Father’s Day dawned clear and cool. After making an appointment with my dad to cut his hair later in the morning, I took my camera for a walk. Along the Road to the Far Field, in one of the large clearings created by the icestorm of 2005, I surprised a chipmunk next to a fruiting red elderberry bush. It froze when I hove into view, and the bright sun might’ve helped dazzle it a little as I inched closer for a clear shot through the brambles. Ecologists who study the effects of deer on forest health consider red elderberry a good indicator of low browse pressure, and we’ve been happy to watch its spread through moister portions of the property in recent years, thanks to the abundant patience and excellent marksmanship of our hunter friends. As this photo graphically demonstrates, lower deer numbers are good news not just for plants, but for other animals, too.
I made my way to the thicket below the Far Field, where I knew the dense carpet of mayapples would be entering their autumn now as their fruits approached maturity. First they break out in a rash of yellow spots. Then larger areas of brown appear around their edges, turning them thin and brittle as old newspaper.
A few paces into the woods, in a patch of shade too dark to permit a decent photo without a tripod, I found a dense network of slime on the ground, as if a snail had been trying to weave a spider web. Then as I circled the field on a path I’d mowed just a few days earlier, I found two orange and olive tentacles poking out of the ground, foul-smelling and rubbery to the touch, about four inches long and half an inch in diameter at the base. They were in bright sunlight, but still I managed to screw up and didn’t get a single clear photo.
This was the best I could do. It reminded me of a web comic I’d seen recently, in which an apparently fortuitous discovery has unpleasant repercussions. They turned out to be stinkhorns of the Mutinus genus, which lack the bulbous heads of their Phallus cousins: probably Mutinus elegans.
Many of the metaphors we use to try and come to grips with the inherent weirdness of nature aren’t terribly accurate, but the association of stinkhorns with human sex organs is right on target. In Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: the Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists, author Nicholas P. Money writes,
Most of the volume of the erect fruiting body is air. But mechanically speaking, the stinkhorn is comparable with the mammalian penis because both erections are maintained by pressurized fluid rather than a column of solid tissue. The penis contains flattened reservoirs that become engorged with blood, while the tissue of the stinkhorn receptacle is built to tear apart to make a honeycomb supported by pressurized water within its hyphae.
One major difference, of course, is that mammalian erections don’t bulge with fertile spores or smell like rotting corpses, and aren’t designed to be eaten by flies and slugs, which will plant the seeds of a new generation of stinkhorns in their excrement.
That wasn’t the only place where bizarre reproductive rituals were taking place. All along the top edge of the field, the 17-year cicadas were singing and flying, clicking and crawling through the scrubby locust trees — appropriately enough, given their alternate common name, “17-year locusts.” I shot a video and posted it to the Plummer’s Hollow site, in an entry headlined “Cicada courtship in full swing.” I like the way biologists persist in referring to mating behavior as courtship: such an old-fashioned word, conjuring up visions of hay rides, shucking bees, and minuets in the parlor.
I was surprised to see several male ebony jewelwing damselflies on the ridgetop, half a mile at least from the nearest stream. They were, however, engaged in classic jewelwing flit-and-pause behavior. I like the video not just for the jewelwing — which is out-of-focus part of the time — but the soundtrack, which features a wood thrush, a scarlet tanager, a pileated woodpecker, chipmunks, and a train whistle, all set against a background surf of cicadas. (This was a couple hundred yards in from the edge of the field.)
In Indian musical theory, I’m told, the drone note symbolizes the inescapable horizon. Over the past week, the cicada chorus has contributed an almost constant, high-pitched drone as a backdrop to other elements of the soundscape. And from my front porch, first thing in the morning, that drone does literally emanate from the eastern horizon: the crest of Laurel Ridge, where the sun first strikes. By mid-morning, though, the cicada choruses become more dispersed.
Speaking of Laurel Ridge, the mountain laurel was at its height of bloom yesterday, meaning that no more blossoms remained in bud — and that the earliest blossoms were already on the ground. As decimated as the laurel has been by winter-kill and diseases over the past six or seven years, we didn’t expect to see the woods turned white with their blossoms ever again, but this year comes close to the way it used to be every other year, back in the 90s and before. 2008 has been a remarkable year for flowering shrubs and trees of every description, from shadbush and red maple to wild azalea and tulip poplar.
When I got back to the house, I dug out my barber’s kit, we found an old sheet, and I had Dad sit on the veranda for his haircut. He’s slowly healing from surgery to remove a tumor on his lower spine last month, which involved slicing into the dura mater and coming right up against a cluster of nerves. Enough pain and numbness remain to make a trip to the barbershop seem like a daunting prospect.
The hair was thin and didn’t take long to cut — a scattering of tufts on the concrete floor. A half hour later, when Dad came out on the veranda again for some reason, he saw them there and couldn’t figure out what they were for a second. “That can’t be my hair!” he said. It had been silver for what seemed like forever, I guess, but now it was undeniably white, as white as snow. In a morning full of surprises, the passing of time was still the most surprising thing of all. I’m sure the 17-year cicadas would agree.