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Pastor's Blog

The Old Man of the Woods

July 28, 2020

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I had cut the grass last Friday and started my walk out at the Navarino Wildlife Area a bit tired out and without a lot of enthusiasm.  I stopped to chill with some mushrooms who have started to appear.  The trail I took turned out to be one of the lovely dead-end trails at Navarino, the first of two I explored Friday, the second also being a previously flooded trail that had dried up enough to walk on.  The second trail had, interestingly enough, been cleared using some kind of lawn mowing beast.  Why the Navarino authorities cleared a dead-end trail is a mystery to me.  Maybe they didn’t know it was a dead end.  It’s not like it’s on a map.

There were lots of mushrooms freshly sprouting.  Those on the first dead end trail had red brown caps.  They were fairly large for being so young, and their stems were barely visible since they were still pushing up from layers of leaves.  I wanted a picture of the whole mushroom (not just a red cap), so I knelt down in the mud to remove a leaf or two from it, and reached down with the camera to about a half an inch from the mushroom, so the camera could see under the mushroom.  The stem, I discovered, had the texture of a sponge.  Which, after a long search back at home, was the only thing that eventually helped me identify it.  It has recently been given a great new name: exsudoporous frostii, because its molecular make-up accounts for one feature that makes it stand apart from its previous family: it exudes amber droplets from its pores.  Hence the name exsudoporous.  Only three other species have been identified in the world in this new family of boletus mushrooms.  The weird skin on the stem of the mushroom bruises easily and turns blue. Its previous name, boletus frostii, was given to it by a Unitarian pastor in honor of his mushroom scientist friend, Charles Christopher Frost, who had published a survey of bolete mushrooms in New England in 1874.  Frost, to return the favor, named one of the mushrooms in his survey after his friend.

Exsudoporous frostii’s story goes deeper even than its name: it’s a mycorrhizal mushroom.  Which means it’s connected to a network of hyphae that cloak the tiniest roots of trees.  Mycorrhizal mushrooms gather water and nutrients from the soil and transfer them to the trees in exchange for sips of sugar available from the tree’s root system.  There’s a lot more going on underground than we think.  The earth itself is a living community.  I’m careful with mushrooms.  Some bruise easily.  Some feed trees.

Encouraged a little by the strange mushroom I found on the dead-end trail, I returned to the main trail and immediately spotted a mushroom commonly known as The Old Man of the Woods.  His real name is strobilomyces floccopus which apparently is translated as “a woolly mushroom that looks like a pine cone.”  I prefer Old Man of the Woods, since I can relate to that. The Old Man is also a bolete and mycorrhizal mushroom. 

Having chatted with another Old Man in the Woods, I was even more encouraged, and as I emerged from the woods into the fields, I was overwhelmed by flowers I had not seen even a week ago: bee balm or bergamot is in its full, fragrant bloom.  Replacing most of the flowers of common milkweed which are now forming their seed pods, swamp milkweed was blooming (redder flowers, narrower, furrowed, darker green leaves) as were the exotic orange Turk’s Cap Lilies and Orange Jewelweed, and purple Vervain or Swamp Verbena.  Golden rod has now begun to flower and Queen Anne has finished her lace, leaving evidence of it everywhere.  But towering above all of them were Woodland Sunflowers or Jerusalem Artichoke.  My daughter Katie suggested I might see this species of sunflowers, so I was very careful to get a picture of one for positive identification.  It was grown by Native Americans for its edible root.  Its name may have come from the name given it by Italian immigrants: girasole which is the Italian word for sunflower and which apparently sounds like Jerusalem.  The root apparently tastes like artichoke, so like a couple noodles thrown at the kitchen wall, the names stuck.  A more credible story of its name might be that early English settlers, who thought of the New World as the New Jerusalem, learned to cultivate the flower from Native people and may have begun calling it the Jerusalem Sunflower.  That tasted like artichoke. 

All these new mid-summer flowers blooming around me were exhilarating to see.  The Old Man in the Woods was now a young lad skipping in the fields.  He soon found usually wary frogs waiting to be photographed: I still can’t decide whether I saw a leopard or a pickerel frog, but the wood frog I saw shone in the sun as if he had been made of molten gold. 

After the second dead end trail, I treated myself to several raspberries without the slightest danger of falling down the side of a mountain.  They grow among a great crop of blackberries which won’t be ripe for several weeks yet.  The flavor of the raspberries went well with the two clementines I ate and gave me the energy to enter the final trail home.

Unlike the dead-end trail that the Navarino authorities went to great trouble to clear, this trail is a useful and especially dark and dense one populated with some of the oldest trees out at Navarino.  It’s the east – west trail that is closest to the southern boundary of Navarino.  It connects the southernmost Wolf River Flowage berm trail to the rest of Navarino.  But about four huge trees and several others have fallen across the trail, opening up those parts of the trail to the sun, which, in turn, set off an explosion of undergrowth: especially blackberries and raspberries, but also ferns and even a overgrown bushes of bluebells  These sun worshipers in the deep, dark woods have completely obscured a trail that’s as wide as a logging road, occasionally leaving a footpath or a glimpse of the sandy trail twenty or thirty yards in the distance.  It’s exceedingly tedious to clamber down this trail, but worst of all, it ends in a field of waist-high grasses waving. In past years, the Navarino authorities have seen fit to use their lawn mowing beast to connect this trail to the trail along the Hansen Flowage.

No longer.

If you were to enter Navarino from the first parking lot you come to from 156 on McDonald Road and walk south to the Hansen Flowage trail, you would have absolutely no way of knowing that just beyond the flowage there’s a trail entering that dark stand of old wood.  Maybe the Navarino authorities have forgotten about it.  Maybe they’re protecting it.  Though they’ve shown little interest in that. 

The secret’s safe with this Old Man of the Woods.  But if you’re a friend of mushrooms, and you don’t mind sweat trickling over your mosquito, deer fly, and tick bites, I could be persuaded to lead you through the tall grasses to the lost trail among a convocation of trees older than any of us.

Pastor Larry

 

Posted by Larry Lange