The Secret World Under the Trees

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Children exploring the fascinating world of mycorrhizal fungi

by Sally Todd and Caroline Wendling

How amazing that it’s taken humans so many years to create the mobile phone and nature has been doing it all this time. Leo

We have been exploring the fascinating world of mycorrhizal fungi, together with 9 - 11 year olds from Arbury, St Laurence’s and Stapleford Primary Schools. Mycorrhizal fungi, found in nearly all soils, is a vast and complex underground network that enables trees and plants to communicate and support each other through their roots systems…now known as the ‘woodwide’ web.

Inspired by the collaboration between public artist, Lilah Fowler and plant scientist, Jen McGaley from the University of Cambridge, we started by looking at some intricate and wonderful blue stained images of plant root samples, collected by the children in their school grounds. The magnified root systems of strawberries, mint, nettles and dandelions prompted a discussion about how things grow beneath our feet and how we might relate to them.

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Mint
Mint and strawberry plant sample slides (30 x magnification) made by Jen McGaley
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Strawberry plant sample slides

I can see….an eye, a fossil, a tiny diver
They look like….blood vessels squashed together, an infection, the sea, a scaly dragon, a cave man drawing, my jammed ink pen
Is it like sourdough ?

It was only when we told the children that a tiny handful of earth can contain several miles of hyphae (the fungi ’s long strands), that they began to grasp the scale of this immense network under their feet, invisible to humans without a microscope! They all recognised the plants’ names and what they looked like above ground, but it was a journey in interpretation and imagination that helped children to make sense of the mycorrhizal network.

We went outside to look anew at the trees around us, firstly by doing an embodied drawing of a chosen tree, tracing the form with our finger in the air and then, through active intense looking, an observational tree drawing, using graphite. We noticed how focused the children all were. They took on the tasks very seriously and their tree drawings all told the story of how they had individually observed their tree of choice. The children noticed this too, as Isabel said: All the drawings are unique!

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An observational tree drawing, using graphite.
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An observational tree drawing, using graphite.
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An observational tree drawing, using graphite.

We then settled in the wooded areas outside - in Stapleford this happened to be a moat ! - and invited the children to create a large detailed drawing of a tree, looking at shape, texture and colour to guide us. We experimented with pastels and mark making, discovering an array of colours in the play of light between the trees. Children spoke about the colours they were inventing, while they mixed, rubbed and blended the pastels until satisfied with the results. We extended our tree drawings by visualising the root system beneath the trees and beyond that, began to elaborate pathways of connection between our amazing and vivid ‘trees’. A child commented on making friends again with a pupil they had stopped talking to for weeks. They used the invitation to connect between the root systems of their trees, to reconnect with each other.

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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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Children drawing
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Children drawing
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Children drawing
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Children drawing

After this we ventured into the imaginary and created ‘sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper, we drew invisible networks and mycelial lines that traversed the surface and were only revealed with ink washes made from blackberries, nettles and blue lake pigment. The children made rich and expressive marks, some inspired by the slides seen in the classroom, and took great care layering the inks and developing a language guided by the fluidity of the medium and their intention to reveal the world of connections below the ground.

It felt scary, I didn’t know how it would be but I think it looks amazing.
It’s insane…it’s epic.
This is like magic.

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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper
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‘Sense’ drawings of underground fungi. Using white candle wax on white paper

The children spoke of feeling calm and grounded amongst the trees:
When a breeze comes, it’s safe, you can relax.  Tamsin
The wood is really calming , it’s peaceful having all those trees. Isabel
It’s a mythological place. Ethan
You can breathe more naturally. Sibelle

They were excited by the insect visitors on their drawings, and their exploration and discoveries of bark patterns, leaf forms and tree fungi. I like bugs, it makes me feel happy…look at these cool skeleton leaves. These small nature finds took children from the large (trees) into the minute and marvellous details of the living world. They instinctively found their comfortable space in the wood, one child in his own ‘studio’ where friends visited him, others working alongside each other or moving freely between groups….a connected creative community above ground mirroring the dynamic communication network below.

At Stapleford we had a moment to share the children’s work with families at the end of the day - an impromptu exhibition laid out on the earth, as one child noticed, ‘like a great big eye’, then the rains came and the work disappeared beneath our tarpaulin, like the secret world under the trees.

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A moment to share the children’s work with families at the end of the day

The most awesome art day ever. Yr 6 child at Stapleford


These workshops, involving 105 children from the three primary schools, were informed by themes inspiring artwork being developed by artist Lilah Fowler for the forthcoming new community centre at the Meadows in North Cambridge.  Meadows is part of Resonance-Cambridge, the public art programme commissioned by Cambridge Investment Partnership.

Elements from the artwork created by the children will be included on hangings exhibited during the community centre opening day in 2022 (date tbc) and will also be incorporated into CCI’s Forest of Imagination exhibition in the City and Wandlebury Country Park at the end of this year.

The workshops at Stapleford Primary School were made possible thanks to a Community Chest Grant from South Cambridgeshire District Council. We are also grateful to volunteer Amanda Morris-Drake who joined as an extra companion in the process to support students at Arbury and Stapleford.

Jen McGaley is a PhD student in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge. She is based at the Crop Science Centre, where she studies the beneficial partnership between plants and mycorrhizal fungi. Her research employs a range of microscopy techniques to reveal when and where plants and fungi transfer nutrients to each other during arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis.