On a bright and beautiful sunny afternoon in late July, I found myself relaxing on the outdoor deck as if it were made just for those euphoric days of summer. Such a lackadaisical state of mind unleashed my imagination, making it is easy to pursue creative thoughts and explore new mental vistas.
A tall Doug fir four feet in diameter towers a mere 50’ from the deck steps, but it is only a junior compared to the ridge top giants that once held sway directly across the narrow valley. For the first half of my thirty years here, I’d lived under their shadow, but in the other half they were emptied from the skyline by the ceaseless mowing machine of modern logging. I had communed many times to this silent cathedral of nature set atop an almost vertical climb, and after their demise I measured the stump of the one I knew to be the king; nine feet across and almost 400 growth rings [years] old.
However, one of these giants was not mechanically felled. During a winter Pacific storm when the wind measuring device at a nearby headland blew apart after measuring 153 mph, I could hear the wind screaming along the ridge top as it advanced from the ocean. I could hear it screaming, like a loud siren, as I anchored myself in the middle of the lawn, which acted as a clearing on the edge of the forest. From this vantage point I could keep an eye on all the trees and flying branches, avoiding being struck.
Giant trees bent over in a wave as the loud siren swept the ridge top, and as it reached the peak of old growth firs directly across the valley from me, one of the huge prominent giants exploded with a tremendous roar. As if charged with dynamite, the entire massive treetop disintegrated into flying debris that filled the skyline right before my unbelieving eyes!
But let’s return to that July afternoon on the deck with its stately fir tree in this forested place I like to call the “land of Christmas trees”. As I gazed from the deep blue sky to the vibrant green of this conifer swelling with unchecked midsummer growth, my eye caught the unmistakable twinkles of bright colors. It seems that the big fir tree is winking colors from prisms of sunlight beamed through the liquid sap of its new growth. The mastic pitch oozing from the freshly sprouted green cones and branch tips sparkled with red, green and amber.
From my vantage point I could easily observe a variety of colors emitting from these cone clusters and evergreen branches, and as I surveyed other surrounding fir trees, I could also discern prisms of color sparkling from their branches. The twinkling of refracted light is visible on rain soaked trees with sunlight streaming through as well, but that rainbow effect is much more fleeting and unpredictable than the more stationary prisms of cone resin.
I nonchalantly mused over this phenomenon and considered that far in the distant human past, perhaps this visual gelled the idea of bright tree ornamentation on conifers as an expression of festive celebrations. Or perhaps some other visual concepts sparked the idea of decorated evergreens as a celebratory garnishment.
* * * * * * *
Fast forward to a very late fall of cool and damp woods where prolific pockets of that fairy tale mushroom synonymous with elfin scenes and leprechauns have sprouted up. These fire engine red caps dotted with prominent white spots cluster under the conifers creating an idyllic sylvan setting. In a sporadic mix, six inch saucer size domes dominate over new sprouts that resemble erect tulip bulbs, all settled in the forest duff beneath the deep shade of fir trees.
Three different patches of these Amanita muscaria toadstools dot the forest floor surrounding my art studio/woodshop, and while cutting fir branches back away from the shop yard, I noticed one large mushroom cap out of place. Way out of place, as it was neatly balanced about six feet out on a branch ten feet from the ground. Odd as it appeared, a bright red cap high in a tree, an obvious assumption was that an overly zealous bird or squirrel had done the deed.
This was only the beginning; as I scanned other fir trees further up the hillside, I immediately spotted another Amanita in a very similar arrangement, neatly balanced on a 1-1/2” diameter branch high above my head. Exploring deeper into the forest, I found two more mushrooms in the trees, and in the nearby patches I found stems without caps, indicating the source of the air born mushrooms.
This nature induced decorating of evergreens began in mid-December, and now with one week before Christmas, I have discovered three more red, polka dotted caps placed in a deliberate fashion for a total of seven, with three in the same tree, and all found in a twenty five year old stand of Douglas Firs.
What Elfin creatures deliberately placed these fairytale mushroom caps way out on evergreen limbs?
My first suspects are the wood rats, bushy tailed wood rats to be exact, creatures with big round eyes and the tail of a squirrel. Mostly habituating in the wilds, the bushy tail is the notorious “pack rat” and is usually more mischievous than noxious, and not as reviled as their urban cousins. They build large nests of brush, both on the ground around stumps and fifty feet up in trees, and I have found both kinds in the surrounding woods.
Wild nature continually surprises, and these elvish antics raises even more questions. They must be ingesting some of the mushroom as they chew them off and cart them around. Amanita muscaria contains a powerful hallucinogenic toxin and one can only imagine what effect they might have on these wayward rodents. Evidently they are not storing them for food or they would be taken to their lairs, and given the nature of pack rats, they would also horde their treasures in their nests. To place the red caps on various scattered tree branches seems to be outside their normal behavior.
Maybe these forest dwellers have the same inclination to decorate their environment as humans do. Whatever this unusual fervor is based upon, I can’t help but correlate these mysterious nature events to our Christmas season and the decoration of evergreens.
What on earth?! Sylvan Mysteries