Scouting the White Mountains, 12 July 2014

After a warm, dry winter and a disappointing spring morel season, the sight of dark thunderheads rising over the White Mountains put joy in my heart as I set out on my first scouting trip of summer 2014. Standing water was all around, and the greenery of the grasses, moss, and ferns gave testimony to the life-giving onset of the monsoon season.

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
–John Muir

Anecdotal reports as well as radar data had suggested that the Big Lake/Mt. Baldy area received two to three inches of rain in the first week or so of the monsoon. The soft sponginess of the litter on the forest floor confirmed this as I walked almost noiselessly through the woods, startling a pair of elk (and myself) in a closer encounter than ever before.

Wildflowers of all colors were in bloom, and the orange wings of a butterfly contrasted vividly with the green of the newly sprouted grass.

But not all the color in the woods came from flowers and bejeweled butterflies.  Some of the most striking findings on my four-mile walk were colorful slime molds and brackets.

Here, side-by-side on a stump, what looks like dog-vomit slime mold (Fuligo septica) next to pink bubble-gum slime mold (Lycogala epidendrum), neither of them truly fungi at all, but more closely related to the amoebas.

Over there, witches’ butter (Tramella mesenterica), aptly named for its resemblance to the mesenteric fat that surrounds our intestines, the color of a free-range egg yolk. It is said to be edible but tasteless, but the greasy, furrowed appearance was queasily familiar to me from assisting in surgical procedures when I was a medical student, and I chose not to try it.

I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.
–Henry David Thoreau

A gorgeous flush of tiny cup-shaped fruiting bodies growing on moss almost escaped my notice.  And everywhere, lichens and brackets and conks, oh my! A giant flushing of banded bracket fungi on a downed tree resembled the turkey tail polypore, Trametes versicolor, and I thought to break some off for a friend who trusts in their medicinal powers– until I turned one over and saw the lamellae of the gilled false turkey tail, Gloeophyllum sepiarum.

The common red-banded polypore, Fomitopsis pinicola, was of little interest from above, but turning it over revealed its porous hymenium was the shelter for an indignant little beetle who waggled his antennae at me as he surveyed the wreckage of his home.

Alas, there were none of my favorite edible species fruiting, and indeed practically no terrestrial fruiting bodies other than a few burned-out earth stars. I decided to try the Greens Peak area north of Big Lake.  You could tell by the yellowish color of the grasses that they had not received as much rain as further south, and the ranger at the Greens Peak lookout tower confirmed that they had received little more than an inch since the season began.

Dark and angry storm clouds were gathering, and I decided to make only a quick trip out to a punky old log I found last year that grew Sparassis crispa, the cauliflower mushroom. Disappointingly, there was no sign of this choice edible, but there was quite a bit of evidence that a bear had been chewing or scratching at the rotten wood.  Had he stolen my prize already, or was he merely searching for grubs and bugs amidst the decay?

I also noticed an inordinate number of blown-down treetops, still with green needles, indicating a recent and very violent thunderstorm had likely taken place.

In light of the newly gathering storm, and the possibility that Mr. Bruin might find me there alone if he came back for dessert, I elected to make my escape.

Again I had failed to carry anything out of the field except for a basket full of garbage that other thoughtless people had left in our pristine woods. Still, I was glad for the chance to walk in the glorious cathedral of the conifer forest for another day.  There would be no porcini feast tonight, but the season was off to a good start, and things will surely be different in two or three weeks.

The following day would bring new adventures on the Mogollon Rim, with good success in finding choice edible species, but for this day I was happy merely to contemplate the words of John Muir:

In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.

 A meager harvest

About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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