More than three months of overflowing rivers around the Twin Cities finally ended this month, leaving debris, tree trunks stained by muddy water up to above my height, and a sprout and seedling explosion around the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. I took a walk there yesterday to see if the mushrooms and slime molds were more active yet. The answer was yes. This system of wetlands goes hand in hand with flooding, even months of it, so life carries on.
I’m not kidding about the seedlings. Maples a few inches tall and other young plants were as thick as turf grass on much of the Minnesota River floodplain after millions or billions of seeds carried by the flooding settled down and germinated. They’re a record of the flood as much as the lines on the trees: Thicker bands and patches of sprouts echoed the water’s direction and speed. Down in the marshier area, creeping plants regrew to their former size.
To cap off the hike, one last peek in a little ravine near the trail revealed the biggest crown-tipped coral fungus I’ve yet seen. Almost always, somehow, there’s some kind of prize at the end.
It’s time for another photographic sermon on the worth and beauty of the small, this time delivered in the steep, lush Silver Creek valley below Fairy Falls. The falls anchor a nice little hiking spot just on this side of the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. The forest there is in full swing, and so are the small-scale inhabitants of the forest floor.
I haven’t been able to identify these little green starfish-looking plants, which unfurl just a few millimeters wide. If anyone can help me out, just let me know. I do know the next photo is a crown-tipped coral fungus — an old acquaintance from down South.
Observe the little nodules that sit in the middle of each segment of these liverworts like a nucleus in a cell. They’re so small that I didn’t notice them when I was taking this photo, only after. Now that’s the good stuff.
I daydream sometimes about cutting loose, traveling the country and world to make amazing photos and write captivating accounts of them and somehow make a living with it all. If that’s ever going to happen, it’s a long way away. The idea can feel unattainable, like I’ve failed to grasp its secret, after years of galleries and art shows with only a handful of sales. I can’t afford the newest camera or travel for weeks or months at a time like Thomas Mangelsen or Ed Cooley, whose gallery is just down the street. It’s a bitter feeling that author Tom McAllister happened to describe perfectly in an article yesterday. Even after three books and prestigious reviews, his book reading events drew depressingly tiny audiences. He asked his wife before one reading if he could simply leave.
But just in the last couple of days, McAllister and my dad and others have reminded me of a different perspective to take on all of this: We write books or pursue some other creative work first for ourselves, because we love and need to do it. I’ve realized that my bitterness ignores a lot of important things, like the support I have gotten from loved ones and a few strangers, the blessing in having any of this to worry about, my gratitude for people like you who give me some of your time and attention. It ignores the old joy in the doing, the joy in my search with no end for new places and new points of view on familiar ones.
This post is about that last part. Some of us last weekend hiked and camped around Devil’s Den State Park and the surrounding Ozark National Forest, which are like old friends at this point. I sought different perspectives and explored them a little further than I have before. I did my regular hunt for new shapes and colors of fungi. In literally the last few minutes of the trip, I also found a spectacular reminder of why I do this.
I saw this vivid, foot-wide fungal behemoth just off the Devil’s Den Trail, gasped absurdly loudly and exclaimed a profanity a few times to myself. The prize seemed to glow in the undergrowth. It was easily the most magnificent fruiting body I have ever seen in person. I breathed quickly, terrified of not getting the perfect shot of it. I excitedly pointed it out to everyone passing by. I couldn’t help but smile for the rest of the hike. It’s ridiculous and nerdy, and I loved it.
And I’ve still only just begun. Thanks, as always, for looking.
The 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.
This 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.
After almost four years photographing the woods around here, they’re still surprising me. Thanks for looking.