ink cap ink cap (SOIL CULTURE)

northam burrows, north devon 261013

“Soil is a material on which – even in the age of the internet – the whole of civilization depends. Along with clean air and fresh water, it is one of the fundamental components that support life on this planet. Without a healthy layer of soil, life and human society as we know it would not be able to function.”[i]

ink cap landscape, co clare, ireland (shaggy-ink-cap ink, © p ward 1995) ink cap landscape, co clare, ireland (shaggy-ink-cap ink, © p ward 1995)

Believe it or not the soil is a living entity – a thin but rich, breathing interface of fungal and microbial[ii] action between the air and mineral bedrock. Water and vegetation, animal and human activity all contributing to its fertility and power. It is the world’s greatest carbon sink, holding climate in balance, when allowed to function healthily[iii]. One element of soil that maintains its potency, its life-sustaining quality, is the far-reaching microscopic tendrils, or mycelium, of Earth’s largest organisms – fungus. Fungus is generally recognized by its splendid array of weird and wonderful fruiting bodies in the form of the mushrooms, toadstools, brackets and sporific slimes which appear often overnight in the wetter seasons of the year, providing food, entertainment and insight, as well as danger to the unwary grazer. Within the soil the mycelium breaks down organic matter, such as leaves, wood and dead animals, as it feeds to create the humus and compost that fertilizes and nourishes the plants that feed us all.

shaggy-ink-cap (lawyer’s wig) mushrooms, northam burrows, north devon (© p ward:f owen 2013) shaggy-ink-cap (lawyer’s wig) mushrooms, northam burrows, north devon (© p ward/f owen 2013)

As an artist interested in soil and natural resources it is only logical that I should want to celebrate this dimension of the soil’s power. I was recently provided with a wonderful opportunity to further explore such processes when I was presented with a field of shaggy ink-cap mushrooms (Coprinus comatus), local to my home on the coast of North Devon. Shaggy ink-cap mushrooms as the name suggests, have been used as ink throughout history – the fruiting body providing a deep black-brown slimy liquid as it decays. To alleviate the smell of the rotting fungus I added cloves boiled in water to the pungent ‘soup’. I last made ink-cap ink in Ireland in 1995 and still have a usable jar of it today. The ink has a beautiful dark brown and textured quality, but is liable to fade if exposed to direct sunlight like many plant-based dyes. The white fruiting bodies may also be eaten if caught very early (otherwise they tend to turn to grey slime!)[iv].

ink-cap experiments (© p ward:f owen 2013) ink-cap experiments (© p ward/f owen 2013)

ink-cap prints (© p ward:f owen 2013) ink-cap prints (© p ward/f owen 2013)

ink-cap ink jars (© p ward:f owen 2013) ink-cap ink jars (© p ward/f owen 2013)

mycelium; ink-cap doodle; ink-cap print 2 (ink-cap-ink and gum Arabic © p ward 2013) mycelium; ink-cap doodle; ink-cap print 2 (ink-cap-ink and gum Arabic © p ward 2013)

Many thanks again to Francesca for joining me on this adventure …


© P Ward 2013


[ii] a study of the microbial process of decay has been ingeniously revealed by artist photographer Daro Montag in his work ‘bioglyphs’ (

[iii] for an in depth account of such processes and human intervention within them read THE CARBON FIELDS by GRAHAM HARVEY (Bridgewater UK; GRASSROOTS; 2008)