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What Lies Beneath

“The clearest path into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.“

- John Muir (1838-1914)

“I want to change the way you think about forests. You see, underground there is another world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow forests to behave as a single organism.”

- Suzanne Simard

Some places change your life in an instant. Muir Woods National Monument, a protected forest of old growth coastal redwoods in northern California, is such a place. Coastal redwoods are the tallest trees on earth, reaching heights of over 368 feet. They are one of the widest trees on earth, reaching diameters at their base of over 30 feet. Coastal redwoods are among the oldest trees in existence.

In the words of Muir Woods Park Ranger Jordan, “It’s hard to explain the feeling of humility standing next to one of these giants… being reminded that we are not the biggest and best that this world has to offer.”

Coastal redwoods are monoecious, capable of producing pollen-bearing and seed-bearing cones, male and female. Tiny redwood seeds germinate in the rich soil of the forest floor after bursting from dried cones and falling naturally to the ground, or after being torn from a protective burl by fire, storm, or falling branches. Young saplings spring from the roots beneath a vibrant, living tree, or emerge from a decaying core.

I first visited Muir Woods with my family in 1995. As my son, Kyle, stood alongside the massive stump of a decaying tree, we talked about the circle of young trees surrounding her. We affectionately referred to the old stump as the “Grandmother Tree” and imagined her children springing from her roots, growing in a circle around her. At that time, we did not know that a complex and beautiful network of roots and fungus were the lifeblood of this magnificent forest.

Suzanne Simard is Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. She is a pioneer in research related to communication in the natural environment. Using radioactive carbon she has discovered the exchange of resources between individual trees, even across species. In contrast to the idea that forests are products of “survival of the fittest,” Simard’s work makes it clear that the forest is not a competitive environment – it is a vibrant, cooperative network of mutual support where resources are shared.

Simard refers to the largest tree in a forest area as the “mother tree,” – the central “hub” for a vast underground network of activity and communication. One mother tree may supply life-giving nutrients to hundreds of seedlings. Below ground the mother tree and her seedlings are part of an expansive network, through which tree roots and fungi work together. Most of the bodies of fungi underground are made up of a mass of threads called mycelium, two-way channels of resources and information. This vast, intricate, underground, symbiotic network is called mycorrhiza (from the Greek mycos “fungus” + rhiza “root”.)

A kingdom all its own – fungi are not plant nor animal, but neither can exist without them. They are everywhere and are absolutely essential to life on earth. They can devour rocks and turn cardboard boxes into forests. They are foundational to beer, bread, cheese, penicillin, immunosuppressants used in heart transplants and in statins used to manage cholesterol. They are remarkable chemical factories, central to the evolutionary process. Above ground, mushrooms provide evidence of this incredible underground network.

“Mushrooms are bridges to the underworld, a hidden landscape beneath our feet. Mushrooms are the fruit of the mycelium, a vast network of fine threadlike cells that can literally extend to thousands of acres in size, erupting here and there, like tips of icebergs, into something we see and recognize as a ‘mushroom.’ Fungi are primary residents, co-existing beautifully within all plants, in soils, from deserts to forests to arctic tundra… Fungal networks make up the infrastructure of the ecosystem, the foundational food web, the cellular fabric of being upon which, and in which all land based organisms are embedded.” - Paul Stamets

Fungi are our closest relatives. They define diversity – ranging in size and form from microorganisms to the 2384 acre Armillaria ostoyae, discovered in Oregon in 1998.

Beauty, creativity, destruction, regeneration - fungi are evidence

of before and after, life and death.


Aleuria aurantia (orange peel)

Britain, Ireland, mainland Europe

Mycena interrupta (pixie’s parasol)

Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Chile

Microporus affinis

tropical and sub-tropical regions

northern and southern hemispheres

Leucocoprinus cretaceous

widespread in the tropics

Clathrus ruber (latticed stinkhorn)

Africa, Asia, Australia, North and South America

2 comentarios

Tom Banks
Tom Banks
29 jun 2019

One of my most favorite spots. I’ve returned several times. The majesty, peace and serenity of the forest envelops and renews you.

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W.Jean Ayres
W.Jean Ayres
29 jun 2019

I love the contrast of the large trees to the very small spores in the earth. Beautiful post..... sacred dirt! Judy.

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