Leaf Litter: Marking my territory

An orange blaze designating the property line.

As part of a forest land tax reduction, I had to mark the property boundaries and create a 10-year plan for my land. I hired a consulting forester to help assemble the plan and learned a hell of a lot in the process. While I was out doing that, I also planted ramp bulbs and started thinking about how trails will run.

One thing is certain: There will be switchbacks. The land is steep, with the two houses on a ridge that sits like a saddle above two hollows, one south facing, the other north, creating two micro-climates with different trees and conditions. The north-facing hollow has a lot of potential for mushrooms and ramps.

The forester also created some scope creep in my schemes, suggesting that a rope bridge would be awesome over one of the intermittent streams on the property. So I’m thinking about how that will play into my trail system.

Sunny welcomes spring … her hips are in bad shape and she can’t climb, so she can’t descend down into the hollows with me when I go exploring there. Well, more accurately, she can descend. It’s the climb back out that’s beyond her.

I did a little mushroom foraging yesterday. I’m really, really hoping there are a few patches of morels out there, but the soil isn’t warm enough here yet for them to emerge. So I had to settle for elf cups, devil’s urns, and witches’ butter (a jelly fungus), and a few other specimens. Great hike overall.

Elf Cup (sarcoscypha) peeking out of the leaf litter.
Two more elf cups emerging next to a red oak leaf.
Devil’s Urn (urnula craterium)

As I walked the nothern hollow, I was amazed at the poplars there. They shoot skyward on straight trunks that culminate in tight crowns. A few of them cling to the rocky hillside in ways that defy gravity. I found a cluster of three old poplars that stopped me in my tracks. Two of them already are snags, and I think the third is going to join them soon.

Here are a few other photos taken during recent peregrinations …

‘The Earth’s natural Internet’

“Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World,” Paul Stamets (2005)

I ordered this book shortly after seeing “Fantastic Fungi.” I was a bit leery of the title, which seemed to drift toward hyperbole. But after reading the book, I’m wondering if the title might be understated.

Paul Stamets, the author of Mycelium Running and a multitude of other books on the science and cultivation of mushrooms, was featured prominently in Fantastic Fungi. He’s a sort of myco-evangelist, extolling the virtues of fungi in all their forms.

Myceleium is “the Earth’s natural internet, a consciousness with which we might be able to communicate,” Stamets writes. I would have thought that completely batshit a year ago. But the more I read, the more fascinated I am. And when Stamets started making remarkable claims for fungi’s ability to change our lives, it took only a moment to remember that penicillin is a type of fungus …

At one point, Stamets makes the argument that mushrooms can be a line of national defense, citing fungi that can battle pox and other potentially weaponized viruses.

“With the threat of bioterrorism from weaponized viruses, a readily available, inexpensive, broad-spectrum antiviral antidote would serve the public health,” he notes.

The book references the SARS virus in China just as we are seeing another virus emerge from Asia, one that is believed to be rooted in interactions with animals. In China, the viruses appear to be jumping from wild animal population to humans. What if the mushroom boasting the right antiviral properties to thwart the next pandemic is on the verge of extinction in some beleaguered old growth forest?

The book is incredibly utilitarian, discussing how fungi can be used to restore the environment, combat viruses, and battle pests. It also offers tips on cultivation and consumption of mushrooms.

Stamets goes on to describe concrete examples of how, for instance, a mycelial mat can be created to filter runoff that might be tainted with animal feces before it enters a watershed. I have two outflow pipes from a septic system for Dove Cottage, and I’m now thinking about creating a mycoremediation project in each spot to help cleanse effluent from those pipes before it flows down the hill and ultimately ends up in Sugar Creek. The septic system passed inspection when we bought the house, but it’s old and grandfathered in and I honestly have no idea what it might or might not be leaching into the local aquifer. A project like this wouldn’t be difficult and it would be a great chance to put fungi to work for me. Fungi are designed to break things down, and their power to do so is astounding, from leaf litter to snags to downed trees. It will turn the nastiest of things into food, breaking them down and making them less toxic. Oil. Plastic. Even the radiation at Chernobyl can be food for fungi.

Random notes/learnings:

  • Saprophytic — Fungi that decompose dead or dying matter. Most gourmet and medical mushrooms fall into this category.
  • Parasitic — These fungi used to be seen as blight, killing trees, but now foresters see them as playing a key role in culling sick or dead trees. Honey mushrooms fall into this category. Most examples are microfungi. Some saprophytic mushrooms can have parasitic qualities, often when growing on trees that are environmentally or otherwise stressed.
  • Mycorrhizal (myco = mushroom; rhizal means relating to roots). These partner with plants and live symbiotically. Can make it more efficient for trees to intake nutrients and can expand the area where nutrients are drawn from. Can connect the forest in a network, permitting even different species of tress to share nutrients with each other via that network. Examples: Boletus, Chanterele, Matsutake.
    • Ectomycorrhizal — exterior sheaths of roots
    • Endomycorrhizal — interior root cells
  • The common button mushroom at the supermarket is Agaricus bisporus
  • Phytophthora ramorum — fast-growing cause of sudden oak disease. Can kill a tree in a few days; can kill an ancestral forest in a few weeks. Its evolutionary strategy is to grow fast because the host for some parasites can be short lived …
  • — Endophytes are benevolent non-mycorrhizal fungi that partner with plants.
  • I saw interesting parallels between logging — an extractive industry in the Pacific Northwest — and coal, which has devastated Appalachia with its extractive practices. Timber companies are selling their land in the Pacific Northwest because they realize third-growth trees are not going to come anywhere close to first and second. The soil is being destroyed as they replant without the restorative benefit of dead trees decomposing on the forest floor with the help of fungi. Similar situation with coal. As the resource is tapped out or no longer is economically attractive enough to pursue, the extractors sell the denuded land and move on like locusts.
  • Frank Herbert, author of Dune, apparently was greatly influenced by mushroom life cycles and images when he wrote his science fiction classic. Stamets knows Herbert and says he came up with the idea of creating a mushroom slurry and dumping it on the base of trees, which resulted in chanterelles growing on trees younger than 10. Herbert also had an affinity for psilocybin mushrooms …
  • Using oil infused with fungi spores to lubricate a chainsaw will distribute the fungi everywhere you cut. Brilliant scheme.
  • Mushrooms have to be cooked if you want to get the full nutritional value. Cooking breaks down their tough cell walls …
  • fomes fomentarius, (amadou or tinder conk)
    • “Remnants of this mushroom have been found at Stone Age sites dating back to 11,600 BCE. Hippocrates wrote about its use for cauterizing wounds. Otzi the 5,000+ year old ice man found in the Alps had this on him.
    • A hole can be burrowed in tinder cork, packed with embers and it will smolder for hours. “As our prehistoric ancestors migrated from Africa into European birch forests, their possession of this knowledge ensured their survival,” Stamets writes. “The fire keepers of the clan, in a position of enormous importance for the clan’s survival, knew how to find and prepare these mushrooms.”
  • Definition of farinaceous (which Stamets uses to describe the odor of certain strains of mycelium).
    • having a mealy texture or surface
    • containing or rich in starch
  • Breathing morels while they’re cooking can be dangerous …
  • Psilocybe is ancient Greek for bald head
  • Mycelium has only one ‘L.’ My original post had it consistently misspelled mycellium throughout. I was looking at my bookshelves, trying to pick out my next victim, and I saw the spine of Stamets’ book: Mycelium Running. Du-oh!
  • (My next victim, btw, turned out to be Edith Grossman‘s translation of Don Quixote. Just started, but already impressed.)

Snow Day …

Sunny walks up the driveway after ensuring the woods are coyote-free.

Leaf Litter: Turkeys on the wing

Walking with Sunny in the pre-dawn hours yesterday morning, we both stopped dead in our tracks at the sound of frantic flapping in the trees above us. Barely discernible, a blob lumbers out of the branches and glides down the hill. Then several other trees start rustling with similar results. Sunny doesn’t get excited over much. But this got her dander up. We’d walked into a stand a trees where a flock of turkeys had sought refuge the previous night.

As we continued walking, we played hopscotch with one turkey who kept gliding to trees ahead of us, then moving on at our approach. Sunny soon lost interested and started sniffing for signs of the red fox who frequents that area …

I’ve captured the red fox on my game cam a few times, but so far Sunny hasn’t run into him. Maybe she’s looking for the wrong red fox …

Memes vs. genes

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

I’m disappointed it took me so long to stumble across this book. And that happened only because we ordered it for a friend who was visiting from Mexico City. She hoped to take it with her when she returned, but the book didn’t arrive until after she’d departed, so … I opened it, expecting to drown in a sea of hard science. But Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene so anyone can understand it, and he steers clear of the underlying mathematical equations used to support much of the theory in the book.

Dawkins explains how genes are the driver of life on earth. We humans — and all other containers for genetic matter — exist to ensure those genes continue forward into the future. These genes are selfish, coding our bodies to do whatever is necessary to ensure the gene’s survival. But it’s not that simple, and this isn’t a “survival of the fittest” argument.

I found it fascinating that this is where the word “meme” was coined:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Then he drops the bomb. Humans have spent millennia obsessing over lineage and inheritance, passing on our “genes” to future generations. But because of the way genes are transferred from generation to generation, there is a watering down process that essentially flushes most individual traces of us within a few generations. As Dawkins writes:

When we die there are two things we can leave behinds us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be gone in three generations. … But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.

‘But when war come, Hunkie good enough to fight’

Men and Steel, Mary Heaton Vorse, (1920).

This is a fascinating, in-the-trenches look at the 1919 national steel strike, with particular emphasis on Braddock and the pastor of the Slovak Catholic church there who stood by his congregation in the face of threats and intimidation from the steel bosses.

Mary Heaton Vorse is a wonderful writer, bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of steel towns in the early 20th century.

There is no spot in Braddock that is fair to see. It has neither park nor playground. It is a town of slack disorder and of scant self-respect. Those who have made money in Braddock mills live where they cannot see Braddock. The steel workers who can, escape up the hillsides. They go to North Braddock or to Wolf-town; but many and many of them live and die in the First Ward.

They live some in two-story brick houses, some in blackened frame dwellings. One set of houses faces the street, the other the court. The courts are bricked and littered with piles of cans, piles of rubbish, bins of garbage … The decencies of life ebb away as one nears the mills. I passed one day along an alley which fronted on an empty lot. Here the filth and refuse of years had been churned into viscous mud. A lean dog was digging. Pale children paddled in the squashy filth and made playthings of ancient rubbish. Beyond was the railroad tracks, beyond that the mills. Two-storied brick houses flanked the brick street. No green thing grew anywhere. But in the brick courtyard Croatian and Slovak women were weaving rugs. In their villages in Europe they had woven the clothes of their men. In Braddock’s squalid courtyards they weave bright colored rugs and sing as they weave.

Mary Heaton Vorse

She juxtaposes the exterior filth and grime with the inner world of these Slovak tenements, where residents control the only thing they can, creating interior spaces that are clean, colorful islands in a sea of soot.

The women in the steel towns fly a flag of defiance against the dirt. It is their white window curtains. You cannot go into any foul courtyard without finding white lace curtains stretched to dry on frames. Wherever you go, in Braddock or in Homestead or in filthy Rankin, you will find courageous women hopefully washing their white curtains. … I saw only one house where the curtains were filthy in the steel towns. It was a signal of defeat, a flag at half mast. It was in the house of a young woman whose oval face had a yellow pallor. She had a very young baby, and at its birth she had blood poisoning.

Two ideas I culled here that could apply to the Book:

  1. She describes in detail Father Adalbert Kazincy (she spells it Kacinski), the pastor of St. Michael’s Slovak church in Braddock. I started Googling around, trying to find more info on him. He’s fascinating and a possible novel in his own right. There already is a play about him called Father K.
  2. She describes a reverse migration trend after the 1919 strike is crushed, with many Slovaks and other immigrants returning to Europe after deciding they’d have enough of American Democracy. As Vorse writes, quoting a Slovak immigrant:

“When I come to this country first time I am going right off to be citizen, I think. Pretty soon this is my country, I think. Pretty soon I buy me house. You know what the first English I learn? ’Damn Hunkie — that’s what they call me. But when war come, Hunkie good enough to fight.

“You hear what feller say is difference between government in Austria and government here. He say, there Kaiser rule; here mill boss rule. That’s true. ‘Damn Hunkie’ that’s what I mill boss say. If we join union boss call us ‘damn Hunkie’ and kick us out. Is that free country? So now I go home to my country, Bohemia. My country more free country than this.”

“There are thousands of competent workmen in his state of mind,” Vorse writes. “They do not believe in American democracy. Why should they? They have never seen any in the steel towns.”

In all, I emerged from Vorse’s book with a much clearer picture of life in steel towns during the early 20th century. I also found a few possible subplots here that I’m interested in exploring …

This book is available free on Archive.net.