycoperdon perlatum, you have given me pearls of wisdom. My eyes have been opened. I have broken new ground.