And in the End…

In Death, Life: The Fate of Fungi

The Kingdom Fungi is so varied in form that for mushrooms to be the sum total of our understanding of the group is a grotesque labeling that gives scant credit to the role these organisms play in the Bigger Economy. And yet, it’s understandable that mushrooms represent this group of living things as they are the most visible manifestation of a largely invisible life form.

Mushrooms also are so interesting in their growth habits, shapes and colors that it is easy to think of them the way we think of bird song–as being about melody, tone and a pleasant happy “singing” for our benefit. And all along, the Fungal Way is about dissolving their host organism–which is usually but not always  dead already–like this maple tree.The fact that we find some of them interesting, lovely or edible is neither here nor there from the Fungal point of view.

I cut off the forks and branches from the top 30 feet of this fallen hardwood a few years back, and many BTU’s of firewood energy warmed my home and then escaped up the smoke stack or radiated into space from our walls. The rest of the trunk still on the ground will yield an equal amount of energy that will go into producing fungal threads that permeate these hundreds of pounds of cellulose. Here, where the thousands of miles of fungal threads contact the outer world in its orange papery form, spores from that maple-digesting mycelium will launch out to find other fallen but not consumed logs in other forests.

Still, knowing this feeding-on-death job description for Fungi, I do enjoy wallowing about on our hillside for Fungus Glamor Shots. More to come. Headed out now for some chanterelles spotted on this morning’s dog walk.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. An interesting tidbit from Stamets’ book, Mycelium Running:
    “Years ago, I spoke to a chestnut arborist from Quebec who had been able to heal blight-infected trees suffering from Cryphonectria parasitica using chaga. His method was simple and credible. He stated that he crushed chaga sclerotia into a powder, adding water to make a thick paste. He placed this chaga paste directly into the lesions caused by chestnut blight and wrapped the wound with gauze to keep the paste in place. Over the next 2 years, the wounds healed over and the trees became blight resistant.” (pp. 257-258)

    The fungus Stamets is referring to is Inonotus obliquus commonly known as Chaga or clinker fungus. Sclerotia is the hard dark visible portion of the fungus. See this article in Wikipedia for more information about the medicinal properties of this fungus.