Ghost in the forest

Posted on August 1, 2010


Yesterday was an unpromising, drizzly sort of day.  Dulleyed and droopytailed, we trudged along the road.  But wait, wait—what is that?  Deep in the swampy woods something white glowed.  Well.  A person who goes walking with a terrier and a spaniel becomes intrepid.  Off we went into the swamp.

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Indian Pipe!  I had never seen it before except in pictures.  It’s really quite beautiful, but it feels cold and clammy, with a rubbery texture like a mushroom. No wonder people call it Corpse Plant. I spent quite awhile disputing with the little camera and getting wet and muddy. The dogs stood very still, as if on guard. The scent of leaf mold and mossy logs drifted in the air. Very different experience from capturing meadow flowers, let me tell you.

Back at the Writing Studio and Bait Shop, changed into dry clothes, I looked up Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It turns out that this is a very mysterious plant indeed. Since it has no chlorophyll, it cannot provide its own food through photosynthesis. It relies upon the services of a mycorrhizal fungus that colonizes nearby tree roots and trades easier access to water and minerals for the sugars the plant produces.  The fungus passes the sugars on to the Indian Pipe.  It is not clear what, if anything, the Indian Pipe does for the fungus.  The whole thing is pretty complicated, and I refer you to the Bedford Audubon Society for a comprehensive discussion and some killer photos. (Go to BSA’s second page, too. You won’t regret it.)

According to BSA, pretty much everything in my Peterson’s guide is obsolete. How did they find out the new stuff? “Experiments using radioactive isotopes of carbon and phosphorus injected into trees”! Who knew? And then it goes on to say that in light of the latest understanding, Indian pipe is properly placed in the same family as blueberries, cranberries, and rhododendron.  It gets more and more complicated, and a person can spend all morning following rabbit trails and becoming wide-eyed at how much we do not understand about the web of life, even if we are botanists, which in our case we are not.

And then this occurs to me.  A writer living in the woods is, like the Indian Pipe, pretty much incapable of creating food. Obliging farmer neighbors provide it.  The writer exchanges Money for the food, but let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, Money ranks far, far below Food as a necessity.  Is the writer a parasite? Is there something as yet undetermined going on underground—perhaps farmer neighbors like stories?  Possibly—though Stories also rank below Food as a necessity.  The writer becomes humbly grateful to the obliging farmer neighbors.

And then, if the writer falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear but a spaniel and a terrier, is the writer likely to become food for a mycorrhizal fungus?  It bears thinking about.