27 April 2015

10 life lessons learned through fungi

I reckon I can pinpoint the shift in my perception back to this day one year ago, when we took a walk through a patch of rainforest in the Florentine Valley, northwest of Hobart. I'd seen rainforest before, and as someone with botanical leanings. Sure, I saw rainforest to be lush and peaceful but a little dull and simplistic, botanically speaking. You see, I was the kind of guy whose juices tended to flow at the sight of species-rich, dry sandy heathland or grassland, with their grand display of wild flowers in Spring.

But on this particular April day in the rainforest, the forest floor was awash with colour, not from plants, but, you guessed it, fungi! All colours of the rainbow, alien forms and configurations. I had previously read a little about fungi and their role in ecosystems as decomposers of dead organic matter and taken the odd passing snap with my camera. But there was a lot more going in this forest than I had previously noticed, and it was sparking my brain and my heart. I was filled with questions about their ecology, but was also struck by their beauty and diversity. All manner of mushroom, jelly, bracket, earth ball, and cup fungi! I took a bunch of photos and starting reading about these curious organisms...

These Mycena viscidocruenta were spotted on that pivotal bush walk exactly one year ago.

Since that eye-opening bushwalk exactly one year ago, we have been on about sixty dedicated fungi walks. The owlets have accompanied me on all but a few of these, and as a result they have developed keen fungi-spotting goggles and even learned the names of many! It's pretty awesome. 

And whilst I can't speak for the wisdom gained by the owlets during these walks, I can list with confidence some of my own insights. Lessons learned, if you will. Here goes:

1. Perception of the natural world is limited by ones attitudes to it and time spent in it.

On my walks sometimes strangers would see me crouched awkwardly with my camera and ask me what I was looking at. When I explained or showed people the fungi, often the response would be along the lines of "Oh I walk along here all the time, I've never noticed them!" I think there are many things I see, but treat as background noise to perception. It takes focus to see past that which we see easily. This can translate into our modern society, for example, it's is quite easy to ignore the under-privileged, the down-trodden and the minorities, unless we intentionally open our hearts and focus attention. Empathy can really open the minds-eye.

2. There really are worlds within world's but most humans will see only one. 

These jelly fungi are reminiscent of a galaxy of stars - tiny worlds on a log.

When looking closely at a fungus, you will often see small animals scuttling around its surface. Some tiny insects called springtails spend their whole life cycle within the gills on the underside of a mushroom! Planet earth may be the "world" as humans know it, but for many species their world is much smaller.

Also, some fungi cluster in ways that are reminiscent of galaxies or complex networks. You will often see the  intricate dendritic pattern of mycelial threads at the base of a fungus, reaching down into the soil. 

3. In intact nature, all living creatures are connected, but most connections are invisible.

Here you can see mycelial threads that connect this mushroom with the earth - what other connections do you see?

The pretty little mushrooms and other fungi that we see are not the whole organism, rather they might be considered as the fruit, whilst much of the species grows beneath the surface (of the wood or soil substrate). Those underground parts (called mycelium) often form associations with the roots of plants and these can extend throughout a forest. I think there is a lot still to learn about this phenomenon and the invisible ways that a forest communicates with itself and its environment.

Translating this to humans, whilst we can be physically connected, we are more often connected with others in invisible ways such as through our hearts or our shared thoughts and visions. Whilst I am not religious, I do feel my spiritual connection with nature is broadening over time. I feel like more of the connections in my life become visible or perceivable through observation of fungi. I feel less like my garden at home is completely disconnected from my favourite areas of native forest far away, and that these areas are connected through earth and water and fungal mycelium! Such thoughts only strengthen my affinity with natural areas. 

4. Science and art can be strong partners.

Zoom in close enough to a fungus and the colours and textures invoke an art piece as much as a scientific depiction!

Advances in digital photography and social media have provided great opportunities for fungi study. Mobile phone photography makes it easy to physically get the camera lens to point at harder-to-reach features of fungi. Increasingly I see fungi through both a scientific lens (what is its name, how does it work etc.) and an artistic one (look at the shape, the little bonsai-style setting, the patterns and texture!). I try to create images that provide enough information to identify the species, but I want them to be visually pleasing or interesting. This art part makes communicating the science part more effective, and thus I see the two disciplines as strong allies!

5. There is a stigma attached to fungi and related processes of death and decay and these inhibit human empathy towards nature.

Decaying fruiting body of Mycena cystidiosa, standing tall to the end.

In online discussions I've read many comments by others about how "gross" fungi and slime moulds are. I wonder if such disgust stems from a deeply-set avoidance instinct developed as a personal safety mechanism? I have a fear of big hairy spiders and I've seen other people carry massive tarantulas on their hands - this repulses me, but I'm sure my feelings stem from ignorance about those spiders as much as anything. Slimy or decaying fungi are not to be feared! Just wash your hands afterwards and all will be well!

6. Beauty can come from darkness.

Porpolomopsis lewelliniae, emerged from the darkness.

Many fungi grow in darkness; hundreds of microscopic fungi may reside in the woods of a single fallen log. Many larger mushrooms fruit on the dark underside of logs and branches, in deep dark leaf litter and in hollow logs. Despite the darkness of these places, many fungi thrive.

7. Even the very small can hold their head high.

Even amongst forest giants, this delicate mushroom holds its own.

In Tasmania we have trees that are nearly 100 metres tall making them the tall flowering plants in the world. Around the base of these trees, if you look closely, you're likely to find tiny mushrooms, maybe just a few centimetres tall. But here the height difference doesn't matter - every being holds their own space. Every individual is distinct but integrating as an effective community. 

8. We all have opportunity to reinvent ourselves by the choices we make each day.

Be your own earth star! 

When you see a mushroom and it has sagged into a decaying, goopy mess, the organism is still very much alive below ground. It might pop back up fresh nearby soon after, or it might wait until condition are suitable in future years. Translate this to humans and we can wake up each day a sagging goopy mess, bearing the burdens of yesterday, or we can wake up fresh and be whoever we choose to be!

9. Nature is much more than skin deep.

A family of springtails doing their thang on the jelly fungus, Tremella fuciformis.

One thing that I think really draws me into spending time in nature, is that it is not superficial. I think understanding of the more subtle or complex aspects of nature (e.g. All the small creatures and their interactions) increases with time spent immersed in it. The cool thing about fungi is that you're going to see different species and stages of fungi growth with each visit to an area. 

10. Learning is never complete.

The great thing about fungi books is that they are almost always pretty to look at! 

When I started learning names for fungi, I had aspirations to learn ALL the names! To learn ALL the things! But the reality is that our time to learn new things or follow any pursuit, is limited. So, I've come to realise that simple idea that "you can only do what you can do"! For example, I have dozens of books-to-read on my shelves, probably enough to last the next few decades - so many classic and amazing books I'll probably never get to read given a busy life - this is kinda sad, but it just encourages me to prioritise! Likewise with fungi, or any other activity really, I think it is important to focus on doing more of the stuff you really love. Learn for the sake of learning and share your knowledge with others and happiness will inevitably follow!

As you can see, these hitherto unseen organisms have had a profound effect on me - and it's only the been one year!

Have you had an equivalent hobby influence your world view? 

You can see more of my fungi photos on instagram @owletpapa. You can find a link in the sidebar. 

~ Oberon. 

24 April 2015

Permaculture :: Growing + Learning

We've been talking permaculture in these parts for a while now. Our owlets are well versed, having been guinea pigs for our Seedlings e-course, and living with two passionate permie parents, they've totally picked up the lingo. It's hilarious, and pretty amazing to watch how they absorb it so intuitively when we begin talking. And it's an awesome moment when you realise they're getting it, growing with it. Everything's going to be ok with earth stewards like them in the ranks. 

Two years ago, this week exactly, I completed a Permaculture Design Certificate here in Hobart. For me, it was pretty life changing. Like a positive way of re-framing what we already do; connecting the dots so that we can create the kind of community and world we hope to live in. It was a huge, awesome period of growth for me. I discovered it was all about gardening and community and nature and mindfulness and so very much more. Intrigued by my learning experience, Owletpapa undertook his PDC last year, and right now, as I type, he's completing his Permaculture Teacher Training with Rosemary Morrow and a bunch of other incredible passionate permie peeps. It's a perfect fit for him and his ecological brain and somewhat outgoing nature. We're sitting up late into the night talking, debriefing and planning and wondering where this all might go… How we can implement permaculture thinking more fully into our lives. And casting our eyes over our permaculture design (or designs rather, as we've got one each!), and seeing how we're going with implementing that. 

On the practical side of things, our permaculture design is probably one third of the way implemented. We're slow and lazy gardeners, but motivated by bursts of work between bush walks and work days. We have a chook orchard and a small food forest that are going gangbusters. The veggie spiral is bubbling away as we experiment with crop rotation, succession, guild planting and a whole lot of soil improvement. We've slowed the flow of water and nutrients from our garden, created topsoil where there was none, and learnt so much. But we have a heap more lawn to convert into productive space. There's that back corner that's just made for a studio of some sort if we can forego the Hill's Hoist. The front verandah could do with some sort of pergola to grow grapes up and we need to move the side gate. Bees will be arriving in Spring and I'm hoping ducks won't be too far off. The house is another matter entirely, with lots of improvements to be made and water harvesting to be improved. The front garden is yet to be touched, although it's an established mostly-indigenous garden now. Although not as fast as we'd like, it's getting there. 

One of my favourite permaculture principles is Use Small and Slow Solutions. Our current group of Seedlings are looking at it now and hopefully finding some comfort in it too in their busy family-filled days. It's the one that reminds you to just work on things one bite at a time. Things will get done eventually and by slowing down, playing, working, observing, you can appreciate the process so much more. Only realising further down the track what you've achieved. Much like parenting owlets. You just need to trust the process. 

Spots are filling up now for our third season of Spiral Garden Seedlings. In the interests of slowing things down, we're changing the format this Winter. We'll be working through just one principle each week so our families can really get stuck into it deeply, or just pick one thing to do on the weekends. Family time. So far, just one shy of 60 families have joined us for the course. We're super thrilled that some of them want to come back and do it all over again this time. In amongst our Seedlings families have been green thumbs, gardening novices, permaculture designers and teachers, homeschoolers, unschoolers, educators and we're estimating about 300 children - fabulous earth stewards. We're so grateful for the opportunity to share our work and our passion with each of them, seeing families connect and work together. Yep. It's going to be ok. 

~ Owletmama. xx


20 April 2015

The Importance of Home Days

We're pretty busy people. Busy by choice and busy because we're chasing up all the things we're so passionate about. Mostly we're busy because we're hunting for fungi this time of year and wandering though the bush any chance we can get. I suppose that makes us not so much busy as at play. But we take our play seriously.

The stereotypical image of the isolated, unsocialised homeschooler is not a reality we've ever witnessed.  Where we live, there's so much on offer in the home educating community, and in the natural world around us, we actually have to put our collective foot down to grab some space amongst it all.

The balance of our adventuring days, and classes and outings and co-op days, is our home days. These are the days where we go very slow. Our in-breath. This is our daydreaming space. This is the space where we get stuff done and each explore what it is we each love to do. These are pyjama days, where the questions flow before breakfast ends. These are the days when the owlets delve into their preferred mediums for relaxation, learning and play.

Usually you'll find Big Owlet making art.

Little Owlet will, at some point, be working with her favourite wooden spoon.

And Tiny Owlet will be stacking blocks, or putting them all in a line up the hallway.

I'll be floating around all of them,  helping keep them in orbit, if they need me. I'll be reading with one or all of them. Or working alongside them on my own projects. Sometimes I'll be cooking vast quantities of food to keep them fed and our evenings easier. Lately I've been looking at the piles of surplus stuff in our lives. Things that have seemed to accumulate mysteriously. Home days are a beautiful opportunity to assess those. They're a wonderful opportunity to get out in the garden too, and observe, explore, work and play. There will be screens watched and played on, arguments resolved, friends chatted with, pets played with, chooks cuddled, berries foraged, spills wiped up, washing done… and by the end of the day, the house will probably be trashed before Owletpapa arrives home. A family effort will set it (almost) right before dinner and we'll catch our breath before setting about doing it all again. These are the days that slip by quietly, full of beauty and challenge; everything and nothing much at all.

Home days are a moment to pause and gather ourselves up for the next adventure. But they're also an opportunity to just be ourselves, in our own little nest, without the distractions of commuting and routine driven by external forces. They're an opportunity to grow and learn as individuals and also to work together, in a collective effort, to do what needs doing. And there is so much that needs learning and growing and doing! To us, home education and even permaculture are about anything but being at home all the time. But gosh we'd be lost without our home days!

Do you manage home days often?
Maybe you're travelling and call them something else?
Or maybe you don't spend much time home at all and you like it that way! 
Are home days important to you? 

~ Owletmama. xx

10 April 2015

The Garden Share Collective :: April

We're in a bit of a transition period in the garden right now. Starting to get on top of the most pressing jobs that were neglected in the very busy Spring-Summer we had, and planning and tucking the garden in for Winter. We're finally getting around to reassessing our permaculture plans (we have one each - ha!) and creating an ultimate plan which we've been implementing slowly anyhow, nutting it out as we go. I thought it might be a good idea to join in with The Garden Share Collective this month... just to check in with where things are at.


It's brassica time in our veggie spiral. The broccoli, kale and cabbage are growing well and I'm about to plant another successional so we'll have plenty for the winter. We've dotted the brassica bed with radish and beetroot and the odd nasturtium. We're planting garlic in the food forest and one corner of the spiral once the sunflowers have finished. The sunflowers! For years we've battled with soil that wouldn't support them, but here they are at last - a definite sign that we're doing things right. We're building up beds, redefining our spiral and spending time observing. So much has changed in our garden and it continues to evolve. I could go on for days, but we might save some more observations for another day.


It's starting to slow now, but this is such a lush and abundant time all the same. We're harvesting loads of apples and rhubarb, still the odd raspberry, strawberry and mulberry and all the myrtus berries were gobbled earlier in the week. Pumpkins and spaghetti squash and corn which grew, despite their late start and neglect. We're picking loads of herbs and a few eggs, despite half our flock moulting right now. Tragically, the possums gobbled every last walnut. Next year we'll be more prepared! 


We have paths to mulch, re-mulch and maintain, a comfrey plant to divide and plant out, more garlic to plant and green manure to get started. We're planning some special herb and food towers for our chook orchard to make our happy girls even happier, and thinking it's time for a hot compost heap. We're picking the best spot for our bees who will be arriving in the Spring! We're creating a space in a warm, sunny spot indoors for some winter growing. I'm plotting and planning which herbs and bush foods to add to our collection, thinking about hazelnuts and olives, and some more berries… We pretty much just need more plants right now. And pallets. We have big plans for wooden pallets. 

How does your garden grow? What are you planting, harvesting and planting? 

~ Owletmama. xx

"The Garden Share Collective is a group of bloggers who share their vegetable patches, container gardens and the herbs they grow on their window sills. Creating a monthly community to navigate through any garden troubles and to rival in the success of a good harvest we will nurture any beginner gardener to flourish. Each month we set ourselves a few tasks to complete by the next month, this gives us a little push to getting closer to picking and harvesting. The long-term goal of the Garden Share Collective is to get more and more people gardening and growing clean food organically and sustainably." 

9 April 2015

A call for more live music for small ears

Recorded music is a staple of modern life. It emanates from stereo speakers and headphones everywhere, and worms into our ears from almost every supermarket and shop front. At the best of times, we might sit quietly with some quality headphones listening to our favourite album. It can feel great. However, I reckon that the experience of hearing recorded music can pale in comparison to witnessing a good live music performance. The physical jostling of the audience, the vibrations of the bass notes in your body, the smells of the auditorium, the marvelling at the on-stage talent, the fashions and shapes of the crowd, the sense of unity/community that can be felt being part of an audience. Surely these can all be learning experiences, for better or worse. So why is live music performance often an adults-only thing? Fear of exposure to 'adult' activities - sex, drugs n' rock n' roll and all that? Maybe, but I don't think it has to be that way anymore. 

If you're reading this, chances are you are an adult, and as an adult you've had what I would call the grand privilege of seeing music performed live on stage. Alas, if you're reading this and you're younger than about thirteen, chances are your live music experiences have been pretty few and far between, and constrained to a very narrow range of music genres (e.g. the straight-up pop of the Wiggles or Peppa Pig live on stage, most likely!). Why is that?

The palette of musical styles and sounds that humans have concocted is enormously rich and constantly diversifying. Given that live music performance can add all kinds of sensory dimensions to musical experience, which no set of headphones can substitute, it seems a shame that children generally do not experience more of what live music can offer. 

Children tend to miss out on exposure to a broad range of musical styles and performers, and instead are spoon-fed 'Children's Music', which I reckon it a redundant concept. I find it interesting to presume that children don't appreciate "adult" music. Certainly, the perceptions by children hearing new music is inevitably different to those of most adults. It is more likely to be devoid of the subjective influence of cultural context and bias. I mean that children are less likely to know about the bands-infighting, the possible drug-addled history of the lead singer, the pre-occupation that many have with the private lives of band members. Many great music artists have a troubled history; demons that have inspired and shaped their musical output. But for children seeing the live performance of these musicians, it's all about the feelings evoked by the music in its own right - baggage free.  

A few weeks ago we took the Owlets on a camping trip to a family-friendly music festival in northern Tasmania called Panama. This festival is set in lush forest, is family-friendly and hosts a diverse range cool, "adult" music. Some of the artists in the line-up had been heard by our kids previously through home stereo speakers, but they'd not batted an eyelid to them then! Mostly these were going to be new sounds to their ears. 

On the first afternoon, we took a stroll around the festival site. There was music being played over loud-speakers, but it was mostly being ignored by the owlets. Background noise, distant, inconsequential in their subconscious mind. Then, as the sun was sinking low, a motley group of 20-something's slung on their instruments and started the first live set of the festival. Well this got the kids' attention. Little Owlet exclaimed "I feel it in here!", pointing to her chest. Something had been triggered. Progressive indie-rock being thoroughly enjoyed? What was this madness?

On the next day we witnessed a bunch of musical acts, setting up a rug by the main stage. Now this would be a highly risky manoeuvre in most "adults-only" festivals, especially a few metres from the stage, but here the crowd was limited to 1000 people so it was relatively cruisey. Tiny made a new friend and they danced together and played nearby. As the music passed through jazz, folk, rock and funk, the owlets commented on the instruments and the audience and the way the music made them feel. Big Owlet even danced amongst the loose throng in front of the stage, feeling independent and free, but safe, knowing we could still see her from nearby. It was pretty special. In the evening I took Big and Little owlet to see Bombino, an awesomely cool rock-funk band from Niger. We found a front row spot against the rail by the stage. "I like the bass player, he looks very relaxed." said Little. Towards the end of the set, Little was falling asleep against the back of the main speakers, so we headed back to camp, enjoying the end of Bombino from the comfort of sleeping bags.

On the last day of Panama, we made the most of all the musical offerings, in between naps in the tent. The previous night had been restless as a result of a DJ played retro beats until the small hours. Big Owlet had heard strange "path pah pah pah pah" noises and moaning from our neighbours tent - we had to explain that that's not how everyone sounds when they are intimate with each other!

The highlights for the owlets were the rock-styles of Sharon Van Etten and Courtney Barnett - great, strong women, and great role models for the owlets, showing that it's not all Katy Perry and Beyonce pop (not that they make bad music necessarily, but just that their music is overtly sexualised). "I'm getting their albums dad". I was beaming with pride. 

The festival ended with a speakeasy performance by troubadour Ben Salter on a little outdoor stage on the other side of the festival site to the main stage. Big Owlet and I watched some of his set, drinking home-made lemonade. Then we moved over to the centre of a big grassy oval adjacent to the stage and lay on our backs and watched low moonlit clouds fly over as the acoustic sounds washed over us too. Big owlet was reflective and felt changed from the festival, from "getting" the live music buzz and experiencing the positive community vibes built around the common appreciation for good music. Not "children's music", just "music". I wish there were more opportunities for children to be exposed to diverse live music, and hopefully festivals like Panama are an indication that music does not have to be an adults-only affair.

Do you agree that children deserve more live music experiences, outside the genre of "children's music"? Let us know in the comments! 

~ Owletpapa.

8 April 2015

Finding Balance

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Something I've often given thought to, over the years of home educating and running a small business, is balance. Over the years, others have asked me about it too. How do we do it? How do we find balance? Or rather, will we ever find balance? Is it even a thing? How do we manage to cram our lives so full of all the things we want so much to do?

The conclusion I've arrived at is no. Balance, in this particular life we're living, is and will most likely never be a thing. Not in the way we imagine.

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In a household of five creative and passionate individuals, following our passions means we completely immerse ourselves in them from time to time. And while we're following those passions, things get left by the wayside. Perhaps it isn't balance we really need to look for, so much as how to be ok with the chaos, or how to work with it.

For us, finding balance has been more about finding support. It's also been about finding space to wander more and work a little less. It's meant waking up and taking a day off to go exploring, rather than work. It's meant cancelling plans to spend the day in the garden. It's meant knuckling down to get the job done sometimes. It's meant making plans and throwing them out the window in an effort to do what feels best and right and fun. Finding balance has been about looking out for each other and making sure we each have time to indulge our passions.


Practically, Huz's shift from his full-time day job, to working four days per week, has meant an extra day for me to work. It's shifted the balance of things in our home in a much more equitable way. It also gives him time with the owlets, usually in nature, allowing him to get out and do what he loves best. On Fridays he always wakes with a grin. It's meant an extra day to play and spend time getting work done in the garden too - one of my favourite things to do. It's a much happier balance, but one that takes some tweaking as we learn to cover the financial gap that one day leaves us. Growing food and working more on our own business helps with that.

Owlets getting older helps a little too. I'm finding stolen snippets of time are getting longer and longer, so now, with a little focus, I can get to more of the stuff that needs doing. So with that, I'm attempting to return to blogging more regularly. In line with this fluid, messy life, where lines are blurred and one thing feeds and flows into the next, this blog will be where we document and perhaps attempt to bring some sort of order from it all. It has always been a space to reflect, document and define our dreams, these past eight years (yes, eight! Can you believe it?), but now it's time for a new Owlet chapter.

So Huz, Owletpapa, will be joining me to document the journey from here, as it becomes our blog. I'm looking forward to the words he'll share and the world of Owlets and the Spiral Garden and all it is and will be, with his insight. And in time, from the owlets' perspective too. We hope you'll join us for the adventure - it's bound to be messy and beautiful and all kinds of fun!

~ Owletmama. xo

PS. These photos were taken at the end of last year, on a day where we decided to take a day off from wrapping orders and ramble around the bush for a bit. We visited Waterworks reserve and Mt Wellington. Two gorgeous spots, just 20 minutes from our home, in Hobart. Much to my astonishment, the world didn't end and all the parcels arrived on time, despite skipping a day.