The forest floor

IMG_9563.JPGThe soccer field at my elementary school in Springfield, Missouri, was nothing but a patch of bare, reddish dirt, and it was my favorite part of the place. I liked soccer just fine, but the real reasons for my affection were the thousands of dime-sized rocks caked into its surface. Almost all of them were imprinted with fossils: tiny grid-like bryozoan colonies, striated mollusk shells, cylindrical crinoids the size of pencil erasers, all remnants of an ancient sea. I was 7 years old and could spend half an hour after school crouched over the gritty dirt excavating these treasures with my fingertips, saving the most striking ones for my collection.

That’s all to say keeping an eye out for the small and overlooked underfoot has been my jam for pretty much forever. How could I possibly resist the yellow slime mold above? I’d only seen these weird organisms in textbooks before this moment. It might look like a fungus, but it’s actually the result of countless microbes literally fusing together into one huge cell that can move around and even learn, at least in some senses of the word.

Other denizens of Devil’s Den State Park’s forest floor don’t have the same flair, but I still love them.

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IMG_0020.JPGThis unsettling phenomenon seems to be guttation, which is apparently just the excretion of excess water — one more thing I’d only seen in books before now.

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IMG_0025.JPGAfter almost four years photographing the woods around here, they’re still surprising me. Thanks for looking.

Mt. Kessler

IMG_9708Mt. Kessler is the grand name of a big hill covered by a patch of Ozarks forest that’s tucked inside Fayetteville’s southwestern city limits. Being within a city doesn’t mean it’s small: A three-hour hike Sunday wasn’t enough to get to its best rock formations and overlooks. I’ll have to head back to find what else it has tucked away, but this time I focused on some of the place’s smallest details, such as this passion flower:

IMG_9718The “passion” in the name of this complex and vivid bloom refers to the Passion, as in Jesus’ last days of life in Christian tradition — missionaries centuries ago saw reminders and symbols of those events in the numbers and shapes of the flower’s different parts, such as the three “nails” prominently displayed at the top. I think this was the first time I’d seen one in person.

I also almost walked face-first into this little thing:

IMG_9673For years I’ve wondered what these little green danglers are doing hanging down from branches like a fish lure. It turns out they’re inchworms, usually smaller than their name suggests, and this bungee-jumping behavior is a way to flee from predatory bugs in the trees above. After the threat’s gone, they reel themselves back up on their silk threads, as this one was doing.

Speaking of caterpillars, I also came across this devilish-looking mass of them:

IMG_9716Not sure what they are — Googling “fuzzy caterpillars with red heads” isn’t helpful — but they are remarkably social, and they might be a kind of tent caterpillar, the leaf-eaters responsible for those clumps of silk that smother tree limbs all summer long.

To round out this bunch of images, here’s a strange growth on a tree that looks like a mushroom and an actual mushroom for your viewing pleasure.

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Dan

By Nature

IMG9232Just a few photos this time, and just a few words. The environment’s on a lot of minds these days, thanks to a papal encyclical on climate change and some wacky worldwide weather. One thing I hope to convey with all of my ramblings is that “the environment” isn’t a far-away thing in all of those forests and rivers and national parks. It’s also the air you breath in cities and the dirt you walk on in yards. The veins in the purple elephant ear leaf above are as much a part of the natural system as the streams and rivers they resemble.

Anyway, that’s enough didactic-ness for now. Please enjoy this photographic sample of the life cycle of butterflies and moths, including the most massive caterpillar I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Springfield’s Butterfly House.

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Have a good one,

Dan

Arboreal Undertakers

IMG_8487We have a complicated relationship with fungus. We eat some kinds of it and bake or ferment with others, while other types are lethally poisonous. Even the name “fungus” sends my mind straight to gross and slimy. Fungi are an essential group of life forms — perhaps millions of species that keep nutrients flowing through entire ecosystems — and because of their work, they’ll always be connected to disease and death. Besides all of that, they can be too inconspicuous to notice. But they’re always there.

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IMG_8519I drove down today to the old standby hiking area, Devil’s Den State Park, hoping to see if the rivers and waterfalls would be high and fast from the deluge that has soaked Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas in recent weeks. The streams here were fairly strong, but a day or so without the constant rain had calmed them down. What caught my eye instead were dozens of mushrooms — sparks of color in the otherwise constant green, if you can find them.

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IMG_8518Fungi are neither plant nor animal, though they’re closer to the latter. Some disturbing varieties get their energy from living things, but most absorb nutrition from leaf litter and whatever else settles to the forest floor. What you can see in these photos is the proverbial tip of the iceberg; a much bigger network of threads and tendrils lies in the log or dirt beneath, occasionally sending up the visible segments to release spores. This lattice can carry on for thousands of years in some cases, just doing its thing unbothered by the surface world.

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IMG_8516Outside of the world of fungi, it was a good day for a hike, and I wasn’t the only one out there.

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Dan