Fungi at Fresh Pond Reservation

Milk-white Toothed Polypore

Behind Neville Place, built in the early 1920s as a hospital for the aged, there’s a mixed forest of beeches, oaks, a few birches, maples, on relatively flat ground. The old folks’ home is still a home to quite a few old folks, whom Ranger Jean has been galvanizing into tree study. The posters on the ground floor identifying “parts of a tree,” and “what makes a maple a maple,” are, in all their construction-paper glory, an ode to rootedness in nature surviving even the bastions of institutional living. Besides, 80 is the new 50.

I’ve been on mycology walks here several times before with Larry Millman, author of Fascinating Fungi of New England, a man who “keeps a post office box” here in Cambridge

Oyster Mushroom, Lusitania Meadow

and wears one of those vests with many pockets. It’s a dizzying experience. One here!—quick, another there!—lovely, tooth-tingling latinate names mingling with farcical and fanciful amateur nicknames for the citizens of the fungal kingdom—and here a disambiguation, there a new discovery.

Artist’s Conk, alternate view

Over 200 species of fungi reside at Fresh Pond. Mr. Millman seems to be on first names with many, though he says that anyone, including himself, professing more than a seventy-percent identification rate should be hauled aside and tempted to ease off on high-falutin’ mycological nomenclature mania.

Birch Polypore, Piptoporus betulina.

There were a few kids at the gathering, but not enough. We found a sleepy hornet queen, enormous; excavations made by woodpeckers (vectors for fungal spores), a slime mold named for its resemblance to insect eggs, and other ephemera, amusements, and the erstwhile camaraderie of strangers outdoors.

False Turkey Tail

Will you be having dental floss with your garlic mustard today, sir?

Kids really don’t want lectures. They don’t want to learn stuff.

Garlic Mustard Ball at Fresh Pond Day. Fighting invasives was never this fun.

They do learn stuff, though, because it is in the nature of their being to suck up information like a marsh.

Back in the fall of 2012, when I was muddling through the particular big muddy of what to do with a gaggle of second graders in a splendid semi-wild urban habitat right smack next door to their school, I went to an outdoor fungi hike led by mycologist Lawrence Millman. I got a little bit bit by the mushroom bug, and under all that pinestraw I found —in addition to some striking specimens—myself in an aha! moment.

The role of fungi in ecosystems isn’t rocket science but it’s pretty complex, with way more detail than I’m currently capable of synthesizing.

Cambridge School Committee Member Patty Nolan, at right, joins the Tree Team in Garlic Mustard Ball.

Well, as I get older I get more comfortable with beginner’s mind. I applied my rudimentary knowledge of Montessori pedagogy to what I did know, and many yards of dental floss later, a handful of kids not only know about mycorrhizal relationships but can demonstrate it to other kids.

I took a simple ball game my ten-year-old told me she’d played at gym and made it into a metaphor for how fungi and trees interact. Before showing a new group of kids the game itself, I do another kind of demonstration. One child gets to be a tree, another is the fungus. I give the “fungus” a big tangle of dental floss and explain that fungal mycelia are everywhere underneath the ground, impossible (nearly always) to see, running many miles in length. Some fungi interact with tree roots (the Fungus Kid moves the dental floss over to the shoes of the Tree Kid), providing better ability to absorb minerals and moisture. The tree also provides carbohydrates to the fungus (Tree Kid hands a piece of bread or cookie to the Fungus Kid), which as a non-photosynthesizing organism can’t otherwise make its own food.

The final step in the pre-ball-game demonstration is to get out a jar of mustard and a garlic clove and put it on the mess of dental floss, remove the dental floss, and tell the kids that the garlic mustard plant interferes with that process and the benefits the tree earns from the mycorrhizal relationship. End of high drama. I guess I should have the Fungus Kid keel over at the end. I’ll remember that when our next round of the club that starts in the fall and the fungi are in visible abundance.

Our club kids demonstrated garlic mustard ball at Fresh Pond Day, with a random assortment of unfortunate adults, gleeful younger siblings, and passersby of all ages.

Club member (second-grader) explaining to the throngs the symbolic nature of the game. Yes, that’s dental floss in his left hand.