Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ectomycorrhizae and Old Nettle Patch

As my son lingered at the door on his way out after Sunday dinner, the conversation shifted to ectomycorrhizal fungi, or, in layperson's terms, fungi which form a sheath around the root tips of a plant. Yeah, I know — hardly your typical post-dinner conversation. But really, it had its beginning in the early 1990's, when my son — a young child then — would help me in the garden.  He seems to have inherited my passion for the natural world, and saves tidbits from his ongoing research to share with me over Sunday dinner.

The subject these past few months has centered on that which goes on within the soil, how the network of fungi is integral to the health of any woodland area. It's an interdependent relationship: the fungi absorb (and benefit from) various organic substances from trees, and in turn, trees are enabled by the fungi to absorb water and minerals. So think of it this way: every time you drive a shovel into the soil, if the ecosystem is a healthy one, you're severing a vital energetic pathway.

Ack. A lot of that went on in my vegetable patch this weekend, making way for lettuces and carrots. It's painful to be reminded that the pre-agrarian culture, a mere 12,000 years ago, was a helluva lot more kind to Mother Earth.

Anyway, after my son left, I began to ruminate about the woods (long gone) of my childhood. These weren't anything remotely wild, really, although to us they were the Universe of the Wild, a handful of acres. Second growth Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, hazelnuts and alders. A fraction of a forest. A micro-fraction. No water source, but I believed if I looked hard enough I'd discover a secret spring. (Sorry to say I apparently didn't look hard enough.) I knew where tiger lilies bloomed in a secret glad in June. Decomposing stumps of the old trees rose up like long-abandoned castles, inhabited by ants and spiders. When the bracken ferns unfurled every spring, I'd inch myself on my back under the frilled canopy and view the sky through a green lens.

And all throughout these childhood years, running the dirt paths
in and out of sunlight, dodging stinging nettles
growing perilously close to bare legs,
ducking under the silk of spider-webs spun new each morning —
all around and underground was this extraordinary and vast network of fungi
having a conversation with the trees,
trees we named (Whispering Winds, Old Nettle Patch)
and climbed and sang in ("The Strife is O'er" and "I Got a Robe", among others).

Mycorrhizae: symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants.

When my son and I talk about this, I get teary-eyed. Sometimes it feels like I've known this forever, on some level. Now I have a name for it. But I think the connections, the inter-connections, go much further. I believe we're only beginning to understand this. Will we pull ourselves out of our extinction-spiral in time to learn?


  1. Fascinating T. And beautifully written as always. I am wondering why you had to dig to plant lettuces? Reading this makes me even more of a fan for not digging unless planting a tree.

  2. Helen! My poor garden bed with its clay soil. Alas. No matter how much I amend it, it still turns rock-hard over the winter (it's a relatively new bed). Thus the shovel.