Category Archives: Diary Entries

Alison Pouliot: Fungal Futures?

In a previous post, Libby Robin wrote about aseasonality and the seasonal exceptionalism of Australia and elsewhere. The paradox of turning leaves and blossom jostling on the one branch are a striking reminder that our seasons are awry.

As few of us in the western world are dependent on acute seasonal observations of fruiting, flowering, migrations and so forth for survival, we’re less attuned to the nuances of seasonal change. Could it be that we’re too busy aseasonally tweeting to notice…?

I follow fungi across the globe. My movements between hemispheres coincide with autumn in both. This is when most fungi invest their energy into reproducing – into the formation of the familiar mushrooms and other fruitbodies that burst through the earth in a riot of amazing forms and colours. It means I get a double dose of fungi. But what, or when is autumn? And how have my trans-global movements contributed to the confused fungal fruiting and the instability of our concepts of seasons?

Fungal Futures Image: Alison Pouliot

Fungal Futures Image: Alison Pouliot

Libby and other astute observers notice the changed timing of events within the plant and animal kingdoms – the so-called producers and consumers. Less often considered are the recyclers or decomposers – including fungi – and how they too may be affected by climate change.

While the majority of fungi fruit in autumn, some adopt a different strategy, appearing in spring. Morels are among the more familiar spring-fruiters.


However, last spring, popping up among the morels, were mushrooms I’d only previously encountered in autumn. Had the wet and mild winter influenced their aseasonal fruiting or was it a sign of something more worrying? Could their spring presence indicate climate change impacts on a larger scale? Just what is going on down under Downunder?

The past decades have seen a surge of studies documenting phenological responses of flora and fauna to climate change. But few include fungi. Most of this research has been in the middle and higher latitudes. One of the few long-term fungal research projects in the UK revealed fungal fruiting periods are extended in association with increased rainfall and temperature, with many species now fruiting twice a year. While mycophagists may welcome this news, the effects of mycelial activity and greater rates of decay in ecosystems in altering the timing of ecosystem processes is little known. How might climate change affect symbiotic associations between fungi and plants (mycorrhizas) and longer term ecosystem dynamics? Other European studies showed correlations between climatic conditions in one year and the occurrence of fungal fruiting in the following, suggesting that mycelia are influenced by climatic conditions over longer time periods before fruiting. What is also known is that mycorrhizal fungi have a major influence on the global carbon cycle.

Travelling scientists and others partial to coffee may not be too happy to hear about the fungus known as Hemileia vastatrix or coffee rust, which is enjoying climate change-induced weather extremes and consequently devastating central Americas coffee plantations. It has also managed to spread to higher altitudes thanks to warmer weather. Fungi colonise an enormous array of substrates including those manufactured by humans. Some even have a particular taste for airline fuel. The future, especially for travelling scientists, may be more fungal than we think….

/Alison Pouliot




Owain Jones: “It’s the end of the world as we know it – and I feel ….fine!?!” (REM)

Notes on attending Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene conference Stockholm

 I am lucky enough to be able to attend very interesting conferences in the UK and Northern Europe (previously North America but now I feel that is a ‘step’ too far). I value,  and to some extent at least, enjoy, these events. But I have got a bit of a nagging doubt about them, and/or an ill-formed question. Because I work in the area of geography – the study of the earth and nature-society relations is what these conferences,  (or strands in larger conferences), are generally about.

Now,  to cut to the chase,  I think we are living through a deeply tragic period in the earth’s history. The ecological crisis  – the 6th great extinction  – Anthropocene / Capitalocene / Obsceneocene. These are the true Dark Ages: the wholesale destruction of life – as ecological biodiversity –  within the only known complex biosphere IN THE UNIVERSE.


This is tragic for modern people too. Depression, obesity, diabetes, the horrendous stats on the UK’s collective health, and the spiralling of free health care costs, are testament to this.

So I have a “great” job – but I do spend a lot of time feeling very angry, upset, panicky. I think about being part of this tragedy every day (and maybe every hour of every day). I find personal happiness, (and successfully living with family), friends very hard reconcile. I feel isolated and unsocial; I turn to drinking; job satisfaction is a contradiction in terms.

Now, at the conferences there are often really good papers on one or other aspect of the crisis. This was certainly the case at the Stockholm event. For example, there was a truly astounding thing about plastic in the sea and chemical pollution (Life and Death in the Plastisphere, Heather Davis,  Pennsylvania State University, USA).  Put at its starkest, we might be sterilising the world – sterilising ourselves, through certain compounds passing through bodies, into the environment, attaching themselves to plastic micro-particles which are then ingested by organisms. OMG.

In most conferences / sessions I have been to, emotions of grief/loss/anger are not that on show. One notable and clear exception though: ‘For the Love of Nature?’ Centre for Human Ecology Conference, 24-28 June 1999, Findhorn, Scotland.  But more often than not, this is just not the case.

At the Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene  there was another great talk (Endlings, endings, and new beginnings; D. Jørgensen, Umeå University, Sweden) using extracts from the cutesy film ‘The Last Unicorn‘ to bookend discussions on species extinction. The substantive focus was on Swedish beavers, and their re-introduction into environments, but also on the extinction of the Marsupial wolf (thylacine).

2_Last Unicorn vs Red Bull

At the end of the talk there was a collective peal of laughter, as the last lines of “The Last Unicorn” were played. This could reflect the good vibe we had in the room at the time  – and more generally during the whole conference in Stockholm. But it puzzled me a bit. My overriding response to stories like these is mourning: loss of species, loss of individuals – loss of individual and species umwelt  – the suffering of individuals as they were hunted – the loneliness suffered by the last of their kind. I was not laughing. At all.

Laughter, I think partly, is due to people communicating with likeminded peers; conferences are a release from pressures of teaching; an opportunity to share ideas in a rarefied atmosphere;  and so on. To travel around to such conferences is a sign of professional / personal success – to be enjoyed.

But I come back to this suspicion, or question, being one of the aspects of a paper I wrote in 2008; What is the relationship between theory and world / life here? Of course no sharp line can really be drawn between these two,  but, in essence, or to put it crudely,  are we using theory to work on the world – and thus confront the world? (which is a very messy, challenging and upsetting process) –  or are we using the world to write theory (A safer, happier, career type process)??

There were a number of great talks on mourning and melancholia in the face of the “Obsceneocene”. They were delivered with great verve and palpable satisfaction to speakers and audience. This is not an intended ‘attack’ on speakers of the conference Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene. It is – just what I said at the start – a nagging doubt – an ill-formed question.

/Owain Jones

Jol Thomson: The Wrong Journey and Fugitive Values


Image from Hitchcocks ‘The Wrong Man’

Image from Hitchcocks ‘The Wrong Man’

In the immediacy of the necessity to revalue all values, of course how we travel and the speed at which it supposedly needs to take place, is one band of the multi-spectral issues of ideological oppression and species infantilization that is commanded over us from the plutocracy and its minions. Can we also speak about our hypocrisy in a world unjustifiably at war, radically inequal, superficial, passive/obedient, conformist and the complacency with which, as Noam Chomsky has often noted, the intellectuals so often serve the interests of power?

Ideal New York Times newspaper by the YESMEN

Ideal New York Times newspaper by the YESMEN

Is there a trade-off between engagement and emission? Doubtful but perhaps arguable. We love travelling, we need it for perspective, to engage in difference, to perceive the “water in the fishbowl”. The symbolic ushering in of the renaissance, the climbing of Mont Ventoux by Petrarch – the opening up of the landscape – was of course climbed by foot and hand, without the burning or expropriation of fuels. Today even the energy (with extremely contentious origins) by which we travel, itself travels long inefficient distances, sometimes with return tickets. 

"Global Gas trade both LNG and Pipeline" by Crossswords - Jol Thomson. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Global Gas trade both LNG and Pipeline” by Crossswords – Jol Thomson. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is there a way to avoid the emissions and still operate on a global or post-national level? And if there were, would this not remain a specific privilege of an elite class? Is the GENI program, influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s ‘World-game’ worth promoting? What about ballooning as suggested by artist Tomás Saraceno as an alternative travel system?


The difficult to face or even comprehend level of hypocrisy in the 21st century is fundamental, and I find myself included in that category – and these are the concerns I face daily – it is inescapable if you live in a modern, tyrranical western society. We remain in a state of what Mark Fischer in his book “Capitalist Realism” refers to as interpassivity and depressive ahedonia (which overcoming would be a major break for socially and environmentally engaged, for Life to actually flourish and progress).


If meetings of minds, collegial or otherwise,became more like a pilgrimage where the very act of getting there – slowly – the possibilities and encounters, the differences, could be enveloped within the very topic of the conference itself – discussed and confronted – perhaps we would learn-by-doing and find better approaches to arrival or journey or expedition or being-together. Processes.

Perhaps we could relieve or erode some of the psychological stresses inhibiting us by actually changing our modes, methods and behaviours – overcome the traumas that contribute to our actual situations, thereby interpellating a clearing, a path, a possibility. . .


/Jol Thomson

Libby Robin: Seasoned travels



Are we already seeing climate change in action? I pondered on this question earlier in May when in Canberra the street trees carried both blossom and autumn leaves. Very strange to see – the leaves of last year and the promise of spring together on the same boughs, on the same tree.

I have had a long interest in desert Australia and its ‘aseasonal’ year. Sometimes the rain comes in winter. Sometimes in summer. Sometimes not at all. And only after rain do we get ecological activity in most of the desert. Understanding seasons in Australia was a reason for doing our book Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country.

In the prologue to How a Continent Created a Nation (2007), I argue for the seasonal exceptionalism of Australia. It starts with a ‘parable’, a story of the inland bird, the Banded Stilt, which defied understanding because it did not breed ‘seasonally’ as expected. I suggest that we need new ways of thinking about Australia’s place in the world:

The Banded Stilt’s world challenges all fiscal models built around yearly cycles. The global economy is annual, implicitly catering for seasonal agriculture and industry. The world’s fiscal cycles follow the ‘annual’ harvests. It is easier to make an international treaty that protects migratory birds on regular seasonal flights along international ‘flyways’ than to manage lands within a single nation for unpredictable, non-annual seasons. The Banded Stilt’s eye view casts light on some of the problems of finding a place for Australia in a global world.

But maybe this is not just an Australian problem.

It was no surprise to me to find European trees behaving badly – with both blossom and autumn leaves in Australia’s shifting seasonal conditions. This is a European tree in an Australian environment, and the mismatch is evident. Botanist Tim Entwistle has recently written a book advocating the need for Sprinter and Sprummer – seasons between seasons. Aboriginal people have had very different ways of looking at seasons for very long times, and have different calendars in different parts of the country. Seasonal differences matter even more when your life depends on finding food in this country.

Photo: Johan Gärdebo

Photo: Johan Gärdebo

But now I have been challenged again. Here I am at the campus of KTH and I am seeing the same thing – hedges and trees – European natives in Europe are covered in spring growth in the first week of December. Just near the office here is a hedge with both autumn leaves and spring shoots. The avenue of trimmed trees also has just a few leaves from autumn and new buds all over the trees. The tree outside S:t Jakobs Church near the Kungsträdgården in central Stockholm is covered in buds. Just nearby, the skating rink – now full of Christmas skaters – is surrounded by trees that have new pale or even green shoots. These trees are not responding to sliding seasons: they have skipped winter altogether and think it is April. This is unlikely to be a good evolutionary strategy. It is a waste of ecological energy if the first hard frost kills all the shoots. The question is, how many times can these trees shoot in vain? Will they die if they try too often?

Photo: Libby Robin

Photo: Libby Robin

Is this an urban heat island effect? Are we seeing the first climate changed ecosystems of Stockholm? All these questions arise in the face of a small observation.

I have been travelling between the seasons of Australia and Sweden for the past 4 years. It has been a great privilege. Watching nature closely has been one way for me to feel really ‘here’ when I come. Time zones, seasonal shifts and the exhaustion of long-haul travel all make time in Sweden ‘other-worldly’ – but perhaps now we are really seeing another world, both in Sweden and Australia.

Libby Robin

David Nilsson: Long train running (reflections on quality)  

It is a grey and very early November morning. My neighbourhood is empty at this time of the day and I am briskly walking towards the subway station accompanied only by the chilling wind. Realising that I am going to be travelling for 36 hours, I ask myself solemnly; why am I doing this? Why on Earth am I travelling by train from Stockholm to Darmstadt in Germany, a destination that neighbours Frankfurt hosting the arguably largest airport in Europe?  I think the main reason is just to show to myself that it can be done. But also to explore if there are certain other qualities to this kind of travelling, qualities that we generally overlook as we jet around the world looking for answers to global sustainability challenges.

Photo: David Nilsson

Photo: David Nilsson

Once we had begun talking at KTH about sustainability and travelling habits in our own scientific community, I felt it was impossible to entirely ignore the issue. Having just flown back from a conference in Kenya on the theme of sustainable transport [sic] I promised myself to try a more environmentally friendly alternative for my upcoming trip to Darmstadt. Even if it was just for a one-day guest appearance in a lecture and a seminar, at least this time going by train was possible, if not practical. In the following, let me share some reflections from the trip in the context of “The Travelling Scientist”.

First, just making the reservation was a bit difficult. Our travel agency of course helped out, but compared to the plethora of alternatives for flying, the railways did not offer many options. Faced with relatively poor interconnections between the three countries’ state-owned operators, to be on site on Monday morning I had to start already on Saturday. And spend the night somewhere on the way. However, going back was easier, with a series of connections over 18 hours.

Secondly, the environmentally friendly alternative turned out to be more expensive, as usual. The train tickets alone cost me about €400, compared to around €300 for taking the plane. Add to this the extra costs of hotel nights, and food and drinks for two and a half days of travel in total.

Photo: David NilssonPhoto: David Nilsson

So; on the downside I can just conclude that the train took me there and back in an awful long time and at a considerably high cost. Not exactly the wet dream for an advertising campaign. But were there any “hidden qualities” to it? Yes, actually.

Since I anyway had to stay the night in Copenhagen, I spent an afternoon mulling through some archives at Landsarkivet (District Archives) in Lund. I had intended to go here for quite some time but never really felt it worthwhile to go just for the sake of this alone.

Moreover, I seldom find a lot of time to work undisturbed and in a concentrated manner during my regular working week. But two days comfortably seated in a train in the sole company of a laptop can actually be quite productive. Especially since all trains nowadays seem to be equipped with A/C outlets, and some also with free WiFi.

Photo: David NilssonPhoto: David Nilsson

Even when I wasn’t working on my laptop, or reading some of the literature I was carrying, I had the opportunity to reflect and think or just let my mind wander. And how rare isn’t that for the contemporary professional and scientist?

Of course I also enjoyed the shifting impressions of people, landscape and culture as I rolled through Sweden, Denmark and Germany. For once, when travelling, I could even experience the changes of the local cuisine and not just the stereotypic airplane food that leaves absolutely no impression other than that ordinary faded reminiscence of taste, with added plastic feeling. As a bonus, I got to buy a dirt cheap crate of Danish beer when the train, to my great surprise, boarded the ferry to Rödby on the way back!

Photo: David Nilsson

Photo: David Nilsson

I’m not sure that when adding this all up, the train stands out as such an impossible alternative after all. Just the fact that I forced myself to think and act in a different way opened up new opportunities, and added other qualities, to the “simple” act of transporting myself to Germany and back for a day’s work. If our job as scientists is mainly aimed at maximizing the throughput in terms of quantity, in number of conferences attended or guest lectures held, then flying is of course the way to go. But if quality in the long run is at the core, I’d like to wait passing a final judgment.