Tuesday, August 20, 2013

So Many Miscellaneous Mushrooms

Hi, folks! With our nice, moist spring and this coolish summer, it has been a great year for mushrooms!

As you might remember, Sue and I enjoy going "mushroom-watching." We like to take picture of them on our hikes, even though we're not very careful about getting identifications "just right." As I explained in a previous post, we usually aren't looking for mushrooms to eat.

Nope, we're not into picking them at all, really--well, except for morels (which we can't resist)--since mushrooms are the fungus's spore-bearing structures, picking them represents a dent in their ability to reproduce. If you don't pick wildflowers because you understand wildflowers create seed, then why pick mushrooms willy-nilly? And so we photograph them.

Sue, with her nice camera, takes excellent photos at various angles, while I concentrate on getting ground-level shots and photos of the undersides, which her big camera can't do (remember, my little camera swivels so I can hold it on the ground, beneath the cap, to photograph gills and pores without disturbing the mushroom).

We recently went hiking on some of the nature trails at Columbia's Cosmos Park--near the Bear Creek Trail. I haven't been hiking out there in ages, though I used to hang out at the beaver pond there a lot during college . . .

Anyway, we decided it'd be fun to check out the place again. My, how it's changed!

And yes, there were a lot of mushrooms popping out--various species--what fun!

Here's some type of bolete we saw.

Here's a more artsy picture of the cap of another type of bolete. (If I do say so myself.) I think it might be a two-colored bolete (Boletus bicolor), but again: I'm not too anal about getting them id'd "just so." I'm content to exclaim, "Wow, look at this beautiful bolete!"

Maybe, when it comes to mushrooms, I'm just easily amused.

Here's one I'm fairly confident about identifying: It's an "old man of the woods" (Strobilomyces floccopus). There was a patch of them at one place along the trail. They were kind of camouflaged against the dirt and leaf litter, but once we saw a few of them, they seemed to be all over (in that area).

This was the first time I'd ever seen this type of mushroom "in person." I've seen pictures of them and thought, "That's a cool-looking thing. Wonder if I'll ever seen one." And there they were!

Since they are usually out in July, August, September, and October, I guess it's not surprising I haven't seen them--midsummer, with the skeeters, other bugs, and humidity, isn't my favorite time for hiking in Missouri. But with the unusual cool weather, we got outside and made discoveries!

Well, these few pictures are just a small sample of what we saw, which was itself just a small sample of all that's out there right now. I mean . . . we weren't even looking for them.

If you're interested in mushrooms and want to get more regular updates on what fungi are popping out here in Central Missouri, check out Lisa K. Suits's blog, Mycologista. She takes lovely photos of mushrooms, and she goes the extra mile to identify them correctly. As she says, she's "crazy for wild mushrooms." But if you ever thought mushrooms were boring, you should scroll through her posts for an attitude adjustment.

It's funny how you can go into the woods, say, with binoculars and a bird guide, and plan on seeing a bunch of birds; or you bring old sneakers, a few nets, and containers and a magnifying lens for looking at aquatic invertebrates--but you end up having a "mushroom trip" instead. Or maybe it's the butterflies that are somehow everywhere that day, or daisies. Nature outings, "field trips," can be like that.

. . . And it's always fun!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Remembering Clair Kucera, His Grasses, His Gayfeathers

Sue and I drove to Tucker Prairie, just west of the Kingdom City exit off I-70 on Sunday, July 28, and spent the afternoon wandering around in that plot of never-broken prairie soil, examining plants, watching insects, and enjoying the abrupt, intense flights of an eastern kingbird. At one point, a covey of northern bobwhites erupted before us and flew away. Prairie cicadas droned . . .

I always find myself filled with wonder on a prairie. From a distance, it looks scruffy, and up close, you see that it’s a dizzying variety of plants that gives it that texture. The insects, birds, and other wildlife are similarly diverse.

Hardly any of it lives in forests, or subdivisions, or weedy roadsides. As you wade into the grasses, every few steps there is something to peer at, some new marvel.

I felt a different kind of wonder a few days later, when I learned that Dr. Clair Kucera, the ecologist credited for saving this spot of virgin prairie, had passed away the day before our visit. I felt sorrow of course, for I count him as a friend . . . but I felt wonder, too.

I heard Clair Kucera’s name a lot when I was growing up. Because I was young, I didn’t know who he was—someone my dad knew. He was a colleague of my dad’s at the University of Missouri, and they both were doing research on prairies; they were also both active in the Missouri Prairie Foundation. My dad, as I said in an earlier post, is a professional geographer who, using thousands of historical survey records as data points, mapped the presettlement prairie of Missouri.

Among Clair’s trailblazing contributions are his studies on the role of fire in maintaining prairie as prairie. He was an ecologist at a time when ecology was flowering as a discipline, and the ideas of biological succession and climax communities are core ecological concepts.

A vexing question about prairies was, What keeps them from being colonized by trees, and eventually turning into forest? We know that forests—oak-hickory being the predominant type around here—are the climax community, not tallgrass prairie.

As we know today, it was fire—started by random lightning strikes, or started by Native Americans—that kept the trees from taking over, maintaining the prairie as prairie.

Clair did much of his research at Tucker Prairie, using controlled burns, to figure out what frequencies of burning, in what times of year, are best for the prairie. How often, and when, should prairies burn, in order to keep out trees and shrubs, or kill off invasive plants like fescue, or invigorate the tallgrasses, or enhance the diversity of wildflowers and other forbs? As you can guess, these questions are critical for wise management of what few prairies remain in North America.

I don’t need to go into his life story or professional accomplishments. The Columbia Missourian did a nice job of describing those things in his obituary.

But I wanted to share a little about how I think about him. In 1995, I was living in Montana and looking for a new publishing job. When I learned of an opening here in my home state, at the University of Missouri Press, I applied for a number of reasons, but I wasn’t sure it would be a good “fit”—looking at their catalog, I noted that they published a lot of political philosophy and postmodern lit crit, which I didn’t think would interest me much. As an editor, I specialize in biology and natural history. During a phone interview, I asked if the press ever published much of that kind of stuff.

When the managing editor, who was speaking with me, mentioned that Clair Kucera’s manual The Grasses of Missouri would be coming out in a revised edition in the next few years, and I might get to work on it, my opinion of the job prospect improved tremendously. The first edition had been published in 1961, and this would be not only a chance to work in my preferred area, but also an opportunity to work with someone I had long admired.

And it was a pleasure and an honor to work with him. Even after the book came out, he sometimes called me just to chat. One time, he brought me some Liatris pycnostachya corms—surplus gayfeathers from his farm—to plant at the apartment where I lived then. So naturally, whenever I see blazing stars, I think of him.

And, of course, I think of him whenever I see prairie grasses, too. He wrote the book on them.

One more thing. Next time you’re on I-70 heading east out of Columbia, not long before the Kingdom City exit, turn your head and look at the scrubby-looking green grassland to the south. There’s a sign that says “Tucker Prairie,” in case you’re not sure.

The humble green building there is the Clair Kucera Research Station. Since the last time I wrote about Tucker Prairie, it’s been repainted and the windows repaired. It may not look like much, but for ecologists, for lovers of the prairie, and for friends of Clair Kucera, this research station, and this 160 acres, is cherished ground.