Tuesday, February 23, 2016

February 23, 2016 - The Mycelium

There are forest residents we pay very little attention to, if we pay any attention at all.  Usually we first think of the trees because they are so large and majestic.  They are the seemingly undisputed rulers of the forest, and without them, of course, there would be no forest.  Then we look at the other vegetation--the bushes and grasses and general scrub.  They fill in the areas where the trees are sparser, and the truth is, they fight bitterly with the trees all day long for resources and sunlight.  We underestimate there well-earned temerity.

Then we think of the animals, the hidden deer, moose, raccoons, coyotes, minks, and bobcats.  The forest is their home, and the trees and other vegetation give them cover and shelter.  And we think of the birds, too, flitting in and out of the trees, leaving the forest and coming back again at will.  Their nests are high above the other animals, and their vantage point gives them a clear edge over the rest of the forest creatures.


Then it’s on to insects, those buzzing, biting, chirping, jumping, stinging, crawling things.  They’re tiny but oh-so-noticeable.  The smallest bee can command a great deal more attention than the largest buck.  Respect.  That’s what we give to the insects.  That, and a very large area to themselves if we can.  They are a nuisance to humans, although the birds might have a different tale to tell about them.

But there are other denizens of the forest that go largely unnoticed.  They are quiet and shy, and the fungus in this photo is only one of them.  They are neither of the plant kingdom nor the animal kingdom.  They have their own place in the order of things.  We tend to pay so much attention to the plant and animal kingdoms but give little heed to the fungus kingdom, but it is important to remember that it is a kingdom and not just anything gets to have that label.

They’re everywhere.  Everywhere.  They cover the trees, invade the mosses, and ferment all the plant life.  They recycle the dead and give it life once again.  Sort of.  In a non-animal, non-plant, darkness-loving, sun-hating kind of way--the opposite, really, of other life.  Their hidden underground network is called “mycelium,” and it is massive.  The largest example of mycelium is in a 2.400 acre site in Oregon and is estimated to be 2,200 years old and to cover 1,665 football fields.  According to Paul Stamets in Mycelium Running, this one mycelium has killed the forest above it several times and still lives to tell the ongoing tale.

What you see above ground when you look at a tiny mushroom on the forest floor is just the “fruiting body.”  It is the underground network that forms the massive kingdom of fungus, the true undisputed ruler of the forest, the re-fashioner of organic material, the ruler of the world in between life and death--consisting of neither yet commanding of both.

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