Mushrooms, Maleficium, & Me

I’ve never had much of an eye for fungus, but it was the morning after a particularly rainy day that I found myself wandering about the woods of my childhood, from one mushroom cap to another. I was surrounded by maple, elm, oak, cherry, and beech trees, though the storm the night before had stripped the overall canopy cover to 50% or less, leaving me feeling somewhat exposed. Walking along a sloped landscape, I often slipped on the leaf-litter, slick with rainwater. And it was in falling sideways that I noticed what appeared to be raisins glued to a decaying tree branch.

After righting myself, I leaned closer, getting a better look at the amber jelly fungus. It’s the kind of creature you’ve probably seen in the woods before but never really taken the time to know. At least, that was the situation I found myself in, staring at it up close for the first time. Jelly fungi are typically found on dead wood, in autumn and winter. I made a note to myself to survey for them once Michigan had one of its famous blizzards. The clouds shifted, causing sunlight to fall on the gelatinous bodies, and I realized it wasn’t as black in color as I initially thought. In the light, its papillae glowed the color of red wine. This further supported my hypothesis that these were just raisins glued to a tree.

That morning, I hadn’t planned on surveying for fungi species richness, but I had recently moved back home and rediscovered the joy of being outside. And I suppose I had cut my obligations in half, as I no longer had a house to clean, meals to make, or a relationship to repair. I had five aquariums, a couple books, a bed I shared with my sister, and all the possibilities in the world to uncover. Regardless, I missed being able to step out my back door and slip into nature, undisturbed by neighbors or city traffic. After having spent the last fourteen months trying to support someone through addiction when he had stopped supporting himself, I was coming back to myself. 

And the first thing I noticed was fungus.

Ever since I was a child, I had some vague sense of the relationship between rainfall and subsequent mushroom blooms. After rain, crisp puffballs would appear in the front yard. Until our father scolded us, my brother, sister, and I would compete to step on them, a satisfying crunch and puff of powder released onto the lawn. To the dismay of those, like my father, who are consciously aware of their lawn’s composition, fungi are actually constantly releasing their spores as acts of dispersal to carry on their genetic lineage. One estimate places the yearly weight of fungal spores released at 50 million tons. One ambulance weight about five tons, so if you can only imagine 10 million ambulances, then you’re on the right track to appreciating the amount of spores fungi release each year. Since I’ve only ever seen ten ambulances in one place at the same time, I’m not quite there yet.

As a consequence of proliferous spore dispersal, these particles accumulate in the atmosphere where water molecules glom onto them, condensing, and—eventually—causing it to rain. Fungi need water to grow and the subsequent rainfall does what you would expect: promotes growth. A recent paper found this feedback loop to be unintentional on the mushroom’s part, meaning, there are no selective pressures driving this process—it just happens. And of course, as climate change alters the symphony of the natural world, the concern is that warmer temperatures will drive fungi species to extinction. Without their spores in the atmosphere, there will be less particulate matter for water molecules to condense around and make rain.

But I wasn’t thinking about any of these things on my survey through the woods. I wasn’t thinking about the man I left behind in Kalamazoo or the one I was meeting later that evening for dinner in that same city. Examining blooms of purple jelly discs in pockets of a decaying log, I was thinking about a Spanish witch hunter in the 14th or 15th century that threw women accused of witchcraft out of two-story windows to prove their innocence. If they flew, they were guilty. If they fell, they weren’t. “Any woman can fly if she’s thrown hard enough.” Either way, an accused woman was a dead woman.

Staring at the jelly discs, vibrant purple tucked in niches of the long-ago-fallen tree, I was reminded of witches’ butter, another gelatinous fungus. Like the name suggests, it has a butter-like appearance, as some varieties are yellow in color. And like butter, the fungus grew on its substrate as if it had scraped from a butter knife onto a surface.

The folklore states the fungus would appear, seemingly overnight, on people’s houses. This was taken as a sign that a witch had cursed the residence and those dwelling within. The only way to undo the curse was to impale the witches’ butter until it died. Humans are always looking for scapegoats to explain away phenomena or cast blame elsewhere. Historically, women have always been healers, linked to the natural world by nature of their housekeeping and care-taking roles. Illiteracy and cultural misogyny, however, mostly left women’s medical practices removed from the written record. The precarity of women’s cultural role—men’s possessions, obligated to raise children, and have general knowledge about healing their family’s sickness—made them easy targets during witch-hunting crazes. Thinking about the etymology of the fungi’s name, I wondered how many women curious about the natural world had been accused, tortured, or killed for witchcraft.

Despite my interest in witches’ butter, I didn’t find any during my survey for fungi species richness. Instead, I found many mushroom caps poking through the leaf-litter. Large orange caps, concave like umbrellas. Even larger white caps, flattened like bread baked without yeast. By happenstance, I also found mushrooms, small as hangnails, growing on trees. These ones, I especially only saw after it rained. I initially only noticed their little umbrellas because the cherry trees had oozed sap, thick chunks of crystal hanging from sweet-smelling bark, so I was inspecting each tree I came across for something similar. But it seemed only the cherries were bleeding sugar that day.

False turkey-tail and mossy maze polypore were the most visually appealing fungus I encountered, especially when they grew on upright trees. Though both are pathogenic to the tree host, inducing diseases like canker rot, when they grew vertically on a tree, their canopies reminded me of sculpture artwork. Often, the false turkey-tail had a color gradient, the individuals closer to the ground possessing a greener complexion that, as your eye travelled upwards, gradually shifted to white. This green, I believe, was from some photosynthetic organism growing on top of the fungi canopies. The mossy maze polypore, too, was quite aesthetic. From the underside, they were a warm orange color, stacked vertically on trees like the false turkey-tail.

This was just a small sample of the fungi varieties I documented that day, the number somewhere between twenty and thirty. My absolute favorite, though, were the yellow fairy cups. These, I only ever found in one place, despite their bright yellow discs clustered together being easy visual targets. When it rained, the mini discs, so called “cups” in their name, were puffy, almost swollen. During dry spells, these cups shrank, shriveled, and their color shifted from construction-helmet-yellow to sharp-cheddar-cheese-orange. Where the word “fairy” originates from in the name, I couldn’t say. I liked the idea, though, of winged people the size of mosquitoes touching down on the decaying log for tea-time.

Though it was only half past seven, it was already dark outside. Across the table, I met Trisha’s gaze. He was a good friend, the two of us meeting at work and immediately hitting it off. My identity lying in the traumatic and rewarding work of pre-hospital medicine, I didn’t get along well with people my own age. We had nothing in common, and no one really wants to hear about how many dead people I’ve seen. Trisha was an exception, though by the time I met him, the novelty of death, of corpses, had left me. It was typical, nothing special, but looking across the restaurant table at Trisha, I knew he was neither of these things.

Around us, the restaurant was filling up. Overhead speakers played music, the melodies getting lost underneath the clink of dishes and chatter of conversations. Every now and then, though, Trisha would pick out the words, softly singing the lyrics so only the two of us could hear. 

We typically met in the evening, after he’d worked through the morning and afternoon. I asked him how his shift went, if he had any interesting participants. He was a mobility driver, meaning, he transported wheelchair-bound individuals or those too infirm to drive themselves to appointments and back again. 

“I waited on scene for half an hour because the guy forgot he had an appointment,” Trisha said this with a shrug, not a trace of ill-will in his voice. I was so used to hearing anger, frustration, and I-was-inconvenienced, that I remember Trisha’s tone specifically for its lack thereof. “Oh,” he said, eyes lighting up, “and I took that one gentleman in, the one whose wife you really liked.” 

“She was so sweet! She even remembered your name.” She remembered more than that, saying she thought about Trisha the other day while at the Subway by Aspen Avenue because that’s where he lived, and had he been baking lately? Quarantine and social distancing had temporarily killed her love for cooking. But was he still planning on going back to school to be a surgical tech? And how was Trisha’s dog? What about his brother, how were things in California? 

All of this she said while turned around in the passenger seat so that she could look Trisha in the eyes. He was sitting in the back of the van behind her husband, who didn’t seem to mind that his wife was quite literally talking over him. Yelling, really, because face masks are muffling, and she’d requested the AC be turned up. Meanwhile, I just hoped I didn’t make a wrong turn in the maze of Kalamazoo’s one-ways and side streets. 

 Trisha took a sip of water and asked, “What did you do today?”

I set aside memories from the day we met, where Trisha had to train me on mobility before I could graduate from the new-hire position and start pulling shifts on the ambulance, where everything moved much more quickly, felt brighter and seemed louder. 

“Well, I surveyed for fungi species richness in my backyard. And I think I have more pictures of mushrooms on my phone now than I do of my two-week vacation in Costa Rica.”

Whether or not he truly found this as profound as I did was difficult to say. In any case, he folded his hands together, resting them atop the table’s surface, and gave me all of his attention while I rattled off, in broken thoughts and half-finished sentences, all the species I had documented that morning. He was patient, while I was probably mostly incoherent, dropping one thread, picking up another, only to drop it and return to a former one.

I didn’t think about how, if I’d remained in Kalamazoo, this conversation never would have happened. I would have come home to a dark house, a litter of empty seltzer cans, and a passed-out-drunk-on-the-couch partner. The sight of this alone would have stolen my appetite for dinner, and I would have sat in front of my aquariums instead, fishkeeping having become my new coping mechanism. He would have woken up by the time I was tucking into bed, and all my excitement about mushrooms would have long ago been squandered by the hopelessness of sobriety, the guilt of living with someone I was falling out of love with, and the knowledge that—unless I gave up on him completely and left—I had nowhere to go to escape either of these things.

In an interview about her work with algae under microscopes, Dr. Mary Power said, “You forget you’re human.” And I suppose I had spent a lot of time realizing how human I was that this alternative—observing the natural world with such intensity that you look up from scrutinizing each tree you pass by and realize two hours have lapsed since you first started out—was appealing. Not to mention, every eye around the world, it seemed, was focused on human health, a subject I could no longer walk away from at the end of a shift on the ambulance. The resilience, the fragility of humanity was everywhere. While pertinent, it grew redundant and it grew political. I was more than happy to have discovered a new world to slip into and disappear.

***

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I spent twenty minutes observing the same ten-by-twenty meter plot in the woods, which included several mature sugar maples clustered so tightly together, one had an “arm” hugged around the trunk of the other. In the cradle of this embrace, soil, nut shells, and leaf-litter had accumulated long before I began studying the area. By chance, a vascular plant now grew there, and from its thin but sturdy stems, cordate-shaped leaves sprouted. Over the course of my observations, these hearts eventually spilled over the edge of the cradle as the cluster of plants grew towards the sun.

There was a rock, too, where a thin layer of moss and crustose lichen grew. On its top, however, it possessed a bald spot, where nothing grew but where there was always nut shells. Since there was a hole in the ground, tucked between the furrows of the Embraced Maple, it did not take me long to conclude that this rock was a dining table for chipmunks. The frequency of their feasts must not have allowed for lichen or moss to live on top of the rock long enough to gain a foothold. I never saw these chipmunks, but the fractured acorns and walnuts on top of this rock were indicative enough of their presence. 

It was within the imaginary lines of this plot that I first saw an American dagger moth caterpillar, its fuzzy yellow body trying to appear intimidating with four black daggers sprouting skywards along its back. A younger version of me would have picked it up, noting how similar it was to the wooly bear caterpillar I was infamous for collecting and relocating out of the lawn-mower’s path. Touching this caterpillar, though, would have been a mistake, for while it failed to intimate me, its hairs contain a toxin which, after coming into contact with skin, causes itching and burning. 

Of course, I did not know this yet. I watched the caterpillar crawl in the direction of the Embracing Maple, the wave of its motion seeming to roll through the cylindrical shape of its body, not unlike a ribbon rippling in a soft breeze. It moved with such purpose, I amused myself with the idea of a caterpillar running late for work. By the time I identified the caterpillar, though, its presence was less humorous a more of a grave symbol for what may happen if one of my younger siblings decided to pick it up, thinking it was harmless when really, the dagger in its name was for good reason. Though I remained vigilant, I did not see a caterpillar with those black daggers again. 

It was also within the imaginary lines of my plot that I noted the presence of a spider, who was much too small for my eyes to taxonomically identify but was such a constant in my weekly observations that when the weather finally drove him away, I was sad to find his niche empty. For six weeks, he could be found, suspended by his web, between the thin branches of a maple sapling, a progeny of the Embracing Maple no doubt. I named this spider Erasmus, if only to keep things straight in my field notes. Being somewhat short, I would stand underneath these branches and look up, either noting the speck against the bright sky or not. I never saw anything caught in his web but seeing as how Erasmus never moved locations (at least by daylight standards), I assumed his hunt was successful regardless of what I did or didn’t see. 

It was during my mushroom survey that I came across a pair of mating slugs. Coiled on a decaying log, I almost mistook them to the slime mold, wolf’s milk, both organisms being dark brown in color and spherical in shape (and there were clusters of wolf’s milk nearby). I remembered reading about a species of slug in Australia that was bright pink in color and was only found at a certain elevation on a specific mountain. The leopard slug native to Europe, I recalled, mated while hanging upside-down from trees. Compared to their relatives, these gastropods seemed much more… tame.

My coziest memory, however, was of the black ants traveling across mounds of moss. Crouching beside a maple on the border of my plot, I noted how the sunlight struck the bryophytes, illuminating the pine-tree-like structure of the plant and making the abdomens of the black ants walking across it iridescent. In Costa Rica, there were often leaf-cutter ant highways—in the town, outside of the town, they knew no bounds. Some were consistent, an everyday, all-hours presence. Others were spontaneous, like the one that appeared outside my hotel room one morning. Either way, the locals were careful not to step on or obstruct these highways. I remember thinking, after observing this behavior (and having been told by a handful of locals at different times), that Americans would never be so conscientious, so courteous.

When summer abdicated to autumn, I saw less and less insects in my plot. Gusts of wind and hand-numbing cold succeeded warmth and gentle breezes. It was the beginning of November when, for one week, the region experienced a warm spell. I noted the mosquitoes hovering just above the leaf-litter and celebrated the sight of this animal life. And it was with intense hope that I stepped around the Embraced and Embracing Maples to check the sapling for Erasmus. To my chagrin, he was there, suspended between the same two branches, as if he’d never left. Since insects are ectotherms, relying on the external environment for warmth, it made sense to me that he disappeared during the cold only to reappear when it was warm again. Still, I wondered where he’d sought refuge, a mystery I suppose I will have to live with.

During the sixth week of my observations that I strolled up to my site, notebook in hand, when I noticed shards of glass taking the place of shards of nuts on the Chipmunk Diner rock. The nature of living with nine other people meant I was not the only one who enjoyed the outdoors. Infuriated that little brother had compromised my site by cracking a glass bottle over this rock—of all the rocks to choose from—I returned to the house, grabbed a plastic bag and gloves, and removed what I could of the glass shrapnel. But the glass bottle disturbance echoed into the weeks, and there never was another nutshell on or around that rock. The Chipmunk Diner, it seemed, was closed.

When it rained in Kalamazoo, the traffic on West Main could still be heard over the downpour and thunder. When it rained in Plainwell, gray tree frogs stuck to the windows and you got an unobstructed view of the neon yellow stripes running along the inside of their back legs. I was still living in Kalamazoo when I explained this phenomenon to Trisha, his eyebrows furrowed in careful concentration, and it was then that I realized how much I missed home. 

By nature of my design, I often wandered after observing the Embracing Maples. It did not surprise me to find that, one day while wandering, I began shining my flashlight in tree holes. I was looking for tree frogs, having missed them during the rainy seasons earlier in the year. While I surveyed many holes, only two housed what I was searching for. I noticed these holes, unlike the others, were about three feet off the ground and retained pockets of water. They were also large enough to accommodate two or more tree frogs at once, as I never observed one living in singularity. They were a social species, often packing three in one hole.

For a variety of reasons, amphibian populations were declining. Their metamorphic life cycle, which placed them both as aquatic organisms and then terrestrial, exposed them to contaminated water and pollution in general, which their subcutaneous respiration (breathing through the skin) made all too easy to absorb. Chytridiomycosis, a disease caused by Batrachochytrium fungi, was decimating populations. Since tree frogs probably didn’t have much of a concept of social distancing, I wondered at the devastating effects this disease would have on the frog community in my backyard. It was a haunting thought, perhaps exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. 

Throughout my childhood, my older brother and I were on the lookout for the rare cricket frog. According to legend (my brother, really), this frog was the size of a cricket (a fingernail was more accurate) and apparently so ugly that people stepped on any individuals they came across (I truly doubt beauty had anything to do with declining populations but being only eight, I accepted this for fact). It had last been spotted in Allegan County in the 1970’s, though the eastern neighbor, Barry County, was much more hopeful, the last sighting somewhere in the early 2000’s. An outbreak of Chytridiomycosis would surely be the end of these endangered frogs.

I checked the tree holes for many weeks after, though when the weather grew cold and seemed to stay that way, the tree frogs went away. Amphibians weren’t gone for the season, though. The same week-long warm spell in November, which encouraged Erasmus from his hiding place, affected other species’ behavior too. It was on the 10th, the last warm night of the year, that I was walking the trails with my youngest sister, Liddy, the sun nearly set in the horizon. The lack of light obscured our vision, but we didn’t need it. Despite the absence of leaves on the trees, it felt like a summer night. As we walked and the world grew dimmer and dimmer, we heard the characteristic plop of frogs jumping in the leaves. 

Having grown up catching all the species the region had to offer, I knew their identities simply by their shape. Being one of the smallest in Michigan—besides the fabled cricket frog—spring peepers were tan in color and seemed to have little regard for weather or seasons. Because of their size, they were quick, and I recalled catching them with my hands when I was younger always took several tries. Their size and color also meant they could hide nearly anywhere, and so, coupled with their quickness was their knack for camouflage. 

Now, with Liddy, there were spring peepers on either side of us, on every trail, their presence marked with a plop in the dry leaves as they jumped to escape the noise of our travel. We kept a tally of how many we disturbed by passing through on the trails, and if we wanted to catch them, we were too perplexed by the behavior to try. An hour before, our father had finished clearing leaves from the yard, depositing each load into the woods. Whether this had anything to do with the spring peepers now, I couldn’t say for certain. By the end of our six-minute walk, we’d counted twenty-three, a number I have always considered lucky. I hadn’t seen a tree frog in fourteen days, but spring peepers were, for the moment, on the rise.

***

I had been crouching for a while (though my joints wouldn’t have noticed the difference) sketching mosses in my field notes. Having completed my survey of bryophytes in my observational plot, I stood up. Facing north, I gazed out at the swampland less than a meter away. When my brother, sister, and I were growing up, we knew rain made the swamp swell with water and the land bordering it, sinkholes of pitch-black soil. To avoid ruining our shoes with mud and therefore, invoking our mother’s loving wrath, we bypassed the muck using fallen trees as pathways across the land, across the water. Mimicking feline agility, we balanced with arms straight out on either side, each step a calculated move so as not to slip on wet moss or the slick texture of decaying wood. 

Staring at it a decade or so later—the water’s surface so reflective, I saw double gray skies, barren tree branches sticking straight up like castle spires—I noted last night’s rain had the same swelling, earth-softening effect. Yet it seemed smaller, and when my eyes traced the fallen trees of my childhood, I was reminded that those old byways had sunk so far into the muck, the only indication those logs were still there were the emerald green stripes of moss covering the surfaces that had yet to be submerged. In another decade, those too, would be gone.

I had been away from home too long, I thought. I missed the sight of this woods during the thick of summer when I could have used it most, the world turned upside down with the global pandemic, people afraid to be around people. I couldn’t control the novel virus any more than the pathologists and immunologists studying it. What I could control was where I lived and so, when the State of Michigan shut down in March, I found myself with a bag of clothes and a box of books, living with my paramedic and partner in a cheap apartment above a liquor store in North Dorr. Back then, we still worked on the same ambulance, so it only made sense to limit our exposure and quarantine together.

By June, Michigan was opening up again. We signed a lease for a duplex off of West Main, moved to Kalamazoo, and began new jobs at different EMS agencies. I suppose that’s when things between us began falling apart, and despite my sadness over this realization, my sadness over his it’s-all-in-your-head replies, I remained persistent. I wanted to support him, to make things work. So I cooked. So I cleaned. So I reminded him to take his vitamins, his medicines. And while he never accused me of witchcraft, he accused me of other things and tossed me out windows to test my innocence. But an accused woman was a dead woman, and by the first of October, I had evacuated the city, every bump on the road rattling my caravan of fishes and aquariums making me cringe no matter how slowly I drove. I didn’t lose a single fish, though, and I wasn’t losing myself anymore either. 

In ecology and conservation, one of the greatest conflicts is the pressure global warming and climate change places on communities, on species, on individuals. These changes are accelerated by anthropogenic factors like clear-cutting forests, burning fossil fuels, and building housing developments. It’s crucial to preserve what’s left of the natural world, this system so complex, we cannot even begin to account for the roles each species plays in the symphony until it is too late. Usually, not even then do we notice which species our species is driving to extinction.

Nature has never had a one-sided partnership with humanity. It supplies foods, medicines, shelter, livelihoods, and so much more. And that’s where ecology, conservation, and romantic relationships are different: even though it’s doomed, you can fall in love with the natural world and know, despite the struggle and sorrow, there is always value in salvaging the pieces. Always.

Looking at the swamp, I imagined everything blanketed in snow, imagined it thawing, imagined the leaves budding fresh and blooming emerald green all around. Burying chilled hands in my coat pockets, I was eager to see how the landscape would wear the coming seasons. Overhead, a crow cawed; somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker rattled a tree, the sound of hollow wood being jack-hammered ringing throughout the forest. 

Notes

One estimate places the yearly weight of fungal spores: From a website recommended by those who read Jennifer Frazer’s article “Made by Rain, Mushrooms Also Make It.”

https://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter/2016/01/raindrops-keep-falling-on-their-heads-thanks-to-mushroom-spores-that-is.html

As a consequence of proliferous spore dispersal, these particles: Jennifer Frazer, a science journalist with various biology degrees. Her article “Made by Rain, Mushrooms Also Make It” (2016) may be accessed on The Artful Amoeba

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/made-by-rain-mushrooms-also-make-it/

A recent paper found this feedback loop to be unintentional: This paper was discussed in detail by Jennifer Frazer in the above link. 

Hassett, Maribeth O., Mark WF Fischer, and Nicholas P. Money. “Mushrooms as Rainmakers: How Spores Act as Nuclei for Raindrops.” PloS one 10, no. 10 (2015): e0140407.

“Any woman can fly if she’s thrown hard enough”: From a lecture given by Dr. Rochelle Rojas at Kalamazoo College, during her course The History of Science and Magic. Much of what I know about women practicing medicine also comes from her lectures.

The folklore states the fungus would appear: Several sources corroborated this tale, though I include this website as the primary source, as it also contains culinary advice for preparing witches’ butter in (edible) dishes.

In an interview about her work with algae: From Dr. Mary Power’s interview on People Behind the Science, somewhere around the six to ten minute mark.

its hairs contain a toxin which: One mother in Michigan found this out the hard way when her young son came into contact with an American dagger caterpillar. 

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-dagger-caterpillar-michigan-officials-warn-poisonous-caterpillar-lurking-on-hiking-trails-college-campus/

a species of slug in Australia that was bright pink: I really did fall down this rabbit hole, which resulted in a new appreciation for slugs’ pneumostomes. 

https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2013/06/10/new-hot-pink-slug-found-in-australia-2/

The leopard slug native to Europe: Pictures of this ritual made me realize I didn’t give enough thought to gastropods.

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150114-the-strange-sensational-world-of-leopard-slug-sex

For a variety of reasons, amphibian populations: From a pre-recorded lecture delivered by Dr. Santiago Salinas while Kalamazoo College was shut down with the rest of the state for quarantine. In this lecture for his course on vertebrate biology, Santiago touched on the anthropogenic factors and Batra disease leading to declining amphibian populations.

It had last been spotted in Allegan County in the 1970’s: The lack of precise years here is because I cannot find the document which details sightings of cricket frogs per county. I want to say it was on Michigan’s DNR website (or maybe from Michigan State University), and while I accessed it only several months ago, its exact location has escaped me. iNaturalist database has Blanchard’s cricket frog last seen in Michigan on September 16, 2011.

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