Burned snag in post-wildfire forest

Fire-Loving Fungi

By Anne Haven McDonnell

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It’s an extreme sport: an open knife, a steep slope, irresistible mushrooms above you, and ground that keeps falling away.

 
On my first walk in the morning, I find them. First I spot the tents, then a van with a rear dent near an All is One sticker, and then four people, two with dreadlocks, all with dirty blackened fingers, and all carrying five-gallon buckets with holes drilled into them. They look up when I stop.   

“Are you with the mycological society?” I say, feeling shy.

They smile warmly. “Did Larry tell you to meet here?” one asks.

We all laugh at the scant directions by text that brought us to this campground at the convergence of the Yaak and Kootenay Rivers in northern Montana. Larry Evans is a mycologist from Missoula who organized this gathering of the Western Montana Mycological Society. Every summer for the past 30 years, Larry has been hiking somewhere through a burned forest to forage for morel mushrooms. Larry is not yet here, so we plan to meet up later and caravan to the burn site.

The dirt road switchbacks up the steep side of the mountain as we enter the burn. Trucks are parked at regular intervals along the shoulder where pickers have headed up the steep slopes. I follow the van with three young pickers, Oscar and Nate, both lean and fit with dreadlocks, and Ryan, a strong young woman who drove from Arkansas to pick morels. Next to the All is One sticker on her bumper, I notice another sticker as we follow them up the road: Chin up, tits out.

When we get to the top of the burn, we make a time to rendezvous back at the cars. Oscar carries his bucket by a handle reinforced by rope and duct tape, evidence of the heft of morels he’s been finding. “Happy picking,” he says, heading up the road, his bucket swinging at his side. The holes in the plastic bucket keep air flowing to the mushrooms, helping to keep them fresh, and the holes also allow spores to drop and scatter along the forest floor, spreading the possibility of more mycelium and more morels wherever the bucket travels.

I scramble up a steep bank and sit on the ground to take in this place. The forest floor is black. Jagged stumps of char, burned to a shellacked shell, glisten with mist. It’s been raining for days, and everything is soaked, including the steep slopes of burned soil that slip and give way under each footstep. Every tree trunk is ringed black, but I look up and see that many of the trees are still alive, towering hundreds of feet up with green branches. Western cedar, Douglas-fir, and Western larch—it doesn’t seem to matter the species—about half are burned to blackened trunks and half survived, scarred by fire. In some stretches, the ground is nothing but black charcoal rubble. But in others pockets, life sprouts lime green against the black. Lupine, fairy-slipper orchids, and tufts of grass rise between chunks of charcoal and fallen brown cedar needles. I squat and scoop some soil with my finger. The char is about an inch thick. In the mega-drought of the Southwest, the fires I’ve encountered have felt apocalyptic, every sign of life burnt to an eerie silence. But this fire feels healthy, with signs of renewal everywhere.

A big morel
A large morel rises from the charred ground.
Photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.
Hunting for mushrooms is one of my favorite trance-inducing, land-communing, spell-enticing activities, and as I start meandering through burned trees and filtering images on the ground, I am in a favorite home. My animal body takes the lead, tracking patterns of shade and sun, of charred ground and new shoots, and as is often the case, when I squat to pee, I find mushrooms. Where my eyes saw ground, morels appear as if they have just popped up through duff. Most of the morels in the burn zone are referred to as “blacks,” and their blackened honeycombed tops blend perfectly with charred ground, charred pine needles, and burnt cones. They look like the burned ground congealed itself into a conical, intricate shape rising like a sea sponge out of the forest floor.

I examine the first ones I find closely, inhaling their musky earth-sex scent and brushing the dirt and pine needles with the bristles on the butt end of my mushroom knife. Morels are intimate, naked and rubbery, and as I pick them, I feel I am harvesting small beings of the forest.

Once I find mushrooms, I look up slope and down. Sometimes there is a river of morels meandering up or down the slope from where I find them. Rain carries spores downslope, so they often fruit in seams on steep slopes like this. In one spot, I see them in all directions. I spin around, trying to memorize where they hide under fallen alder or tucked along the sides of rocks. When I look away, I have to find them all over again, training my eyes slowly across the ground where they blend in perfectly. As I hike up, I grab a charred trunk to help my balance on the steep slope. The soft, spongy charcoal gives way under my hand, and I realize the burned snag is fragile and not to be relied upon. I close the blade of my knife as I struggle up slope; the soft rain-filled burned ground sloughs and slips beneath my feet. It’s an extreme sport: an open knife, a steep slope, irresistible mushrooms above you, and ground that keeps falling away.

The early summer air is filled with cottonwood fluff. I wipe silky threads and feathery bits off the caps of morels before dropping them in my mesh shoulder bag. Several of the morels I pick have one or two bright green dots lodged on their sides. Later, I learn these green dots are tiny cottonwood seedlings that have rooted in the body of the mushroom. The body of the mushroom tangles the cottonwood seeds, and as the mushroom decays and melts back to soil, it nourishes the tiny seedling that has taken hold in its creases.

When everyone is half-engaged with some menial chore, especially tending to or harvesting from the natural world, the social pressure valve sighs and releases.

Back at the campground, the WMMA banner is up across a campsite with a friendly sign: Want to learn about mushrooms? Join us! Everyone is gathered around a campfire, and Larry Evans is barefoot, tossing fresh morels, dipped in egg batter and flour, into a hot, buttered cast iron skillet. He walks through the crowd, offering morel fritters to everyone. I take one, and the taste is rare and delicious, meaty and with a dark earthy umami flavor. I understand why morels are so sought after.

The three young professional pickers—Oscar, Nate, and Ryan—are gathered around the back of Larry’s station wagon, emptying the bounty in their buckets into plastic mesh crates. Larry weighs each one, and pays $20 per pound for these. At home, he’ll contact one of the middlemen he knows in Iowa and ship them off for a modest profit before they are again sold to grocery stores and high-end restaurants. I can’t help but notice that Oscar, once again, has found the biggest bounty. And all his morels are big, dirt-free, and sliced carefully at the base. Oscar has an easy open smile that he tosses effortlessly towards anyone. Before coming to pick morels, Oscar was working in Jamaica, helping local people to grow protein-rich oyster mushrooms with low-tech, cheap, and accessible equipment.

The mood around the fire is loose and celebratory. Everyone is feasting on morels and other dishes laid out on the picnic table. A couple cooks sausages over the fire and the mother tears of chunks of meat to feed their naked toddler, who is poking the fire with a long stick.

The post-fire forest
The post-fire Montana forest.
Photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.
Who needs camo and a gun to hunt for mushrooms? Apparently this man, who cracks a branch with his boot, and I look up to see him traversing the slope of the burn in my direction. “Hey there!” I call out to make my presence known.

“How ya doin’?” he calls. I’m relieved he’s friendly.

“Are you finding much?” I ask.

“Lots of little ones,” he says, looking forlornly at the bottom of his bucket.

I look at the pistol, holstered on his hip. He tells me he’s heard there’s a “crew of Mexicans” picking this burn, that they’ve gotten all the big morels, and you have to go up the tangled steepest slopes to find good ones. I listen, nod, wonder about the connection between the camo, the gun, and his assumption about “Mexican” pickers getting the good mushrooms.

He looks at my mesh bag, bulging with mushrooms, slung across my right shoulder. “You’re doing better than me,” he says.

I shrug, smile, say, “Have fun picking.”

“You too,” he says. “Take care.”

When he walks away, I drop to my knees. Just in front of where we were talking, tucked under a burned cedar trunk, there is a cluster of huge blond morels. I slice them at the base, drop them quickly into my bag before getting up to continue my walk. If I had met this man with his camo and gun alone on a city street, I would have ducked around some corner. If I had seen him at a Trump rally, I’d have cursed him under my breath and walked away. We are all here for mushrooms, and wandering along through the woods, we encounter each other on some kind of soft, common ground.

This unexpected bridge reminds me of my theory of triangles. My favorite way to spend time with friends or strangers is when we are all focusing on something else. There is another geometric point to create stability and flow. When everyone is half-engaged with some menial chore, especially tending to or harvesting from the natural world, the social pressure valve sighs and releases. Space opens between us for with ease and comradery, human animal to human animal.

In my late 20s, I lived on a remote island in British Columbia doing a farm internship. The program was run by an extremely quiet and socially awkward man named David. A question like How are you? proved too much, the glint in his eyes almost a smile, his head gently shaking as he looked towards the ground. Sometimes he took a deep breath, as if to ready himself for language, but then he’d sigh and let silence fall again and stare off towards the feathered tops of hemlocks or the chickens clucking in the mud. The day words came rivering out of him, he was hidden behind a raspberry hedge. We were kneeling on the ground with yogurt containers tied with orange baling twine around our necks, reaching in the tangled branches for the ripe red berries, wet with dew and lit by sun. We popped many berries—bright acid, sweet—into our mouths, and dropped others into the buckets. Was it the ripe heaviness in the berries, swollen and loosening around their cores? Was it the beaver slapping the lake’s surface with her fat tail, or the herons croaking and adjusting their folded wings high in the rookery? I don’t remember what he talked about. What I remember was his voice like water, all of us listening and laughing and drinking in the stories that washed out of him while we were all busy picking berries. There was no eye contact to meet or shy from. Eyes were threaded through branches, fingers were busy gently pulling fruit.

A burned slope
A burned slope hides morels.
Photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.
Several species in the genus Morchella (morels) are one type of what mycologists call “pyrophilic fungi,” or “fire loving,” because they depend on fire to fruit. Since mycelia connect and nourish the above ground forest, and since fungi are one of the first signs of life after fire, I wonder what role fungi are playing in the forest’s recovery. I put the question to the mycologist/ ecologist Tom Bruns, who studies fungal diversity in research sites in California outside of Yosemite. In 2013, the Rim Fire burned through some of their study sites, offering a unique opportunity to observe the fungi before and after fire.

“Most of what we find after fire are fungi that colonize well by spore,” Tom says. Like seed banks, spores of some fungi can survive for decades in dormancy in spore banks, buried pockets under snowbanks or deep in the soil that hold spores that survive the hot fires and grow and fruit after fires. “It looks like spores can remain in dormancy for possibly decades before activating,” Tom explains.

Most of these fungi are saprobes, or fungi that feed off of dead plant material. One common post-fire pyrophilic fungi are in the genus Pyronema, one of the ascomycetes or “cup fungi.” Morels are one type of cup fungi, with their convoluted bodies full of spore-producing ridges and cups. “They’re breaking down stuff in the soil, and we’re not exactly sure what,” Tom explains, pointing to yet another one of the raw mysteries that pervade the science of fungi.

 

One of the things they seem to be breaking down is the charcoal left in the wake of fire. A colleague of Tom Bruns, Dr. Monika Fischer, has taken up where Tom Bruns’s team left off. When Fischer decided to focus study on post-fire fungi, she searched every corner of the internet to see what research had already been done. “It’s scary to realize how little research there was to stand on. There’s not much known about post-fire fungi,” Fischer explains.

Wildfires release much of the carbon held in soil into the atmosphere, but some carbon remains held in charcoal. The complex structure of charcoal is hard for plants to access. The first signs of life are Pyronema fungi, which can break down these complex structures. Fischer and colleagues set up lab experiments and found that indeed, Pyronema could grow by eating charcoal and certain metabolic genes in Pyronema were turned on that indicated they were breaking down the complex structure of charcoal. Though it’s still early in the research process, this seems to point to Pyronema as a key early organism that helps regeneration after fire.

In an interview on the Mushroom Revival podcast, Fischer explains, “My personal feeling is that fungi play an important role in these early post-fire ecosystems to liberate a lot of nutrients from this pile of charcoal and ash that is otherwise inhospitable to organisms that are going to come later. Fungi can help make it more hospitable for other organisms. After fire, Pyronema grows quickly in high abundance, and we’ve shown it can break down pyrolized organic material (charcoal), and then it disappears quickly. I love the hypothesis that Pyronema is gifting its body to the organisms that come later. All of that biomass is easy food for any organism that will come after. It can help feed the next iteration of organisms.”

Fungi can also help to aggregate and stabilize soils that are prone to erosion after fire. Mycelial networks are made of threads of tiny hyphae that help to bind and keep soil aggregates in place. A recent paper published in ScienceDirect by mycologists Cathy Cripps and Olivia Filialuna describes a study of three different pyrophilic fungi, including morels and Pyronema and Geopyxis carbonaria. All were shown to help aggregate and stabilize soils.

Tom Bruns mentions another way that fungi might help in this post-fire system. After a severe wildfire, the waxy oils and lipids present in needles and leaves often melt and create a waxy “hydrophobic” layer just under the surface. Water runs along this hydrophobic layer, breaks through, and creates gulleys, inviting severe erosion. Fungi might be involved in breaking down this layer, which allows water to penetrate soils and helps prevent severe erosion.

While Fischer acknowledges the devastation, trauma, and heartbreak wildfire brings, she also sees beauty, resilience, and exciting regeneration with fungi ecology after forest fires. With record heat and drought due to the accelerating climate crisis, 2020 also set wildfire records with more than four million acres burned in California alone. Fischer decided to go out into different California ecosystems after fires that had burned at different intensities to see what kind of fungi might emerge. In all these areas, Fischer found the same fungi coming up. “They’re so bright and colorful and cheerful coming up at the same times after rain. As soon as there’s enough moisture, they go for it,” she says. And Fischer can’t help but notice the bright yellows and pinks and browns of these little cup fungi echo the colors of fire.

Even in this mosaic of burn, there is an ongoing conversation I am grateful to enter.

Several days after the WMMA group disperses, I come back from a few days of exploring northern Montana for an interview with Larry Evans. Before I drive to Larry’s house in Missoula, I take the detour for one more hike through the burn zone. I remember a little dirt spur road, blocked by a metal gate, at the edge of the burn. I wonder if there are areas of the burn that haven’t been explored.

After a mile or two down the dirt road, I step into the forest and cross a threshold. Like entering the doorway of a temple, a hush sifts down from cedar branches, the air softly charged and alive, and the squirrely restless part of my brain sighs and curls up under duff. My senses prick awake and open, taking in patterns of light and shade, burn and green, fallen alder branches, a far-off spiral ring of a Swainson’s thrush, and then a varied thrush calls in her high electric-emanating-from-everywhere ring like the strum on the forest’s nervous system. Even in this mosaic of burn, there is an ongoing conversation I am grateful to enter.

There are no boot prints in the charred soil of these slopes. All the pickers have stayed close to the main paved road. I climb up an area with a layer of pale green larch needles blanketing charred ground. My eyes scan upslope, and suddenly: fat blond morels leaning in different directions, clumped together in little clusters appear everywhere. This is what they must call the motherload. I leave the small ones and fill my mesh shoulder bag with big morels in less than an hour. I’ll keep this bag in my little camper fridge so they’ll stay fresh for my trip back to Colorado for my mother’s 80th birthday dinner in a few days.

Bag of morels
A good haul: the author’s bag of morels.
Photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.
Larry is barefoot in his backyard, spreading out morels to dry on a screens propped up by plastic buckets. He wears his usual attire of long shorts, a tie-dye t-shirt, and those bare feet that look like animals in their natural habitat. His long white hair is separated into two thin braids that almost touch his shoulders. Larry is lean and muscled, and he moves with the grace of someone fully inhabiting his body. On either side of the path in the backyard, there are tangles of food—Jeruselum artichokes near the fence and purple leaves of orach, a wild cousin to spinach that Larry has planted as a cover crop in between some tomatoes, basil, and other vegetables.

“You wanna see the office?” he asks, swinging his head towards the garage as he carries two buckets of morels and invites me to follow. The office is a corner of the garage with buckets, bags of dried morels, scales for weighing fresh mushrooms, two big refrigerators to keep mushrooms fresh, cardboard boxes, and a phone/fax machine to talk to the buyers Larry sells and ships to.

Larry is passionate about all things fungi. Besides his morel mania and his foraging expertise, he has spent decades studying the ecology of fungi in western Montane forests, especially those near his home in Missoula. Larry explains that these northern coniferous forests are among the most important and efficient carbon sinks. The local mycorrhizal mushrooms (fungi that partner with roots of plants) pull nitrogen and phosphorus from forest debris, help make it available to plants, and leave behind reduced carbon, sequestering that carbon for the long term.

Some wood-decaying fungi in these northern forests digest cellulose and leave behind lignin in the form of brown cuboidal rot, or BCR. Most of the water that is held in northern coniferous forest soils is stored in spongy BCR. Larry is advocating forest practices like chipping and burying dead logs that allow fungi to digest and store water and carbon rather than burning dead wood and sending carbon into the atmosphere, adding to climate unraveling and depleting the soils of their banks of carbon and water. Understanding more about fungi’s relationship to soils and forests could help not only with restoration and recovery after fire, but might help with fire mitigation practices, as well. By partnering with fungi and chipping and burying dead trees rather than burning them (“metabolize instead of volatilize,” Larry explains), we could help Western montane soils retain more BCR, more moisture, and more carbon for the long term.

Morels, burnt log, and pine cone.
Morels among a burnt branch and pine cone.
Photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.
I drive south from Montana through northern Colorado towards the Fraser Valley, where my mother has a cabin. Winding through a river valley, the steep mountainsides abruptly go from green to charred ground with ghostly white snags reaching their dead arms skyward. This is the path of last year’s Troublesome Fire in Colorado, which roared through these high mountains, burning over 6,000 acres per hour, crossing the Continental Divide and burning 30,000 acres of Rocky Mountain National Park. In the record-breaking wildfire year of 2020, over 600,000 acres burned in Colorado, and ten million acres burned in the U.S. On both sides of the road, whole mountainsides of charred ground and ash-white snags. With climate change and decades of fire suppression, many fires in drought-stricken places have become megafires, burning all vegetation and incinerating down deeper into the soil. In the megadrought areas of the Southwest, with temperatures continuing to rise, forests that burn in high-intensity climate-change fires may never return. This Troublesome burn feels nothing like the mosaic burns of Montana, which burned at lower intensity, leaving living trees and refugia banks of seeds and spores. This whole area is ash, charcoal, and grey silence. I wonder what will recover here and on what time frame.

 

Maybe it’s my Irish ancestry. Or maybe it’s my poet tendencies. Or maybe it’s some personality quirk or flaw or some coping mechanism. Whatever the case, I like to cry as much as I like to laugh. I trust that grief, however painful, is also a nourishing rain inside my chest, making me more permeable to beauty, to life that is still here. So I drove north to this fire site in Montana with an idea I might lean closer to the amorphous grief of climate change. I thought I might be able to walk through charred ground and weep, to feel the literal and metaphoric devastation of the living world in order to turn towards it, to ask this grief how to love, how to survive, and how to live. I thought fungi might teach me something about the threshold, about the ways death feeds and nourishes life. I thought I might glimpse some hope in the invisible threads and cycles that move in time scales beyond human breath.  

What I found in that Montana mountainside scorched by fire was not what I expected. The fire in the steep mountains of northern Montana was a mosaic of fingers of burn interspersed with patches of healthy forest. Even in the burned sections, life was sprouting from refugia under boulders, tucked in ravines, taking hold in the fleshy bodies of morel mushrooms. Even in the Troublesome Fire in Colorado, regeneration of some kind will come with time.

We tend, or I should say, I tend to imagine apocalypse as some incineration and finality, and for some places and creatures, it is this devastation. But this time of climate unraveling is also a mosaic with life looking for opportunities and refugia to hide out in, to wait, to move, and with a little water and nourishment, to emerge. In some ecosystems, fire is opportunity. As much as the burn was a site of loss and destruction, it was also a site of miraculous regeneration, of tenacious beauty, of the ability to wait long periods in dormancy for ways to emerge. Fungi thread and usher the threshold between life and death. They emerge after fire to offer their bodies to the next generation. They start the cascade of life making more life.

I spread the bounty of morels on the kitchen counter to prepare my mother’s birthday feast. Tomorrow, I’ll carry her pack and we’ll set up tents in a high alpine meadow that she has visited long enough to remember when it was a necklace of beaver ponds. My mother’s death haunts me, even while she is still with me. I already can feel my disorientation without her being in this world. But tonight, we celebrate together with plates of grilled wild salmon and salad and a heap of morels sauteed in butter and garlic. There’s a lot of humming as we close our eyes and taste the mushrooms. They taste like meat made of earth and fire and water. They taste wild and complex. They taste musky and secret, like a distillation at the passageway between life and death.

There’s a lot of humming as we close our eyes and taste the mushrooms.

I had a dream recently that woke me up in the middle of the night. A cacophony of coyotes, overlapping wild yelps and cries, went through the dark, through my window, and straight into my brain. These real-life coyote cries were simultaneous with a dream-vision that I felt viscerally as much as I could see the image of landscape I was moving over. The land was black and burned, but against the black, there were fissures and leaves and threads of bright, deep green. In my dream body and mind, I felt the landscape simultaneously as charred and dead and vibrating with life sprouting and beginning. It was beautiful and mysterious and smeared in the wildness of those coyote voices. It was wildness and I was inside it.

 

 

This is the fifth of 13 contributions to the Lookout: Writing + Art About Wildfires series, in partnership with the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word at Oregon State University. The series runs from mid-May through mid-July, 2022, the traditional height of wildfire season in the Western United States.

 

Anne Haven McDonnellAnne Haven McDonnell lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She teaches as associate professor in English and creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her poetry has been published in Orion, The Georgia Review, Narrative, Nimrod, and elsewhere. Her poems won second place for the 2019 Gingko Ecopoetry prize, second place for the 12th Annual Narrative Poetry Prize, and received special mention for a 2021 Pushcart Prize. Her chapbook Living with Wolves was published with Split Rock Press in fall 2020, and her full-length collection Breath on a Coal won the Halycon Poetry Prize and will be published in September 2022 by Middle Creek Publishing. Anne Haven holds an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage and has been a writer-in-residence at the Andrews Forest Writers’ Residency and the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Read poetry by Anne Haven McDonnell previously appearing in Terrain.org: four poems, Letter to America, four poems, two poems (winner of Terrain.org 5th Annual Poetry Contest), and two poems.

Header photo by Anne Haven McDonnell.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.