Saturday, February 25, 2012


It's been crazy dry here in northern California this winter. We had some promising rain early in the season and then high pressure systems wheeled around above us, pushing storms to the north or the south or the east, essentially anywhere but here. As a consequence, I haven't seen much fungi this winter, partly because there just wasn't enough moisture and partly because the lack of rain kept the fallen leaves from decomposing, leaving ankle deep piles of crisp, light leaves which, in turn, hid the mushrooms that did fruit. As I've walked through the woods I've occasionally seen withered old specimens uprooted in areas that have been disturbed by squirrels or other creatures rooting around for food.

However, the other day, as I walked through an area in Howath Park where children get pony rides on weekends, I noticed a large pile of horse manure with several mushrooms sprouting merrily out of it. Imagine my joy at finding mushrooms, any mushrooms! That they were fruiting in manure was an added bonus because it meant that I would be able to more easily identify them.

Most mushrooms are saprophytic. That is, they nourish themselves by growing on dead organic matter such as fallen trees, dead insects and animals, fallen leaves and excrement. In the process, the mushrooms decompose the material they feed on, providing what I like to think of as essential janitorial services for the forests and meadows that I walk in. Saprophytic mushrooms are often specialists, so if you find one in, say, horse manure, then it won't be too difficult to find out that you're looking at Panaeolus papilionaceus. Oh, and if you like learning new words then you'll be happy to know that mushrooms that feed on manure are coprophilous.

Disturbingly, during the research for this post I found that this is considered an edible mushroom. Uh, bon appétit?

The sketches were done with graphite, ink, watercolor, gouache, colored pencil on 8.5 x 11 inch Canson mi-teintes paper. The black circle at the top right is a spore print from one of the mushrooms, an essential identification aid.

More about the ways fungi nourish themselves:
The Royal Horticultural Society
The Hidden Forest

Especially the coprophilous varieties:

And about Panaeolus papilionaceus:
The Fungi of California


Monday, February 13, 2012

One woman's treasure...

Graphite, colored pencil on  8.5 x 11 Strathmore paper

I've loved to walk since I can remember. I love to put one foot in front of the other and propel myself into the known or the unknown. It's a simple act that we mostly never even think about. For many years illness has limited my ability to go walking, which has only made me appreciate it more. I'm thrilled when I can go to a park and walk even for just a half mile and ecstatic when it's one or two miles.  I've learned to appreciate every single walk I'm able to take, even when I can only go around the block.

Last Sunday I did just that early in the morning before the neighborhood was awake. I listened and watched as birds began to move about, looking for food and mates, not necessarily in that order. I noticed that the leaf buds on many trees were nearly ready to burst and that many lawns had been mowed. On one of those lawns I saw a pristine dead Roof rat (Rattus rattus) looking so natural that I hesitated before collecting her to take home, afraid she would leap up and take offense as I placed her into a bag. She didn't and I spent a couple of days sketching and admiring her.

I know I'm not really supposed to like rats. As I write this I'm listening to the rustlings of a family of them that we've been unsuccessfully trying to evict from the attic above my studio. As my work day is ending I can hear theirs beginning as they exit through the (not so) cunning trap door we put in to let them leave but keep them from getting back in. I really do admire their ability to adapt to adversity. They've traveled far from their original place on the planet, yet thrive and multiply. And multiply. Where once they lived high up in trees and foraged in fields and forests, many now live high up in our buildings and get a ready supply of food from our gardens, homes and refuse. These tiny creatures have caused us much bigger creatures an awful lot of grief for a very long time without even trying. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

Graphite, ink on 8.5 x 11 inch Stonehenge paper