Why Nature?

My last couple of posts, spaced over a year apart, were topically less about nature than most.  Whether I look at page view charts, new followers, or general positive feedback they were also by far my most successful. While I don’t want this to become a mental illness or travel blog, I thought that at least deserved some acknowledgement and follow-up. Why exactly is nature my topic of choice? This thought led me to more deeply consider what about nature is so alluring to me. What is it that drives me to experience it as often as possible and to learn all I can about it? Why is it the balm that sometimes nothing else can be? I thought these answers would be easily teased out of phrases like “staggering complexity” or “majestic beauty,” but they are proving much more nuanced. Beauty and complexity certainly have something to do with it, but even after much thought I can’t settle on a single definitive root for this passion.

I may as well start with the concepts that first came to mind. So: beauty. Nature has it in spades, from the most expansive landscapes to the tiniest creatures. Land, sky, and water; animals, plants, and fungi – all these things hold beauty in varieties to satisfy every aesthetic. It is self-evident that the most beautiful views and sightings are among the most treasured. Beauty can’t be all of it, though. I am equally fascinated by some of nature’s least conventionally attractive offerings. Beetle larvae, termites, house centipedes, carrion beetles: all of these creatures repulse many but hold my interest. Some of this could be re-framed as finding beauty in unexpected places, but it would be disingenuous to say I find all the aspects of nature that interest me beautiful.

What of complexity? I marvel at macro-level natural processes like the water cycle, the progression of seasons, evolution, food webs, etc… and at the adaptations of living things to them. I am equally impressed by the smaller interactions I can discover if I really get down in the weeds (sometimes literally). I can’t talk about the complexity of nature without another significant keyword: connection. Beauty draws me in, but I think it’s the connections among living things and nature’s cycles that keep me engaged.

To cite a favorite example, consider the ash tree bolete. This mushroom doesn’t appear to be anything special, except for the gregariousness with which it sometimes grows. It is found only near ash trees, but not because of a direct relationship to the trees as with many other mushroom species. It is actually dependent on a specific species of aphid which itself feeds only on ash leaves. This mushroom can then be food for squirrels (and for humans, although having tried this once I can’t recommend it). This entire system, as well as anything else which may specialize on ash trees, is threatened by the encroachment into the United States of a single insect species: the emerald ash borer.

I’ve probably mentioned that here before and it’s probably tiresome by now. But if one investigates far enough, everything in nature has such connections to something else. Bird migrations, timed to coincide with specific plants’ fruit or seed-bearing windows and covering thousands of miles, are astounding. Diversity among bird beaks to exploit specific and widely varied food sources is no small wonder, either. Insects, spiders, amphibians, and more overwinter in leaf litter. The leaf litter is broken down by microorganisms and other small creatures, enriching the soil for new plant growth. Many of those plants wouldn’t survive without pollinators – bees, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc. – which in turn wouldn’t survive without the plants.

This is all pretty basic, Naturalism 101 level information, but when one stops to consider even these well-understood relationships and how they have developed over eons, it is incredible and wondrous. In these and other, more subtle interactions I see a reflection of my own – and humanity’s – connection with nature. It’s a reminder that our cultural tendency to separate mankind from nature is in many ways misguided. As with beauty, complexity and connections are definitely part of the story. These ideas still come short of fully explaining my deep and abiding love of nature. Plenty of things are complex and connected, and I’m not obsessively devoted to all of them. I don’t keep up with the Kardashians, follow cricket, or study the three-body problem.

Challenge is the next concept that comes to mind, and I think I’m getting somewhere. This is of course closely tied to complexity in some ways, but more inward-facing. A cynic might say this is how I fool my brain into believing that nature is all about me, thus making it interesting. Nature can present challenges both physical and mental, and combinations thereof. In exploring the natural world, there are countless ways for me to feel accomplished while enjoying myself,  but with each accomplishment there is always another to strive for. It’s the same dynamic at work in free-to-play mobile games: rewards are doled out at precisely the right pace to keep users playing (and paying). In nature, there’s no need to part with money to tackle the next task – not as often and not as directly, anyway.

From a very early age the challenges offered by the natural world appealed to me. First were the purely physical: hike from here to there, climb this rock or that tree, ford the stream. They progressed to the combined physical and mental: catch the critter or fish, or seek out the really cool thing. Then I was introduced to the more purely mental, in increasing complexity: identify the tree from its leaves, learn what animals to expect in which habitat, understand the relationships between the animals and interpret behaviors. I never lost interest in the physical challenges – I still love a good hike, kayaking trip, or bike ride. I still like to catch things, too, although I like to believe I do so more responsibly as an adult. Each new type of challenge layered atop the old, resulting in a bottomless well of potential challenges to draw upon.

My latest challenge: taking better photos of birds like this American robin.
Another challenge: gradually turning this…
…into this

The more I pick at this thread of “challenge” the truer I realize it is. I have chosen specific naturalist hobbies with high degrees of challenge. Soon after college I became fascinated with mushrooms. Identifying wild mushrooms can be a complicated proposition, and it was largely that difficulty which drew me to it. There are many aspects to consider and no hard-and-fast rules except “proceed with caution.” Through experience, one can learn how to consider the myriad factors and arrive at an ID sometimes. More recently, I have adopted birding as my prime outdoor hobby of the moment. Here there are the challenges of finding and identifying specimens, as well as challenges of patience and visual acuity. Perhaps as important are the available data and tools for analyzing it. How many bird species per year, month, or day? How many in Maryland, North America, Montgomery County, or my yard? Which bird is the rarest for its location? If I examine any of my hobbies closely, I eventually discover that I have turned it into a personal challenge.

So, have I figured it all out? I’m probably missing an accent or two, but I think the cocktail’s primary ingredients are beauty, complexity, and challenge. The beauty is the initial taste, while the complexities and connections keep me coming back for that next sip.



I Promise I’ll feature some charismatic megafauna eventually, but today I’m going to dive right into my weird hobby: mycology.


Several years ago my in-laws gave me a wittily-written mushroom guide book for Christmas. I picked it up that Spring, knowing very little about fungi, and found myself paging through it like a detective novel. I read the thing cover-to-cover and almost immediately stormed outside to search for and identify mushrooms. Ever since I have been absolutely fascinated by mushrooms and their kin.

Fungi tend to take a back seat to the animal and plant kingdoms. I suppose I understand – we’re animals, and we see compelling reflections of ourselves in other animals. Most of our food is either an animal or plant. Fungi don’t move or make noise, most of them are small, and after all the majority of the time we only directly observe their genitalia. Yet, fungi are involved in incredibly complex roles and relationships in every ecosystem worldwide.

A few examples:

  • The worlds largest organism (by some metrics) is a fungus.
  • Fungi are responsible for the phenomenon known as “foxfire.”
  • One commonly eaten fungus is actually two fungi, one parasitizing the other. Scientists are still debating which is which!
  • The lobster mushroom is actually one of a handful of mushroom species being attacked by a mold.
An aborted entoloma

One of my personal favorites is the ash-tree bolete (Bolitinellus merulioides). It’s funky looking, changes color when you poke it, and can often be found in huge patches. This mushroom is only found near ash trees (Fraxinus sp.), which led biologists to the assumption that mushroom and tree were mychorrizal partners (short version of that link: a symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants). More recently it has been discovered that the mushroom’s presence near ash trees is actually due to a symbiosis with a species of aphid which only feeds on ash trees. Further complicating all of this is a penchant for defying classification; B. merulioides has bounced around among four genera. This three-way relationship further interests me because it’s a lesson in the fragile balance of nature. The introduced emerald ash borer threatens the whole trio and more. As a bonus, the ash-tree bolete is edible (but it tastes like a moldy old loofah, so don’t, you know, actually eat it).

The ash-tree bolete. I know it looks SO appetizing, but try to restrain yourself.

Experienced mushroomers will quickly get bored by this next passage, but I want to cover some mushroom basics and clarify a few common misconceptions.

A mushroom is a fungus with a fleshy fruiting body (and the word “mushroom” is not a particularly precise term). The fruiting bodies are what we most often see, but these are only the reproductive organs of the fungus. They manufacture spores, which are distributed through the environment through various means – wind and animals, mostly. The rest of the fungus is called the mycelium and is usually a white, stringy substance that lives underground or in rotting wood, decomposing leaves, etc. It can sometimes look a lot like spider silk. A new mycelium will form when spores wind up in the right place and the right conditions develop – something that can take a really long time. I have to say that as a member of a species somewhat preoccupied with hiding its genitalia, I am intrigued by the existence of such a wide array of living things that display their genitalia while hiding everything else.

There is no simple rule of thumb that can adequately distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one. Many supposed methods have been championed through the years, but all of them are dangerously wrong. Further clouding the issue is the word “toadstool” which is often used to mean “any poisonous mushroom” but also to describe the common cap-stem shape. Many mushrooms with that classic shape are perfectly edible and mushrooms of many shapes can be lethal if ingested. Another way to put it: edible and poisonous mushrooms don’t fit into neat categories, so the determination must be made by identifying the species of mushroom specimen-by-specimen. All of that said, I think there is a little more fear of consuming wild mushrooms than is warranted. The same problem exists for plants and animals, but since those are so much more familiar to most people we’re a lot more ready to accept that an eggplant is edible but deadly nightshade is not. It’s certainly very dangerous to pop any random unknown fungus into your mouth, but if you educate yourself and are certain of your identification then mycophagy – the practice of eating mushrooms – is reasonably safe.

A bizarre, hideous mushroom that is supposedly delicious.
A beautiful classically-shaped mushroom that would almost surely kill you.

One of the key identifying features for mushrooms can’t usually be directly observed in the field: spore color. Instead, one must bring specimens home and take a spore print, which can be surprisingly fun. The typical method is to slice off the cap and set it, gills-down, on a sheet of paper for a few hours. The resulting wheel-spoke patterns can be beautiful. I’m not particularly artistic but I have long wanted to figure out how to turn spore prints into nifty and complex designs. If one can identify a mushroom without the spore print, and thus predict the spore color, that’s a start… and apparently this is already at least attempting to be a thing. None of these is quite what I have envisioned, though. File under: cool ideas I am woefully incapable of putting into practice.

Of course it’s not all fascinating and/or delicious in the world of fungi. Some fungal diseases are downright horrifying and no one should eat foot fungus. The existence of these types of things is part of why fungi are so fascinating to me, though. There is as much diversity as in the animal and plant kingdoms but we know so much less about that diversity. Even though I’m not personally discovering anything new, when I collect and study mushrooms there’s an air of mystery – a puzzle to be solved. I’m on the frontier of my own personal knowledge and sometimes I’m led to read about the frontier of biology. It also helps that mushrooms don’t run, swim, hop, crawl, or fly away once I’ve found them; it’s nice to be able to take as much time as necessary to study all of the important characteristics.

These chicken mushrooms found in Shenandoah National Park were tasty.