The Comb Tooth Fungus and the Great Black Wasp (They have their time and place)
I have visited the part of Baird Creek Parkway east of I 43 enough times so that I didn’t even consider printing out the on-line map. Not that it’s been that many times. Less than ten. Except to the east, the woods are constrained by houses, roads, the freeway, and a train track, all, from north to south, barely a 15 minute walk.
Accessing the part of the Baird Creek Parkway east of 43 from the east side of Superior Road near the railroad crossing, you find a mountain bike trail loop that follows Baird Creek. Not too far into the woods in a clearing near a trail up to the ridge above Baird Creek, I stopped to watch bumble bees on fading purple coneflowers and a planthopper on a milkweed leaf. Planthoppers look like the dorsal fin of a shark. They’re only about 1/4 of an inch long and are a perfectly camouflaged milkweed green. 2 ½ hours later as I was headed for my car, the planthopper was still standing in the same place. He wasn’t even eating. Or hopping.
Deeper in the woods along the creek an apple tree grows. Certainly a squirrel may have planted it there, though it’s possible a farm or an orchard may have bordered the creek long ago.
Where the tree canopy emits only a dark green light and the forest floor is often only black mud, a White Comb Tooth Fungus is sprouting on a barkless gray log lying exposed among a tangle of branches, blanketed with wild grape vines. This fungus, which is feeding on the flesh of the rotting tree, looks like a tiny white coral tree glowing in eerie green light.
I explored two tributaries of Baird Creek flowing in river bottom ravines from the south and east. For my return trip, I found the rest of the loop of the mountain bike trail that runs along the ridge over Baird Creek. This part of the trail runs through a couple open fields full of not-quite-blooming goldenrod, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, yarrows, purple cone flowers, white clover, and milkweed all bordered by sumac and saplings venturing out from the oak woods. On one of the goldenrods, a pair of enormous (4 inch long!) black wasps with iridescent blue-green wings were lunching in the flowers together. They were fueling up, perhaps, for their life’s work: paralyzing katydids, crickets, cicadas and grasshoppers, stuffing them in tunnels they’d dug, laying one egg on each victim who is not only buried alive but eaten alive when the egg hatches. These ruthless murderers are called Great Black Wasps. Their larvae eat 2 – 6 insects during their 10 day larval stage. It’s a bug eat bug life out there.
I was pretty amazed at all these new creatures I met on that walk. As much time as I have spent in the woods in my life, I had never seen a planthopper before nor a Great Black Wasp nor a White Comb Tooth Fungus. Everyone I met (except that planthopper) was purposefully engaged in some kind of life-giving toil: returning nutrients to the soil, devouring food, pollinating flowers, blooming, bearing fruit and seeds. As horrifying as the mission of the Great Black Wasps appears to be, they are credited with keeping the population of creatures who devour plants at a sustainable level.
Recalling all this purposeful activity, a familiar scripture came to mind:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace”
In the story of the Great Black Wasps, a time to be born and a time to die occur more or less simultaneously, as is the case for the living fungus consuming the dying log. Still this passage from Ecclesiastes seems to describe the way of the natural order well enough. Living and dying, planting and harvesting, killing and nurturing all have their times in the life of the natural world.
But I’m somewhat hesitant to imagine what it has to do with human life. It is, I hope, more of a recognition of the inevitability of the savage vicissitudes of human life than a whole-hearted affirmation of them. Just because war appears at times to be inevitable, doesn’t mean it’s more desirable than working for peace. Though the writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to say that God is responsible for having “made everything suitable for its time,” he also indicates we really don’t know exactly what God has been up to from “the beginning to the end.” One is heartened by the Apostle Paul’s declaration that “God is working in all things for the good,” but one also wishes God would work a bit harder.
For all of its recognition of the inevitability joys and sorrows of human existence, there’s still a stubborn insistence in Ecclesiastes that God has something better in mind:
“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all people should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
God does not have a social order in mind in which only a few people are able to truly enjoy food and drink and their toil. A natural order like this would be swarming with stinging wasps stuffing prisons full of paralyzed victims to be eaten alive or a forest floor sprouting an army of pale, flesh-eating parasites spewing clouds of spores that root in any open wound of the remaining living wood. No one would be safe to wander through such a world, nor does God wish it upon us.