Illustration by John S. Dykes
Exploring the Adirondacks’ “wood wide web”
Passing through a forest it’s easy to focus on the familiar, the exceptional. Is that deafening teacher, teacher call an ovenbird hiding in a brambly thicket? Did a red eft just slither between a tangle of twigs and a mud puddle? There’s dazzling diversity to the flora and fauna we can see and hear in the Adirondacks. But so much of our landscape—or any ecosystem—is invisible, high in the canopy or beneath the surface. There are individuals, of course, but each is part of a complex community.
Susan Hopkins, a retired postal clerk with four decades of deep involvement in fungi of all kinds, explains, “What we’re seeing here does not work as a single organism, it’s about the common good. A forest is all about interdependency. Birds depend on the trees that support the insects they eat; efts live in the soil, aerating it to promote new plants.”
Fungi—from inconspicuous little toadstools to sunburst-yellow sulphur shelves—play a huge role in this interdependency. Some hasten decay of dead woody plants; without them the forest would not break down into the humus that makes plant life possible. Some are parasites, attacking live trees such as beeches. Some fungus, especially the mycorrhizal, are beneficial, transporting nutrients for astonishing distances, sometimes miles. Fungi, according to Hopkins, are staggeringly abundant in the region and the greater world, with only about 10 percent of species actually named and scientifically described. Here in the North Country, there are mushrooms awaiting such discovery.
For Hopkins, a walk in the woods “is like a treasure hunt.” She calls herself an “advanced amateur mycologist,” which seems like an understatement if you happen to hit a trail with her. What she perceives is not only the fruiting bodies of fungi clinging to a tree trunk, colonizing a patch of trail and hiding under leaves. She is taking in the vast matrix of mycelium connecting the trees, shrubs and plants, everything with roots, a complex communication system that benefits many and challenges or even threatens others.
“Our knowledge of the forest is very incomplete,” she says. “The fungi under the ground have been described as the ‘wood wide web,’ a mostly microscopic network of filaments. Through this, fungi share nutrients like phosphorus and nitrates with trees, while trees provide sugars to the network. Trees can send chemical signals to members of their own species, and sometimes others, that warn of insect attacks. A mature tree, a mother tree, when dying, is able to pass its nutrients and information to other younger trees before it is dead. The knowledge is not just lost but recycled.”
What’s silently happening is a busy factory of life on all levels, spores falling, cells multiplying, dividing, dying and rising again, reaching farther and farther with every second. Though we may visit the woods for a transient moment, those stationary trees and plants are part of a very dynamic world.
On our walk to Minnow Pond, on the campus of the Adirondack Experience, in Blue Mountain Lake, she cautions that late May is early to see fungi. Hopkins points out some agrocybe, little tan umbrellas colonizing a patch of sawdust left from recent trail work. She next deposits a bit of yellowish goo in my hand, a jelly fungus that no way would I ever have voluntarily touched. (It’s related to something people call “witches’ butter.”) She clambers off the path when she spots a gorgeous fan-shape shelf fungus that’s as shiny as a freshly varnished Chris-Craft and a deep shade of maroon/mahogany. It’s a ganoderma from last year. On a beech log, upside-down cups with brownish-gray tops and cream bottoms look like pony feet, and guess what, these are commonly called horse’s hooves (Fomes fomentarius). As we leave the trail she spots a sooty chunk of chaga (Inonotus obliquus) high in a white birch, a parasitic fungus that is used for medicinal tea.
The hits just keep on coming, pulling eyes downward and upward. On another log there is a scrap of lacy black mesh, the mycelium of last fall’s armillaria, or honey mushrooms. There are squishy globs of jelly fungus in more appealing colors, striped turkey tails, artist conks and, in a small hollow stump near the pond, an inconspicuous mushroom that Hopkins assures me “glows in the dark.”
“What? How?” I ask. Her reply: “It’s ghostly white, it’s a wood-eating bioluminescent Panellus stipticus from last year.”
Our progress is deliberate, punctuated with moments of happy discovery. Occasionally Hopkins bags a sample for future study. She shows me gills fanning from the stem of one species, then the pores on the underside of another: these are the spore-delivery mechanisms. But, she explains, thousands of spores simply fall to the ground, where they may—or may not—find a hospitable spot to grow. All are light enough to be borne on the wind. “Insects eat the flesh and spores of many mushrooms, as do slugs, birds and mammals, which really helps distribute them,” she says.
In our half-mile trek through the mixed woods of the central Adirondacks, she’s identified about 15 species, and she can upload photos to iNaturalist, a citizen-scientist site for identifying and recording all kinds of flora and fauna. It’s a reminder that connections rule this planet, especially the realm of mycologists.
Hopkins moved to the Adirondacks full-time 12 years ago, because “I felt my retirement would go farther here than in New Jersey,” her native state. But easy access to the natural world was a big reason for relocation. She became involved in 24-hour “bio-blitzes” in which people tally insects, birds, plants, fungi, all manner of flora and fauna, and then compare notes to create an encyclopedia of living things at a particular time in a particular place. She was an avid participant in several very successful mycological conferences hosted by Paul Smith’s College, the last in 2019.
Her connection to Adirondack mushrooms goes back to the 1950s, however. As a 10-year-old she vacationed at a Chimney Mountain cabin, near Indian Lake, where she found her first artist conk (Ganoderma applanatum). The creamy underside of this common bracket fungus makes the perfect canvas for sketching with a stylus, the incisions drying and darkening to a brown etching. She continued her independent study of artist conk and other fungi with an amateur mushroom club in New Jersey. Now she leads mushroom walks for guests at Elk Lake Lodge and the general public at the Paul Smith’s College VIC.
The phrase “wood wide web” was popularized by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard in 1997. In her British Columbia research she documented a vast network of hyphae—fungal threads—weaving together roots of all kinds. There, she studied Douglas firs, Ponderosa pines and other species that sent beneficial enzymes to saplings and each other. Her recent book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, documents her fascinating findings.
In a May 2021 interview with NPR she said, “In connecting with all the trees of different ages, [the mother trees] can actually facilitate the growth of these understory seedlings, the seedlings will link into the network of the old trees and benefit from that huge uptake resource capacity. And the old trees would also pass a little bit of carbon and nutrients and water to the little seedlings, at crucial times in their lives, that actually help them survive.”
Here, the network of mycelium reaches between birches and spruces, maples and hemlocks, to enable a constant flow of goodness. It’s as if the capillaries in our bodies could jump between organisms and feed a butterfly or a beaver.
July 2021 has been wet, not just damp. In Blue Mountain Lake we have received more precipitation in the first two weeks than we do in a normal month. Fungi are thriving.
Hopkins and I return to the Minnow Pond trail to find a riot of mushrooms. There are egg-yolk yellow amanitas with rounded tops, like something from an animated film that could sing and dance. There are bright orange hygrophorus, lavender-capped russulas, meaty-looking boletes of at least five different species, some of which stain indigo blue when pressed or broken. At the bases of a few trees there are inocybes, blackish fuzzy toothpicks with hats—earth fingers. These are so curiously distinctive that Hopkins is sending dried earth finger to a mycologist in Tennessee, who is analyzing the DNA for mapping the distribution of this species.
Beyond tallying an array of fruiting bodies—more than 50 different fungi today—we have an elusive goal. Armed with a trowel and a bottle of water we are seeking a bit of that mycorrhizal network that connects the woods surrounding us. We dig down in the moist soil and sure enough, there appear to be many fine filaments. The “wood wide web” components are typically white, and what we found is dark; better washing and study under a microscope should prove if we have located a section of this amazing network.
Even if our subsurface probe didn’t hit the web of life, we know it’s there. Next time we’ll dig deeper.