A log, a log / It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s wood

What is that you're growing on, dearie?

What is that you're growing on, dearie?

I wake up instantly, with specific focus. Often: bills left unpaid, errors left in news stories I have written, ovens left on. On the good days, it is simply a full awareness of my to-do list for the day. (Buy wok. File for unemployment. Wash mushroom crud from purse. Find job.) Today, it was trees. I’ve been ignoring the trees!

As I recall, the suburban Maryland where I grew up has lots of trees. Don’t ask me what kind they are, though.

These are the types of trees I remember: Trees that drop leaves I must rake. Trees that can be climbed. Maple trees, which someday I will learn how to get the syrup from. Dogwoods. The nasty-smelling ornamental pear trees inexplicably planted everywhere there. A few others.

Certainly my father tried to teach me others, but I couldn’t tell you which trees are dominant there, which ones lined the highways, what lives in them, what their bark looks like. I have, it turns out, a vast ability to ignore large classes of objects in my view.

Only when I went to Africa, a totally foreign place, to study gorillas was I forced to ask, “What is this?” several hundred times a day. A deep desire to categorize and label all that green in front of me. Each month my neck got a crick from the phenology transects, in which we tracked certain trees to see when they flowered and fruited. So most of the trees I know are those of central Africa’s wet forests, and they all have Baaka, not Latin names.

However. This morning’s fully formed realization was that mushroom hunting might be easier if I knew something about those big wood objects in the forest. As Michael Kuo writes:

Mushrooms and trees are inextricably linked. Most trees cannot survive without mycorrhizal partners from the fungal world–and saprobic fungi play a vital role in forest ecosystems, decomposing tree litter. Thus identifying trees is essential to understanding and identifying mushrooms.

And I’d just been dividing them into oak, birch or apple. Whoops.

My knowledge grows in organic blooms, one topic infecting the next. A desire for mushroom soup leads to chanterelles and honeys, but also inedible earthstars and jelly fungi; my curiosity about some hanging yellow frills, some curious puffballs, leads me finally to pay attention to the trees.


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