Paths of infection

trail

In a few more years, the path in this picture will be two centuries old. That’s fifty years older than any of the buildings in the hollow. They’re the healed remains of the roads the colliers built when they first clearcut the mountain, with results that must have been catastrophic for the hollow: floods, fire, massive loss of topsoil. But now, chances are if you come to visit in any other season than winter, our moss-covered trails are one of the things you’ll most remember about the place. They’re beautiful. In spring and summer, before the leaves fall and turn every step into a loud whisper, it’s possible to stalk through the forest as quietly as a burglar.

I always confuse the path with the destination. Don’t you? I start out intending to go somewhere, but then something catches my eye and I slow down for a closer look. Then I notice more. An hour hour later, I’ve only made it half a mile from the house.

laurel leaf

Nothing draws the attention quite like someone or something with a disfiguring disease. Whatever is decimating the mountain laurel here begins with colorful eyespots: brown rimmed with red and yellow, like targets in reverse. With certain kinds of sickness, yes — the leading edge of infection is marked by unnatural brightness. That fever glow.

rash

I found a black gum tree with a bad case of warts. Each wart is a hermit’s cell for an Eriophyid mite, a microscopic, two-legged relative of spiders. It goes through a mere two larval instars, and manages to have sex while maintaining its immaculate separation from others of its kind:

Mites do not mate with each other; sacs that the male leaves lying around on the leaf surface fertilize the female as she walks around.

Freedom from sexual contact can be liberating. Some species of Eriophyid mites alternate all-male generations with all-female generations. Very little is known about them beyond these basic facts. Some 90 percent of Eriophyidae have yet to be named and classified by taxonomists, so I suppose chances are good that this is one of them.

For the tree, the galls aren’t the sickness, they’re the treatment. The tree would say, with some justification, that each mite is walled in to keep it from spreading. But the mite, like thousands of other gall-making arthropods, is in fact practicing a kind of ju-jitsu, using the tree’s defenses against itself. The feeding chambers are not only ideal for solitary contemplation, if such be the bipedal mite’s inclination, but keep out most predators, as well.

After they attain adulthood, the Eriophyidae abandon their chambers. This is the time when accidental sex may occur. Many of them also take to the wind and float for miles, like the Daoist sages of legend. Some of them, no doubt, end up in my lungs.

bear tree

This black gum bears the scars of somewhat larger animals — bears and humans. When I painted a trail blaze on it seven years ago, I can’t remember seeing the other marks there, but judging from the depth of scar tissue, bears have been carving up this tree for some time. Though they much prefer electric and telephone poles to communicate their “Kilroy was here”-type messages to other bears, any conspicuous tree, living or dead, will do. For hikers, this is a useful reminder that they aren’t the only ones using the trails. For bears, it is perhaps a gratifying reminder of the fact that our paint marks are no match for their claw marks. Bears often destroy human-made things left in the woods — it’s as if they regard us as some kind of enemy.

For the tree, unless and until the trunk is completely girdled, none of this is a real impediment to continued growth and prosperity. Black gum trees are masters at walling off wounds with thick scar tissue. They almost all rot out at an early age, making them impossible to date by ring counts. But the outer shell of a mature black gum is hard as iron.

charred

White pines fight disease with tars, which can sometimes keep them standing after death for as long or longer than they stood as living trees. A century after the forest fire, a short-lived path that the flames took up the trunk of a pine tree is still marked with charcoal and a livid blaze.

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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).

7 Comments


  1. Bears often destroy human-made things left in the woods —

    Boy, do they. You remind me of the absolutely lovely meadow on the slope of a mountain about a half-mile from our house where my ex and I built a gorgeous stone-lined firepit and put up a tent for close-to-home mini-breaks from civilization.

    The first time we visited it, I think 3 days after we’d made it, the entire tent was shredded into fine ribbons and scattered about the clearing in a way that must have taken methodical hours: hundreds of perfectly neat, even ribbons. Also, the firepit was dug out (and apparently rolled in, since the grass at the edges was pushed back into it), and each stone hurled toward the woods.

    We got the message, and left the clearing to the bears.

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  2. Wow. Yeah, I’ve seen hunter’s blinds given something like that kind of treatment, but that sounds like an unusually adamant bear!

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  3. It’s always wonderful to read the depth of your knowledge of the woods. And I know exactly what you mean about starting out a walk in a place rich with life, only to slow down to a standstill, overwhelmed by all the little live things. I miss that way of looking at a place and having the opportunity to see things wild. You just can’t find it in places completely overrun and built over by humans. One of the extremely frustrating things about Japan is that no matter where you go you have people’s eyes watching you. As a foreigner, trying to walking in the rice fields peering at insects is always uncomfortable because of all the strange looks you get. I need to be ALONE to do those walks, not be on display!

    I love the mountains in Japan, but getting there takes so much time and work. There’s something whole about stepping out of your door and going for a long morning stroll without having to make an expedition there.

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  4. That is a beautiful forest. This past month, I had a visit to another moss covered forest on Vancouver Island – although the path was “new” and not moss covered, the trees were mostly 300 years old due to a fire (the oldest being 800 years old). The pockets of these Old Growth forest are just 1km loops on the side of the highway. It upsets me to think of all the logging that is going on around these pockets old growth. I was hoping for a lengthy trail through the forest.

    You can see one of my pictures in my post as of today:
    http://dialogueswithsilence.wordpress.com/2008/07/04/dreaming-house/

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  5. miguel – Yes, foreigners are always on display in Japan, aren’t they? I can understand why that might be a major impediment to taking, for example, the kind of pictures that Paula of Paula’s House of Toast takes along the Charles River in the Boston suburbs. I hope you can find a place soon where uninhibited nature photography can happen. Your eye and your command of the camera are extraordinary, and if you can’t put them to use on a regular basis, that’s a loss for all of us.

    Avery – Thanks for the link to that post. Yeah, nobody does moss like a temperate rain forest! I have fond memories of visiting the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island as a kid. Here, moss rarely goes higher than one foot up the trunk of the tree. On the other hand, we have to live here, so I’m just as glad it doesn’t rain all the time. It’s impressive to see how quickly the moss comes back to life after a prolonged drought.

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  6. thanks for taking us along with you on this walk, i love the details you notice and the amount you know about what you notice!

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