Sunday, October 3, 2010

Under the trees

I love to gather wood in the fall in a forest full of drifting leaves. They crackle underfoot as I make trails through the trees, carrying armloads of wood. The leaves are dying, but the woods are alive. Mushrooms appear overnight, rising through the leaf duff – white, black, brown – always an interesting puzzle because I recognize so few of them.

This last weekend, our 11 year old niece, Becca, helped us gather wood. As we rounded a tree, we almost stepped on three patches of mushrooms. The first were tall, white and soft looking, like pale pronto pups. Next to them was a cluster of gray and black parasol shaped mushrooms, the black edges glistening in the sunlight. Finally there was a group of three mushrooms with tall, thin stems and tiny, flat black and slimy caps.

I know these shaggy mane or inky cap mushrooms; they frequently grow in our barnyard. The first day they push their way through the earth, white or tan, with soft scales, growing inches in twenty-four hours. The second day, the entire mushroom cap flattens out, begins to darken and the edges fray, becoming black and wet. Finally, the mushrooms deliquesce, dissolve, into slimy black spots on the ground, unrecognizable as mushrooms.

Becca had never seen anything like it; she didn’t think they could all be the same kind of mushroom. We picked one from each cluster and took them into the house to make spore prints. Becca laid each mushroom cap on a piece of white paper and set a glass over it. Then we went back to gathering fire wood, giving the spores a chance to drop from the underside of the mushroom onto the paper.

Back under the trees, our eyes saw mushrooms every where we looked. Each armload of wood included a stop to pick a new variety of mushroom for a spore printing. After we stacked the last of the wood, Becca led me back to the tree her father had just cut down. She knelt beside the stump of the trunk and pointed. Dozens of little brown mushrooms sprouted from the rotting wood. The smallest was the size and shape of a brown pearl. The biggest had a curved brown stem and a flat, slimy brown cap almost two inches across. Becca gently picked one of the bigger mushrooms and ran back to the house for a spore print.

Before she left for home, Becca lifted the glasses and then the mushroom caps from the prints. Most of the spores were white and she had to hold the paper up, for the sun to shine through it, to see the radiating lines of white on white. One rusty brown mushroom had spread a print of brown spores. And the three different stages of shaggy mane mushrooms were soaking the paper, but a dusting of black spores had settled out from each cap. Under the trees, the rest of the mushrooms would release their spores as they died, beginning the process of life all over again.

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