Of Fungi and Friends

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In memory of Joan Roche

These are melancholy days on the trail. The reptiles and amphibians have hibernated. Most mammals are staying away and those birds that have not migrated are often quiet. So, with many of the trails shrouded in monochromatic hues of brown, we amble along.

Photos by Joan Heffernan
Careful observers may spot hen of the wood and other fungi in their yards or as they hike the trails in Suffield.

For the past few weeks, we have been taking notice of the beautiful fungi which have sprouted up as fall settled in. Sometimes the mushrooms, which are the fruiting bodies of fungi, appeared almost overnight. Other times we would have our eyes on some really sturdy shelf fungus as it maintained its grip on the tree trunk week after week.

I have learned that there is lots going on beneath our feet, often rapidly. I turned to my field guide to mushrooms and the book A Secret Life of Trees to bolster my knowledge. It turns out that fungi are the largest known living organisms in the world and have a vital role in the decomposition of living material. They can also help with water absorption for trees. The mushrooms contain the spores needed for reproduction and release millions of spores from slits under the cap. The spores begin their life cycle, primarily underground, developing into a web- like mycelium before pushing out of the earth.

We have started paying better attention to all the varieties and are smitten by some of the names, such as fuzzy foot, dunce cap, angel wings, witch’s hat, stink horns, eyelash cups, devil’s urns and stinky squid. Those with odiferous names are often visited by flies, attracted to their scent, and those flies help to disperse the spores.

Last year my friend and I were hoofing it around town with our beloved labs in tow. We headed up a wooded trail and came across an impressive hen of the wood fungus at the base of an oak tree. My daughter, who is a forager, assured me it was edible, and we harvested it, put it in my pack and headed home. It was a lovely specimen, and we divided it. My friend took hers home to make soup, and I tried my hand at a few sauces with hen of the wood as the star.

It felt good to live off the land, and we made a note to return to the same tree next year, same time, to see if we would be rewarded with such a find. But life has a way of throwing random curveballs, and a few weeks after our mushroom find, my friend grew ill and took her last breath before the new year.

That was not the way I thought this would play out. I had thought, as the years passed and our dogs grew weary or our legs became sore, we might swap our hikes or cross-country ski days for a stint on a bench at Sunrise Park. There, we would pick up where we left off from each adventure, with our Labradors resting by our sides. And as the years gently lapsed, we would circle around to talk about friendship, and I would find the words to tell her what a great one she had been. But there was no time for this, as her decline was fast, and COVID was upon us.

This fall it wasn’t the same when I headed out hunting hen of the wood. My Labrador sidekick was with me as we set our sights on the tree that my friend and I had stood under, trying to positively ID the hen of the wood a year ago. Twelve months later there was no sign of hen of the wood on that trunk. The vacancy seemed kind of fitting, and my dog and I headed home, but our minds were elsewhere.

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