A conviviality of being

In deep time, species come and go. For now, though, I wish I could go back and botanize this forest for a season or two with ashes still in it.

Friday night the rain pummeled the forests. It appears to have blown some birds into town: the parking lot by Mays Lake was lisping with sparrows when I arrived with the dog at around 6:30 the next morning, and song sparrows were singing. On my way out the driveway, a bird flew off from the middle of the road that looked for all the world like a woodcock. I didn’t get a second look, however, and I am not certain. The rain knocked down acorns by the bushel. Disembodied red oak acorn caps are washed into the parking lot corners. False trails appeared in the woods overnight where the rain had washed the leaf litter clear and left the detritus of early autumn along the margins, twigs tangled up together and stretched downslope. Autumn was already getting a start. Shagbark hickories were falling ripe this week, and black walnuts had begun blackening beneath the trees, lolling over on their sides and caved in where the husks have started to decompose. Buckeyes are cracking open, husks rolling off, nuts coming to rest unnervingly reminiscent of eyeballs that have been kicked off to the sides of the trails. White oak acorns have been falling fat and furious and germinating on the ground: root tips are tucked in along the stylar ends of the nuts or facing straight out, endeavoring to pierce the leaf litter and get a toe-hold before the desiccating winds of winter. Every tree knows fall is coming. Friday’s storm sealed the deal.

I spent a couple hours Saturday morning in Maple Grove Forest Preserve. St. Joseph Creek was about a foot higher than usual and murky. The ephemeral ponds were all recharged, ankle-deep. The American pokeweed is majestic, dripping with racemes of plum-colored berries, towering over the dilapidated jewelweed–they barely made it to fall–like the oldest white pines in the northwoods piercing the maple canopy surrounding them. Leaves are yellowing: poison ivy, wood nettle, choke cherry, ash, Virginia creeper, basswood, American elm, large-flowered bellwort, black snakeroot and white grass. One maple that has fallen across the creek is showing the oranges and reds of October, but barely.

Jumpseed and stickseed (Hackelia) fruits are blackening. Blue cohosh foliage has fallen, abandoning the naked seeds to whatever birds and mammals will take them. They are unnervingly blue, floating among the shrubs. Doll’s eye berries are hanging on, and their parents appear still to be laying up treasure on earth, provisioning the rhizomes for next year, not giving up on their leaves yet. Why? Here are two herbs that seem so alike in habit and behavior in midsummer. Perhaps we need to look to early spring. The blue cohosh I noticed as early as April 11 this year, about to bloom two weeks later. White baneberry I noticed in flower only in mid-May. Perhaps each chooses its risk: blue cohosh bets against late spring snow, white baneberry against early frost. Wingstem fruits are clinging in tight little heads. The blue asters (Symphyotrichum shortii, Symphyotrichum drummondii), calico aster, and zig-zag goldenrod are all in full bloom. Flowers are still hanging onto the white rattlesnakeroot. A stand of phlox persists near the top of the hill.

I walked through the shin-high sugar maple seedling grove tucked between the creek and the houses at the northwest edge of the preserve. There is very little there, though a colony of perhaps 300 to 500 wild leek scapes in full fruit captured my attention for several minutes. A fallen tree that I suspect based on its stature and landscape position is a sugar maple lies rotting like a canoe filled with decomposing sawdust. The outer layers of wood are still intact, curled around a moist and granular humus. Why have the outer layers persisted while the inside has rotted? Nearby is a downed tree that I take to be a red oak, but it has done the opposite: the outside is rotted away, leaving the bole a brown-rotted, intact core that looks as though it would go to pieces if you kicked it, which I do not. It is riddled with holes and architectural in its beauty, blocks of xylem angular and displaying the attributes of wood that we look for in anatomy class, cradling pockets of chipped wood actively being worked over by earthworms. In an otherwise magnificent woods, this lawn of maple seedlings strikes me as relatively sterile, but even here there is a lot going on.

The sheer number of dead ashes and their immensity hit me as I walked Saturday. I notice the dead ashes in these woods every time I walk: the network of ridges in the bark of the lower bole and, especially at this season, the densely packed fungi on the trunk–turkey-tail, chicken of the woods–grab my eye as I am walking by. Often there is a gap in the woods where the snag still stands, and trees or shrubs or tall late-summer herbs grow thicker. What struck me on Saturday was the fact that these ashes that have mostly all died within the past decade were as big around as the red oaks and sugar maples that dominate the forest… and there were many of them. Emerald ash borer appeared in DuPage County in around 2007. That’s just twelve years ago. There are still little ashes sprouting in the woods, but I have not seeing a single living large ash in these woods. Every one is still a home to insects and fungi, feeding the woods for now. But within a generation they will be as gone to us as the American chestnut.

I walked out past the white oaks and bur oaks at the top of the hill by the parking lot at the south end of the preserve, each shedding acorns, doing well, standing in for the ashes, filling in for them as best they can, but not really. No species can stand in for another. I passed a row of trooping crumble caps on a fallen log that glistened in the rain like porcelain. Somehow I started thinking about the contingency of evolutionary descent, radiation, and adaptation, how you get only what you get, and only once. Pull one thing out, and all the other species will fill in as best they can. Fifty million years hence, whoever is here will miss the ashes in the way that we miss the tree-sized horsetails and lycopods, the velociraptors. They will have their world, one that comes from ours but has a very different shape. “When viewed in deep time,” Robert Macfarlane writes, “things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again.” 1

In deep time, species come and go. For now, though, I wish I could go back and botanize this forest for a season or two with ashes still in it. Somehow I’ve already forgotten what it was like, and it’s only been ten years.


1 Macfarlane, Robert. 2019. Underland: A Deep Time Journey, p. 16. W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Plants referenced

  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Actaea pachypoda – doll’s eye, white baneberry
  • Allium tricoccum – wild leek
  • Carya ovata – shagbark hickory
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Fraxinus sp. – ash
  • Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
  • Impatiens capensis – jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – black walnut
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Leersia virginica – white grass
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Parthenocissus quinquefolia – Virginia creeper
  • Persicaria virginiana – jumpseed
  • Phlox sp. – phlox (I believe this one is a garden phlox)
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Prunus virginiana – choke cherry
  • Quercus alba – white oak
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – red oak
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zig-zag goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum drummondii – Drummond’s aster
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Symphyotrichum shortii – Short’s aster
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Uvularia grandiflora – large-flowered bellwort
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem

If you are a human collecting acorns

If you are a human collecting acorns, the deck is stacked against you. Every creature in the woods wants them, and most balanophiles are more nimble than we. In North America, we often think of squirrels as our primary competitors, and they are of course efficient: acorns scarcely drop before they are scavenged and cached, and many are collected straight from the trees. The chipmunks I suspect are nearly as efficient, if smaller. But there are also jays, turkeys, rabbits, raccoons, opossum, deer, mice and voles, a host of others. This diversity of acorn-eaters shouldn’t be surprising. Acorns are tannin-rich, which is a barrier to ingestion, but they are energy-rich as well, almost 90% carbohydrates by weight1. Humans have as far as I know no adaptations for dealing with the tannins in the acorns, but even we can eat them with a modicum of processing1. Hominins have been in fact been processing and eating acorns since at least the mid-Pleistocene2, roughly 600,000 years ago before the origin of modern humans. Imagine how much more we’d eat them if we were out there all the time, living among the trees, keeping track of this particular mother oak, and that one over there that did so well the previous year.

This past week, two of my colleagues and I collected acorns from bur oaks in several DuPage County forests for an experiment we are planning. We found that we were about one week later than we ought to have been, which I had feared we would be. On Monday of the previous week, I had been seeing the first good bur oak acorns drop. Prior plans got in the way of collecting: the next day I was on a Cessna 8-seater over Buzzard’s Bay, heading to Polly Hill Arboretum to speak about the 56-million year history of oak evolution, knowing full well that the acorns were dropping in earnest back home. By the time I could get out again a week later, the best bur oaks had already been pillaged: the fullest fresh acorn caps were empty, and almost every nut from the present year was about a nickel in girth. Fresh caps as big around as 50-cent pieces lay on the ground, every last one of them stripped of its seed. Moreover, there were many fewer good acorns to begin with than there had been in 2018, when I easily found good acorns in abundance under many of the oaks in each population I visited. The largest difficulty had been identifying trees that were sufficiently separated from each other that I could tell who the mother was for each acorn. This year, I found scores of oaks with only one or two acorns beneath them, but 100s of the previous year’s acorn caps.

But it’s not just the squirrels and chipmunks you have to watch out for, and perhaps not even primarily. Anyone who has collected acorns has at least once brought home a bag of them only to find the bag crawling the next morning with larvae. This year, many of the acorns we collected had tiny orange wrigglers underneath the caps. Those seemed to be fine: we could wipe the larvae away, and I was grateful we caught them before they could do more damage. But at one site, every second or third acorn had a black scar at the base, cracking open the acorn cap and the wall of the nut. These we discarded. At others, almost every acorn was sodden and easily crushed in my hand, filled with frass, presumably from weevils. Many had a hole in the side where an insect had chewed its way out. It is remarkable to think how many acorns must be produced in a good year that we humans would never have a chance to get our hands on. We couldn’t possibly be quick enough.


Saturday afternoon, Maple Grove Forest Preserve was glazed with rainwater. It was coming down episodically, but St. Joseph Creek wasn’t high yet. The creek is very flashy, and with a little downburst it swells, and with a little more it’s eager to overspill its banks. Wild leek seeds are mostly exposed now, pearly black inside the torn white sheaths. Doll’s eye berries are still bright white and clinging to the inflorescence axis. They seem to me to be ripe. Are they waiting for something? Are they really not ripe yet? Or do they perhaps just not taste as good as the other berries, so don’t get eaten as readily? Perhaps their elevation on tall talks makes them inconvenient for mice, voles, raccoons who might otherwise abscond with them. By contrast, Jack-in-the-pulpit berries at shin height are essentially gone. So are the false Solomon’s seal berries. Black snakeroot burs seem finally to be falling of their own volition. I’ve been impatiently breaking them up and scattering them as I walk by for the past month, but now they appear to be shattering on their own, or getting dragged around by passing mammals, presumably not all of them botanists. Jumpseed in the deepest parts of the woods have been biding their time for weeks, still putting resources into their seeds, but now when I touch them the reflexed fruits spring off into the surrounding foliage. I wonder why I don’t see whole gardens of seedlings beneath each plant in the spring? It may be that the seeds are tasty and get moved around by rodents or insects. It may be that they have low viability. Or it may be that I just haven’t been noticing the seedlings. I’ll keep an eye out in the spring.

Ghost pipes are ripening, turning their faces to the sky. Aborted entoloma, which I started noticing a week ago, has appeared everywhere now, like loaves of gnome bread leavening in the leaf litter. It extends at least from near the backyards at the northwest corner of the forest to the north-facing slope leading down from the picnic area by the parking lot at the south end. From what I’ve read (see last week’s post for references), the presence of the aborted entoloma makes me think that honey mushroom mycelia, Armillaria mellea, are everywhere as well. Stump puffballs are starting to go to spore: some are brown and dry inside, others are still white but granular. Earth stars have appeared along the trails. There is a patch of chicken of the woods on a standing dead ash, about 40 layers of soft, orange shelves. They smell amazing. These too leave me wondering how widespread the mycelia are. If I could strip everything from the tree but the mycelia, what would I see? There is a tool for visualizing mycelia on a small scale using florescence in situ hybridization3; could we do it on a large scale? How would our impression of the woods be changed if everything were dissolved but the fungi for just a moment? Even the non-fungal bits of the soil? We might find we were standing on a filamentous cloud that runs everywhere, places that even plant roots can’t go, tying them all together4.

On the trail that runs past the backyards on the west edge of the forest, I looked closely at a sugar maple. Earlier in the week I had started picking through The Hidden Life of Trees5, in which the author, a forester, discusses aging a tree that was less than an inch in diameter but turned out to be roughly 80 years old. It has been years since I was in the habit of counting growth rings on sugar maple branches, a practice inspired by conversations with Virginia Kline about her research in the Kickapoo River Valley6. I had forgotten how old they can be. I counted growth rings on this tree and found that a lateral branch about one and a half times as long as my middle finger and only a few millimeters in diameter was eight years old. That’s a remarkable amount of time to spend growing so little, a testament to what a maple can put up with.

I walked off-trail toward the middle of the woods and came across a dusting of bur oak leaves peppered with last year’s acorn caps and a few of this year’s caps, nuts gone. I found two with intact nuts. One was in fine shape, and I left it to germinate or get eaten. The other was split into three partitions at the stylar end, revealing a small pearly radicle, about half as large as a grain of rice. The flesh exposed between the cracks in the acorn wall was partly eaten by insects, but I think this one might have a chance. It’s the first bur oak I’ve seen germinating this year. Unlike sugar maples, bur oaks can’t tolerate many years in the shade. I see the seedlings in the understory every once in awhile, and they are rarely over a couple of years old. Beyond that, the cotyledons have nothing left to give, and the shade wears them down.

But perhaps this tree knows what it’s doing. Perhaps a squirrel will move this nut to a nearby opening and somehow not break off the growing root. I set it back in the soil right where I found it and hope for the best.


1 Cameron, Roderick. 2019. Eating Acorns to Save the World. From the International Oak Society Blog, 2019-08-07, accessed 2019-09-22. url: https://www.internationaloaksociety.org/content/eating-acorns-save-world
2 Chasse, Beatrice. 2015. Eating Acorns: What Story Do the Distant, Far, and Near Past Tell Us, and Why? International Oaks 27: 107–135.
3 NAKADA, Yuji, Satoshi NAKABA, Hiroshi MATSUNAGA, Ryo FUNADA & Makoto YOSHIDA. 2013. Visualization of the Mycelia of Wood-Rotting Fungi by Fluorescence in-Situ Hybridization Using a Peptide Nucleic Acid Probe. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry 77: 405-408.
4 If you haven’t read about Suzanne Simard’s exciting foundational research on how fungi facilitate movement of nutrients between trees, even trees of different species, check out her TED talk: How trees talk to each other.
5 Wohlleben, Peter. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World. Greystone Books.
6 For Virginia Kline’s doctoral dissertation on the Kickapoo River Valley and a host of other slides and documents from her life’s work, see https://uwdc.library.wisc.edu/collections/econatres/klinev/.

What broadens the world

He tried to tell his freshmen the simplest things–why a deceptive cadence makes a listener ache or how a triplet rhythm creates suspense or what makes a modulation to a relative minor broaden the world–and found he didn’t know.
— Richard Powers, Orfeo

Acorns have begun to fall in earnest, and Monday the chipmunks were racing across the trails with their cheeks packed full. Some bur oaks are raining acorns, others are mostly green, but most are halfway-ripe. The white oaks have started dropping acorns, and swamp white oak acorns are swollen on the street trees in our neighborhood. Red oaks have been shedding nuts for a few weeks. Monday, Jack-in-the-pulpit inflorescences were as multicolored as flint corn. Half of the false Solomon’s seal berries were ripe, the other half salmon colored. Carrion flower berries were almost black, and Joe-pye weed flowerheads were feathery with ripening achenes. Tufts of pappus were extruded from the tips of the flowerheads on the 6 to 8-foot tall wild lettuce–perhaps taller, but I did not go far off trail to check. Big-leaf aster and zigzag goldenrod were in bloom. Beak grass grains were hard between the teeth. The honewort schizocarps were fat and football-shaped, leathery, hard like nutlets, not yet brittle. Dryad’s saddle was darkening on the same tree where I had found it in late July last year, Crepidotus was sliming across the surface of fallen logs, and a soft, white, doughy fungus I do not recognize was sprouting from the woodchips. The jewelweed was becoming ratty, leaves torn and chewed and crisscrossed with slug tracks. The ephemeral frog pond just north of the spruce plot was dry.

I returned to the same paths on Friday. Thunderstorms had rolled through from about 4:00 to 6:30 that morning, shaking full red oak acorns and ripe walnuts to the ground. About half of the bur oak acorns falling looked to me to be viable, the other half perhaps aborted or weevil-infested. I doubt that the squirrels care, and the chipmunks were still racing around, capitalizing on the windfall. Even after the rains, the ephemeral pond was dry. Eastern wood pewees and crickets were almost all I heard aside from a few mosquitos and lethargic bees and lisping birds in the shrubs that I could not make out. If there were migrants–and there surely were–I wasn’t hearing them. Many plants were senescing. The most obvious to my eye were the variegated false Solomon’s seal and the yellowing leaves of enchanter’s nightshade, which I saw everywhere. Giant puffballs, which Christy Rollinson had reported the previous week, seemed to have erupted, along with scatterings of stump puffballs along the chipped trails. They have not yet to have started browning inside, though the epidermis of some of the stump puffballs is darkening. An enormous white jelly fungus on a fallen maple was turning creamy. The delicate, slender-stemmed Marasmius capillaris had emerged on a rotten log.

Galls on the wood nettles appear to have shifted from the leaves to the inflorescences. I first noticed them last year in late August, and I mistook them for fruits. This year, beginning in June, I was finding them on the leaves only, but now they have shifted back to the inflorescences. I have presumed that these were all formed by the same insect, Dasineura investita, but perhaps not. I can imagine two explanations for the move. First, it may be the same insect, ovipositing where resources are most concentrated. As the plant allocates sugars to the inflorescences, perhaps that is a better place to leave your children. This may be a second wave of the same insect, separated in time but not place. Second, this may be an entirely different insect, specializing on the inflorescence. I doubt it, but for no very good reason. I’ve neither reared them nor hunted down a good life history of gall midges.

Skeletons of silky wild rye stood along the trail edges, deceptive, few florets persisting among the long-awned glumes that will persist into winter. The ray flowers on the woodland sunflower had almost all dropped, leaving terse little heads of disc flowers to ripen in the understory. False nettle fruits were ripe, crunchy, similar in size and texture to smallish grains of uncooked quinoa (no relation: quinoa is an amaranth and spinach relative), standing close by the climbing false buckwheat, whose winged fruits are covering any tall plant it scrambles up in late season exuberance. Fragrant bedstraw was still fruiting. White rattlesnake-root was in full flower in the openings, elm-leaf goldenrod along the shadier edges, flowers lined up along the arching inflorescence axes like the trails of shooting stars. The first flowers were blooming on calico and Drummond’s aster. The yellow giant hyssop was flowering. Doll’s eye berries were blackening on the stem if they weren’t ripe and ready to go. Pokeweed berries on some plants were as dark as plums. Wild sarsaparilla and American elm leaves were turning.

Yesterday morning, Saturday, I headed to Maple Grove Forest preserve to find the bridge covered with the dusty webs of funnel-weavers. Did they appear over the course of a single week? As old as they looked, I thought they were abandoned, but each one on closer look was occupied. I’d find the spiders only when I moved slowly, inched my way in. Sensing me, each spider would retreat smoothly down the neck of its funnel and be no more than a gray shadow behind the webbing. In the St. Joseph Creek floodplain, elderberries have almost all fallen, leaving lacy raceme branches. Wingstem is still blooming, and bumblebees are still buzzing into jewelweed flowers. White snakeroot has just started to produce plumes of seed, but only where it stands exposed to the sun.

There are new fungi to see this week. Aborted entoloma appear to have erupted from the soil in just the past few days, sprouting up beneath the leaf litter like manna. This white, bumpy thing is found in at least a few patches in Maple Grove Forest Preserve right now. Research1 suggests it is most likely a pathogen of the honey mushroom, which I’ll have my eyes open for now that I realize these two go together. What I believe to be golden chanterelles are emerging from the soil right now as well. On a fallen tree, I came across an entire series of shelf fungi that I think are artist’s brackets, ranging from the first-emergent white edges to fully formed fruiting bodies. One of them appeared to be exuding black ink. On rotten logs you can still find orange mycenas, which I’ll never tire of, and from the same genus another but relatively nondescript bonnet. But not unexciting! For a few of the bonnets I found had been parasitized by another fungus, the bonnet mold, which lives off of the bonnet and produces spore-bearing hyphae from the bonnet cap, making the cap look like it has sprouted a beard. Will it reduce the cap to slime? Another whole set of lives going on beneath our noses that I knew nothing about before this weekend.

Wild leek is producing its black seeds, which are hardening up but still enclosed in the papery sheaths. Squirrels are ravaging the red oak acorns, but they are not getting them all: I came across a seedling of what I take to be bur oak from last year’s crop, one that most likely was cached but forgotten. Great horned owls are calling. Leaf miners (Cerodontha, though the species is unknown) have etched road maps into the white bear sedge leaves. Wild ginger leaves are edged with yellow, sprawling, a sure sign that days are growing shorter and cooler. Tearthumb is in bloom. I found what I thought at first were fresh basswood seeds under a tree, but they appeared on opening to be pithy inside, like galls. I need to find more to see what they really are. Beneath another tree a single oak apple gall had fallen. Berries were mostly dislodged from the Jack-in-the-pulpit plants I passed. One Jack I passed was covered with desiccated fruits. Touching them, I roused a male spider who trained his attentions on the stem ahead of him, then turned and readied himself for a fight, pedipalps cocked. Blue cohosh seeds are bright blue, the seed coats membranous, tearing easily. Large-flowered bellwort leaves are variegated. The sedges are still looking good, as sedges always do: Carex jamesii hummocks are deep green, lush, and scrawny little Carex radiata has sent up a flush of young leaves at the center of a spray of flattened culms splayed out around the base of the plant.

Saturday night was the opening for a show that Rachel curated at Lillstreet Art Center. Near the end of the evening, we stood on the rooftop garden with friends and watched the sky growing dark. Everything was dim and monochromatic, and at one point we realized with surprise that a bump we were looking at on the parapet was a katydid. As Rachel got close enough for a photo it clicked for her. We recognized the call, which we had suspected was a katydid but didn’t know for sure till now. It flew out over Montrose.

Look at all these individual moments over the course of a single week, crammed into the margins of the mornings, evenings, weekends. Whatever it is that made me study sedges, whatever it is that makes me want to go for walks and turn over logs, the same thing will make me replay this moment over and over, watching with my wife as the katydid disappears into the city night. I’ll have it with me 50 years hence. These instances broaden the world. Who can say why?

Plants referenced:

  • Actaea pachypoda – white baneberry
  • Agastache nepetoides – yellow giant hyssop
  • Allium tricoccum – small white leek
  • Aralia nudicaulis – wild sarsaparilla
  • Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
  • Asarum canadense – Canadian wild ginger
  • Boehmeria cylindrica – false nettle
  • Carex jamesii – James’ Sedge
  • Carex radiata – bracted sedge
  • Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
  • Circaea canadensis – broadleaf enchanter’s nightshade
  • Cryptotaenia canadensis – honewort
  • Diarrhena obovata – Beak Grass
  • Elymus villosus – silky wild rye
  • Eurybia macrophylla – large-leaved aster
  • Eutrochium purpureum – Sweet Joe-Pye-weed
  • Fallopia scandens – climbing false buckwheat
  • Galium triflorum – fragrant bedstraw
  • Helianthus divaricatus – woodland sunflower
  • Impatiens pallida – pale jewelweed
  • Juglans nigra – eastern black walnut
  • Lactuca biennis – tall blue lettuce
  • Maianthemum racemosum – false Solomon’s seal
  • Nabalus albus – white rattlesnakeroot
  • Persicaria sagittata – arrow-leaved tearthumb
  • Phytolacca americana – American pokeweed
  • Quercus macrocarpa – bur oak
  • Quercus rubra – northern red oak
  • Sambucus canadensis – American black elderberry
  • Smilax – greenbriers
  • Solidago flexicaulis – broad-leaved goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaved goldenrod
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Tilia americana – basswood
  • Ulmus americana – American elm
  • Uvularia grandiflora – largeflower bellwort
  • Verbesina alternifolia – wingstem

References cited

1 Lindner Czederpiltz, Daniel L., Thomas J. Volk, and Harold H. Burdsall, Jr. 2001. Field observations and inoculation experiments to determine the nature of the carpophoroids associated with Entoloma abortivum and Armillaria. Mycologia 93: 841-851. For a great summary: http://botit.botany.wisc.edu/toms_fungi/sep2006.html [accessed 2019-09-15].

Around the year in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

This post is the transcript of a 6 minute, 40 second presentation I delivered on September 7, 2019 at the Downers Grove Art Department’s PechaKucha, an event in support of the Downers Grove art community. The evening featured 7 speakers on a wide range of topics, from a Downers Grove resident who became an internationally-known opera star to competitive diving and biohacking.

For more on The Art Department, a subcommittee of the Downers Grove Marchers, and the great work they are doing to foster the arts and dialogue in Downers Grove, visit their public Facebook Page.

Around the year in Maple Grove Forest Preserve

[1] If you walk west from Emmet’s Pub by the straightest route you can, cut through the parking lot across from Immanuel Lutheran Church to Brook Lane and Turvey Road, you’ll reach the edge of Maple Forest Preserve, an 80-acre sugar maple forest purchased from Marshall Field III by the Village of Downers Grove 99 years ago. I find something new there every week.

[2] 2019 started too warm. By Christmas, spring beauty corms had already started putting out shoots and straplike leaves. This species is a spring ephemeral, built to grow fast, sop up sun and vitamins, flower, set seed and die back before the tree canopy leafs out. This year’s shoots emerged about three and a half months early.

[3] Perhaps more surprising was the false rue anemone, looking on January fifth as I’d expect to find it in mid March. Slower to flower, it should be less nimble than the ephemerals. That same day I found wood violets, wild ginger shoots, earthworms churning the soil. Human-caused climate change is an experiment whose outcomes will continue to surprise us.

[4] A week later, there was snow, thankfully, because by the end of the month the bitter cold had arrived. Snowpack helps plants, insects and spiders, earthworms and small mammals survive the coldest weeks of winter. Its crystalline arms interlink to form an insulating blanket, the base of which evaporates away as the earth warms it, leaving a gap for life at the forest floor.

[5] Mice and meadow voles party under the snow all winter long, gnawing at deer antlers and leg bones, living on cached seeds and tree bark. Owls and coyotes can hear them through the snow, but they are safer underneath than above. Still, their trips up top become inscribed in the snow as they gallop the length of a fallen log or snowplow between burrows.

[6] A downed tree in January reveals dark zone lines that fungi lay down at their frontiers. The fungi are devouring the dark lignin that makes plant cell walls rigid, leaving the rotted wood white. We see the fungus bodies, but it is the white rot that shapes the forest, transforming wood into soil while we’re inside reading and listening to the radio.

[7] Honey mushroom rhizomorphs similarly become visible as bark disintegrates from a fallen oak tree. During the growing season, they invade roots of uninfected trees and work their way up beneath the bark, where the fungus infects the wood and causes decay. They aren’t more prevalent in the winter, but they are obvious even when the edible mushrooms aren’t visible.

[8] By mid March we start seeing spring wildflowers. They all have their strategies. False mermaid germinates in late fall, then emerges as a seedling in early March. It absorbs as much sunlight as it can through April, forms green carpets in the forest understory, sets seed, then dies back as the leaves come out on the trees, leaving trails of yellow foliage and warty nutlets.

[9] Wild leek takes a different tack. It’s a spring ephemeral, spreading broad, thin leaves in March through May that wither as the trees leaf out. You’ll think perhaps that you’ve missed the flowers, but watch for the scapes in early July: after 7 weeks of nothing, they’ll emerge, come into full flower by the end of July, and form dark seeds near the end of August.

[10] Other wildflowers take a longer view. Wild ginger doesn’t emerge until 3 or 4 weeks after the false mermaid. The leaves unfurl as they loose themselves from the soil, then produce a raw-meat colored flower at the soil’s surface. The berries ripen by mid June, seeds crested with a nutritious elaiosome that entices ants to drag them into new territory.

[11] As spring wildflowers peak, songbirds migrate, taking advantage of the insects awakening in the warming canopy and tree bark and the opening buds. Most visible among them are the warblers, which in spring are in their glory, singing and in full color. They are vulnerable, too. This black-and-white warbler struck our window at the Arboretum, but recovered to fly away.

[12] June arrives with an onslaught of sedges. There are roughly 140 species in the Chicago region, and they are in every habitat. Carex davisii was my favorite sedge find of the summer, one of only two populations known in the county. Knowing the sedges, wrote Annie Dillard, makes the “least journey into the world… a field trip, a series of happy recognitions.”

[13] The first of July this year I came across a spongy fallen maple bristling with what appeared to be bright red, tiny toadstools with caps less than a millimeter in diameter and threadlike stalks. I posted the photos online and heard within hours from a Tasmanian naturalist that they were in fact slime molds, protoplasm lurking in open sight.

[14] I’d been missing a whole branch of the tree of life on my walks. Two days later I returned to find at least five species: pin-sized “toadstools,” mungbean-sized “puffballs,” grains of rice suspended by threads, pincushions on the sides of logs, an undifferentiated yellow plasmodium. Next year, I’m hoping for slime molds everywhere.

[15] In August, jewelweed spreads its leaves like a bridge between spring and fall, forming hummocks in the floodplain of St Joseph Creek, bearing open-pollinated flowers, closed flowers that can only self-pollinate, explosive fruits, and gall midges wrapped up in blisters along the leaf midvein or wrapped tight in galls that dangle like chickpeas from the shoot tips.

[16] By end of summer, leaf-miners have etched trails across elm-leaved goldenrod, white snakeroot, and white bear sedge, which looks like a monochromatic map of the London Underground. Joe-pye weed leaves are rolled and chewed and mined. Cavities in the elm leaves rattle as though they were enclosed in cigarette paper. Jewelweed leaves are a tangle of slug tracks.

[17] What will come next? It’s fungus season, and as September burns on toward the first frost, puffballs spread out across the forest floor and brown and dry out, spreading spores at a slap or stomp, if they don’t get collected fresh and cooked up. Chicken of the woods and orange mycena emerge from decomposing trees beside white jelly fungi. The year gives way to rot.

[18] In the coming months, the seeds of late summer and fall will ripen and disperse. American pokeweed berries will darken like plums over the coming weeks. Elderberries already have. Acorns are ripening on the bur and white and Hill’s oaks, and they are falling from the red oaks. Joe-pye weed achenes will fly away as October comes on.

[19] Before we know it, chlorophyll will break down in the sugar maple leaves, exposing the xanthophylls, carotenes, anthocyanins that form the yellows, oranges and reds that we flock to the woods to see. If the tree has time, at the base of each petiole will form an abscission layer that cleaves the leaf from the tree and seals the scar in one stroke. Fall will have ended.

[20] Then winter will begin again, and as the squirrels gather acorns they cached in September, there will be new things to see, each and every day. I could spend my whole life exploring this 80-acre forest down the street and still have more to learn. One good forest is enough for a lifetime.

For additional reading on a few of the slides above:

[1-3] The account of this winter’s precocious spring wildflowers is written up in my January 6 blog post, with photos and identifications.

[6] The Wikipedia article on spalting describes different causes of fungal wood discoloration, and explains in brief how zone lines are formed by white rot fungi.

[12] My post Various forms of happiness describes this past year’s sedge season, with photos and identification of severl of Maple Grove’s species.

[13] Cohen, Arthur Le Roy. 1969. Slime molds (slime fungi). In: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Volume 20. William Benton, Publisher, Chicago. Also, my post What Fiction Could Only Imagine, on the slime molds of Maple Grove

[19] An outstanding article by Ted Levin, “The Causes of Fall Color,” from Northern Woodlands, 2002.