What fiction could only imagine

In late afternoon of July first, working in the yard, I heard the buzz-saw of a cicada calling from our neighbor’s silver maple. I had sworn I’d heard a false start or two in the latter half of June, isolated individuals firing up their engines alone in some tree at the far end of the neighborhood. But this was the real deal, a long, sustained tone that took breathing in and saying, “let’s do this,” then reverberating from the treetops to be heard by everyone within a mile or so. That night on the bike ride through the neighborhood with a friend, I saw fireflies patrolling the road. Midsummer is here.

The East Woods was resplendent with sun and summer birds when I arrived just after sunset the next morning. Pewees, indigo buntings and robins were calling, along with house wrens, red-eyed vireos, white breasted nuthatches. Field sparrows were still singing after months of being here. Enchanter’s nightshade had turned from bristly ovaries to open flowers, white like confetti strewn along the trail. Wild yam flowers were draped like slender chains of creamy to greenish garland, reminiscent of baby’s breath but nowhere near as white. Shining bedstraw was a tangle of foliage and tiny white stars. Smooth wild licorice was bristling with fruits. Tall thimbleweed was flowering along the roadside. Wood nettle inflorescences were stretching out, white and lanky, not flowering quite yet. On half a dozen nettles in the spruce plot, I found clusters of Dasineura investita galls, but I didn’t find them elsewhere; perhaps this midge is relatively rare after all. Joe-pye weed inflorescences were branching out as well and had gone from relatively tight clusters to gangly and leggy during the last days of June, though they were still white and not yet bearing open flowers. Along with the white flowers were white moths: I had been noticing morbid owlets since June, and this day Leconte’s Haploa moths were out. Hop hornbeam fruits were hanging like lanterns from the tips of the branches.

Large white trillium berries were as big as California black olives; nodding trillium berries were swelling as well, but only about as large as little red grapes. They are sharply three-winged, tipped with blackened stigmas, skirted with greenish sepals and withered, twisted, browning petals. I find in looking through the books that I have been incautious in distinguishing T. grandiflorum, T. cernuum and T. flexipes. I’ll have to be on the watch for these next year when they are flowering to make sure I’ve got the characters right. Small-flowered buttercup fruits were chestnut brown and about half dispersed; by the time you read this, they will probably all have fallen. Sprengel’s sedge was sprawling, fruiting stems almost flat on the ground, perigynia mostly gone. Wood’s sedge was looking better, relaxed, grassy, still clinging to its fruits. Yellow violet fruits were also still hanging on, though a few had started to explode. Watch for the capsules as they spring open, revealing a line of tiny seeds inside, like peas in a pod. Jacob’s ladder sepals are still hiding their seeds. The flowers look empty, and I had thought everything was gone. Crack one open, though, and shake the contents into your palm: out tumble black, crescent-shaped achenes. Smooth Solomon’s seal berries were filling out. Blue cohosh seeds were starting to turn blue. A few immature walnuts had fallen onto the trail.

That night there was a torrential thunderstorm with hail. Two days later, July 4, I walked through Maple Grove Forest Preserve and found St. Joseph Creek had risen by perhaps four feet to knock down the jewelweed, wood nettle, wingstem and everything else to about 30 feet from the river bank. On the south side of the bridge, the floodplain was cleared all the way to the slope. The wild leeks in the uplands were largely still closed, scapes arching over the ground. A few had split open their spathes to reveal a tiny fist of white flowers, and within a few days they would open more quickly into spreading fingers. I do not remember the flower stalks arching like this when they have come up in past years. Perhaps I am catching them early? or forgetting? Or perhaps they were beaten down by the thunderstorm two days earlier and were just recovering. They were covered with cottony scale insects that sprung away or launched parsimonious short flights when I reached for them. Wild ginger had nearly all dispersed, though a few chestnut colored seeds persisted in the spongy fruits. Beside one clone of about four feet in diameter I found seedlings with leaves about the size of silver dollars. Fruits were still swelling on black snakeroot. Spathes had disintegrated from the Jack-in-the-pulpit, leaving hard, green fruits maturing slowly on the spadix. These will swell for weeks before they are ready to drop. Doll’s eye berries were still filling, slowly. Bottlebrush grass, which I thought had flowered while I wasn’t watching, had unfurled its anthers just in time for Independence Day. Path rush capsules were filling with seeds. Clearweed was up to my ankles and stickseed was up to the top of my calves. Neither was flowering yet. The forest floor was littered with fallen basswood blooms.

I came across a brown, spongy, decaying maple that I check regularly for fungi. It was bristling with what appeared to be bright red, tiny toadstools with caps less than a millimeter in diameter and threadlike stalks. Crawling among this fur of filaments and pinheads was a flat-backed millipede, and emerging from the side of the log was a white, fleshy fungus that I take to be a species of Crepidotus, a large genus of wood-eating fungi. Nestled among the base of the bristling fur on the top of the log was what I thought must be tiny puffballs a bit larger than mung beans. On a nearby log, the Xylaria were dying back, blackening at the tips.

Rachel had her doubts about the “toadstools” when I showed her the photos, and I found within hours of posting the photos to iNaturalist that while the Crepidotus and Xylaria were fungi, the others were not. They were slime molds. Slime molds! A Tasmanian naturalist1 who specializes on this branch of life quickly put me onto the right genera: Cribraria for the “toadstools,” wolf’s milk (Lycogala epidendrum) for the “puffballs.” I was delighted: I’ve been missing a whole branch of the tree of life as I’ve been walking through the woods, and it seems to be an important one. I opened the Encyclopedia Brittanica entry on slime molds, found the genera I had been looking at, and read this:

Science fiction did not invent the slime molds, but it has borrowed from them in using the idea of sheets of liquid, flowing protoplasm, giant voracious amoebae, engulfing and dissolving every living thing they touch. What fiction could only imagine, nature has evolved, and only their sharp dependence on coolness, moisture and darkness has kept the slime molds from ordinary observation, for they are common enough.

Coolness, moisture and darkness are found in the soil and in logs, twigs and leaves decaying on the forest floor; there also are found the slime molds. An old log turned over—preferably a few days after a warm summer rain—may reveal on its underside a white or yellowish fan of almost liquid consistency, a sheet of slowly flowing protoplasm. The drier upper side of the log may be covered with what look like pinehead-sized toadstools that when touched give off clouds of dust-fine spores.2

That is exactly what I was finding. Friday was busy, but Saturday I returned to the woods to find that there are at least five slime molds out there that I can distinguish without having to culture them. There are the Cribraria, the pin-sized “toadstools;” wolf’s milk, the mungbean-sized “puffballs;” Arcyria cinerea, which looks like blown-glass protists or grains of rice suspended by threads; Tubifera, pincushions on the sides of the logs; and an undifferentiated yellow plasmodium that might be Physarum or Fuligo or something else altogether. I slapped the colony of Cribraria: spores drifted off along the length of the log. Next year, I’m hoping for slime molds everywhere.


As I write this, it’s Sunday in mid-July, a week since I was enthusing over the slime molds in Maple Grove Forest Preserve, and there’s been little time to think about them again until this morning. I came back last night from three days of sampling an experiment we planted at Prairie Moon Nursery, where on one side of a strip of old field grows a neighbor’s crop of soybeans, on the other a narrow bed of Monarda bradburiana and a double or triple bed of fully flowering New Jersey tea that, as fecund as it is, has shed not one plant into our experiment just 30 feet away. For a few days, four of us were lost for hours at a time crawling on our hands and knees identifying vegetative plants, questioning why Gaura shows up in almost every plot while Carex grows in only one… and that a Carex we didn’t plant. Tree frogs called from the woods down below, song sparrows sang from the fields around us, and the 358 acres of the Wiscoy Valley Community Land Cooperative filled the rolling hills around us.

On the way home, I stopped off at the UW Madison Arboretum. I parked at the Grady Tract on the south side of the beltline and walked in through the Evjue Pines with the highway roaring over my left shoulder. I headed south around the edge of the kettle pond hidden among the oaks, up to the edge of the west Grady knoll, then south along a trail that leads through a transition that is today exceptionally rare, from bona fide sand prairie to black oak savanna, with rose-breasted grossbeaks and Froelichia, pasqueflower and porcupine grass. I once walked this knoll with a blind Boy Scout who was working on the environmental studies merit badge. “Here’s a groundhog hole,” I told him, and he tromped in to feel how deep it was. Surveying this knoll after a spring burn, woodcocks spinning overhead and Jupiter burning in the south, sends you back 500 years.

In my 20s, when I patrolled this trail on a regular basis, the whole world seemed to hum from the grasses and the trees and the migrating warblers. Everything back then was a taut wire, vibrating back to the dawn of life and off in all directions. That was an idealistic time of my life, as one’s 20s should be. Walking through it last night, however, it struck me that things I see all still brim with meaning and recollection, and all resonate laterally, forward and backwards. Does a fungus mean anything? Does a sedge have something greater to teach us about life? Of course not. But when I study a phylogenetic network or an ordination, I feel a thrill akin to reading tea leaves. I am dragged backwards in time and across the landscape by a slime mold, genomic structure in the differentiation of oaks, or the attrition of species in an experimental prairie. Maple Grove and the East Woods and Winona and Dane County all layer on top of one another and plow backwards to the origins of the universe. Everything still vibrates.

I drove home listening to Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, which is about the life of science, about growing older, about going back to your family, about the mystery of memory and consciousness. Powers fills his characters with the knowledge of the scientist, then of the musician, then of the activist, then of the computer programmer, every character with a generous portion of wisdom. The novel turns on connections, everything radiating out from one February night on the Platte River, where time runs backwards 60 million years, forward to an unknown, only partially knowable unfolding future, laterally to New York and Italy and California. Everything turns on everything else.

Today there are data to enter from yesterday, presentations to get ahead on, groceries to buy. Tonight my older son will be home for an evening before he goes back to work for another month. Tomorrow my wife and son will be home from a trip as my older son and I drive north. In the evening, though, we’ll all be watching fireflies, and they’ve been around about as long as flowering plants3.

Plants referenced:

* Actaea pachypoda – doll’s eye, white baneberry
* Allium tricoccum – wild leek
* Anemone virginiana – tall thimbleweed
* Arisaema triphyllum – Jack-in-the-pulpit
* Asarum canadense – wild ginger
* Carex sprengelii – Sprengel’s sedge
* Carex woodii – Wood’s sedge
* Caulophyllum thalictroides – blue cohosh
* Circaea canadensis – enchanter’s nightshade
* Dioscorea villosa – wild yam
* Elymus hystrix – bottlebrush grass
* Eutrochium purpureum – Joe-pye weed
* Galium circaezens – smooth wild licorice
* Galium concinnum – Shining bedstraw
* Hackelia virginiana – stickseed
* Juglans nigra – black walnut
* Juncus tenuis – path rush
* Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
* Ostrya virginiana – hop hornbeam
* Pilea sp. – clearweed
* Polemonium reptans – Jacob’s ladder
* Polygonatum biflorum – smooth Solomon’s seal
* Ranunculus abortivus – small-flowered buttercup
* Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
* Tilia americana – basswood
* Trillium cernuum or T. flexipes – nodding trillium
* Trillium grandiflorum – big-flowered trillium
* Viola pubescens – yellow violet

1 Lloyd, Sarah. 2019. Tasmanian Myxomycetes, accessed 2019-07-14. URL: https://sarahlloydmyxos.wordpress.com/.

2 Cohen, Arthur Le Roy. 1969. Slime molds (slime fungi). In: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Volume 20. William Benton, Publisher, Chicago.

3 Ellis, E.A., and Oakley, T.H. 2016. High Rates of Species Accumulation in Animals with Bioluminescent Courtship Displays. Current Biology 26: 1916–1921. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.05.043.