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Fall 2003

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Periscope: When mushrooms mushroom

Set in the trees, Skidmore’s campus gives a rich view of nature in all seasons. And up here in the Zone 3 planting region, August and September are when nature moves from summer into autumn—a subtle but remarkably pervasive transition.
     Most of August was so warm, humid, and breezeless as to put me into a kind of amniotic suspension. At night the air congealed to the viscosity of tepid moisturizing lotion, and then dissolved into gentle steam as the day heated up. Yet behind the high-summer torpor, a vague sense of impetus and momentum was gathering. By late August, there was a last-minute, last-ditch feeling about the insistent chirp of crickets and katydids, the industry of squirrels burying acorns and then meticulously patting the soil flat with their competent little hands, and the ambitious drive of mosquitoes who bit me like there was no tomorrow, drilling through denim jeans if necessary.
     In Skidmore’s North Woods even the wildflowers got aggressive, dogjacking my big curly-haired poodle, Elliott, on our morning walks until he was splotched with wads of green burs and seedpods. At one point he investigated a thicket of burdocks and emerged with his long, floppy ears velcroed to the top of his head, together with a thorny whip of raspberry cane that protruded for eighteen inches on each side. He was only slightly discomfited and gamboled off down the trail like a mop with antlers, but I grabbed his collar and spent a tedious twenty minutes teasing apart his thick, wooly hair and extracting shreds of tenacious cockleburs so that I could disentangle the thorn cane and restore his ears to their proper positions. I don’t mind the plants’ using Elliott in their seed dispersal programs, if they just weren’t so pushy.
     But what really took my breath away were the mushrooms and other fungi in the North Woods. Late summer is their season to emerge and disperse spores, but this August’s high rainfall made it a rare spectacle. Sue Van Hook, a fungus specialist on the biology faculty, fielded questions from newspapers and nature walkers, prepped hours of lesson plans, and took scores of photographs. Large, snow-white mushrooms erupted all over the forest floor, recalling the wildflowers that blossom so dramatically in the spring. Tiny, perfectly formed mini-mushrooms in neon yellow and traffic-cone orange popped up in troupes, often tracing complete circles a yard or more in diameter. Smears of whitish slime molds grew measurably each day, oozing upward over damp rocks. Legions of brown and tan toadstools, well camouflaged, lurked everywhere. Coral- and sponge-shaped fungi sprouted in the shadows; shelf fungi stacked themselves up like CDs in a storage rack; flabby dead-man’s-fingers groped sodden logs.
     And it wasn’t just the numbers and varieties of fungi that made the woods hum. It was the animal spirit and power of their performances. A couple of mighty mushrooms actually poked through the tarmac of the Palamountain parking lot, flinging solid disks of asphalt off their heads as they sprang up into the light. Some of the ’shrooms in the woods were so massive their stems looked like coarse clay extruded through a two-inch pipe, their thick caps were as wide as salad plates, and they’d surged out of the earth so forcefully and fast that they’d promptly curled over, bowed down by their own weight.
     The urgency of this culmination—the brisk business of fruiting, seeding, and finishing up life in the nick of time before winter finishes it for us—made me cringe and sigh. I don’t like the end of summer; the colors that follow are measly compensation for the cold, dark, and barren months ahead. But this summer’s last hurrah was so exhilarating and infectious that it had me cheering too. —SR


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