Sunday, August 30, 2009

White Lightning

When I was a kid, I would at times look deep into the woods and see trees, small ones, that looked perfect for digging up, and planting in my yard. How lovely, a free tree, so small as to be worthless now, but with time, yet another of the priceless specimens that epitomize a suburban properties maturity. I looked at the maple, or the sasafrass, the birch and the beech. I looked and saw the oak, the tulip poplar, the gum tree with it's little spheres with which it overwinters. All these trees must begin as saplings, and without fire, a regular thing in the past, but almost never allowed today, they grow slowly through the dark of the wood, toward of patch of destiny that cannot look to a human as it must to a tree. The sky! Framed by the green glow of survivors, in a slow but relentless appropriation of light.

It gradually was made known to me that saplings do not appreciate being uprooted and planted in the domestic garden. For one reason or another, they just rarely survive the trip. There was usually also the matter that it is defacto illegal to uproot saplings in city parks, nature preserves, state land, or private land without permission. Since I did not know the owners of the woods to ask their permission (to this day I haven't a clue who they were) it was certainly not a good idea to go digging up saplings.

But the legal ramifications, all things considered, paled beside the simple fact that digging up saplings in the woods was a bad idea for the future tree it might become. It was bad for the sapling. In all likelihood it wouldn't live.

It wasn't till I was thirty two years old and reading Biology for a few months (and working extremely little, intentionally) that I learned what the reason was for this "sanctuary effect" the woods seems to have on saplings (and indeed, most plants there.) Perhaps a few other ideas might assist in your agreeing with me, should I share them with you.

Ever ask yourself why we rake leaves? The answer isn't completely obvious outside of the realm of cosmetic issues for the garden and lawn. It's true that a leaf will shade, and and pile of them, kill, grass. It's also true that a lawn unraked has the appearance of the classic loser bachelor, or depressed divorcee all about it. A part of the human condition seems to sing or cry based on the manner in which we tend to our pasture, and husband our plants. Even if you've never grown a tomato, or cut flowers watered to their bright abundance by your diligent care, you realize in some place in your mind that plants are cared about by us due to what ultimately they do for us, yes? They feed us, and provide us with beauty and hope. So we honor plants beyond our capacity to describe our own feelings, and care for them, carrying them silent as they cling to our clothing, just as they clung to our ancestors, safely to abide.

So again, why don't leaves hurt the trees in the forest? Isn't there something odd about the way we often have no leaves in our gardens at all, on the soil surface, and the forest is covered in anything from three to nine inches of leaves in a temperate pine or deciduous forest (like the ones surrounding my town that support one of the largest song bird populations in the world.)

Ultimately, of course, there isn't much that's odd about it at all. There is no one to rake the forests leaves, and over the course of time the earthworms and fungus, and microorganisms will break the leaves down to dirt anyhow. And the plants and trees rather depend, to one extent or another, on this process for the rejuvenation of the soils fertility and the provision of habitat for their own nursery, which placenta like, might provide a place for a seed to land, and even in drought, vouchsafe some water and nutrients.

Perhaps to you this is merely a stupid exercise, but for me, it was revelation. Why?

Well, I read a book three and a half years ago called Mycellium Running by Paul Stamets. In this book, in a very clear and concise way, Dr. Stamets described the various phases and morphological forms of a fungus. It was something I had heard before. Fungus used to be considered a type of plant, basically, although it was peculiar even then for the Botanist, or Biologist to consider something that required precisely zero clorophyll, a plant. They got over it in their zeal not two have three kingdoms. It's been done before, the three kingdom thing, and it never really works. But that's history, and fungus is tricky.

Turns out that after a hundred plus years of categorizing different fungus and mushroom (their fruit) in all the environments of the earth, a rather disturbing discovery was made that explicated one of the many prejudices taxonomy employs to, frankly, just get the job done that Adam started so very long ago in his garden. Many of the described and named species of fungus in the literature turned out to be the same species, but different morphological phases in a life cycle of such complexity that a butterfly and caterpillar seem round pegs to a round hole by comparison.

There were circumstances where a fungus would become a mushroom, but might become a slime if the PH were different, or might simply stay in its mycellium state, the bright white, hyphae you see on the underside of logs in the soil, or in Tempeh, if you eat such a thing. A fungus might sporulate, or not, and might fruit from spore, or only fruit from a mycelium saturated substrate of habitat (or food, depending on your point of view.)

The taxonimists had great reason to be so confused, but something had to be done anyway, so finally after much deliberation a third Kingdom was created for the Fungus. It's not a plant, nor an animal, it's a fungus. If it didn't settle things, it sure did distract from the disaster that the previous place for everything and everything not in place circumstance seemed to suggest.

I mention this because I had almost never paid much attention to mold, or fungus. The only fungus I felt much for were mushrooms and the bread and beer yeasts. I guess I should admit I also liked the smell of certain "yeasts" and other fungal blooms on the bodies of other persons, but I hope that doesn't offend you, given our penchant in this modern world for dressing our selves, for the delectation of a lover, in some derivative or another of jet fuel. Sorry to be gross.

Well, while reading Mycellium Running (and it's listed with a link below in my list of books) my mind began to explode with memories of strange magical properties ascribed to various ecosystems, soil environments, and trees I had seen my whole life. Like those saplings my Mom warned me against imagining in my yard. The woods had a magical hold on them, and when the spell was broken, the darn tree would never stretch to the archetype we have come to boldly expect from our many, many "giving trees."

The woods did have a magical spell on them. A very magical spell, that even today we have only the faintest descriptions of in our disciplines of Biology, Ecology, Botany, and Micology. Chemisty and a few others actually benefit enormously from this discussion as well, as the chemical pathways employed by fungus have transformed mankind's harvest for Millennia, from the rough fruit of grass to the magic of bread and beer. And those chemical pathways today stand in the middle of the highways we so wish to remain upon, driving our American dream all the way around the world, on a freeway of mycellium Biochemisty (what I'd be thrilled to call Love.) I normally laugh a bit at this aspect of the American dream, but a part of me senses my willingness to play with your mind is undergirded by such excess. So, should I dismantle too eagerly my support for the dream, the wax of my Icarus fantasies might melt as well. Hence my strange agnostic stance on the fantasies of my countrymen. And, I suppose, my gratitude.

So far, all I have intimated is that mycellium, the thready, white, hyphae penetrating form of fungus that seeks out bold new worlds within the substances spores land on, are somehow, mysteriously amazing. But why?

Well, the English have lovely term for compost: I can never forget their term "leaf mould." Never mind that they spell it wrong, I think you should give them a break. I read a while back that the English got the funnier aspects of their accent from a particularly charismatic member of the aristocracy, way back in the day (way way back) who had a speech impediment. This aristocrats way with the language (lack of proper speech) became all the rage, and stayed that way. Bloody Brilliant! Of course American Southerners have a rather broader pathology to talk about then one stupid Aristocrat, don't they? Rocks in glass houses... in Southern Indiana, no less. I'm barely a Northerner, at all. And I sound funny too!

So what about moldy leaves? Who cares about moldy leaves? If you really think about it, just about everyone you know has a thousand allergies to everything under the sun and one thing they definitely won't stand for is the inhalation of mold spores. Mold can at times seem a deeper public health hazard than the flu, or the common cold. It's "growing" everywhere, just waiting to erupt into our nostrils and inflame our lungs to a place of "chronic" illness. A victim's perfect agent for phobia.

Don't get me wrong, on occasion someone will just up and sprout a mushroom from their sinus, or what have you. I don't make light of Mr. Mushroom head, and his probably many hundreds of similar immune compromised walking substrate's for the production of fungus. But most of us should really pause if we're going to be disgusted by fungus in general. For I am here to tell you that it is a very great friend to man, and a lovely thing to behold today, should you wish to accept this mission, out in your temperate garden, beneath a stump, or an errant clump of wet leaves. Leaf Mould. Compost. The mold eats the leaves, and the cell walls of the leaves break down to let out humic acid, which for reasons that I'll leave to your physics lecturer is the binding agent in humus, or topsoil, or compost, or whatever a lucky plant should have near the hairs of it's roots.

The thing that people hate about mycellium, but that I dearly love, is it's animal like speed in spreading from an almost invisible spot of colonization in the soil, or in some old wood, or from a spore. Remember, it's not a plant or an animal, it's a fungus. And the reigns upon it's metabolism, outside of it's genetics, are not ties to sunlight or mineral salts (for the most part), but rather, as just about everyone eventually learns, to moisture and warmth. Mycellium prefers a bit of warmth (not tons, certainly not summertime warmth, but something like forty to seventy degrees.) So given moisture and warmth, this little Kingdom cannot be held in siege ftom just about anything. The tip of a mycellium hyphae (thread or fiber) is a growing, expanding powerhouse capable of moving through solid wood like butter, or human bone even (rather devastating to watch an immune compromised person's facial bones being eaten by fungus, don't you think? I saw a kid on PBS one time, a little girl, dying of Cancer, with just such a condition.)
The tip winds its way possibly due to a sensitivity to gradients of certain substances that it prefers. It is by no means intelligent, or strategic in it's mission. It is a scout, and sledgehammer in one. Bringing self through dinner, so dinner might be had.

This is fairly pedestrian as observations go: we've all seen mold colonize a bag of bread, or other food, and a sticky spiders web of "moldiness" slip from our hand into the trash, it's onetime value as food now gone forever.

The mycelium that gets me rather freaky and thrilled is the stuff out in the dirt. It's the stuff that really makes topsoil the valuable thing it was rumored my entire life to be. I always wondered, my entire education, why it was that dirt was so lousy, but topsoil the bomb. Books and filmstrips and teachers and television love to tell you how much topsoil erodes, but rarely do you find a cad calm and relaxed enough to tell you from whence the running off once came.

Mold, my friends. Mold.

There are a number of dead trees in my neighborhood, courtesy of the combined effects of Bloomington's tree worshiping mandate (you aren't a real citizen it you would so much as touch an axe or a chainsaw) and it's basic poverty of spirit toward anything expensive that isn't beer and food. So the trees wait, once dead, to finally fall. Yet more "accidents" in a world full of taxonomic preposterousness. If you are foolish enough to move at a speed where looking up at a tree's trunk is possible, and you should spy a mushroom fifteen feet off the ground, that should not bode well for the tree's health. It is, of course, the case that some hardwoods live for a hundred years with large mushrooms growing on them, year after year. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's a mercy. On occasion some clever scientist will do the numbers and estimate the amount of biomass that would litter our world were it not for the steady ministrations of fungus to pretty much everything: suffice it to say, that where you live would be higher in altitude. Quite a bit higher. And, the ecology of your area would be bereft of enormous entropic potential. For it is in the winding down of those complex plant life polymers that the cogs of entropy give energy and heat to our selves and our companions in our habitat. Fire is an obvious, though somewhat unnecessary chemical example of this. From the roiling eddies of heat off the gas rising into the sky within the fire smoke, one can see the spinning wind down of entropy and it's thermodynamic progeny. Who but fungus can order wood to such a detailed list of obligations to we hungry benefactors of the plants in the soil, and the savor of the barbeque? No one, that's who.

Go ahead, give it a try with a chisel and hammer. Or perhaps sic your two year old to gnaw on her popsicle stick and pray the amylase in her mouth will soften the resilient polymer. Just like the man with the miracle of a nail, but no hammer to drive it, we are limp with the log in our hand, and no mold to turn it into soil, and mushrooms, for that matter. Not that most of us necessarily wish for our wood in our life to go to seed. But like the everlasting impropriety of a fetching plastic flower, we love wood all the more for what we know, like us, it's not long for. This world. And the reaper? He ain't grim. He's mycellium.

The thing about mycellium, outside of it's spectacular deliverance of a genome to retire in the larder represented by nearly all the biomass of the world, for me, is it's relationship with plants.

Without getting technical, most fungus is not necessarily a soil fungus that interacts among the roots of living plants. But, the ones that do, get us back to those little trees that like the dark forest floor, so much better than your lovely yard (and fertilizer and watering hose!)

What the mycellium in such soil fungus does, incredibly, is penetrate the roots of most plants. Then, instead of being a pathological disease, which it almost certainly was in the distant past, it becomes something of a friend. Remember, a plant is simply a living version of what a fungus loves best: biomass. Somehow plants, deep in the bowels of their evolving relationship with fungus, got the idea to simply give their penetrating companions a little sugar, in return for whatever the mycellium had to offer.

Well, the mycellium loved the sugar, even when it couldn't metabolize all of it. And mycellium, spread throughout soil, and into the roots of plants, has such an incredible surface area, that it had something else to give to plants, and to help characterize the soil as something more than crushed rock. Water. So in return for sugar, and as part of the mechanism of it's delivery, the plant's roots got a little bit of water, from literally an unimaginably large sponge. Some mycellium mats are literally hundreds of yards wide. The largest are miles across. On occassion they pull a dirty trick on a forest and kill every living tree within it. For miles. A kind of biological fire. The Romans would have really approved of this sort of fungus feasting Bacchanalia. It must give real piece of mushroom, knowing you have an entire forest awaiting your bony white hyphae, nearly virgin territory every cathedral like trunk. Real peace of mushroom.

So the reason you see small trees thriving, despite their seeming lack of available sunlight in the dark woods... And the reason the infill that comprises at least a portion of your gardens hard won soil, doesn't necessarily do as the mushrooms might, is this mycellium running. Running across our entire world, through all healthy soils, and finding the roots of plants to share, in a long fought embrace, a little from each, that might make the whole a great deal more resilient.

Nowadays when I transplant something delicate and valuable I fully expect it to droop in a kind of orphaned state of confusion. Yes, it's root hairs are tailor made to collect water and nutrients, and yes it's leaves have been given just the right mix of sun and shade for it's proper growth to fruition. But, when I tear it from the soil, at the end of the year, in a sad but deeply meaningful goodbye, I can hear something tearing in the soil, that reached the roots maybe one week after I planted the plant. And that is the hyphae and threads of mycellium, that found my plant and kept it stiff in posture with water and mineral salts, even in drought, for a few small drops of sugar, now and again.

I say take more from me, fungus. Sometimes I wonder if you aren't my favorite kingdom, in the garden, of all.

POSTHASTE: Ah, correction... the mycellium clearly gives sugar to the roots of light starved saplings. It wouldn't help much to fertilize a light starved tree (though people do this all the time.) I intimated, above, that the plant gives the sugar to the mold, and the mold gives water and salts--- and this is sometimes true. But sometimes the mycellium gives the plant sugar as well. It has plenty of sugar from the roots of the entire botanic community in the soil. The point is that the relationship is fabulously beneficial both ways. Think of it as a sugar packet switching biological internet (yeah, Rick, sadly Splenda wouldn't work. You'd be thrilled to hear, by the way, that a prominent Chemist said a few years back that he wouldn't trust the molecule that Splenda is comprised of, for when you look at it's structure, the Chlorine atom, at the center of a "sugar like" matrix, rather screams neurotoxin. This is certainly true, aesthetically. I give the chemist props for his pattern recognition, but the science don't stack up with his fears (and supposition.)

No comments: