Environment, life, Plants and Herbs

Sharks’ Eyes and Poison Orange

Some parts of DC are weird.

I mean, some parts of everywhere are weird, don’t get me wrong. Where I grew up, our favorite activity was spelunking in the sewers (I found a stray femur and was almost eaten by geese). When I lived in Delaware, it took me a bit to get used to the way the landscape was broken up — apartment complex, forest, strip mall, pasture, wetlands, wetlands, wetlands, city. In California, the neighborhood was a very tiny island in the middle of fields and pastures. Sometimes, you’d wake up and see all of the puddles shimmering strangely with whatever the crop dusters were spraying the day before. At night, even without seeing any cows for miles, you’d hear their eldritch moos as if they were right in the yard. The songs of coyotes carried for untold distances. Uncanny-valley strangers would come and knock on your door, ask to borrow things, and disappear. It had a very Southern Gothic atmosphere, especially for a place that was emphatically neither.

DC is weird in its own way. I love it here, and there are some extremely cool places and people. The architecture is gorgeous, and you can find some very lovely Victorian-style houses and unexpected details. Still, there are plenty of other areas here that I try to avoid if there’s any way to help it.

This was one of those.

My partner and I were picking up food at this place we found at the beginning of COVID — a little pricey, but they’ve got the best damned catfish po’boy and blackberry shortcake I’ve ever had. (I’d drop the name, but the location is called four different things depending on whether you go there on foot, find it via Google Maps, read their bags, or try to order through a delivery app. Like I said, weird.)

It’s situated in an area that, not unlike the rest of the city, combines historical architecture with modern touches. The thing is, where other areas of DC seem to give the impression that this is done out of necessity, or to fulfill actual human needs, this seems almost malicious. Concrete angel faces stare mutely out over doorways to imposing office and municipal buildings, expressions framed in equally-stony olive branches. At street level, there are stores — jewelers, Nordstrom Rack, a seemingly impossible number of Starbucks cafés — with large, thoroughly modern plate glass windows with the dead, flat gleam of sharks’ eyes.

There’s something about it that strikes me as very calculated. There’s a cultivated air of diversity here, but the kind of diversity that wouldn’t welcome anything that wasn’t a high-end department store, a Starbucks, or an eatery capable of suiting a very narrowly defined sensibility. Some of it is very pretty, but stifling, almost.

On the sidewalks, people sit too close together at outdoor tables. A maskless couple walk by, pushing a leather-clad baby carriage that mommyblogs say could pay a month of my neighbors’ rent.

People live here, too, but everything feels aggressively tailored to those who work here instead. I don’t think they’re the same population. Thinking about it too much makes my teeth itch.

I need to get the fuck out of here,” I whisper-hiss to my partner, “Because I’ve got maybe ten minutes before this place turns me into an anprim.”

I wonder if this is how fireflies feel when you put them in a mason jar with a stick and a leaf.

Fortunately, getting elsewhere only takes about ten minutes. It might be a strange byproduct of this one self-hypnosis program I sort-of-kind-of-maybe did wrong a few years ago, but the sight of the color green makes my nerves finally start to unknot themselves.

We park and walk a ways. I know my food’s getting cold, but I don’t really care. I take big breaths — there’s smoke coming from somewhere, and it tinges the smell of soil, gently decaying leaves, and damp wood with an earthy sweetness.

We find a picnic table. I always eat fast, but today I manage to finish before my partner’s done unpacking.

“Okay! Gonna go climb on that tree and look for friends!”

He’s grown used to this. I think you kind of have to, after awhile — it’s something that seems pretty firmly baked-in to me. I’m told that when I was very little, maybe four, we had some kind of family function at a beach. My dad says he heard me walking around making tiny proclamations: “Anyone who wants to go find bentures, follow me!” (Then I disappeared into some trees for awhile and he had to peel me off of a sheer clay cliff face, but that’s another story.)

When I was dating one ex-partner, it was a near-constant bone of contention that he never wanted to go exploring with me. I ended up having a lot of adventures with my dog, including finding a broken wooden footbridge that led to nowhere, covered in graffiti that dated back to the ’40s. (I’m almost positive it was Extremely Haunted.)

After that, another ex-partner used to give me survival equipment for every holiday. They figured the odds were pretty good that I’d end up disappearing into the woods some day, and they wanted to hedge their bets on me coming back alive eventually.

In short, I think most of my loved ones throughout history have adapted to the idea of probably seeing me show up on the internet after being mistaken for some kind of pygmy sasquatch.

There’s so much moss. Damp and feathery, sporophytes reaching up on stalks like delicate red threads. I could probably photograph it all day, to be honest — the structures are so beautifully complex when you get close enough.

My partner comes to join me, so we can look for mushy boys.

Some type of Mycena builds a tiny cathedral in a fallen tree. I find another type growing from a separate tree, its cap an almost ghostly translucent white. It’s the only one there, and I don’t have the heart to touch it, see what color it bruises, or try to take a specimen for a spore print.

“Oh, hey,” my partner points to a dead stump. I make a kind of excited pterodactyl noise and get on my stomach for pictures. I haven’t seen jack-o-lantern mushrooms before, but their intense “fuck off” orange and fine, deeply-ridged gills are weirdly, poisonously beautiful.

I can see why they’re often mistaken for chanterelles, though it makes me wonder what came first. Did the chanterelle grow to resemble the false chanterelle and jack-o-lantern mushrooms because it kept it from being eaten, or was it a case of convergent evolution?

It strikes me with some irony that I feel better about poisonous mushrooms than I do about the “Welcome” sign in a shop. Warning orange is easier to look at than shark-eyed windows, I guess.

life

SHROOMWATCH 2020

October marks the best timing for one of my favorite hobbies: mushroom spotting.

(Not the fun ones. The regular ones.)

I usually have far more luck finding them in autumn than I do in spring or summer, so I was pretty excited when my partner and I drove out to Jug Bay to hike the trails around the wetlands. AND RIGHTLY SO.

Last time we went, I couldn’t walk as far as I’d’ve liked. This time, I was able to go a full 2.25 miles from the visitor’s center to… well, the visitor’s center, but the long way. (I’m also starting to get actual triceps, so all the recreational sledgehammer-swinging is paying off!)

The weather was absolutely perfect — sunny, breezy, and cool, with nary a cloud in the sky. We rarely saw another soul on the trails, but we had our masks so we could pull them on by the ear loopies any time we passed near anyone. Most of the trees were still green, though there were a few splashes of scarlet, saffron, and gold. Winterberries were abundant, lining the boardwalk beside the marsh with bright yellow-green leaves and shining red fruit. Asters, their white faces like miniature daisies, looked up from the side of the trail. Long, hanging stalks of goldenrod, bent under the weight of their blooms, and tall sunchokes seemed to catch and hold the light in their yellow flowers.

As we were walking along the trail, a butterfly fluttered up to say hello, made a loop around my legs, and passed back into the trees. It moved too fast to get a good look or a photo — judging by the color, I think it was either a red-spotted purple or a type of swallowtail. (And a late one, in either case!) I also spotted the most perfect spiderweb, threads intact and shimmering iridescently in the sunlight.

(Two crows hopped up on a parking sign in front of the car earlier that day, too, so this afternoon was just full of good omens!)

Turtles sunned themselves on logs, sleek heads occasionally poking up like curious periscopes. All around, you could hear the chorus of insects in the trees.

It was idyllic as fuck.

It wasn’t until we were close to the visitor’s center again that we spotted some mushy boys. Forest cryptid that I am, I got down on my knees and elbows on the trail, in the leaf litter, said a silent prayer to whatever deity’s in charge of urushiol, and crept as close as I could to get a few pictures. Identifying mushrooms is always dicey if you can’t check them for bruising, spore prints, and other signs that require more than a cursory examination, but they’re beautiful nonetheless!

(I believe the first is a kind of brittlegill, and the one at the top right is some type of gilled polypore. I’m not sure about the other two, but I really love the cream-and-brown one’s mossy home.)

I saw one mushroom that had been snapped off where it grew, so you could see its round butt and the little divot where it once sat nestled in the ground. Inside, the soil was lined with a silvery, cottony web of mycelium — the stuff that actually makes up the bulk of the fungus. I didn’t get a picture of it, but it was fascinating to see past the eye-catching fruiting bodies and into the “heart” of the mushroom.

We rounded the day off with crêpes from Coffy Café (I went with the Bootsy instead of my usual Mr. Steed — I think I might have a new favorite!), and a long, hot bath.

#nomakeup #justtheghostlypallorofmysunscreen

Idyllic.