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Mystical Glow in a Dark, Dark Woods

Mystical Glow in a Dark, Dark Woods

Debbie Viess

Reprint in honor of All Hallow’s Eve
First published on Mon. Jan 7, 2013 on the listserve.

Hi Gang,
I have been cooped up in my house for too many days, so yesterday I dashed over to my favorite park, Huckleberry Preserve, to do a brisk, late afternoon walk and glory in the damp. For once I decided to lighten my load, so no camera, no binocs, just a bit of water and some well-appreciated layers of warm clothing.

As I broke off a piece of likely-looking crust fungi from a rotten log at the park entrance (since taking Tom Brun’s crust class at NAMA, I have fallen hard for this surprisingly interesting group of fungi), a woman came up along the trail and said to me: “You’re a Mycologist!”  Busted.
She then said that she had taken a class with me somewhere. So much for anonymity. I told her that crusts didn’t look like much in hand, but got pretty spectacular under the scope. She just had to take my word for it, though.

But after her, no one. Nothing like rain and mud to clear out the tourists. I pretty much had the place to myself, which is just the way I like it. Well, just me and the plants and birds and fungi, one big happy family. The red under-brim of my rain hat is really pissing off the Ruby Crowned Kinglets, though, since they consider it to be a color signaling aggressive faux pas.  Not much I can do about that, just be grateful that they may be feisty, but they are also very, very small.

I made my apologies to them as I walked by. Can’t please everyone.

The woods were gorgeous and fungi filled: mycenas, candy caps forming a conga-line on a vertical mossy bank right along the trail (too small to pick and so pretty to see), a mystery Hygrophorus, Camarophyllus russocoriaceus with its refreshing odor of cedar, Hygrocybe punicea, that big red waxy, ridiculously small white mycenas dusted into tree bark moss, a tiny Xerocomus sp., Stereum
and Turkey tails, bright and refreshed by the rain, and at day’s end as I came upon the last twists of the trail- Oh! My! God! There was a huge fruiting of Omphalotus olivascens. It spilled along the back side of a big eucalyptus stump, and sprawled down into the canyon, following the buried root system.

Best sighting ever, and no camera!!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.

While I mentally plotted to return to take a photo (and it would not be easy since there was no good vantage point- it just dropped straight down off the trail) I realized just what kind of mushroom I had there- a bioluminescent one, and darkness just a shot away. Why not just seize the moment and observe the bioluminescence directly in nature?

Of course, I had no flashlight, but I know the trail well, having walked it oh, maybe a thousand times, and it was pretty close to the entrance and my eyes would be adjusted to the dark, so I decided to wait it out and see what I could see.

It was 4:30. I figured that it would start getting dark after 5, so what the hey. I plunked myself down atop the stump and settled in for the wait. A female Great Horned Owl woke up and started her contact calls, calling for her mate. She sounded so lonely and there was no answering hoot, so I finally gave a hoot myself. As dusk fell, she flew beneath me into an opening, and rose to a hidden
perch. Then she flew a bit closer.

I sat still and quiet, startling another bird coming in to roost, and a couple of late afternoon hikers, too. At five pm, the owl’s mate started calling back. But still there was a bit of light in the sky, too much for my eyes to perceive any possible spectral glow. Once the sun dipped, the temps did too, and I was
very grateful for every bit of clothing that I had brought along.

And still I waited. By now it was too dark to make out much detail. I knew that the ground behind the stump dropped sharply, and my viewing vantage from above was not great, so I inched along the side of the stump at a crouch, and grabbed onto a thick huckleberry branch on my right, to stabilize myself in case I slipped, and waited some more.

I started to notice a glow on the wood of the stump just inches from my face, in the cracks of the bark. Darned if the Omphalotus mycelia wasn’t glowing, too!

As the darkness grew thicker I started to see light along the edges of the Omphalotus caps, borne in thick, cascading fungal scallops below me. The wind was blowing away from the trail and on and down into the canyon and I started to see puffs of phosphorescence…could the spores be bioluminescent,
too? Oh man, this is SO cool!

In the back of my head was the thought that my husband David was probably getting worried at home…I had claimed to be returning for dinner, heck I claimed to be making dinner, but this was an opportunity to be seized, and I had no way to contact him. I couldn’t even keep checking my watch since it glowed and ruined my night vision. Screw it, I was in for a pound.

Finally, after watching the caps glow and feeling guilty over David and starting to worry just a bit about how the heck I was gonna find my way out, I started to leave…but was drawn back one more time. This time, I laid on top of the stump and looked down…

Omphalotus olivascens

Jack O’Lantern
Omphalotus olivascens

The edges of the caps gently pulsed with eerie green bioluminescence. In fact,
there was a spill of spectral light from the stump right below my face and
flowing down into the canyon. Wow.

I had to drag myself away.

Heading back for that last quarter mile, using my hands, brushing sword ferns that lined the path, and feet to help find the path. I knew where I was supposed to be, and I could still see a bit of light at the very top of the trail above me, but I sure couldn’t see very much at my feet! Luckily my instincts took over, and I slowly but surely came up the trail. At one point I almost panicked when I thought that I had lost the trail, but I stayed calm and persevered.

Whew. Back safe to the car at 6:30, I called David first thing, and yes, he was relieved to hear from me and about to come out looking for me. If indeed I had gotten off trail I would have been grateful to have seen his flashlight, but all was well.

Better than merely well- it was magical. For the price of a little bodily warmth and a bit more time than anticipated, I observed an awesome natural phenomenon.

Just me and the spooks.  Cool beans.

Debbie Viess is a biologist, naturalist, writer and artist, obsessed with mushrooms in general and amanitas in particular for close to 20 years.  In 2006, she co-founded the Bay Area Mycological Society, a science-centric mushroom club. She has been instrumental in creating and managing the annual Point Reyes National Seashore Fungus Fairs, and has been a prominent contributor to the Point Reyes Mycoblitz and the ongoing Yosemite Fungal Survey. In 2007 she gave a two hour, richly illustrated talk on California Amanitas for the UC Berkeley Natural History Museum “Science Cafe,” a national and local forum that brings science to the general public. Debbie has taught mushroom field classes for the California Academy of Sciences, the Audubon Society, Albany Adult School and Point Reyes Field Seminars, and has lectured about mushrooms to audiences around the country. She has written for “Bay Nature Magazine” and “Mushroom, the Journal of Wild Mushrooming.” In 2009, she published an extensive, illustrated article on “Amanitas of the East Bay” in the Bay Area botanical journal, “The Manzanita.” She is a frequent mushroom spokesperson for radio, television and newspapers around the Bay, and also consults on Bay Area mushroom poisoning cases. Debbie loves making mycology accessible and fun for everyone, and uses humor and great visuals to sweeten her science. She is a member of several local and national mycological societies, including NAMA and the MSA.

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