Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eating Hedgehogs and Black Trumpets

Have you ever eaten a hedgehog or a black trumpet? If you’re a mychophagist, you’re either nodding your head yes with excitement, or shaking it forlornly and planning your next foray to find some. Hedgehogs and black trumpets are not spiny mammals or tarnished musical instruments; they are tasty fungi that are fruiting right now!

Recently, Britt Bunyard, PhD, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of FUNGI magazine, came to explore the Northwoods from his home near Milwaukee. His main goal was to assess the wonderful woods and trails in our area for their fungal diversity and ease of access. In the next couple years, Britt will be organizing a national mushroom foray right here in Cable, WI!

During his visit, Britt gave a lecture and led a mushroom foray for the Museum. They were both fun and fascinating. Then Britt and I ventured off on our own to explore an old trail through a mixed forest with lots of maples, oaks, and eastern hemlocks.

Wind-blown sticks, branches, and whole trees across the trail impeded our hiking speed, but no more than our constant search for mushrooms in the surrounding woods. The Pepto Bismol pink of Wolf’s Milk Slime Mold, the pristine white pillars of Destroying Angles, and the chartreuse  caps on Man-on-Horseback all caught our eyes easily.

As Britt stepped off the trail to photograph some particularly nice Destroying Angels (a deadly white type of Amanita mushroom), he plucked a nondescript little creamy-tan colored mushroom and handed it to me with a twinkle in his eye. “You know this one, right?” he asked. Flipping it over, I expected to see the radiating gills present on many common mushrooms. Instead, a mess of little off-white teeth hung down from the cap.

“Hedgehog!” I exclaimed. This was one of the first wild mushrooms I ate, after foraging with mycophiles in Northern California. The little spines make hedgehogs easy to identify, and with no harmful look-alikes, it is generally a safe one for even beginning mychophagists to collect. And the best part is that they have a nice, tender texture and a mild flavor with peppery notes. Another advantage is that they are unlikely to be infested with maggots and seem not to attract many bugs.

Hedgehog mushrooms can be small or large (there are two species), and from above they look pretty nondescript. The light tan colored caps with a slight dimple or “belly button” in the centers grow scattered under the trees in mixed forests all across the northern temperate zone. Hedgehogs are found in North America, Europe, northern Asia, and even Australia. In this particular forest, they fairly glowed against the dark layer of old needles on the ground in the dim light under a thick hemlock/oak grove.

With a paper bag carrying the freshest fungi in the patch, we meandered farther down the trail.

Talking, moving branches, and shuffling through dead brown leaves, we almost missed the next bonanza. Then, right in front of the toe of Britt’s boot, appeared a cluster of little black holes. He paused. A second glance brought in to focus a well-camouflaged cluster of black trumpets.

These small, black and gray vase-shaped fungi with thin, brittle flesh look nothing like our stereotype of mushrooms. Happily, like with the uniquely toothed hedgehogs, the black trumpet’s distinct appearance makes identification easy. The smoky, rich flavor and lack of poisonous lookalikes make them one of my favorite mushrooms to find. According to Britt, who has eaten many mushrooms, these are best dried and added to foods like soups or risottos.

People often debate about the nutritional value of mushrooms. They are mostly water and air, but do contain essential amino acids, fatty acids, and “trace minerals.” I think their biggest value is in their flavor, and in the excitement of discovery. Trees, however, receive significant “nutritional value” from their relationships with specific fungi.

Just looking at the hedgehogs and trumpets in our little wax-paper gathering pouches, I would never guess that these two weirdoes are related. But, they are both in the order Cantharellales with other choice edibles like the golden chanterelle. Besides being tasty, they also share the trait of forming mutualistic symbiotic relationships with trees.

Tree roots exude certain chemicals into the rhizosphere (the space around the roots), and these seem to attract fungal hyphae. Through an incredible chemical communication system that can alter the way certain genes are expressed in each organism, the fungi and the tree enter into a dance that facilitates one of the most important relationships on Earth.

The fungus grows a layer of hyphae around the tiny roots, and even in between the cells of the roots. Then, the fungus stretches its network of hyphae out into the soil, and aids the tree in acquiring water and nutrients, especially nitrogen. Overall, a tree may receive up to 86% of the nitrogen it needs from its fungal partners. In return, the tree roots feed the fungus with the sugars produced during photosynthesis. The fungus may receive up to 15% of the tree’s net primary production in “payment” for their services.

Later that evening, as Britt and I chatted about the day, the hedgehogs steamed in their own juices, and the trumpets hummed in the dehydrator, I spent a moment being thankful for all the interconnections and relationships that make my life possible. The trees and the fungi feed each other, the fungi feed me, and friends make finding and eating them all the more fun (And safer, too! Always consult with an expert before eating wild mushrooms!)

Mary Oliver, of course, also makes eating mushrooms more pleasurable with her words:
“In fall it is mushrooms gathered from dampness under the pines…how calmly, as though it were an ordinary thing, we eat the blessed earth.” –from Beans Green and Yellow.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

Black trumpets may not look like your typical mushroom, but that actually makes this type of chanterelle easy to identify and eat safely. Photo by Britt Bunyard.

Hedgehog mushrooms have a nice texture and a mild, sometimes peppery flavor when cooked. Not only do they feed us, they also feed certain trees through mycorrhizal relationships. Photo by Britt Bunyard.

Hairy-Eyed Crane Flies

The windows in my kitchen stay open throughout most of the summer. Various insects come and go, with dark fishing spiders – the largest spiders in the Northwoods – following close behind. (Don’t be alarmed by their 3-inch leg span, fishing spiders are harmless to humans.) But with the chilly temperatures lately, I’ve had to close the glass, bringing down the prison doors on anything still living in the warm, dry space between window and screen.

While setting out orange tomatoes to ripen on the windowsill the other day, I noticed the brittle carcass of a bug in that no-man’s land. A closer look revealed extremely long, delicate legs, a long, skinny abdomen with dark brown triangles on a beige background, and striking, chestnut-brown patterns on the otherwise clear wings. With these unique features it was pretty easy to identify the critter as a Giant Eastern Crane Fly, Pedicia albivitta.

My previous most memorable experience with crane flies was at Girl Scout camp several years ago. A flock of the leggy flies had gotten indoors and were bopping awkwardly around the ceiling, looking a little bit like bigger, scarier versions of the buzzing bloodsuckers we slapped every three seconds. GIANT MOSQUITOES were INVADING the camp!!! Our reaction was a mix between scientific curiosity and girly freaking out. No, reassured our camp director, these were actually “mosquito hawks” that eat mosquitoes and don’t harm humans.

We were both wrong.

It seems that lots of people have incorrect notions about crane flies, because most of their common names – mosquito hawk, mosquito wolf, skeeter eater, and gollywhopper – have nothing to do with their actual biology. (Gollywhopper!? Apparently, in Maine it is another name for a turkey’s beard, as well as a giant, edible, folklore chicken. How it applies to a crane fly is a question we need to ask a Mainer.)

The scientific name of the species in my kitchen, Pedicia albivitta, is a little more accurate. The specific epithet, albivitta, comes from the Latin "albus" (white) + "vitta" (a band; a stripe of color). The pattern on the Giant Easter Crane Fly’s abdomen certainly fits that description. The genus, Pedicia, references the crane fly’s family, Pediciidae, which is commonly referred to as the “hairy-eyed crane flies.”

Hairy eyeballs? Ew! Well, actually, if you have compound eyes like a fly, then there are spaces in between the eye facets where short, erect hairs can grow without too much trouble. Still, all other families of crane flies (and humans, thank goodness!) have glabrous eyes, which is scientist-speak for “hairless.”

Crane flies are in the order Diptera, along with house flies, fruit flies, mosquitoes, gnats, midges, and 240,000 other species. Since I love to dissect names (it’s less messy than dissecting the critters themselves), Diptera means “two winged” (from the Greek di = two, and ptera = wings). Crane flies have one main pair of wings and a vestigial second set of wings called haltares. Those can flap a little and act as gyroscopes to control body rotation. Even with that adaptation, crane flies are still incredibly awkward fliers, probably due to their excessively long (and easily broken) legs.

Luckily, crane flies don’t have to fly for very long. Their adult stage only lasts about 10 to 15 days between metamorphosis and death. The adult female emerges from her pupa with mature eggs ready to be fertilized. If a male can be found, she will mate immediately. Despite their weak and bumbling flight, crane flies sometimes mate in mid-air.

The pointy ovipositor on the tip of the female’s abdomen is one reason that people imagine crane flies bite or sting. Really, it is just used for depositing eggs into wet soil, mats of algae, or even on the water surface.

The larvae are legless, and some have a tough skin, which earns them the nickname of “leatherjackets.” The various species live in many habitats – from dry land to marine environments and fresh water – and employ an assortment of feeding techniques. Some scrape algae, bacteria, and diatoms off surfaces; others gather decomposing organic matter; some feed on roots and other vegetation; and a few are predators. Some species even eat mosquito larvae! The crane fly I found is a predator, but lives in wet soil and doesn’t encounter mosquito larvae.

Crane fly larvae in streams help break down fallen leaves, and are good indicators of water quality. Because they need an influx of dead leaves for food, these species make sure to match their period of growth with the fall of autumn leaves. Since the wind that forced me to close the window on my crane fly is also bringing the leaves down, I hope the ones I didn’t trap are getting busy!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com

 Giant Eastern Crane Flies have a distinctive pattern on their wings that make me think of sleepy eyes. Although their long legs are so fragile that one scientist described them as “deciduous,” small hairs actually allow them to walk on water!

Rain Magic

Thunder rumbled from across the lake. Even from inside my tent, I could tell that it was coming out of the western skies. A bank of clouds had just started to build there when our group of Museum members gave up star gazing and went to bed at our campsite on Sawbill Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

And although I couldn’t see them, I could sense the clouds in the dark of my tent as the thunder rumbled nearer an hour later. Fifteen seconds between flash and sound. Ten seconds. Seven seconds. That one was bright! And then 10, 15, 20, again as the tiny storm passed and rumbled into the distance.

From across the lake I heard a soft hiss. The rain was coming. Eyes closed and ears tuned, I could actually hear the rainstorm’s approach. The hiss grew louder and louder, then mixed with the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on my tent fly.

The pitch of the distant sound grew deeper, and the volume louder. Bigger raindrops approached. I could imagine just how the lake would look, with giant silver drops jumping up from the surface, and tiny ripples from each drop colliding with its neighbors in a dynamic chaos. Then the rain’s roar peaked like a cymbal-crashing symphony as it pelted my tent and the trees above.

In seconds, it was over.

The soft hiss of mist continued for another minute, followed by the irregular dripping off of tree leaves. In the space of about 20 minutes, the magical rainstorm was over.

“Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life,” wrote John Updike. Throughout the night – and throughout the trip – the sky condescended on us numerous times. We slogged through boot-sucking mud puddles on the portages, and sank knee-deep into a beaver meadow (in the stinky muck that many paddlers affectionately call “loon puke,”). We endured cold rivulets burrowing into the cuffs of our rain jackets with every paddle stroke, and sloshed the ballast water from the bottom of the canoes down our necks as we flipped them up for portaging.

We also spotted the tracks of at least one wolf pup as it, too, walked along the beaver meadow. Even with its four toes splayed wide for grip, the tracks still imprinted perfectly in the rain-softened soil. Dry dirt would not have recorded its passing nearly as well.

Fungi erupted in the wet woods along every portage trail, brightening up the path with a rainbow of almost indescribable colors. A dinner plate-sized Amanita with white polka-dots on a yellow-orange cap glowed from underneath some ferns. Whitish, purplish, and brownish fungi clustered around fallen logs, rotting snags, and even in the moss. One giant, orange, funnel-shaped chanterelle sprouted right from the middle of the hard packed trail.

We actually looked forward to hiking the soggy portage trails a second time, as we went back for another load of gear. The walks allowed us to point out the neat fungi and plants, and debate about the owners of various animal signs.

An inky black mass in one puddle drew everyone’s attention. Bear scat? Wolf poop? Something dead? The second trip gave us a chance to pick apart the pile with a stick. Black hair -- possibly bear – dominated the scat. Would a wolf have killed a bear cub? Or might it just have scavenged on the carcass of a cub dispatched by a jealous boar?

A huge old snapping turtle caused traffic jam on one portage as we halted our carry to go back for cameras. We puzzled over the intentions of several leeches stuck to her shell. These mysteries took our minds off of sore shoulders and wet feet. And in the meantime, the sun came out!

It is amazing how much that far off star can affect our moods. After several hours of heavy clouds and waves of showers, a little sunshine made our loads feel lighter and our moods brighter. A chance to dry out damp gear and swim away the gritty film on the backs of our necks became a cherished gift instead of mundane routine.

Rain is just as much a part of the wilderness as anything else, and I think there is great value in being exposed to the elements more often. We spend much of our lives in climate-controlled shelters, and can sometimes forget the symphony of a rainstorm on our tent, the beauty of silver raindrops jumping out of the lake, the excitement of a cloudburst from nowhere, and how quickly we dry out.

According to an old woodsman’s adage “No matter how cold and wet you are, you’re always warm and dry.” If not warm and dry, perhaps we find that we are less uncomfortable than expected…and more appreciative of the sun when it shines.

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

The setting sun shimmers off ripples from a passing shower.

 Our wet fall has encouraged an explosion of mushrooms like these Amanitas. Photo by Larry Stone.

The Woods are Not Silent (reprise)

Early September is the perfect time for a trip to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. The bugs are almost gone, the sun is still high, and crisp mornings make hot drinks taste even better. The sun sets early enough that a campfire is a pleasant way to spend an evening—not something that has to wait until dusk finally falls at 10:00 p.m. And, often, I get to watch flocks of fall warblers migrate through the campsite.

This is such a perfect time to go to the Boundary Waters that I am headed there right now, guiding a Museum-sponsored group of expert and novice canoeists. It is quite fitting that we will be in the wilderness on September 3rd, the 50th anniversary of the date that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which protected the Boundary Waters.

As someone who dislikes the city noise of traffic and sirens, I seek wilderness in part for its quietude. Sigurd Olson, who fought to protect the canoe country he loved, wrote: “The movement of a canoe is like a reed in the wind. Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees. It is part of the medium through which it floats, the sky, the water, the shores…There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness…”

Of course, by silence Olson didn’t mean an absence of all sound, just an absence of unnatural sounds. These are the sounds I describe below, in an article from September 2012, that I called “The Woods are Not Silent.” I’ll tell you all about this year’s trip when I return!
*   *   *
All but a few birds have ceased singing even their late summer songs. While we no longer hear the lilting phrases of love and territorial defense jumbled in a cacophonic morning chorus, the woods are not silent.

Daydreaming on a walk the other day, I gradually became aware of darting movements and soft chip notes in the low and leafy trees. The little flock of foraging warblers engaged in a constant conversation of “companion calls.” These short chips and chirps in a regular back-and-forth rhythm indicate that everything is still okay. In this season, different species of warblers flock together, to make use of many eyes and safety in numbers. They often join with chickadees, who serve as local guides that know the best restaurants and the most dangerous neighborhoods. As they forage for tasty insects and juicy caterpillars, the small birds cannot always keep in visual contact with each other through the leaves. Companion calls help keep track of every bird in the flock.

Finding food right now is important for these little engines that weigh only as much as seven cents. They are on an epic journey. The black-and-white warbler, which I recognized from its striking stripes and nuthatch-like behavior, is heading for somewhere on that species’ unusually extensive winter range – anywhere from Florida to Venezuela and Colombia. Today must be a stopover day, a time to refuel for the journey ahead.

The other warblers in the flock were drab olive green, the standard color of young warblers and adults in non-breeding plumage. Birders know them as “confusing fall warblers.” I could not identify them to species, but it is a safe bet that they also are heading to somewhere in Central or South America for the winter. The secrets of how birds find their way on this incredible journey remain largely hidden. They appear to navigate using a variety of cues that include the stars, the earth's magnetic field, and even smell.

The many-mile migration of these tiny birds is triggered by a combination of factors, including a change in day length, lower temperatures, dwindling food supplies, and genetic predisposition. Since presence or absence of food is not the only or the most important trigger, you can continue feeding the birds through autumn and winter (even hummingbirds!) without fear that your food will interrupt their migration.

Warblers come here in the spring to find a space of their own where they can take advantage of our longer day length and feed ravenous youngsters on our plentiful crop of insects. Their songs are the soundtrack of summer. They leave in the fall when the shorter days and freezing temperatures make those same insects much harder to find. Yet the woods are not silent.

As amazing as it is that these tiny creatures can travel 2,000 miles or more twice a year, I also have a deep respect for the year-round residents who make do and even thrive in the bitter (and beautiful) northern winters. Chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers find enough food to fuel their internal fires, and seem almost cheerful throughout the wintry months. Thanks to the wonderful diversity of lifestyles in nature, the woods are never silent!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

“Silence is part of it, and the sounds of lapping water, bird songs, and wind in the trees.” Sigurd Olson’s spirit speaks to all who enter the Boundary Waters in search of nature’s particular type of silence.

Beautiful Invader

Late summer is a colorful time in the Northwoods. Most of the forests are still a vibrant variety of greens, but the swamp maples are beginning to flame crimson, roadside ferns are glowing in rich shades of golden brown, here and there clusters of yellow leaves dot the canopy, and many species of aster flowers are dancing in the breeze.

In the road ditches, sandy areas, and in the parking area at the Cable Community Farm, one particular aster brightens up these sometimes scruffy landscapes with a pinky-purple color that my niece Kylee (who just started kindergarten!) would love. The delicate tufts of thistle-like petals remind me of Dr. Seuss’s Truffula Trees in The Lorax. Thin, grayish, lightly fuzzy leaves photosynthesize while resisting desiccation in their dry, sunny habitat.

In some ways, this flower is quite lovely. In others, it is a non-native, invasive scourge of North America! This pesky spotted knapweed is listed as a prohibited noxious weed in Minnesota. Wisconsin defines it as “restricted.” This means that it is an “invasive species that is already established in the state and causes or has the potential to cause significant environmental or economic harm or harm to human health.”

So, last week, a small group of volunteers converged on one particular patch of spotted knapweed. Under the guidance of Pam Roberts, Coordinator for the Northwoods Cooperative Weed Management Area (NCWMA), we grabbed shovels and trowels out of the Cable Community Farm toolshed, and began to dig the fuzzy gray plants out of the parking area, just a few steps away from our gardens. Thick taproots clung to the soil as we raced to stuff all the flowering knapweeds into garbage bags before they set seed.

How can a little pink flower be so bad? Spotted knapweed’s incredible adaptations as a pioneer species – hardy organisms which are the first to colonize disrupted or damaged ecosystems – are also what make it a pest. In this case, the plants were pioneering on top of the old asphalt driveway, now covered in some places by a thin layer of newly-formed soil. The sturdy taproots seemed to wedge their way right down through cracks in the surface, or into the rest of the gravely drive. Those taproots are water-pumping powerhouses, and can often snag the moisture right out from under other nearby plants.

Using that extra moisture, the knapweed sets seed – a thousand per plant.  The seeds are dispersed naturally by wind, water, and wildlife. Humans help them along on our vehicles, in contaminated hay, on farm machinery, with gravel distribution, logging equipment, and road construction. The seeds can persist in the soil for at least five years, just waiting for a wet fall or spring to trigger germination.

Neither the first-year basal rosette of leaves nor the second-year flower stalks are enticing to herbivores. Chemicals in the leaves are suspected to cause skin irritation in humans (we all wore gloves to rip them out), and also dissuade most animals (except sheep) from grazing them. Because spotted knapweed was introduced from Eastern Europe, its normal predators aren’t here to eat it.

Just those three adaptations – long taproots, high seed production, and low palatability – would be enough to make spotted knapweed, well, a weed. Many of the plants-out-of-place that I tug out of my garden have similar characteristics: dandelions, mustards, quack grass, etc. But knapweed does something more sinister, too. It engages in biological warfare.

Perhaps it’s a little overdramatic to use battle metaphors for a flower, but it is true that spotted knapweed releases a toxin from its roots that stunts the growth of nearby species. This is known as allelopathy. The toxin is called catechin, and it inhibits seed germination of other species by acidifying the cytoplasm (the fluid matrix) of their cells, causing the cells to die.

By killing off the competition, knapweed gives itself even more of an advantage. But it doesn’t win itself any friends. Since knapweed was introduced to North America in an alfalfa shipment to Bingen, Klickitat County, Washington, in the late 1800s, it has spread to 45 states and most of Canada. Just in Montana, its direct and indirect economic impact (due to its negative effect on rangeland) is $42 million dollars each year. That’s a pretty big effect for a pretty little flower!

In Wisconsin and Minnesota, it mostly threatens dry prairie, oak and pine barrens, dunes and sandy ridges, roadsides, and disturbed areas. And my community garden. You can help!  These plants only live for two years, so the simplest methods of control are early detection and pulling. A couple weeks ago, I spotted some in the ditch as I was biking along. On my way home, I was puzzled to see the purple flowers lying in the middle of the road. Then I passed a local woman out for a walk – pulling them up and throwing them out in the sun to die as she passed. She may not completely solve the problem, but her efforts will certainly help!

Herbicides and insects brought over from its native habitat are also available to help control large infestations of knapweed. But you should consult with professionals before trying those methods. Your local Cooperative Weed Management Area is a great place to direct questions and concerns.

While I know that some folks struggle with the term “weed,” and balk at killing any living thing, I see the control of non-native invasive species as a necessary evil in protecting the biodiversity of our native plants and animals. We created the problem, so now we bear some responsibility for fixing it. About 42% of the species on the Federal Threatened and Endangered Species Lists are at risk primarily because of invasive species. One easy way for you to help is go pick some pretty pink flowers!

For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! The current exhibit, “Nature’s Superheroes—Adventures with Adaptations,” opens in May 2014 and will remain open until March 2015.

Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.

Spotted knapweed is a pretty pink flower that can cause pretty big problems as an invasive weed!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tongues of the Earth

“Rain, and then the cool pursed lips of the wind draw them out of the ground… astonishing in their suddenness, their quietude…” (Mary Oliver, Mushrooms)

Astonishing indeed. The recent rains have watered the Earth like one of those old terracotta chia pets, and now mushrooms sprout from every sodden surface.

In the breathless shade of a hemlock forest, I wandered among the buzzing mosquitoes and stoic trunks, fairly tripping over fungi. The trees dripped with a thunderstorm’s leftovers, and (looking forward to snowflakes instead of bugs) I stopped to catch a drop on my tongue.

Bright orange globs of hunchbacked lobster fungus, sunshine-yellow spikes of club fungus, and the glowing white cap of a Destroying Angel illuminated dim, shadowy duff. Without a guide—human or paperback—I simply admired the diversity of colors and forms, identifying only a few of the most distinctive organisms from my tenuous memory.

In these forest soils beneath my boots, 90% of the living biomass is fungal. An interwoven mat of mushroom mycelia connects trees with resources, returns nutrients to the soil, and exchanges information. Some call it the “wood-wide web.” Mycologist Paul Stamets calls it “Nature’s Internet.” I see a fascinating parallel with my own internal microbiome that I wrote about last week: For every human cell in my body, there are about 10 resident microbes. They help me digest food, tune my immune system, and even alter my mood. None of us is ever truly alone.

Mushrooms make pretty good company, I would say, and perhaps that is because mushrooms are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. For one, plant cell walls are made of cellulose, while mushroom cell walls are made of chitin. Chitin is the stuff of crab shells and butterfly wing scales. It doesn’t exist in plants. Plants are autotrophs – they make their own food out of sunlight, water, and air. Fungi and animals are heterotrophs, who get their energy by breaking down food they find. Plants exhale oxygen; fungi and animals inhale it.

Despite the incredible community of life here, this magical place (“Fairyland” is its official name) was a source of solace and solitude for a young Mary Griggs Burke. Out of her love of these woods grew an admirable land ethic. She wrote "I am glad more people are enjoying the beauty of nature--but only if people value the land and treat it with respect can they preserve what they enjoy." And with that in mind, she founded the Cable Natural History Museum.

These woods are full of connections. I wouldn’t be here without Mary’s foresight, generosity, and love of nature. The trees would not be here without the mycorrhizal fungi that extend their root systems. Each tree has hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads associated with its roots. The fungus supplies the tree with nutrients and water. In exchange, the tree provides sugars synthesized with the sun.

Scientists are discovering that sharing – symbiotic relationships – among highly diverse and unrelated organisms is more important than they used to believe. “Life is a network of cross-kingdom alliances,” says theoretical biologist Lynn Margulis.

A few days later, when I brought a multi-generational family into Fairyland with me, it only seemed to multiply the magic. More eyes saw more fungi, and more people exclaimed exuberantly over mushrooms, too. While Rachel Carson  wrote that “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in," I’ve found that adults need such a companion as much or even more.

So, we discovered things together. This time I carried the “Lone Pine Field Guide to Mushrooms of Northeast North America.” From there, we learned that the tiny, red-orange cups sprouting from a rotting log are named “Eyelash Fungus.” When we leaned in closer, the fringe of black “eyelashes” on the margins became visible. Chuckles of appreciation rippled through the group.

The next find was a patch of little clubs with fleshy, creamy white fans atop darker, somewhat velvety stalks. The name “Velvety-Stalked Fairy Fan,” seemed amusingly appropriate. I don’t feel like we need to know the names of everything in order to appreciate them, but sometimes it does add to the fun.

“Look here,” whispered the family patriarch with a wiggle of his toe. At the end of his shoe we found an elfin grove of two-inch-high black clubs. They blended in so well with the shadows and damp wood, that we were quite proud of ourselves for spying them. But the name, “Common Earth Tongue,” seemed like an insult to our keen observation skills. Nearby, a cluster of similar, but yellow, clubs sprouted cheerily in the gloom. The name, “Yellow Earth Tongue,” endeared us a bit more.

Tongues of the earth, indeed, these fungi do more than just look like they might lick the ground. Animal-like in many respects, they actually digest almost every bit of the earth at one time or another, and make the rest of our lives possible in the process.

Mysterious, and mostly hidden, we often forget about the fungi that are perpetually beneath our feet. In these rainy days, when we feel like our skin might either mold or get sucked dry by mosquitoes, the mushrooms thrive. Perhaps the earth is, in essence, sticking out its tongue – its Earth Tongues – to catch the raindrops.

This won’t be the last time I write about fungi this fall! Britt A. Bunyard, PhD, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of FUNGI magazine, will give a dinner lecture about fungi on September 23, and then lead a mushroom foray on September 24th. You can find the details at cablemuseum.org.
These Earth Tongues have pushed their way up through the Earth using strong, chitinous cell walls inflated with water to a pressure up to three times that in your car tires! Now the Earth can catch raindrops on its tongues…Photo by Emily Stone.

Kimchi Community

The wooden gate on the Community Garden’s deer fence squeaked slightly as I swung it back into place and hooked the latch. An acre of lush, vibrant, growing things stretched out before me. I love unspoiled, untrammeled nature as protected by the Wilderness Act--created 50 years ago this fall. But I also love nature that I can cultivate, care for, and eat.

I started at the far end of my garden, first harvesting the green zucchinis and yellow summer squash. I also checked for fruits and leaves nibbled on by the invading woodchuck and army of thirteen-lined ground squirrels. I also carried a spray bottle with baking soda and water, a home remedy for the powdery mildew that threatens to wilt plants before the winter squash can ripen.

Next I picked the ripe tomatoes, and shook my head at the blighted, withering leaves. Finally, I tugged a few of the tallest weeds out from among the onions.  Biodiversity is generally desirable, but often my garden is more diverse than I would like it to be.

The pea trellis (built by my oldest nephew and his papa) provided a yummy snack of sweet, crispy pods. I offered a handful to my garden plot neighbors, and struck up a conversation about harvesting, preserving, and organic pest control. The Cable Community Farm only allows organic-approved gardening methods, and generally attracts a pretty like-minded group of people. I love talking gardening with them.

Finally, I settled into picking the ingredients for my next culinary cultivation: kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made of fermented vegetables. I tried it for the second time last winter, and the spicy-sour flavors are growing on me. So, I picked the biggest head of Napa cabbage, pulled a few carrots, yanked out a gigantic daikon radish, and wiggled an onion from its shallow bed. From the row of hot peppers, I plucked three spicy-looking specimens.

After an evening of washing, chopping, salting, rinsing, spicing, and packing, I ended up with a two-quart Mason jar full of veggies, salt, water – and bacteria. Yes, bacteria. Wild strains of lactobacilli bacteria were present on the raw vegetables, just waiting for the right conditions to go forth and multiply. The salty brine and oxygen-poor habitat of my Mason jar were perfect. In just a few days, I could taste the acidic tang of fermentation start to develop.

This jar is an ecosystem in itself, and just like in other ecosystems, a succession of species transform the environment in ways that allow new species to prosper.

In a forest, hemlock might succeed birch. In the jar, Lactobacillus plantarum is the climax species, after it kills off competing bacteria. By adding so much lactic acid to the brine that nothing else can survive, L. plantarum can maintain its own little habitat for months or even years. Just like me pulling weeds and choosing my friends, it creates just the type of community that will help it thrive.

The nice thing is, we can eat live L. plantarum right along with the spicy cabbage and radishes, and it won’t hurt us. It seems ironic in the age of antibiotics and hand sanitizer, but this is food safety guaranteed by bacteria!

The fermentation process also predigests the food, in effect, by breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones that we can deal with more easily. It is actually a carefully managed partial decomposition. The right bacteria to do the job were always on the plants or in the soil, just waiting to turn plants back into dirt. We simply harness the microbes for a bit, and then wait for the sweet—or sour—spot to stop the rot.

One fermenter described the technique as “Nature imperfectly mastered.” I agree, since I really don’t know what’s going on in there. Food journalist Michael Pollan explores fermentation in his book “Cooked,” and writes, “Every ferment retains a certain element of unknowable wildness.”

My kimchi has become a magical mix between my garden and the wilderness. It’s acidic and alive – and it now lives in the fridge.

From the garden community to the jar community, I had done my best to select the members I want, and eliminate those that could be harmful. Each day, when I eat some of the spicy cabbage leaves, the lactobacilli on them join the community in my gut. Just like the garden, just like the jar, my body is its own ecosystem, filled with hundreds of different species. For every human cell in my body, there are about 10 resident microbes. More than 99% of the genetic information I carry is microbial. Scientists are finding that the health of our inner microbiome and our outer communities have incredible implications for the health of us as individuals.

You may think all of this is a little weird. I think it is wonderful to be part of so many exciting communities!
And here’s a question for my community of readers: I’m trying to figure out the best way to publish a book of my Natural Connections columns. If you have any advice, encouragement, or suggestions for publishers, please send me an e-mail: emily@cablemuseum.org. Thanks!
We find ourselves part of many layers of intersecting communities, nestled together like the leaves in this head of Napa cabbage being readied for the kimchi jar. Photo by Emily Stone.