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Biology corner

 

The Sexual Behaviour of Compost Heaps

Sir Edmund Gibbon, CBE, FRS

 

Reprinted from Mycological Newsletter correspondence section, April 1951

I was recently invited by the eclectic innovator Mr Silas Marlowe to visit his experimental site in Finchingfield, Essex, where he has been growing fungal filaments in farmyard waste in an effort to explore the potential for sentience in fungal networks.

 

His latest research involves the inoculation of piles of dung and straw with a patented strain of Penicillium roqueforti extracted from imported gorgonzola by his father in the 1920s.

 

He was able to demonstrate some extraordinary effects. Mature 'heaps' in his collection elicit a quivering motion when subjected to a AC electric current of even modest voltage, and emitted a regular gaseous pulse  when linked to a 12V DC tractor battery.

 

He could also stimulate the physical movement of his heaps by placing a bucket of hay silage a few feet away.

Marlowe family interest in novel fungal species growing in compost extends back several generations. Pioneers of Enlightenment thinking, the Marlowes paid close attention to the observations and musings of local folk, including regular reports that compost heaps had been displaced overnight, sometimes by a few inches, but occasionally by some hundreds of yards. Other heaps were reported to have simply disappeared altogether. Theft and pranking was alleged, though no proof found.

 

It was not until his father had returned by train from a business trip to Turin shortly after the Great War, that heap mobility was definitively proved. Marlowe Senior found that the rind of the blue cheese he had wrapped in newspaper had hardened after several days in his luggage, and he trimmed it off and threw it on the kitchen waste.

Merlin Marlowe pondered the science of heap locomotion throughout his life 

In the warm days of May 1922, it seems the Penicillium mould rapidly formed a commensal relationship with the local fungal ecology, triggering a much more energetic locomotive ability. As the fungal spores slowly spread on the air around the gardens of Marlowe’s neighbours, heap owners were forced to adapt to the new vigour of their muckpiles.

 

Villagers soon treated their compost heaps as pets, and would take them out for daily exercise. By the 1930s, the ambulatory heaps were entered into talent competitions at the annual fete, and more dedicated owners introduced the heaps to the basic principles of choreography.

 

Were it not for the damp windless spring of 1935, the question of the sex life of compost heaps might never have emerged to take its current topical place in the scientific literature. The silage was especially rich that year, and its sweet odour hung in the evening air across the village.

 

The North Essex Police Gazette from August of that year reported: 'Officers attended to a series of crimes of vandalism in Finchingfield in July. Fences were destroyed and hedges torn through, as if by a large farmyard beast. Enquiries are ongoing.'

A sheep heap?

The culprits were never apprehended, and no further police involvement was requested. Villagers had soon surmised that their heaps had been making lustful nocturnal assignations with one another.

 

The following year a new breed of sheep suddenly appeared in local fields, despite farmers’ insistence that no new ram had been involved in the tupping.

Strange days indeed.

Heaps of love

Worse still, rumours were circulating that some husbands were also going astray at night, sneaking back into the marital bed in the early hours with bits of potato peel between their toes. Talk amongst the men in the pub was of wives and girlfriends disappearing for a couple of hours in the afternoon, ostensibly for a pleasant walk, and returning with straw in their hair.

Silage scent was already known as a stimulant for heaps, but the amorous component of its effect in high dosage — both for compost and humans — has remained a secret until now. A generation has passed since the Compost-Swapping Scandal of 1935, and Mr Marlowe believes local knowledge should now be shared in the interests of science. His patented commercial interest has already led to the new wave of bottled scents such as L'heape des Orchids, Silasia No.463, Barromatique and Bouffée des Champs

My question to readers is this: Are we to assume that compost heaps probably have no gender, and perhaps reproduce asexually — through the sharing of a collective and evolving fungal symbiosis? And is there any risk that another damp spring might alter the genetic heritage of humans too? I await your replies with warm anticipation.

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