mushrooms in northeast india
Photos: Stephen Axford/Catherine Marciniak
Culture

Unearthing the Strange, Magical World of Mushrooms in Northeast India

From finding a stunning new species of glow-in-the-dark mushrooms to wild stories of unfortunate locals experimenting with poisonous varieties, a new documentary film goes where few have gone before.
Dhvani Solani
Mumbai, India
November 2, 2020, 8:34am

Wherever naturalist Stephen Axford goes, he always asks if anyone has seen any glowing mushrooms in their local forests. Around his home in Lismore in Australia, Axford finds a variety of Mycena Chlorophos in his local forests. The rare, alien-like glow-in-the-dark mushrooms emit a spooky green light and are not something he chances upon in other countries very often. But when he was recently in the forests around Mawlynnong (often called Asia’s cleanest village) in the state of Meghalaya in India, his skeptical question was answered with a nonchalant “yes” by the guide showing them around. The locals call them Bright Mushrooms and Axford was guided to little bioluminescent clusters growing on bamboo sticks near a stream as nighttime fell. There they were, their stems emitting a ghostly green light, but to Axford’s surprise, not their caps. While there are 80 species of luminous fungi recorded around the world, the one Axford was taken to was so far undocumented. 

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A new species of the luminous fungi, found at Mawlynnong

Scoping out undocumented species, working with indigenous people to track down their local mushrooms, and listening to their stories on how they’d discovered which species are poisonous—this all comes together in a new documentary, Planet Fungi: North East India

Released on November 1, the film sees the master of macro fungi photography and an expert in time-lapse photography (which has also featured in David Attenborough’s award-winning Planet Earth II) travel around India’s northeastern states of Assam, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. Shot over a few months in 2018 and 2019, Axford was invited by the Balipara Foundation in Assam that maps the biodiversity of the forests of Eastern Himalayas, with fungi just added to their list of to-dos. 

The result is a 50-minute film packed with Axford’s mesmerising photos, wild hyperlapse videos and fascinating stories of mushrooms. Then there are hilarious and heart-warming anecdotes of indigenous communities unpacking their relationships with fungi, a trip to the local market where a woman makes a quick buck selling her forest finds, and a dive into some local festival celebrations (like any self-respecting documentary on India made by white people would have). One of the highlights is also a meeting with the Forest Man of India who single-handedly converted thousands of acres of barren sandbar into a forest and whose story just got added to the curriculum of students in America’s schools.

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Jadav Payeng (centre) shows Stephen Axford his forest on Majuli Island

“To meet the Forest Man, Jadav Payeng, we had to be up at 3 AM, take a boat, walk seven kilometres to the forest and wade through a stream with the camera on our head,” says Catherine Marciniak, the director and writer of the film. “The conditions we travel in are often hard but the fungi there was so magnificent it made up for it.”

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A large edible coral fungus - Ramaria sp

Marciniak and Axford are chatting with me over a WhatsApp call from Australia, reliving the months that went into making the movie but also highlighting why it’s more than just a series of pretty photos and videos of alien-looking mushrooms.

“There is growing awareness that fungi plays an important role in the ecosystem as do flora and fauna, and people are now slowly talking about it,” says Axford. “Without fungi, there would be no forests. There’s fungus everywhere—even inside us. It’s a new frontier of scientific discovery. It’s a whole kingdom which up until this decade we’ve known very little about, and that’s because most of it happens underground. We only ever see it when it fruits. It’s very new compared to other fields.” 

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"Without fungi, there would be no forests." —Stephen Axford

He adds how our understanding of the role of the humble fungus on averting climate change is still at a nascent stage. “Our focus is also on the big picture, like how fungus can help clean oil spills.”

Watching Axford at work in his movies is a lesson in patience and commitment it takes to spot what many of us overlook on our hikes. But the gentleman is also a happy reminder of how it’s never too late to chase your passion. He took up photography only in his late 50s after retiring from a career in IT. 

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Marasmius sp growing on leaves covered the forest floor

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Mycena viscidocruenta, a tiny but beautiful mushroom

Today, the multitasking duo travels to remote corners of the planet, collaborating with universities and conservation organisations to photograph, film and document fungi. Axford even has a mushroom in China named after him—Panaeolus axfordii. And while mycologists (fungus scientists) often work closely with him, his adventures in the northeast were largely guided by locals. Like the very endearing Khasi woman, Kong, who features in his documentary.

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You can't help but fall in love with Bilinda 'Kong' Syiemlieh, a Khasi woman who described her brush with a poisonous mushroom while foraging for food to feed her children.

Kong describes what happened when she ate a poisonous mushroom while on a hunt to find food to feed her five children after her husband passed away. Though she talks in a language Axford can’t understand, her animated description of her sweating, shivering, having to wring the sweat off her clothes is a masterclass in acting. “I just wanted to test because I liked the look of it,” she says in the movie, her teeth and lips stained red, possibly from the chewing of betel nut which plays an integral part in Khasi lives. She goes on to point out some edible mushrooms, and talks about how her foraging trips have also led to some delicious meals. 

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Auricularia delicata, used medicinally in China and India

And this is a reminder of how documenting fungi also plays a vital role in creating a field guide for locals so as to avoid deaths by poisoning—a shockingly common occurrence in this part of the world. During the pandemic, the risks of such deaths have gone up even higher as people left without jobs and money turned to foraging to get by. So while mushrooms are being hailed as superfoods and a source of sustainable fashion as well as the next big thing in mental healthcare, a lot more remains for us to be discovered. Kong found that out the hard way but work like Axford’s and Marciniak’s can help push for safer, more scientific ways of getting there. With lots of hypnotic hyperlapse videos along the way.

You can watch Planet Fungi: North East India on planetfungi.movie, or on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and U.K. It is also available on iTunes and Google Play in some countries. 10 percent of the proceeds from the streaming support the forest conservation work of the Balipara Foundation in India.