Last weekend I was wandering about in the wild corner of our yard. This corner, down in the bottom corner of our yard, straddling the exact boundary where the town ends and the country begins (rather a liminal kind of place, now that I think of it), is a tangle of wild hawthorn, snowberry, Oregon-grape, and the occasional saskatoon, all watched over by two solemn old Douglas-firs. As I wandered, I noticed something yellow on top of a fallen birch tree that had toppled over the fence separating our property from that of our neighbours. I stepped closer to get a better look. This is what I saw:
It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was a bright spot of unlikely yellow in a landscape that was otherwise dominated by dull greens and shades of brown. It was a brilliant spot of colour in the shadowy undergrowth. I knelt down beside it. I peered at it closely, my nose only a few inches from its surface. It was fascinating. It had a textured, porous surface and parts of it appeared to be expanding outwards along the surface of the birch bark. I even felt a sense of brief alarm. I feel comfortable identifying most of the organisms that I encounter in my local woods, but this was something different. It wasn't a plant. It wasn't an animal. It wasn't a lichen. It didn't look like any kind of fungus that I had ever seen before. Perhaps... was it a slime mold?
I've lived in the woods for most of my life. I grew up in the house that my dad built in 20 acres of forest in interior British Columbia, and, until I left for university, I hadn't been away from the place for more than a month at a time. We live in town now, but I'm sure that I must have seen slime molds before in my life. Until now, however, I have never seen one that I actually recognized as a slime mold. In fact, I don't think I had even heard of them before I took biology in university. I remember that was my favourite day in my biology class, since I was incredibly excited to learn about a new organism. I couldn't wait for the day when I would come across one in the wild.
Of course, I was thrilled when I stumbled across my yellow slime the other day. It was a perfect reminder of my practice of observing the small details, of being alert to the tiny pieces of wonder, magic, and beauty that cross our paths, and that we might otherwise not even notice if we aren't paying close attention - if, for example, we're too busy sending messages on our cell phones or are simply too wrapped up in our own lives to notice anything outside of them. It was also a reminder of how there is so much diversity of life to be found even on a mere acre of land in town, and of how there is always more to be discovered. I could live here for my entire life and not take a step away from our yard once and probably I would still not see all that there is to be seen.
Of course, I was so excited I had to rush back to the house immediately to grab my camera and bring everyone else down to see it as well. They know me and my eccentricities, so maybe they were just humouring me, but I think they were pretty excited by it as well. After all, it's not every day that you meet a slime mold.
I returned to the wild corner a couple days later and my slime mold now looked like this:
Although it was still fascinating, I was thankful that I had seen it while it was still in its glory.
Slime molds are odd creatures; once considered fungi, they are now recognized as a unique class of organisms in and of themselves. They are a member of the Kingdom Protista, a catch-all kingdom for anything that's not a plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium. They are unique in that each slime mold is like one giant cell composed of thousands of individual nuclei (in comparison to the cells of, say, a human, which have only one nucleus each). Other slime molds live as single-nucleus, individual cells most of the time but can join up to behave like a multicellular organism when conditions are right. Slime molds show unexpected intelligence, and can even find their way through mazes.
As I watched my yellow slime, I wondered: where had it come from? where was it going? what - if anything - was it thinking? what does its universe look like? It had an other-ness about it that the more familiar plants and animals and fungi seem to lack - or perhaps that other-ness was simply more noticeable because I am so much less familiar with slime molds than I am with those other organisms.
I won't be surprised if I start seeing slime molds more often now. Often, these things work like that. You see something that you have not seen before, and then, with your awareness of it triggered, you're seeing it everywhere and you wonder how you could have ever missed it before. It was like that for me with lichens, and with mushrooms. Now, slime molds are what I'll be looking for as I peer into corners and wander about in the woods.
What have you encountered recently in your own explorations?
More information on slimes:
- Lessons of a Slime Whisperer by Justine Riekena - One of my most favourite blog posts ever and one which really made me want to see a slime mold for myself even more. Justine is a pagan and animist and has a love and appreciation for all of the "small things" in nature that are often overlooked. You can also check out her great blog at Pray to the Moon.
- Slime Molds in British Columbia, including some lovely slime photos, at one of my favourite websites, E-Flora BC.
- An introduction and some fun facts about slime molds.
- An article about slime mold intelligence and another one on maze-solving.
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