Verdant Flatness of Being

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 24)

By Jack Phillips


Cat’s tongue liverwort (Conocephalum sp.) with scarlet cup fungi ( Sarcoscypha sp.) in Lost Canyon, Fremont County, Iowa. Photo by Robert Smith.

Botanists and poets, philosophers and birders, nature-lovers and land managers and artists  shuffle down a snowless winter ravine. Black oaks and reds, burs and chinquapins stand raw against the sky, having piled their leaves into russet heaps all the way down, deep enough to lose your footing or sight of your dog. Our sleek companion, half labrador and half something else and then some, swims and bobs her way through the red river of leaves, seal-like in her shiny exuberance. Our destination is Lost Canyon, named by girl scouts long ago when a summer camp preceded the current Loess Hills preserve.

We find the canyon to be eerily and defiantly festooned with “cryptogams,” those spore-producing creatures that are ubiquitous but often hidden in every ecosystem. Neon liverworts, crunchy mustard and lime lichens, shiny slime molds, tender mosses, and a rich palette of fungi creep along icey springs and seeps. The plush verdancies bid us to rest and read “Moss” by Mary Oliver:

Maybe the idea of the world as flat isn’t a tribal memory or an archetypal memory, but something far older — a fox memory, a worm memory, a moss memory.

We carry poems in our packs because we never know when we might need one. And field guides, too. In their primal yet novel ways of being plants or plant-like, cryptogams are hard to parse. These wooded hollows bubble with curiosities. In the tawny, orange, frosty, and green seasons they show colors and forms that startle and delight us: wood ears, witches butter, pheasant back, cat’s tongue, chicken of the woods and some hens, dryad’s saddle, sunburst, honey mushroom with shoe-string on the side, earth star, scarlet cup, eyelash cup, artist’s conk, and the colorful but perhaps less charming stinkhorn and dog vomit fungi.

Thoreau loved the cryptogams of his New England winter woods as they appeared “loose, flowing, flattened out, the colors brighter for the damp,” and proclaimed December 31st, 1851 to be the “solstice” for mosses and lichens. We are fascinated by the vivid fertilities in our own winter hollows, as we loosely flow flatter and brighter for the damp, going belly-wise through slippery duff and hoary bramble, a lens in one hand and Oliver in the other:

Memory of leaping or crawling or shrugging rootlet by rootlet forward, across the flatness of everything.

Expertise is useful when exploring this creeping mantle of the earth. Our guide is a young, wide-eyed mycologist with the soul of a seeker. Katie Thompson teaches us cryptogamic ways of being alive in this world, by definition mysterious and yet somehow basic and familiar, so vivid in the lives of these creatures. We become more human by being less so, and better bipeds by imitating salamanders. Falling into this deep ravine, into deep time, into deep kinship, we rediscover a simpler way of inhabiting this earth that our ancestors knew.

Cryptogams, so-called for their secret sexualities and explosions of genders, have proven mysterious in natural history as well. They have often gone unnoticed and poorly documented and in this respect, our every-season expeditions have an element of discovery and adventure. Taking to our bellies in the winter-green and calicoed canyon, wild puppy romping ahead, we slip into the verdant flatness of being. We commit to our notebooks a catalogue of curiosities by common name and genus and if we’re lucky, by species. And in between, in a margin, under a sketch, or on a scrap, we collect the cryptic spores of poems yet to be written.