Halloween in September

September 8, 2017

Vivid mushroom mounds,
sprung from nowhere overnight—
real as my own hands.

We had little rain during August this year, so when there was a long, heavy downpour a few days ago it felt good, needed.  The following morning, as everything seemed to expand and rejoice in the new moisture, I noticed a set of stunning orange clusters—of I wasn’t sure what—at the base of an old red maple tree near our drive. My first thought was flowers—chrysanthemums perhaps—but I quickly revised that to mushrooms.  There were three abundant clumps of what are known as Jack O’Lantern Mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) nestled right against the trunk.

Despite their seemingly festive color, there was something uncanny for me about these mushrooms. They had not been their yesterday. They seemed to have materialized out of thin air in virtually no time at all.  The ability to appear as though by magic is something shared by all mushrooms, the fruiting heads of macrofungi.  Mushrooms do not get big through cell division, they come up with all their cells already in place, but tiny and packed tight.  When conditions are right they can expand in a matter of hours, not days or weeks.  Their “parent” organism, networks of thread-like mycelium, exist out of our sight in soil, leaf mold, dead wood.  Fungi are neither plant, animal, or mineral.  They are their own thing.

The Jack O’Lantern mushrooms’ natural strangeness as a mushroom was amplified for me by some specific, Halloween-like qualities they have.  It turns out that they are toxic for humans (though usually not fatally so), and they are reputed to produce bioluminescence in their gills.  I spent twenty minutes sitting quietly with the mushrooms in the dark last night.  I can’t report success in observing a green glow, but I enjoyed being in their remarkable company as the crickets strummed their familiar evening chorus and the leaves of the maple rustled overhead.

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