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Of Bird’s Nest Fungi,
and Luck, and Small Fall Things

Bill Meredith

It seems a shame to see September swallowed by the wind,
And more than that, it's, oh, so sad to see the summer end;
And though the changing colors are a lovely thing to see,
If it were mine to make the change, I think I'd let it be…
But I don't remember hearing anybody asking me.
 … John Denver, “Season Suite”

Fall is here… nearly half gone, in fact, as if time were speeding up in an effort to get the year over with. Most of us, I suspect, will be glad to see it go; 2008 will not be remembered as a good year. Fall is not my favorite season; I prefer spring, when new life is everywhere, and summer, when golf balls roll farther and there’s a garden to enjoy. But with the economy in shambles, the war dragging on, environmental problems worsening, and the Orioles finishing in the cellar again, clear fall days are the only cheerful distraction available. Virginia creeper and poison ivy leaves have taken on a deep red hue, and trees are starting to turn; recent rains and moderate temperatures hint that the colors may be good this year. And then there is the Irish proverb that reminds us to “enjoy the smaller things… there are so many of them.”

Soon after my wife and I got married someone gave us a copy of the Better Homes & Gardens Garden Book. Like me, it is now retired; it sits on my bookshelf and reminisces about the good old days before it was outdated, but in its working life it was one of the main sources of our education about how to take care of plants. It imprinted on my mind that evergreen shrubs and trees should be trimmed in August or September, so a few weeks ago I dutifully got out the pruners and started on them. I was not able to get to them last year so pruning was a bigger job than usual, but it turned out to be worth the effort.

Some low-growing junipers by the driveway had spread out over the lawn and their upper branches completely blocked out the sunlight, killing several lower branches as well as the surrounding grass. The cool, wet weather had induced a variety of soil fungi to come out, and as I cut off the dead juniper branches I found one of them covered with the tiny white, cup-shaped fruiting bodies of bird’s nest fungi. These are among the oddest of plants; they are fairly common, but most people never see them because they are so small and you have to get down and crawl into damp, dark places to find them. The fruiting bodies are about two millimeters in size… less than a quarter of an inch… and each one contains several round, egg-shaped spore sacs. It looks a bit like a bird’s nest and eggs, but a better description would be to picture one of those little paper cups with crimped sides that my wife uses to make cupcakes, and imagine it has five or six jelly beans in it.

There are several species of bird’s nest fungi, and some of them actually have crinkled sides like cupcake papers, but the ones I found were smooth, like teacups. Whatever their shape may be, the function of the cups is to scatter the spores. This is done in a most peculiar way: when a raindrop happens to fall exactly in the middle of the cup it splashes out and carries some of the spore sacs with it. Each spore sac is attached to a fibrous thread, which trails behind as it flies through the air, like the projectiles in the Olympic hammer-throwing event. If it is lucky, when it comes down the trailing thread will get tangled on a blade of grass or a low-hanging branch, leaving the spore sac to dangle in the breeze until it breaks open and releases the spores. Then, with a bit more luck, the spores will drift off in the air and some of them will land in damp, shaded places where they will find dead sticks to grow on.

I’m always amazed by the number of things in nature that depend on the laws of chance, or what we call luck, for survival. I have been lucky too; it doesn’t take much to keep me interested, and there are plenty of small things around. When the pruning was finished I went to the compost pile and got a wheelbarrow full of mulch to put around the junipers. Among the decomposed leaves and sticks from last fall’s cleanup were several empty blacksnake egg cases. Snakes, especially large ones, are becoming rare; many are killed by cars, and unfortunately many people still kill them on sight. It was good to see that the one that has used my compost pile as a nest-box for the past several years is still around, helping to keep field mice in check and balancing the food chain. Perhaps it had a good year.

Early in the summer when I was weeding the garden I found a very small toad, less than an inch long. I watched it all summer, and somehow it survived; it didn’t hop five yards north onto the road and get flattened by a car, and the garter snake that lived in the drain at the south end of the garden didn’t find it, and it avoided the lawnmower when I trimmed around the edges. I saw it three weeks ago when I picked the last of the peppers; it had grown nearly to adult size. It had a good year, and with a bit more luck it will find a sheltered spot where the ground is soft enough to dig down below frost level, and survive to sing for me next spring.

So fall is proceeding, whether I like it or not; like John Denver, I wasn’t consulted about it. National economics and wars are like the seasons; they are big things, and ordinary people have little influence over them. So if by luck the leaves are beautiful, I will enjoy them. And if a friend brings her four-year-old daughter to visit, I will show her the bird’s nest fungi and we will tell stories of tiny birds that lived there and flew far, far away to the south and will come back next spring, if they’re lucky. And if my luck holds, I will be here to see them return.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith