Nostalgia sets in as the monsoon season runs its course. Paddy fields become alive and the first rice seedlings slowly color the expansive mirrors of water with green. Forests and grasslands become lush and indulge the senses with the aroma of damp earth and vegetation. During August when the rains peak in many parts of Asia, the intricate story of nature in the well-watered tropics is being performed to a greater degree.
A chapter of this story lies within the soil. In technology as well as belief, the sacred earth has been ascribed an important role. Where would we be anyway without the soil? The first stone age people gathered roots, stems, bulbs, and small animals from it, and later agricultural know-how has fashioned the precious earth into simple gardens of sweet potato, taro, yam, and fruiting vines, then eventually into elaborate rice fields and crop farms feeding international trade. In folklore a person after his or her life’s end is received by the soil, and countless forms of belief have developed about the bliss of an eternal life beyond the grave or the horrors of the dead returning from the earthy tomb.
We are made to believe, at least by traditional Filipino folklore, that particular land and water formations are also inhabited by the supernatural. Great care is advised in visiting lakes, rivers, the sea, caves, hills, and forests. Waters are known to get their quota of lives per year, especially those of non-locals. Mountains are inhabited by spirits that lead visitors astray, or kidnap them in exchange for trunks of the banana tree.
Termite mounds are seen as the abode of unseen beings called nuno that can inflict illness if not acknowledged according to ritual. The nuno constitutes part of the various beings called lamang-lupa (inhabitants of the soil). This is why there is always caution in roaming the wilds and in getting something from it.
Mythological or otherwise, the termite mound is still home to one of man’s household nemesis. Nature’s good guys of wood decomposition had become man’s bad guys of architectural destruction. Vermins of the netherworld, the termite became the target of a war when man entered into settled life, roughly the same time when the human species started the back-breaking task of agriculture.
The termite however, is not to be underestimated. Aside from carrying out its clandestine operation of bringing the house down more successfully than the plans of our politicians, a subfamily of this witty creature can also cultivate mushrooms to make ends meet.
Mushrooms called Termitomyces are tended by this subfamily of termites. In the Philippines these fungi appear during August and are seen poking from termite mounds after a period of thunderstorms. The relationship between these mushrooms and the termites is best seen as a symbiosis. Termites subsist on plant parts and wood which is basically made up of cellulose and lignin. This termite subfamily however, cannot digest these two organic compounds and have to rely on the mushrooms to do work for them.
The termites make it easy for the mushrooms to thrive by making a fungus comb on which the Termitomyces can grow and get nutrients from surroundings, including the insects’ poop. I chanced upon a surrealist diorama of it in the National Museum of Science and Nature Tokyo. When the wood has been partly decomposed, the termites begin to feed on the detritus. Termitomyces spores too will be munched unaltered by the termites and later will be passed out to begin another life cycle. Now who’s smarter? Our ancestors began to farm less than ten thousand years ago; the termites’ forefathers were already farming mushrooms several millions of years ago!
Mushrooms harvested on termite mounds are not the only edible fungi of the monsoon season. Counterparts can also be found emerging from decaying banana trunks or growing on old bamboo. These wild mushrooms, freshly picked in a wet early morning after a downpour, are cherished in Filipino rural cuisine.
A simple thick mungbean soup will be made special with moringa or chilli leaves and slivers of Termitomyces. Dinengdeng and bulanglang, quintessential soupy vegetable dishes of north and south Luzon island, respectively, will have their countryside flavors heightened by mushrooms. The coconut-growing regions will be bathing the fungus in rich coconut milk, or may just have the mushrooms wrapped in banana leaves to be roasted.
A hot soupy dish of vegetables, mushrooms, and fish to go with rice will make a basic yet perfect meal for a rainy day. Now imagine enjoying this in a hut beside wide paddy fields, the early evening meal lit only by a lamp protecting a small flickering flame. The otherwise momentous calm is only broken by the din of pelting raindrops and croaking frogs. A thunderstorm is again on the way. During August while villages thankful for the coming of water celebrate with fiestas and parade saints on boats, lowly mushrooms such as Termitomyces herald the apex of the northern hemisphere monsoon and take part in the great cycle of life in the Asian tropics.
Text and photos by Jack G. L. Medrana
Like Us in Facebook