Foxfire

We temporarily interrupt our series of self-portraits to bring you another report on the strange goings-on in the fungal kingdom.

As I walked up the hollow the night before last, a thin rind of moon behind the ridge gave little light. The air was thick and still, though the first katydids of the season hinted of cooler nights to come. My feet know the road well enough that I can walk it even on a pitch-black night with little fear of stepping off the track and going over the edge into the ravine. But this time of year, the road is discernible as a strip of greater darkness through a woods dotted with glowworms, a few late fireflies, and the blurry nebulae of foxfire.

Halfway up, I paused to catch my breath next to a veritable galaxy. I reached blindly toward the glowing spots and ran my fingers over dime-sized polypore fungi on the end of a log. I couldn’t resist breaking off a couple and sticking them in my shirt pocket — they had a definite aura of currency. Once home, I turned a lamp on and quickly off again to verify that light leaked only from the porous orange undersides of their pale caps.

The literature on bioluminescent fungi rarely points out that all light is the by-product of a decay of sorts, electrons of energized atoms falling back to their normal orbits. In the case of foxfire, though, the link is more literal: light results from the oxidation of an unknown compound referred to as a luciferin, and has been described as photosynthesis in reverse, serving an unknown purpose. I can’t help thinking of Lucifer, burning as he falls.

I left the fungi on the coffee table when I went to bed, thinking I should go out another night and gather more to scatter around the house, the better to avoid collisions with the furniture on nocturnal trips to the toilet. But by four in the morning, they had curled up tighter than clenched fists around their spots of light, and I woke once again in the darkness.

De onzas de plata, la luna
de madrugada llenó mi alma.
Cerré mi puerta, en el dí­a,
por verlas. No valí­an nada!

(With silver coins, the moon
of the small hours stuffed my soul.
During the day, I locked the door
to have a look at them. Worthless!)

–Juan Ramón Jiménez (tr. by Ralph and Rita Garcí­a Nelson)

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

13 Comments


  1. The name foxfire rung a bell and I had to search my own blog for a vague memory. It had to do with the aurora borealis –

    “In Finnish they are called ‘revontulet’, which means ‘fox fires’, a name derived from an ancient fable of the arctic fox starting fires or spraying up snow with its brush-like tail. No matter that in English ‘foxfire’ is a luminescent glow emitted by certain types of fungi growing on rotten wood.”

    I’d forgotten that item about the fungi, so thanks for the neat story, Dave!

    http://www.marja-leena-rathje.info/archives/aurora_borealis.php

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  2. Cool! Then there’s Mozilla Firefox, the web browser (and the one I happen to prefer), and the Foxfire collections of Appalachian lore from Rabun, Georgia…

    In English, bioluminescent fungi are sometimes also called fairy lights and will o’ the wisp.

    I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who frequently has to search my own blog to find out what I know.

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  3. I wonder how the fungi came to be known as foxfire? Do you know?

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  4. The Online Etymological Dictionary doesn’t have an entry, but I suspect that “foxfire” derives simply from the noctural habits of foxes. There was probably some belief that they used the lights to find their way in the forest at night, and/or that the lights resembled the eyes of a nocturnal animal caught in a light of a torch/flashlight.

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  5. I had not heard of foxfire in this context before. How very cool it must be to see bioluminescent fungi. I could easily imagine wanting their luminescence to light the room.

    The lines of the poem at the end reminded me of this from Ginsberg’s Howl:

    who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations
    which in the yellow morning were stanzas of
    gibberish

    A shame really that the light (or enlightenment) does not linger.

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  6. Hi robin, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Don’t you have foxfire in the Pacific northwest? Bioluminescent fungi are found world-wide.

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  7. how enchanting! this is something i’ve never known. (add it to the thousands of others) :)
    i love what you’ve written, dave.

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  8. Your guesses sound reasonable. I’d add that I wonder about the definition (from my Oxford English Dictionary) of “fox” as “intoxicate, make drunk, befuddle” — either in the sense that they are intoxicants or toxic, or like fairy lights and will o’ the wisps, they are befuddling or misleading, tricky.

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  9. Thanks, Anne.

    MB – I forgot about the reputation of the fox as a trickster — that must be part of it, too.

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  10. If you scatter them around your house, they might set spore… and start eating your house! They are wood-decay fungi, after all. Cool writing, though.

    I haven’t seen foxfire, but even here in Queens, NYC, I’ve seen the occasional confused firefly flying above the sidewalks. Poor guys, those streetlights must be so *intimidating*! :-)

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  11. Well, if I could innoculate the board-and-batten siding with the commoner foxfire fungus, Armillaria — the one whose mycelia glow — i could potentially make my entire house glow in the dark! That would be pretty nifty for Halloween.

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  12. Just stopped by, attracted as I was by the dim phosphor glow, spookier and more enticing than the glow from these pixels…

    And wow — because of that glow, I learned more about fungi while absorbing moonlit poem fragments! Thanks for sharing this (and your wonderful buggy posts), Dave.

    Reply

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