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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Water-Borne Naturalist

Stinkhorns, Earthtongues and Dead-man's Fingers

By Tamia Nelson

WARNING This article mentions a number of mushrooms and other fungi. Most are inedible, and some can make you sick—or even kill you. Do NOT eat, or even taste, any of these fungi, and please do not collect them. Look at them and photograph them and then leave them where they are. This article is NOT a guide to edible mushrooms. If you'd like to gather mushrooms for the table, get a good field guide and expert advice. Remember, too, that even experts make mistakes, sometimes with fatal results. What you don't know can kill you. It's not a chance worth taking.

Something wicked this way comes. That memorable line from the "Scottish play" rattled around unbidden in my mind while the sweet stench of rotting flesh assailed my nose. Farwell answered my inquiring look with an affirmative grunt. He sniffed the air with the studied detachment of a wine waiter uncorking a new bottle. Then, to all appearances fully content with the vintage, he nodded agreement and returned to the picnic fare spread before us.

StinkhornsI was less easily satisfied, however. I got up from the granite outcrop that served as our streamside table and walked through the bordering ferns into the trees, quartering the gentle northerly breeze like a hound on a scent. My nose soon led me to the source of the stench. It wasn't what I'd expected to find. On the ground at my feet, thrusting up from the soft, rotted wood that had once been a maple branch, I saw a bloody finger. That was my first thought, at any rate. On second glance, it looked more like a discarded tampon applicator, not as rare a sight in the North Country woods as you might think. Still closer examination, however, revealed the truth. The object of my search was a red-tipped, spongy shaft, just about the same size as my little finger. A fungus of some sort, I guessed. I called to Farwell.

He plodded over, sniffed, looked, and grunted again. "Stinkhorn," he said. "I thought as much. There'll be more of them around."

There were. The forest floor beneath us was carpeted with stinkhorns in all stages of growth and decay. Some were blackened and wizened. Others were erect and pointing skyward. (Only later did I grasp the significance of the Linnaean name, Mutinus elegans. Don't know why it took me so long.) They all stank, but by this time I was getting used to it. I fished out my sketchbook and made some pencilled notes, while Farwell poked gently about in the forest litter, looking for other fungi.

This wasn't the first time we'd gone fungus-chasing while on a paddling outing. On one of our earliest canoe-camping trips together, as we were walking along the tote road which parallels the aptly named Rapid River between Lower Richardson and Umbagog Lakes, near the Maine-New Hampshire border, Farwell suddenly and wordlessly darted off into the surrounding pine woods. When I caught up with him, he was on his hands and knees in the springy forest duff, staring intently at a mushroom with a brilliant red-orange cap.

"A red mushroom," I thought. "It's pretty enough, to be sure. Beautiful, in fact. But what's the big deal?" I said as much to Farwell. He regarded me with a look that mixed equal parts of hurt and exasperation. "This isn't just any mushroom," he said. "It's a fly agaric—Amanita muscaria—the muk-a-moor of the Siberian Korak."

Muk-a-moorThis didn't mean much to me at the time, I admit. "Huh?" was the best reply I could make. No matter. Farwell saw his chance and seized it, losing no time in explaining that the Korak (their name is also written Kerek and Koryak) live between the Anadyr River and the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Siberia. When George Kennan, the American journalist who served as de facto press secretary in the McKinley administration, was a young man, he had been hired by the Russo-American Telegraph Company to survey a land route for a proposed telegraph line from the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Amur River—right across the Korak homeland. The project was abandoned shortly after the completion of the first successful transatlantic cable in 1866, but by then Kennan had spent three years in Siberia, "experienc[ing] in turn the pleasures and discomforts of whale boats, horses, rafts, canoes, dog sledges, reindeer sledges, and snow shoes." In the course of his travels, he learned of the muk-a-moor, a "peculiar fungus" which, although "a violent narcotic poison" when "taken in large quantities," produced only a pleasing intoxication in small doses.

Maybe so, but I have my doubts. Though I share Farwell's interest in exploring the by-roads of history, neither he nor I was (or is) inclined to experiment with strange fungi, however "pleasant" the resulting intoxication is said to be. And a good thing, too, since current evidence suggests that the North American fly agaric has rather different pharmacological properties than its Siberian counterpart, with the all-but-indistinguishable formosa variant being especially toxic. Gathering wild mushrooms for the table involves risk enough, thank you (see WARNING at the start of this article). Experimenting with species known to be poisonous is a game for folks who find Russian roulette too tame—even after they've placed a live round in every chamber. It's not for me.

I still find fungi fascinating, however. Once, not so long ago, they were lumped with the plants and relegated to second-class status because they lacked chlorophyll and were therefore unable to synthesize sugars. Now the fungi are recognized as a biological kingdom in their own right and given equal billing with green plants and animals. They're also among the world's largest and oldest organisms. One honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) in eastern Oregon's Malheur National Forest extends over 2,200 acres—that's nearly three and one-half square miles—and is at least 2,400 years old. It may well be two or even three times this old, in fact!

I hope you're not envisioning a toadstool covering 2,200 acres, though. The familiar mushroom is just the fruiting body of a fungus, and its smallest and most ephemeral part by far. The bulk of the organism—the mycelium—is made up of minute, nearly invisible filaments, or hyphae. These hyphae extend throughout the forest duff, infiltrating organic detritus and wrapping themselves around the tiny root hairs of trees. Since they can't make their own food as green plants do, fungi live by scavenging. Along with bacteria, fungi are nature's recyclers, liberating nutrients trapped in dead organic matter and making them available to living things again. As such, they play an essential, if little-appreciated, role in maintaining the health of the world's forest ecosystems.

So important are fungi, in fact, that many trees can only thrive in partnership with them. The fungal partner in such marriages of convenience—prosaic botanists understandably prefer the phrase "mycorrhizal associations"—effectively extends its host's root system, improving the tree's ability to take up mineral nutrients, while increasing its resistance to disease and its capacity to withstand droughts. In return, the fungus dines at its host's expense, levying a tax in the form of synthesized carbohydrates. Nor are such symbiotic partnerships limited to trees alone. Nearly all green plants benefit from mycorrhizal associations, and there's growing evidence that fungi preceded plants onto the earth's land masses, preparing the ground for the subsequent green invasion.

Still, most of us see mushrooms primarily as decorative embellishments in a forest landscape dominated by trees and other green plants. And there's nothing wrong with that. In just a few minutes, as Farwell and I quartered the ground around the scattered stinkhorns whose rank scent lured me away from our picnic, we turned up a dozen different species: shelf-like bracket fungi (including the aptly-named turkeytail polypore, Coriolus versicolor), several types of puffball, grotesque clumps of dead-man's fingers (Xylaria polymorpha), and clusters of black, velvety spear-points, which turned out to be black earthtongues (Geoglossum nigritum).

We could easily have spent hours more, but just as I stopped to make a quick drawing of the earthtongues, a fat raindrop plopped onto my sketchbook. Time to go. Stuffing my field guide into one thigh pocket of my cargo pants and my sketchbook in the other, I raced back to our picnic site. Farwell was already bundling up our gear. As I was getting into my canoe, however, one last mushroom caught my eye—in a most unlikely place.

A red squirrel was scampering up an ancient white pine at the water's edge. In his mouth was a large, rose-colored mushroom. I recognized it without my field guide: it was a graying red russula (Russula vinosa). High over my head, the squirrel sped along a branch and thrust the mushroom onto a splintered stub left behind by some past windstorm. Only then did I notice that there were other mushrooms in the pine, all skewered on splinters or tucked into the crotches of living branches. Farwell and I obviously weren't the only folks out hunting mushrooms that afternoon. The squirrel neither knew nor cared about the names we gave to our quarry, of course. Come some frigid day in mid-winter, he'll fill his belly with dried mushroom without regard for taxonomic niceties. I doubt that his satisfaction will be any the less for all that.

Happy Squirrel

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