Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ectomycorrhizae and Old Nettle Patch

As my son lingered at the door on his way out after Sunday dinner, the conversation shifted to ectomycorrhizal fungi, or, in layperson's terms, fungi which form a sheath around the root tips of a plant. Yeah, I know — hardly your typical post-dinner conversation. But really, it had its beginning in the early 1990's, when my son — a young child then — would help me in the garden.  He seems to have inherited my passion for the natural world, and saves tidbits from his ongoing research to share with me over Sunday dinner.

The subject these past few months has centered on that which goes on within the soil, how the network of fungi is integral to the health of any woodland area. It's an interdependent relationship: the fungi absorb (and benefit from) various organic substances from trees, and in turn, trees are enabled by the fungi to absorb water and minerals. So think of it this way: every time you drive a shovel into the soil, if the ecosystem is a healthy one, you're severing a vital energetic pathway.

Ack. A lot of that went on in my vegetable patch this weekend, making way for lettuces and carrots. It's painful to be reminded that the pre-agrarian culture, a mere 12,000 years ago, was a helluva lot more kind to Mother Earth.

Anyway, after my son left, I began to ruminate about the woods (long gone) of my childhood. These weren't anything remotely wild, really, although to us they were the Universe of the Wild, a handful of acres. Second growth Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, hazelnuts and alders. A fraction of a forest. A micro-fraction. No water source, but I believed if I looked hard enough I'd discover a secret spring. (Sorry to say I apparently didn't look hard enough.) I knew where tiger lilies bloomed in a secret glad in June. Decomposing stumps of the old trees rose up like long-abandoned castles, inhabited by ants and spiders. When the bracken ferns unfurled every spring, I'd inch myself on my back under the frilled canopy and view the sky through a green lens.

And all throughout these childhood years, running the dirt paths
in and out of sunlight, dodging stinging nettles
growing perilously close to bare legs,
ducking under the silk of spider-webs spun new each morning —
all around and underground was this extraordinary and vast network of fungi
having a conversation with the trees,
trees we named (Whispering Winds, Old Nettle Patch)
and climbed and sang in ("The Strife is O'er" and "I Got a Robe", among others).

Mycorrhizae: symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants.

When my son and I talk about this, I get teary-eyed. Sometimes it feels like I've known this forever, on some level. Now I have a name for it. But I think the connections, the inter-connections, go much further. I believe we're only beginning to understand this. Will we pull ourselves out of our extinction-spiral in time to learn?

Saturday, April 2, 2016


April. Impossibly April. Pondering, as always, the mystery of time passing. The ephemeral nature of everything experienced.

Jim Harrison, one of my favorite writers and who passed away last week, wrote, "Time is a mystery that can tip us upside down."

Upside down, inside out. Every minute.

I've been walking down to the heron rookery, just minutes from my house, a ravine of big-leaf maples with 14 nests sprawling at treetops. Primeval and magnificent, with a wingspan of nearly 6 feet, they hunker on their twiggy aeries, fussing at bits of branch, occasionally rising up to stretch. I saw a male bring a gift of a fish to a brooding hen. Their c-r-a-w-k c-r-a-w-k is jarring and rough-edged, and seems to emanate from a long-ago eon, as if I'm listening back in time.


The ravine is almost a secret, lying low at a deadend street under a steep embankment. No chance for anyone to happen upon it without intent.

I could spend all summer there.
I could be 7 again, all summer.

Seven in the Woods

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

—Jim Harrison