September 16, 2007

Tiny Poetry

I'm writing this entry from the graduate student office at school. I went out collecting this morning and have been examining and identifying specimens for the past three hours and a bit. I've only got two more left but am not familiar enough with their genera to have a good starting point, so I have to wait for spore prints. I think one of them may be an Agrocybe, but we'll see. That's not why I'm writing this, though.

One of my specimens from the day's foray is very familiar to me. It's Pluteus cervinus, the deer mushroom, a pink-gilled wood decomposer that I've collected at least a dozen times and have tried eating. LL likes it, but I don't care for it myself.

For the first time today, however, I have a deer mushroom and access to the proper stain and microscope to observe the hymenium adequately, and it's a thing of beauty. The gills are studded with thousands and thousands of structures called cystidia. They're shaped like long-stemmed champagne flutes, each with a pair of little horns at the base. They're graceful, delicate, beautiful things, and I have never seen them before. Today, there they were, each perfect and stained pale pink with phloxine B.

At the risk of sounding excessively poetic, there really is a sort of artfulness to the fungi. They're so different in structure than we are. They have no tissues, but instead weave themselves into existence from a set of fewer than a half dozen kinds of tiny threads. Unlike plants and animals, they can move organelles between their "cells," although that's not even truly the right word for the structure since they are usually open at the ends and so aren't cells in the sense of any other living thing. Even the spores are beautiful elaborations on basic geometric themes.

I don't have the means to share images of what I'm seeing, but to me it is rather awe-inspiring. The thing is, we don't even know what it is that cystidia do, if indeed they do anything at all. It's theorizes that they might be basidia (spore-producing cells) that fail to undergo meiosis and so are stuck in a kind of limbo. Whatever they are, they're like the finials on gothic cathedrals, perhaps not necessary but a fitting flourish that increases the beauty of the whole structure.

Things like this lead me to believe that people who assert that we need religion to find a sense of awe and mystery at this amazing world we inhabit simply haven't bothered looking down the barrel of a microscope.

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