Interview with Eric Osborne, "Shroomosphere"
February 3rd, 2017
This February I had the pleasure of completing an interview with Eric Osborne of the podcast Shroomosphere – the world's first all-things-mycology podcast. As Eric's first photographer and female interviewee, I was quite excited to share my thoughts on everything fungi.
During the interview I discuss why I fell in love with mushrooms, why I photograph them and which are my favorites, my goals in environmental conservation, why I don’t eat mushrooms, and much more!
Check out our work and thanks for listening!
Some prepared thoughts and additional information:
When did you begin your love affair with fungi?
I don’t so much remember when, but why. I know that the when was sometime far before the age of 13, and I know it was mushrooms’ physical appearance alone that captivated me – specifically the toadstool shape with a plump round cap and stubby stipe. I have a tendency to anthropomorphize fungi and I find this particular shape charming.
And then there are the gills! Gills, or “lamellae,” are essentially aligned plate-like structures on which spores, which of course are essential for reproduction, are formed and expelled into the wind. So if you’ve ever looked under a traditional toadstool it’s likely you’ve seen gills, and you may have noticed their appearance of symmetry despite the fact that they are radially aligned, that’s what really captivated me. I am incredibly fascinated by symmetry in nature - particularly in lifeforms, which I specify because symmetry in other areas, like geology, is fairly common.
And so it was a combination of a charming body form and perfect gill formation that really drew me in.
What are your goals in photographing fungi?
My main goal is to inspire. And to accomplish that I try to captivate fungi in a light that stimulates curiosity, amazement, and ultimately respect for nature. If there is one thing I have realized along my journey with fungi photography, it’s that I am absolutely in love with our planet earth, and I really think that mushrooms can help me to advocate for it.
Which is really nothing new - I’ve been passionate about nature since I was very young – Pre-K young. Watching science and nature documentaries has literally always been one of my favorite ways to wind down, I have an entire book case full of science & nature books I’ve been collecting since a like-age, and the sense of amazement that I personally find when I’m observing nature – and in every area of science, really – that’s something that I want to inspire in others.
I’ve gotten comments from people along the lines of “I’ve never seen the likes of so many mushrooms!” and “how unusual” “how beautiful” – that’s exactly the reaction I’m going for. I want people to be absolutely amazed. I want them to ask questions. I want us to come back to our roots, back to this incredible planet that many of us have so quickly forgotten.
And then there is the environmental conservation goal, which is something I’m working on. Now that I have a greater audience on social media, it’s becoming the ideal place to begin sharing my perspective.
And I think that will start with tackling my disdain for plastic, and trying to encourage people to not only limit their plastic use but understand the effects of plastic use that we often don’t see – especially in a first world country.
I’ll try to keep this short but you can probably tell I’m passionate about this one. We live in a planet suffocating with plastic – often one-time use plastic, and many of us have no idea about the consequences. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists, 50% of plastic is used once and thrown away, and only 5% is recycled. That means that the remaining 95% of all plastic goes into landfills and our oceans. And those facts don’t really mean anything to people until they see the stomach contents of one of the millions of sea creatures that die every year from plastic consumption. That there are what they call “garbage patches” floating in every ocean – including one the coast of California that is twice the size of Texas. This is the warmest year on record and we are continuing to suffocate our planet not only in carbon content but literally in our own waste.
I’ll leave it at that but I do have a blog post on the face of my website that discusses what individuals can do to eliminate plastic in their daily lives. And that’s not necessarily to say stop using it completely; just pay attention. Don’t use a straw at restaurants, for example. Use silverware instead of plastic utensils. The little things can make a big difference.
So back to mushrooms yes, my goal is to captivate people and move them, but also to make them think “wow nature is amazing” – and ultimately “wow, I need to be better, do my part, and love my Earth better.”
At this point in time I’m trying to really work out that message and I feel like there is a lot more I could be doing to encapsulate that – like I say – especially in light of a growing audience on social media. So I know I just ranted about plastic but this is one of the areas that I hope my fungi photography might stretch to inspire change.
Do you have any favorites to photograph?
My favorite mushrooms to photograph are also my favorite fungi. I get so excited over jelly fungi, waxcap mushrooms, shaggy mane ink caps, and the traditional Amanita muscaria mushrooms, or the mushrooms with red caps and white spots.
I have a thing for slimy. I’m a slug person - snails were my favorite animal growing up. So in that case, jelly fungi – which are so difficult to describe, its best just to google something like “witches butter” to get a good idea of what they look like – are some of my favorites both to poke and to photograph.
Waxcaps for the same reason – I love this genera which holds some particularly slimy specimens, like the parrot mushroom (which I’ll get to), and some of the most colorful mushrooms as well – from red through blue. These guys are small to medium in size and they never fail to inspire awe from me.
So the parrot mushroom, as the name suggests, can form in any color from pink through green. The variety is just incredible! My favorites are the green specimens; there aren’t many green and blue mushrooms out there so finding a green parrot is quite a treat.
And then there are the shaggy mane ink caps. Those are some cool mushrooms. As they age, the edges of their caps begin to curl up and turn black, eventually oozing a black ink-like liquid. This oozing is the result of a process called “deliquescence”, and essentially what is happening is that the mushroom is digesting its own flesh so as to better expose its spores for wind dispersal. I just think that is so wonderfully weird. A mushroom that digests itself.
And aside from specific mushrooms, I just love photographing clusters of mushrooms in general. So pretty much any mushrooms that have grown in a tight grouping – I just love those – and I personally find them to provide particularly moving photographs.
And then couples – I love couples. If there are two mushrooms right next to each other, sometimes leaning into each other, I love to anthropomorphize them and pretend they’re an item. I actually make little Valentines for my friends and family every year using the “mushroom couple” photos and put mushroom puns on them like “I have so mushroom in my heart for you.”
What about mycophagy? Which do you grub on the most… if any?
When it comes to me that’s actually an interesting question because, fun fact: I don’t eat mushrooms at all! I don’t particularly care for their texture, and the flavor I find either earthy or unpalatable. So yes, I am a fungi photographer that does not eat her subjects.
I have little experience to speak on, though, I’m one of the pickiest people on the planet.
And for that reason it’s important not to be influenced by my avoidance of eating mushrooms because there are so many people out there who are into mycology specifically for the variety of wild edibles.
I have tried chicken of the woods, which is a Fall mushroom that people really enjoy. And as you can judge from the name it really does taste like chicken!
I’ve also tried California chanterelle,
And for both of those I just cut and washed the specimens before browning them in butter and garlic.
My reaction was honestly kind of meh. But again, I’m a relatively picky person. I don’t have a crazy amount of experience so my judgement is based on store-bought mushrooms, chicken of the woods, and CA chanterelle – and the latter two were prepared alone; I do hear they can be immensely tastier when mixed into different recipes.
Where do you see your work in the world of mycology/ethnomycology?
I feel a little bold saying this, but I would just love to see my work used in books and resources. I hope someday to publish a book of my own, though I haven’t quite nailed down what kind of book and how.
And as mentioned my goal is for the photos to be used in any way that might impact others. Right now I actually have a photo circulating in Bay Nature Magazine that has inspired a nature walk tomorrow led by the co-founder of the SF Mycological society. So I feel like I’m beginning to make an impact on the people in my community, and that’s the first step.
And naturally it’s every mycologists dream to discover a new species, so I’m dreaming big on that one, too.
Describe your overall engagement and obsession with mushrooms.
I love hiking. I love being outdoors. I’d say I even live for it. So for me, being outside in nature is the most therapeutic activity out there. That’s huge piece of the puzzle – spending time with nature in general.
And then there’s the treasure hunt aspect – there’s always something to be found after a good rain – and sometimes that something is a species I’ve never seen before. As of 2016 there were approximately 110,000 species of described fungi, an estimated 3000 in California. So as you might imagine, in the San Francisco East Bay Area, which is where I photograph 95% of my fungal subjects, there exists the perfect snow-less, temperate climate for fungal growth. And while in CA there can be a lack of rainfall (although we are definitely avoiding that this year with all of the “atmospheric rivers” that have hit our coast), the state, particularly the redwood coast, is a prime place for mushroom spotting. Here in the Bay Area alone I have found innumerable species that I didn’t know or think grew here, and that’s always very exciting.
So ultimately I go out to put in work. I try to get in two photography hikes each weekend. Sometimes that means going out in between the rain, which I love, because everything just feels so green and alive. All mushrooms have a certain lifespan – and some mushrooms, like the ink caps, can only be caught within a finite window – so I think it’s important to hike often, and also hike in a variety of places. I think that’s how you can really delve into the hunt and find the most mushrooms.
And then there is my process; when people see me “in the field” so to speak, they often ask what I’m doing. And usually that’s because they find me caked to the ground or precariously hanging onto a hillside in rain boots, muddy pants, and knee pads – all essentials, in my opinion, when it comes to fungi photography. And when I say muddy, I mean seriously muddy. From foot to face – I often get home and discover dirt on my face and my laundry usually smells like eucalyptus. When I take off my pants, I have to take them off inside out otherwise dirt will fling everywhere. This is the kinda situation that the phrase “caked with mud” was invented for. I spend most of my time on the ground. It’s a work out. I call it “photo pilates.” Lots of squatting, getting up and down, laying on the ground and holding the position as still as possible. The key is to literally become a human tripod and that can take a lot of effort depending on where the mushroom is growing. And of course it’s important to cover the body entirely so that little skin is showing. Otherwise there is always the risk of poison oak, stinging nettle, thorns – it’s a messy job! But it’s one I am so passionate about.
Experiences thoughts around several aspects of mushroom involvement, cultivation, wild harvest, mycoremediation, psilocybin, medicinal mushrooms.
I am SUCH an amateur mycologist when it comes to these subjects. But my interests do lie in psilocybin, medicinal mushrooms, and of course, being an environmentalist, mycoremediation. As an advocate for mental illness,the role that psilocybin can play in easing depression and anxiety, is very intriguing to me. And I know you’re an expert in that area so I’ll leave that knowledge to you.
In the area of medicinal mushrooms, I’m especially intrigued by the studies that show that turkey tail mushroom can effectively aid in the treatment of cancer patients.
And mycoremediation. This is an area that I’ve been dying to dig into. Fungi are responsible for 90% of all decomposition of the planet, and time will only tell how specialized and widespread this recycling process might become. So naturally I’m impressed with the advances that have been made in the area of fungi breaking down plastic. Fungi can break down plastic! This should be an obvious direction for us to move as a species. I really believe that through fungi, we are looking toward a more sustainable future and a healthier planet Earth.
Have you sold mushroom pics?
I have! When I was first starting out I had a few family members who actually incorporated my prints into their home décor. So they gave me my first sales.
But I’ve actually participated in the past two Fungus Fairs put on by the San Francisco Mycological Society, and I had a booth there. I have a variety of items for sale that incorporate my photos: packs of handmade blank note cards, each pack with 6-8 different photo cards, mushroom canvas tote-bags, magnets, 8x10" prints, and calendars. And I’m continuing to expand; I have a lot of ideas for additional products that I hope to have available by this 2017-18 Winter. Christmas ornaments, bookmarks, to name a few.
Where can your work be purchased?
There are three really great ways to reach out. Right now I don’t have an actual physical shop but plan to implement one by Summer 2017, and information regarding the shop will be posted to both my Friendly Fungus Photography Facebook page as well as my website, www.thefriendlyfungus.com – which in and of themselves are two great ways to reach out to me. So on Facebook you can just search Friendly Fungus Photography and my page will pop up, and my website has both contact and shop tabs. People are also welcome to email me at email@example.com with questions.
What is your website?
My website is www.thefriendlyfungus.com. On my website you can find a blog section in which I include information about fungi and also environmental conservation. There are also recommended resources, a link to my complete photo gallery, which includes albums organized by species, and then a page about myself and the fungi.
Check out more myco-related podcast episodes at Shroomosphere.
You can also "like" "Shroomosphere" on Facebook.