Friday, January 19, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 1-21-07
Jeff Gill

January is Getting Moldy This Year

You may have noticed something going on in your community.
North sides of houses and sheds and buildings are starting to get, well,
colorful. Sort of.

Mostly the colors are grey and green and speckled black, with the stray venture
into rusty browns. On pavements there can be a lighter green, even some yellows
and bluish greens.

The hues are due to mold. Mold, or mildew, or fungi of various sorts, with
lichens less likely (they tend to take years to develop), are all having a rare
field day in our neck of the woods.

Short days, low light angle when the Sun does come out, the Sun rarely coming
out, and fairly constant moisture along with persistent above freezing
temperatures: it spells fungi.

Which is, of course, the plural of fungus. But fungus is rarely among us in
singular amounts, but like "The Blob" it spreads fast. Fungus is already
invisibly everywhere, the spores that propagate it or the first tiny colonies
busily consuming organic material (think fallen logs) and turning it into
energy for growth.

When conditions are as oddly good as they’ve been recently, they grow fast and
wide and get downright visible. Everything from mushrooms in your mulch to that
yellow orange dog vomit stuff (actually, not a fungus, but a slime mold;
different family, same habits) and the green slime on your siding is getting
big and bigger.

As it happens, they are absolutely crucial to most life, especially trees.
Killing it all is a bad idea, although you probably want to use some bleach or
SimpleGreen on your house just for tidiness sake.

Baker’s yeast which makes bread, the staff of life, lively? A fungus. Brewer’s
yeast, which brings us everything from Milwaukee’s (coff) Best to fine
Champagne? Fungus.

You probably already thought of penicillin, the first antibiotic, as a product
of fungal growth, but it turns out there are over 1600 antibiotics in general
use, all due to fungi.

Biologist trace fungi back in the fossil record about 400 million years, and
botanists chuckle over "mycology," the study of fungus, being in their
department, since DNA studies shows fungi as closer to animals than plants.

And it was a fungus that was European Potato Blight, killing the relatively new
New World plant after a couple centuries, long enough to see ‘taters become a
staple of the Irish diet. So the Potato Famine was due to fungi, as are the
Kennedy family, Irish cops, and far too many performances of "Danny Boy."

But so are truffles, that final flourish on "Iron Chef America" where we’re
regularly reminded "these are $50 a pound" while the sous-chef briskly grates a
couple sawbucks’ worth onto scrambled eggs or something.

Mycologists tell us that fungi are absolutely vital to the Global Carbon Cycle,
from the breakdown of wood to every stage of decomposition that keeps new
energy flowing through Nature’s systems.

You can reflect on all of this as you struggle to clean the little buggers off
your porch with a stiff brush, and welcome the arrival of sub-freezing

Just remember: it doesn’t kill them, it just slows them down. They’re out
there, everywhere, waiting for a chance to grow . . .

In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan 15 years ago, while doing unrelated
scientific research, some ecologists found a "humongous fungus," a connected
mushroom colony that is essentially one organism, covering dozens of acres.
Tipped off by the announcement in "Nature" magazine, scientists found one 82
acres big in the Pacific Northwest. Everyone thinks there are more, still
undiscovered, even as mushroom hunters break off bits to take home for their

So be kind as you obliterate them; their relatives may be taking notes, and
patiently waiting for their day . . . which will be dim, and cool, and rainy.
Meanwhile, I want ‘shrooms on my pizza. They can hold it against me if they

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he
is not a trained mycologist. If you are, send him your views (or anyone else)