Rob's Week in the Woods

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This week in the woods, end of October,  by Rob Sandelin

A lone dragonfly zigzags back and forth, still following the prime
directive, eat or be eaten.  It is the only one I have seen for the last
week.  It pauses on the arching grass, and its wings uncharacteristically
droop. Tired of life, exhausted, why bother...Then it straightens up, its
head moving again and off it goes.  Fall is the time of endings, passages.
Maple trees with leaves bursting in transient golden glory, stalks of grass
bent from the returning rains into neat furrows of tan arches.

In early October I notice the hemlock trees are dripping with small green
caterpillars.  I easily count a dozen in the space the size of a garbage can
lid.  I worry about climate enhanced outbreaks, like in Alaska, where a five
degree change in temperature has wiped out thousands of acres of black
spruce.  Munched to death by tiny beetles that no longer die without
winter9s cold.  Are these little inch-worming critters the first sign?
Three days later, on the way to the community worm bin I realize that I am
not alone.  There are a couple hundred birds around me, and after my first
startled awareness I run back home for the binoculars.  I stand for an hour
trying to make sense of the whirling birds that seem like one constant
motion.  There are 4 kinds of warblers, at least, not sure...have I seen
that one before?  Three kinds of woodpeckers, and the usual gang of
chickadees, and wait, those over there on the Cascara are waxwings.  It is
hard to focus on any one bird, they all seem to be moving. It is ridiculous
but I try counting, start over, start over again, start over.  The birds are
gone by nightfall. My mind pulses with an echo of their collective energy.
Where are they now?  Where are they going?  I long to grow wings and follow,
and I stand and stare to the south, thinking back to Costa Rica.  Wouldn't
it be cool to just pack up and follow them.  Up and down mountain edges,
across rivers, oceans, down to tropical insect-full paradises?  Sigh.  I
pick up the trashcan and head back inside.

Two days later I notice that all the little green caterpillars are gone.
All of them.  I search for half an hour and find not one.  I spend the rest
of the day with my secret smirk, that mental delight of discovering yet
another interesting bit of the world, simply by paying attention.  And my
mind  is full of questions, does this happen every year?, how did the birds
find out there was a full course meal here, was it chance, or design?  Did
they really eat all of them?  It is these kinds of connections that keep me
coming back, over and over again, for more.  Nature is such a great show, I
curse that I miss so much of it.  A single human lifetime seems so
outrageously inadequate to find answers to hardly any of the endless

The rain kicks in again, and all is good; it seems like the forest lets off
a collective  sigh of relief.  There is nothing so wonderful to a
northwesterner than the smell of a fresh rain, that first good rain of the
fall, the one that washes all the spider webs out for a day, cleans each
leaf and needle to perfection, then runs quietly into the ground, loosening
the parched particles, caressing the crunchy fallen leaves into a soft
blanket of mulch.  The long dry days of September bring a sense of false
contentment.  When the temperatures start to fall I find I need a good rain
to make me feel right about the world.  This was the driest summer period on
record.  The rain is a visceral relief.  In a time with so much changing I
need the steady pulse of water from the sky to find my place.

In the dirt and darkness, alchemy magic is brewing.  Tiny filaments expand
and grow, preposterous forms suddenly jump out of the ground like genies.
There is nothing so surprising as a mushroom.  Thousands of tiny, perfectly
formed mushrooms have been laying underground, like those magic compressed
sponges at the county fair.  Add water and they swell up to a hundred times
their size.  Overnight.  Like nature yelling 3Surprise!2   I placed a couple
of flower pots near the driveway one afternoon.  The next morning, hello, a
patch of mushrooms, fully formed as if they had always been there. What a
cool parlor trick.

Mushrooms have many other tricks up their sleeves. The thing you see and
call a mushroom is not the fungi, just the fruit.  As if apple trees were
shoved underground and the apples popped out on the surface.  The mushroom
is actually mostly unseen under the ground, a mass of white cobwebs, often
microscopic.  I laid out an old board in the woods and pick it up now and
again to see who is living there these days.  The underside of that board is
a thick carpet of white filaments...The fungi.  These cobwebs contain
amazing chemical powers, the ability to break apart complex molecules and
release simple organic compounds like phosphorous and nitrogen.  If all the
mushrooms went on strike, life would end.  We would be buried under the
weight of the undecomposed dead of the world.  Plants absolutely rely on
fungi to recycle leaves, stems, dead bugs, dead birds, cats, dogs etc into
pieces they can absorb and use.  It turns out, even in the driest of
deserts, the coldest of ice sheets, if there are plants living there, there
are fungi.  Fungi spores, which are the whole point of the mushroom, are
around us always.  We took fungi to the moon in the lunar lander, fungi
spores hitch hiking on hurricanes travel the globe.

Athletes foot and ring worm are fungi.  So is penicillin and most of its
relatives.  Those enzymes in fungi, chemical factories extraordinary, kill,
grow, manage and control a vast array of bacteria.  We barely understand how
this works, but the relationships between fungi and other organisms have
powerful potentials to kill diseases, or clean up toxic waste.

Another mushroom parlor trick.  As they grow and network underground they
connect to the tiny root hairs of our local conifer trees, collecting sugar
from the tree and passing  water, nutrients and anti-bacterial enzymes back
to the tree.  A good trade, especially for the tree, because a first year
seedling can't survive a summer of drought on its own.  The tiny tots9 roots
can't collect enough water.  Mama fungus though, she knows how to work the
dirt, and she cuddles that tiny tree, feeding it, expanding its tiny roots
systems into distant horizons.  Perhaps the best mushroom trick of all is
how big they get.  They are the biggest living thing.  Bigger than whales,
heck dinosaur giants were mere specks to Armillaria which has been measured
at over 2,000 acres.  And counting.  Those networks of white  cobwebs
spreading out across three Oregon counties.  Touching and connecting how
many thousands of trees?  Spread it out, unravel it and spin it into a line
and that's a thread that stretches from Bellingham to Afghanistan and back,
about twenty thousand times.  All the while working biological magic,
turning, unwrapping, weaving a tapestry of decay that silently and unseen,
makes the world happen.

So if you're not much a mushroom person, well, smile at the next one you
see.  They bring you the trees, and everything you eat is connected, one way
or another, to that funny little umbrella.

Rob Sandelin
South Snohomish County at the headwaters of Ricci Creek
Sky Valley Environments  <>
Field skills training for student naturalists

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