Carl Mabbs-Zeno, Creative Nonfiction

The Golden Fungus Mystery

by Carl Mabbs-Zeno

My walks in New Hampshire’s moderately wild places fill me with questions. I direct them toward my hiking partners and receive their knowledge and speculations in addition to their own curious observations about the complexities surrounding us: topics of nature, history, science, engineering, mythology. Often I am on my own and get no response to the mysteries I find until I get back home and examine my specimens with a lens and consult my guidebooks. I rarely learn much in my research. My guidebooks typically call for information I failed to gather and I soon forget what I learned in the same season last year. Despite my record, my impulsive inquisitiveness never wanes.

One morning in May, I went into the forest alone even before breakfast because I heard there would be rain later. I had no more mission for the morning other than to walk along the stream to see if there was anything new since yesterday. The rising breeze whipped a few raindrops onto the emerging canopy of summer, which held them away from my head for the moment. A few lightning flashes could be seen but were still too far off to be heard. I did not feel pressured by the impending storm, rather, I was invigorated by its cool promise of harmless violence.

Before reaching the stream, I saw where something had been digging holes six inches deep and of various widths. This was exciting as I was on the track of another mystery. Twenty similar holes had been dug in a nearby field a few weeks ago and I had discussed them with my neighbors but had nothing but speculations on their source. I bent close to the fresh hole looking for tracks in the wet earth, or claw marks, or a pattern in their form, or some other sign of who had been digging here. There were four new holes but none of them revealed anything new to me other than their location in the deep woods, which contrasted with the dry field where the other holes had been.

It seemed one small clue to hold for another day….until I came on more holes dug into the leaves a few hundred yards downstream. I looked closely again for tracks, still unsuccessful in this, but it was then apparent that the woodland digger would be known this day—for he or she had placed a signature of scat very near. I would recognize the digging of raccoon next time.

Learning something new about the creatures living near my home conveyed a satisfaction that led to my taking the long route along the stream. So what if I risked a soaking if the storm came too soon?

I climbed the steep embankment where an ice storm had toppled a dozen large trees a decade back. A few were still alive and growing sideways. From the top of the gorge, I could look over the chaos to the stream, now well below me and yet still speaking loudly in a seasonal voice formed of countless small waterfalls invigorated by spring rains. The drone of the water was background to the melody of a winter wren, the most enthusiastic singer of these woods in May and the answer to a mystery that I had enjoyed a year ago.

Witches Butter and Slug
Photograph by Carl Mabbs-Zeno

As I examined from above the inaccessible portion of the stream I rarely visited, I thought of the identification I had made a few weeks earlier of a fungus called “Witches Butter.” It had required a second steep climb down into the isolated pocket I called “Shangri-La” where I had first seen and photographed the orange fungus. But I failed to notice whether it was growing on the branch of a conifer or a deciduous tree, which distinguished it from Orange Jelly.

On my second laborious climb into the gorge, I found the fungus had dried while retaining its extraordinary color and was on a dead branch already torn from its tree but recognizable as deciduous in origin. I know very few fungi by name so it was a personal triumph to be sure of this one and more enjoyable for being such a bizarre specimen with its brilliant color and eerie sheen, which belied the claim made by the field guide that it was edible.

I peered down into the ravine to see if the branch with the fungus was still there and whether it might have a new crop of fungus. It was not surprising that I could not locate where the branch had been exactly. Without the cover of the canopy above me, I was getting wet from the edge of the storm.

I was about to move along when I spotted a gold color close to the water. I could aver authoritatively that it was not the orange of Witches Butter. Too bad I had not brought my binoculars. You can’t carry everything every time. It seemed smart to go home and check on the thing another day.

But I already had seen the Witches Butter dry up and become unrecognizable in a single day. I might not get another chance to ever see this new species. It was feeling as if Shangri-La were a magical place and worth another climb. I positioned myself above first one tree and then another to break my slide down the mossy slope that would not hold my weight. Going back up would be messy, on hands and knees, and grabbing trees.

At the bottom was a level bank as much as five yards deep running along the stream for 25 yards, the tiny mythical kingdom. A small pile of straw introduced new questions. What would have nested here and how would this have made a bed for it? The rain was building quickly so I turned back to my search for the fungus. It was not hard to find, except that what I found is not what I was looking for. My bizarre fungus was naught but the golden lid to a can of lemon cream soda.

Obviously, I was disappointed that I had not discovered a new fungus just as I was disappointed that such urban trash marred this special place. Nonetheless, I was not displeased to have come down, for at least I could crush and pocket the offense and leave with the mystery of the nest to ponder on the way home and for time to come.

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