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Notes from the Naturalist

Nature's Internet

John Halloran

Nearly a century before the first Earth Day, climate activists and citizen scientists gathered for the first Forest Festival. Over a five year period, the festivals inspired Metro Boston residents to protect green spaces still enjoyed today. I remember as a pre-teen wandering through the rugged trails, enjoying the view of the Boston skyline from the high cliffs, and maybe poaching a swim or two in the reservoir. The Festival founders and participants shared a love of nature and the rocky hills overlooking Boston which they called the Middlesex Fells. The Forest Festivals were large gatherings purposed to bring all who attended "face to face" with nature (see Daniel McKanan, A Century Before the First Earth Day). The third festival emphasized "citizen science". People from all manner of backgrounds collected and submitted data and observations to scientists who embraced the helping hands and found their efforts useful. Speeches warned about declining air quality with coal the fuel of choice and clear cutting of forest trees for development. A proposal was made to preserve a quarter of the nation as parkland. The proposal linked environmentalism to social justice noting that urban laborers required access to Forests and their fresh air to maintain their health. With the Forest Festivals' success came decisions to make Forestry a profession. Eight years later the newly created Metropolitan Parks Commission took over ownership of the Fells. When State appointed "experts" took control of the Fells, most citizens took a step back. The beginnings of auto tourism turned citizen environmentalists into spectators of the passing scenery, and forests suffered. "Suits" replaced nature observations of volunteers, Route 93 was built directly through Middlesex Fells, and the nearby Charles River became a dumping ground. The link between forest preservation, a healthy climate, and social justice fell off people's radar for nearly a century.

The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, in the far northern reaches of New Hampshire's White Mountain National Forest, functions as an outdoor lab for ecological studies. It was established in 1955 by the US Forest Service to study the relationship between forest cover and water quality. Eight watersheds were identified for study with each one functioning as a "closed system where several parameters of watershed health can be monitored." The most notable problem studied here is the harmful effects of acid rain. The watersheds drain into Hubbard Brook which flows into the West Branch of the Pemigewasset River, one of the parent streams of the larger Merrimack River Watershed which covers nearly two thirds of the state. Students and teachers of the Bethlehem Elementary School, a GOMI partner, have forged a relationship with the scientists and are allowed to help collect data on the monitoring sites. The town of Bethlehem has the northernmost feeder stream to the Merrimack River Watershed, and its waters join those of Hubbard Brook on its journey to the sea. Hubbard Brook was logged over in 1920 before protection was established. It is a site that shows the varieties of regrowth occurring as the forest recovers from a clear cut. These different patchworks of regrowth are on full display as the students visit the forest during their monitoring outings. Hubbard Brook is a dense, dark, and wet forest with several opportunities to view fungal growth on the fallen trees and acting as detritivores on fallen limbs. The monitoring of data, the relationship between the students and scientists, and an interested public is in the spirit of the old Forest Festivals of the 19th century. A mix of inspired youth and professional foresters who can use and evaluate the data collected was the driving force of the Forest Festivals. The Bethlehem students and teachers have produced excellent videos and presentations which have been shared within our network and their community. Each year Hubbard Brook scientists and forest researchers gather for a two day seminar on their research attended by over 150 scientists, students and community members.

Further south in the White Mountain National Forest, a partnership between the Rey Center and the Waterville Valley Recreation Dept. offers students, residents, and visitors indoor and outdoor programs to enhance their understanding and appreciation of this quaint mountain village. The Rey Center is the legacy of Margret and H.A. Rey, the authors of the Curious George series of children's books. The Reys were artists, adventurers, historians, and naturalists who were seasonal residents of the valley. I am also a seasonal resident and have been a frequent volunteer in the Rey programs. In a recent program entitled "tree salad", the instructor walked us through a forest and showed the participants a number of mushrooms and lichen both on the ground and attached to trees. A mushroom is the fruiting body of a fungus while a lichen is a partnership between a fungus and algae to form something different. The fungus creates an attachment for both on a tree or a rock while the algae provides food for both with sugar produced by photosynthesis. This relationship is known as mutualism because both partners benefit. The lichens can be found in many shapes and forms, with the leafier varieties giving the name to the program. The various components can easily be seen with a hand lens or a microscope. In a followup presentation entitled Nature's Internet, the leader had clearly read Suzanne Simard's book, "Finding the Mother Tree," which I will talk about later in this post. Check out our Book Review in this issue. We know that fungus and fungal networks break down and recycle nutrients. A mushroom that pops up from the ground is only a small part of the mycorrhizal threads that surround the roots of plants including trees. Fungal threads help trees find and get water, nutrients, and ward off disease. Fungal threads are so fine they can fit in between individual plant cells. The moisture and nutrients they transport may not be readily available otherwise. Phosphorous and nitrogen are two essential elements transferred by mycorrhizal pathways The things we cannot readily see, the fungal threads, are helping Simard introduce new ideas to forestry practices. The things we can see, the mushrooms sprouting everywhere, vary widely from very small to very large. Unlike seeds from plants, mushrooms reproduce by means of tiny spores. Mushrooms are neither plant nor animal but are classified into their own kingdom of Fungi. A spore is a microscopic message, a blueprint of reproduction (see Aliya Whitely, The Secret Life of Fungi). A spore is not an embryo and perhaps only one in a million that may land in just the right place. As they spread out in the forest they can be in dense clusters, scattered individuals, or very large tree- or earth-hugging specimens.

How large do you think a specimen of a fungus could be? Stay tuned!

Viiu Niiler is a Vermont artist, painter, glass and tapestry maker, master gardener, and musician. She braids all the facets of her life together to form a single, creative expression that moves with harmony. Birch Copse is one of a series of six paintings of the same cluster of trees. She draws on site in a landscape that inspires her as she explores changes in light and shifting perspectives, as she emphasizes different aspects of the scene. In the studio she transfers these studies into a series of large watercolor paintings helping to address her communication with the natural environment (see Adelaide Tyrol in "Spring Arts Review", Northern Woodlands Magazine).

Birch Copse, 23” x 30” watercolor on Arches paper, 2021. Viiu Niiler

In the series, she is celebrating the idea of community existing among trees. She taps into recent conversations about tree communication from Richard Power's "Overstory" to Suzanne Simards "Finding the Mother Tree" and Aliya Whitely's "Secret Life of Fungi". She sees painting as a language that records experiences and observations. She senses an ongoing dialog, especially poignant in the birches which fueled some of Simard's greatest insights (Tyrol).

Suzanne Simard grew up in the coastal rain forest of British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. The forest was her home, her playground, her teacher and her protector. Most of her family worked in the forest and knew the ways of harvesting in a sustainable way. She was also exposed to Native American wisdom. The coastal Salish people taught her about a symbiotic relationship among a tree, its roots, and a mycorrhizal fungal network. This underground network helps to keep trees connected and strong (see Susan Simard, Finding the Mother Tree). After high school, she began to work with the B.C. Forest Service in the summers. As one of a very few women in a male dominated organization, she began to question the effectiveness of some forest practices and tree health and regeneration. She saw types of trees that grew well in some places but not others. They might grow well in association with certain trees but not others. As she discovered more and more about tree relationships, she began to think the answer was in the soil. As she worked on a degree and ultimately a doctorate, she and her students planted and nurtured a number of experiments with robust controls that began to expose the rigidity of thought in the Forest Service that led to wrongheaded forestry practice. Finally she realized from all of her and her students' experiments that she had evidence that could challenge ecological theory and forest practices. Simard submitted her findings to the prestigious journal, Nature, and was amazed that it was not only accepted but made a cover story. She had described a forest that worked best with cooperation, not competition, a network that communicates with trees of the same species as well as trees of different species. This network helped each other with water, nutrients, and warning signals in times of need or threat. She compared it to the modern internet, and Nature took that world wide web comparison and coined what is now the iconic phrase "wood wide web" (Simard). Instead of being linked by wires and radio waves, the trees are connected by mycorrhizal fungi. It seems that trees, and to a somewhat lesser extent all plants, are primed for this type of relationship. Even in your garden, when a seed germinates, a signal is sent to the mycorrhizal network to begin an intimate web that will support them with water and nutrients, nurture them, and even share carbon, the building blocks of life. Indigenous peoples had a way of knowing the earth. In Simard's view, they learned from all living things, respected them, and saw themselves as equal partners. The word equal is where western philosophy stumbles. It maintains that we are superior, having dominion over nature (Simard).

Fortunately, the spirit of the 19th century Forest Festivals is still alive today. During the pandemic, people streamed into the woods and onto the waters, gathering interest in such public places. Today the Friends of the Middlesex Fells work with government leaders to ensure that increased recreation does not threaten preservation. Many groups such as Mass Audubon and those we have met in this article are encouraging volunteers to collect data on the changing cycles of trees, insects, birds, and amphibians to track biodiversity and note seasonal changes.

The Mystic River Watershed Association, now in its 50th year, invites neighbors and volunteers to count migrating herring or remove invasive plants. Many individuals take personal responsibility to monitor a favorite locale to keep it free from trash. Others participate in organized clean ups or just carry a mesh or trash bag wherever they go. Humans need to reconnect with nature. We have lost the understanding of the fragilities and capacities of nature. It is time to turn to the resilience and intelligence of nature itself. Given time and protection, it will heal itself with a little help from its friends. That is the key (Weir).

Back to our fungus question: How big can a fungus be? As you may have guessed from this article, the largest organism in the world is ....

a fungus named Armillaria ostoyae. Its nick name is wait...the humongous fungus!

If you were thinking it was an animal, you would choose a blue whale, the largest animal known to have lived. How do they compare? The Armillaria fungus can be found in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, USA. Its mycelial network is estimated to cover 3.7 square miles. DNA testing has confirmed it is the largest living organism on Earth. How about those giant blue whales? They average about 90 feet long, and it is estimated that it would take 110,000 of them to cover the same area! A distant second I would say!


Sources: McKanan, Daniel, 2022, A Century before the First Earth Day, Boston Globe, April 10, 2022 Simard, Suzanne, 2021, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, New York, Knopf Tyrol, Adelaide, 2022, "Spring Arts Review", Northern Woodlands Magazine, Spring 2022, Lyme, NH, Forest Society of NH Weir, Kirsten, 2022, "Second Nature", Nature Conservancy Magazine, Spring 2022, Arlington, VA Whitely, Aliya, 2021, The Secret Life of Fungi, London, Pegasus


John Halloran

John is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba. John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S. for 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.

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