Slime Molds: You Are Weird but You Probably Know That

Trichia decipiens. Photo: National Parks Service.

You really should join your local mycological society. How else could you have your mind blown by an entire evening devoted to slime molds?

Such was the case last night when Kelly and I found ourselves entranced by a riveting Los Angeles Mycological Society Zoom lecture exploring the little known world of this odd, tiny organism. You too can and should watch the lecture by mushroom ethusiast and slime mold nerd Leah Bendlin.

Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa var. poroides. Photo: National Parks Service.

Yes this was a mycological Society lecture but slime molds are no longer lumped in with fungi. While they both produce spores, slime molds have membranes made of cellulose as opposed to fungi, which are made from chitin. Slime molds belong to the Kingdom Protista, a weird and diverse branch of the life tree that also includes seaweed and amoeba.

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Slime molds have never had their 15 minutes of fame and, as a result, few except “dog vomit” slime molds have popular names. The rest are the obsession of highly specialized academics who own microscopes. This is a shame as Leah Bendlin’s talk showed a mind bending set of ravishing images. She also has a “slime mold Sunday” feature on her Instagram @leah_mycelia.

Put plainly, slime molds are just super cool to look at even if you’ll never master the details of their taxonomy and their outre life cycle. They can, apparently, even solve mazes. You can find them on all continents and they pop up even in dry places such as where we live. A dog vomit variety regularly appears in a crack on our front stairs.

Many thanks to friend of the blog Aaron who encouraged me to rejoin the Los Angeles Mycological society and runs the awesome LA Mycological society book club!

Of Mushrooms and Capitalist Ruins

You really should join your local mycological society especially now that fungi are finally getting much overdue attention in the academy and popular culture. The Los Angeles Mycological Society has a book club overseen by Aaron Thompson that’s explored both the biology and our complex social relationship to fungi. The last book we read was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

The book begins with the stories of matsutake pickers in the Pacific Northwest, a heterogeneous group of recent Southeast Asian immigrants, middle class Japanese Americans and white survivalists. Beginning with the pickers and middlemen, she traces the long supply chain of this extraordinarily expensive mushroom, that’s given as a gift in Japan, and shows how these cultures interact with their histories and the environment.

The strength of this book is that Tsing doesn’t shy away from complexity and contradiction. She doesn’t try to tie everything into a tidy narrative. What emerges from this story of matsutake is not a neat timeline but an assemblage, a messy collision of cultures, biology and economics. Tsing’s ethonograpic mosaic mirrors the biology of the fungal world which is itself a bundle of contractions, at times symbiotic at other times parasitic with a complexity that we’ll never be able to fully grasp.

Matsutake, it turns out, thrives in forests disturbed by human activity. Like Kat Anderson’s masterful Tending the Wild, Tsing’s book shows the mistake of considering “nature” outside the presence of human beings. The matsutake economy, it turns out, is just about the perfect story with which to consider the neo-liberal and precarious ruin we find ourselves in. Tsing says,

Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. we can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes–the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons–and the elusive autumn aroma.

Following the matsutake’s long mycelium threads, wherever they lead us, might just be what we need to do right now.

BrickTube

We had this crow statue sitting around for years with no place to go and a big pile of unused bricks, the remains of a failed parkway path project. Last week I finally got around to putting the two problems together by building a plinth out of brick.

To do this I had to review the ancient and challenging art of brickwork. Lacking an actual living person to learn brickwork from, always the best option, I resorted to YouTube.

Most of the brick how-to videos I found were far too short, leaving more questions than answers about a task that seems simple at first but is actually quite difficult. After much searching I discovered the work of a British stonemason who goes by the name Rodian Builds. Rodian’s videos are much more detailed than the other bricktubers out there.

What I like about Rodian is that he goes through every gesture in the process of laying a brick: how to get the mortar on the trowel, how to dump it off, how to hold the bricks etc. For a beginner these details are the difference between a far from perfect but acceptable project (my plinth) and a complete disaster (my past attempts at brickwork).

Some basics I learned from Rodian and from building my slightly wonky plinth:

  • Getting the first two rows as perfectly square and plumb is crucial. Mistakes accumulate as the rows of bricks go up.
  • I made a square out of scrap wood to the exact dimensions of the plinth so that I wouldn’t have to keep pulling out a tape measure. I could just hold my square up to the bricks to know that the plinth was square and exactly one foot on each side. This is a form of a storey pole, something that I’m familiar with from woodworking.
  • You can practice brick laying with wet sand. I’d recommend doing this before tackling a project.
  • Get all your bricks as close as possible to what you are building.

In terms of tools, all you really need is a level, a trowel and a ruler. I also have a pair of brick tongs for carrying bricks (we live on a hill so this tool is almost essential), a tub for mixing mortar and a chisel and mallet for cutting bricks.

Bricklayer, August Sander, 1929.

I like the idea of making small garden follies with bricks and can imagine other uses for brick structures in gardens. Could I build a wall or something structural? No way–not without a lot more practice. Brick work is intellectually challenging and hard physical labor. I have much respect for the people who do this for a living. I mean, just think about the man in that Sander photo above and ask yourself if you could do this while balancing on scaffolding many feet up in the air.

If you’d like to try your hand at a simple brick project I highly recommend two introductory videos by Rodian: one in which he makes a small brick pyramid, which he said is the first thing he was taught as an apprentice. If you’d like to make a plinth he has a video on that too. He also has videos on how to mix mortar and just about any brick project you can think of.

Master Tinkerer Ray Narkevicius

While I’m sitting on my ass writing this brief blog post, my neighbor Ramutis “Ray” Narkevicius is building something, tending his poultry, making compost, growing hops on the rooftop of a brewery, scavenging materials, grafting a fruit tree or wiring the inside of a Fed Ex cargo jet.

Over the years Ray has turned his yard into a elaborate nutrient loop. Spent grains that he gets from the brewery feed the poultry. Poultry manure nourish fruit trees and the duck water waste hosts crayfish. All the water gets pumped around to a series of raised beds that grow herbs, dragon fruit and strawberries. His small yard overflows with the most delicious citrus you’ve ever had. And he’s a generous and kind neighbor who is always willing to lend a helping hand.

Thankfully, the folks at Fair Companies, including friend of the blog Johnny, of Granola Shotgun, made a video about Ray. One of the cool things about this video is that the footage spans seven years so you get to see how much Ray has done in just that short amount of time. One little takeaway you see in this video is how well citrus does with the liberal application of compost. The other takeaway? It’s time to put this laptop down, head outside, and get to work.

Creating a Perpetual Garden Journal

One of our ongoing regrets around the Root Simple compound is not having taken better notes on the garden in the 24 years we’ve been here. What year did we plant that toyon? How long do the avocados take to ripen? What’s the best date to pick the pomegranates? To some extent the blog functions as a diary and I can sometimes go back through entries to figure out, say, what month I picked the olives two years ago. But there are a lot of gaps.

Towards the goal of better note taking and inspired by the work of botanical illustrator Lara Call Gastinger, I started a perpetual garden journal. To make one, you get a blank journal with enough pages to devote one or two pages for each week of the year. When you want to record something you go to that week and do your drawing. You can, of course, add written notes. As the years roll by you keep adding to the same pages thus creating a week by week visual diary of  what’s going on in the plant and fungi world in your garden or in the world around you.

I know that drawing is intimidating to most people (myself included) and looking at talented folks on Instagram only makes this worse. But drawing is not really about the end product, it’s about the act of observation. You could make a perpetual garden journal with digital photos or just written entries and there would be nothing wrong with either approach. However, I’ve noticed that when I draw things I tend to observe details that I think I would have missed had I just taken a quick photo or written notes. For instance, when I drew the prickly pear cactus fruit on the page above I noticed that the spines (technically, glochids) on the fruit form a kind of spiral grid.

You can use any medium–pen, pencil, watercolor etc. For most of my drawings I use a pen, ink wash and watercolor. I use ink so that I don’t overthink things and just commit to the lines. I would recommend finding a journal with enough pages to devote a spread of two pages to each week. I have only one page per week and I think the results will be a little cramped.

Are my drawings great? Nope. But I’ve decided to embrace my slightly wonky draftsmanship and just roll with it. It’s the act of seeing, after all, that’s more important.

Lara Call Gastinger’s Instagram is a great introduction to the perpetual journal idea.

If drawing ain’t your thing here’s a way to use Google calendar to do the same thing.