Dear Readers, as autumn rolls around I find myself becoming nostalgic – this has always been a time of new beginnings for me and this year, as I ease myself into retirement, there have been more changes than usual. But this morning I was remembering one of those moments in my life when magic became not just a word, but a feeling.
We had just moved house, from a tiny two-up, two-down in Stratford to the relatively palatial surroundings of a four-bedroomed house in Seven Kings, in the London Borough of Redbridge. It wasn’t an enormous house, but it was the first time that we’d had not only a bathroom but a shower room as well, and my brother and I got a whole separate room for ourselves, rather than a single room divided by a plyboard ‘wall’ that Dad had constructed. That first night, we huddled together in the middle of the ‘through-lounge’, which felt uncomfortably cavernous after the confined spaces that we were used to. The dog had no doubts, however, running from one end of the lounge to the garden and back again, scuffing up the lawn on every turn and tracking mud across the carpet.
The garden wasn’t enormous either, but it has an ancient apple tree, a bit of lawn, and (to my Dad’s delight) a shed. But we were town dwellers to the core – the first time Mum heard a vixen scream, she was horrified, and stood there with her hands over her ears.
“Make it stop!” she yelled, eyes tight closed. “Someone’s being murdered! Make it stop!”
And then there was the time that my brother put his trousers on only to discover that there was a live bat in them. That was an entertaining twenty minutes.
But the thing that came to mind this morning was when I walked downstairs very early one morning to luxuriate in a long shower before anyone else got up. I looked drowsily out of the window, only to notice something that hadn’t been there the night before.
In the lawn, there was a perfect circle of little white mushrooms, poking their heads through the turf like so many tiny bald men. Some of them were quite well-grown, some of them were barely apparent, but they hadn’t been there the night before, and that was what gave them their singular magic. Like so many fungi they just seemed to appear from nowhere. I wandered out into the half-light in my dressing gown, and bent down. The fungi seemed to glow, some of them fretted with dew drops, one or two already criss-crossed with slug trails. I still remember the smell of the earth, the silence, and then the faint song of a robin. I was struck by how mysterious the world was, and how little I knew about it. Maybe that was one of the defining moments for me, when I realised that I would be trying to understand the natural world for the rest of my life, and what a privilege it was to be part of it.
Nowadays, I realise that a fairy ring is caused by the way that the parts of the fungus that are able to absorb nutrients from the soil, the mycelium, moves out from the centre of the fungus. As the nutrients are exhausted, the mycelium continues to move outwards in all directions. The mushrooms themselves indicate how far the mycelium has travelled from the centre. Some fairy rings can be 33 metres across, and they may become stable over time, with sufficient nutrients present for the fungi not to need to expand any further. I suspect that ‘my’ fairy ring was connected to the roots of the apple tree, which toppled over and died a few years after our arrival. The fairy ring disappeared after that.
As you might expect, there are lots of legends about fairy rings. In the Tyrol, it’s believed that the rings were caused when the curled-up tails of a sleeping dragon scorched the earth so that only toadstools could grow. In the UK it used to be believed that the circles were caused by fairies dancing, and that if a mortal observed them and was drawn into the ring, they would be lost and invisible to the human world, and might even be made to dance until they dropped dead from exhaustion. If this should happen, a person could be released if someone outside threw wild marjoram or thyme into the circle, as the scent of the plant would befuddle the fairies. A stick from a Rowan tree could also be used to help the person out of the ring, and a touch from something made of iron would also do the trick.
And finally, there is a lovely Welsh legend concerning fairy rings. Welsh people seem to have regarded fairy rings as more benevolent places than folk from other parts of the UK, and in the 13th and 14th centuries, inhabitants of the town of Corwrion apparently watched fairies dancing around a glow worm every Sunday after church in a place called Pen Y Bonc. The humans sometimes joined in the revels, and there is even a rhyme about it:
“With the fairies nimbly dancing round / The glow-worm on the Rising Ground.”
While we’re still reminiscing, I was reminded recently of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig, which was compulsory reading for us back in the 1970s. It was fundamentally an exploration of the Romantic and Classical ways of looking at the world, comparing the emotional and the rational perspective, and coming to the conclusion (if I remember it correctly) that we needed both. And so we do! And furthermore, the joy of seeing something like a fairy ring, or a jay, or a rainbow, or a hummingbird hawkmoth, is enhanced by understanding something of how it came to be, and how it’s related to the other phenomena that we see around us. That first heartfelt response to something extraordinary is made deeper and more lasting by an appreciation of the connections between it and the rest of the world. That moment of astonishment as a sixteen year-old seeing a fairy ring for the first time is not one jot diminished by understanding how it came to be. Love and knowledge are not mutually incompatible, but form a virtuous circle that raises us higher than just an emotional or scientific response on its own ever can. And if ever we needed our hearts and minds to work together, this is the time.