Friday, February 25, 2011

George Washington Carver Museum

Bust of George Washington Carver outside the museum

 Yesterday my daughter's second grade class went on a field trip to the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site just a bit down the road from here.  Even though I had a field trip of my own to contend with in the afternoon (keep posted, details after the second trip today), I had to go for at least part of the trip, as George Washington Carver is a hero of mine.

Peephole into pictures of mushroom!
 I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely display of mushrooms and other fungi displayed prominently near the entrance.  Fungi were one of Dr. Carver's many interests, and his Master's of Agriculture from what is now Iowa State University was in Plant Pathology.
Another peephole

 I especially appreciate that the macrofungi were separated into their proper divisions,
 And I also liked this illustration of a powdery mildew cleistothecium.  As well as being a botanist, agricultural chemist, philanthropist (within his means), and inventor, he was also something of an artist. 
One of Dr. Carver's illustrations of a powdery mildew ascoma.
  I didn't remember the fungal display from my last visit, which was many years ago, but it just reinforced my fondness for this great man. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

For Valentine's Day, poetry

Not so long ago, I mentioned my blog to a friend who is in the humanities.  She noted that Sylvia Plath wrote a poem called "Mushrooms" (1959), which I would share here, but it is easy enough for you to click the link and read it for yourself without me risking copyright violation.  I have seen where some have interpreted this poem as a metaphor for feminism, and I can see that being an underlying theme.  I, being admittedly male, don't believe I can speak to this interpretation of the poem.  As a mycologist, however, I appreciate the tone of the poem, especially when juxtaposed with another mushroom-themed poem

Let us consider the work of another great American poet, Emily Dickinson. She too penned a poem about basidiocarps, posthumously titled "The Mushroom is the elf of plants" (published in 1924 many years after her death in 1886).  You'll not be surprised to hear that I do not like this poem so well.  Though Ms. Dickinson was a student of botany, she much maligns the fungi. I am stung by the final lines "Had nature any outcast face, Could she a son contemn, Had nature an Iscariot, That mushroom, -it is him".  To be fair, this was the prevailing attitude of the 19th century.  For one, mushrooms and other fungi were considered to be plants, and it was also thought that their only role in nature was as agents of disease and decay.  What a difference the better part of a century makes!

I feel as though Plath must have been intending to author a revised view of Dickinson.  Both poems are relatively short works; five stanzas of four lines for Dickinson, eleven stanzas of three lines for Plath. In Dickinson's poem, the protagonist is addressed it the third person.  Dickinson refers to a single male mushroom.  "That mushroom, it is him".  As if referring to the mushroom as nature's Iscariot wasn't enough of a display of enmity, this poetic relationship only reinforces her disdain.  Plath, by contrast, refers to mushrooms in the first person plural ("We shall by morning/Inherit the earth/Our foot's in the door").  I especially admire the phrase 'our foot', suggesting many individuals sharing a single member.  To me, it symbolizes simultaneous unity and multitude, another fungal oddity. 

I apologize to any devotees of the humanities who may feel that I am blindly making a foray into comparative literature and sounding like a novice at best.  I am the first to admit that I am not a poet nor an experienced literary critic.   As a mycologist, though, I definitely prefer Plath's sympathetic treatment of fungi to Dickinson's unsympathetic treatment.

Ironically, on the cover of this book of Dickinson's poems is a flower that appears to me to be Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which is an achlorophyllous plant that is absolutely dependent upon fungi for its nutrition.  Monotropoid plants take mycorrhizas to the next level, in that they don't provide the fungus with, well, as far as we currently know, anything.  They somehow "convince" the fungi to provision them with photosynthate (sugar) from other plants, as well as other nutrients.

 Follow up: 2/15/11.  I just found this anthology of mushroom-inspired poems entitled "Decomposition".  Clever title, that.  I just hope it's better than this album of mushroom-inspired songs.  I haven't actually listened to the whole album, to be fair, but the style is not my cup of tea.  Perhaps, as Mark Twain said about Wagner's music, it's better than it sounds.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Kingdom for a day

I received command of the lectern yesterday, to present the Organism of the Day (Exidia recisa, pictured above) and to lecture on the biology of my favorite Kingdom, the Fungi.  It was certainly a fevered race to present information about five phyla in about 40 minutes (minus the spiel on E. recisa).  In the earlier section, I did manage to get time at the end to discuss two grades of fungi (grades being groups that are share similarity but not by recent common ancestry, e.g. winged things), the lichens and the imperfect fungi.  The latter section was much more hurried, and I think many student hands were strained by furious notetaking, and my own vocal cords by the shear tumult of words such as ascocarp and basidiospore and dikaryon.  While I loved the opportunity to share information about the Fifth Kingdom, it would have been nice to slow down and languish on the finer details.  The students have an exam tomorrow, and in order to keep up with our semester-long march through life's rich tapestry, we needed to soldier on. 

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The latest in the fungal news...

All that snow that folks have been getting up north? It's been buckets of rain down here.  Now if it would just warm up a bit, we could have some spring mushrooms popping up.  Hopefully toward the end of this month we'll see some (fingers crossed). 

In the meanwhile, some mushroom news.  In Iceland, a mushroom book has won the 2010 Icelandic Literary Award.  "Sveppabokin" or "The Mushroom Book" has become the fifth natural history book to win the prize. 

In other news, fungus-based plastics could be a new green technology to be used in cars.  This article is vague, and talks about mushroom roots, whatever those are.   My guess is that the researcher used the term to dumb it down a bit for either the reporter of the general public, and was referring to mycelium.  This writer from the UK seems to cater to a bit more intellectually mature audience.

Unfortunately, the White Nose Fungus has been found in southeastern Indiana, in spite of the closure of public caves to the public.  I'm heading up to some north Alabama caves in early March, and I'll be sure to ask about the prognosis up there.  In other invasive animal pathogen news, chytridiomycosis (which affects frogs) has also been found in Nantucket. The article quite WRONGLY refers to it as a "deadly virus". 

Sigh,  so it goes.  That's enough for now, I think.