A Walk through the Forest
A walk through my absolutely favorite woodland seems reminiscent of walking through a primary forest that has never been logged. Of course this one has been, but it was probably before logging was taken out of the hands of the men who once cared for trees they cut – so it has recovered. Hunting and motorized four-wheel vehicles are not allowed here. A narrow pine strewn path follows a meandering river. Sweet, rich moist soil and decaying detritus sprout all kinds of plants; orchids and other wildflowers, ferns, partridgeberry, wintergreen, princess pine, ground cedar and hobble bush to mention just a few. A myriad of ground covers and young deciduous and conifer saplings all work together to create a healthy understory. Towering white pines, hemlock, balsam, hardwoods, including very old birches, shade the ground beneath my feet. The scent of the forest is intoxicating.
Spying so many mushrooms reminds me of Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard’s words in “Finding the Mother Tree” about how the “mushroom is the visible tip of something deep and elaborate like a thick lace tablecloth knit into the forest floor”.
My fascination grows – what are these mushrooms telling me about underground networking? Who is helping whom? In this place there are many hub or mother trees (male and female) who weave the whole forest together above and below ground along with the fungi that live at their roots, transferring water, carbon, phosphorus etc. to all the other older trees, tender young saplings, understory plants and ground covers. Here I find the first signs of fall color – rose tinted hobble bush and blushing swamp maples – creeping partridge berry in three stages – leaves, lime green berries, and those who have turned crimson. Brilliant emerald green mosses cover windblown tree stumps, decomposing trees that died naturally. Every rotting trunk has become a new micro – forest.
The complexity of the underground network of a forest left alone to care for itself becomes so real to me as I walk through trying to identify individual mushrooms, and hopefully to discover which are in a beneficial (symbiotic) mycorrhizal or saprophytic (decaying) relationship with some or all the trees.
Sounds easy? Not so! This untouched forest is so healthy and so full of such a multitude of species that it’s often impossible to tell what relationship these fruiting fungi might have with their neighbors!
I spy an edible Purple Russula. I learned from my research that this mushroom has a mycorrhizal relationship with hardwood trees. I peer overhead. The swaying leaves of beech, oak, ash, and maple trees surround me. Is there one tree in particular that is favored? Underground these fungi are exchanging water, carbon, sugar, phosphorous, and other nutrients with some or all of these trees.
Such mystery surrounds me! I spy some bright yellow fingers – Golden spindles (a coral fungus) attached to rotting wood. These are saprophytic; they help wood to decay creating rich new soil in the process. They also apparently have a penchant for oaks
A bit further on I see more. After digging under a thick mossy carpet to find the decaying wood I am baffled. No wood. Just moss. Golden spindles also love moss and moist earth. I notice the same thing with the small brillant orange mushrooms. Some of the Vermillion waxy caps seem to be growing out of decaying wood, some spring out of the moss. Later, researching these fruiting bodies to clear up my confusion, I learn that both are saprophytic and can also have a mycorrhizal relationship with moss.
All of the Amanita’s I saw like Yellow Patches, Amanita Muscaria, and the Death Angel seemed to be growing independently. I expose the bulb that is hidden underground, noting the veil of one of the Death angels, wondering why people are poisoned by this mushroom – it is so easy to identify them. All have veils. Even the little ‘puffballs’ when sliced, expose a hidden stalk that identifies the species as deadly. Most of the mushrooms in this family are mycorrhizal; they are in partnership with the trees under which they grow.
In areas where the sun gets in, blow – downs have created space for new growth. Young hemlocks are thriving in the late afternoon sun. Further on, in the darker dappled thick woods, I see bear sign everywhere, thankful that here at least, the animals cannot be shot. On days like this I make it a habit to stop at some point on the trail and return by exactly the same route so I don’t miss any mushrooms. When we reverse directions I am thrilled to see that a bear has followed the dogs and me on our walk. After we had moved on this animal dug up more of the ground in the places where I had been poking around looking for mycelial networking. We never actually saw the bear but s/he certainly saw us! It is a wonderful feeling to know that the bear felt no fear. Apparently, Ursine curiosity matches my own!
The most surprising find is a cluster of mushrooms growing out of a dead maple. I recognize them from my research on forest pathogens. In some instances, Armillaria mellea can also act as a saprophytic mushroom. I suspected that this might be the case here since no surrounding trees or plants seem to be negatively affected. The Armillaria also fruits as the honey mushroom that appears around the base of some trees in September or October. It too can act as a saprophyte, or it can behave aggressively, using its thick black rhizomorphs to gird and strangle roots killing any tree in its path.
I had also learned from Suzanne that birch trees – alive or decaying – offer some natural protection against this pathogen. Live birches act as a neutralizing factor slowing the spread of this root disease. I had already noted that this particular forest had very old birch trees that seemed to be thriving. The presence of Armillaria is a natural occurrence throughout the forests of the world.
This is where we see that nature does a wonderful job keeping her forests in balance as long as they are left alone. Today, we know that creating plantations comprised of a single species of tree guarantees that the trees will be weaker and more prone to disease, because the forest is out of balance. Suzanne Simard’s 30 plus years of impeccable field research (which include hundreds of studies) proves that forests collaborate more than they compete, forests are whole, behaving as one living organism. Her studies demonstrate that although birches may shade firs during the summer months they also send nutrients to the firs, and in the fall these underground mycelial exchanges are reversed! Yet birches along with all other trees/plants are routinely sprayed with herbicides to rid a plantation of its competitors in the ‘free to grow’ forestry program. Simard’s research and that of so many others continues to be ignored by foresters and some land trusts, alike. It is frightening to recognize that in this time of climate chaos when we so desperately need to change our industrial logging practices that forestry practices remain exactly the same as they did 40 years ago…
I am captivated by what’s under my feet and can imagine something of the complexity of these underground networks that connect every plant sapling and tree to its neighbor, but seeing the actual mushrooms anchors me to the reality of this complexity in a way that my imagination or my research cannot … the sense of wholeness that I experience spurs me on to take the deepest pleasure from every forest walk, to give thanks for, and to advocate for every forest everywhere – above and below.
Forests can literally save our lives in this time of Climate Change providing us with clean water and air, storing carbon both above and below ground, but first we must save them from “the logging machine,” that greed driven corporate structure that has taken logging away from those who once cut trees in the forests they loved sustainably, turning this industry into the massive killing machine it has become.
Forests like this one could also teach us so much about how to live if we acknowledged their sentience, and took the time to learn a little about forest complexity. Nature is amazingly fluid and adaptable, reflecting what happens when all organisms have learned to cooperate for the good of all. A walk through this forest also mirrors back to me that these complex relationships are reflections of the earth’s wholeness – the Ground of Our Being, and hopefully my own.