The Deep Damp Woods

Water droplets on white pine (Pinus strobus)

After being stuck inside for a couple cold, rainy days, I was growing restless; methodically peering out my favorite windows, desperately scanning for any excuse to venture out. The forecast was promising rain for a few more days. Staring out of glass portals into the natural world, I watched the goldfinch, tufted titmice, chickadees and nuthatches slowly work on emptying my bird feeders. Mourning doves and robins surveyed the driveway, pacing along the gravel edges searching for the early worm. Spots of color dotted the wet lawn: red, yellow, white and brown mushrooms on full display, taking advantage of the moist environments to release their spores. Occasionally, the sun is able to throw some rays through the rain clouds, turning all water droplets into sparkling prisms shining green and gold. The towering white pine tree is adorned with thousands of brilliant gems like glowing pendants dangling at the tips of its needles. I find a raincoat and my mud boots, so I make up my mind to venture out. Pulling on my rubber mud boots, I assure my dog Charlie I’ll bring him with me next time when it’s not so muddy in the woods. You’ve never seen an old dog with such sad, puppy eyes as he watches me leave.

I always begin my walk by tracing along the edges of mowed lawn, looking for mushrooms, new flowers, birds and small animals. The fresh rain has pushed up large, yellow, velvet foot mushrooms that cluster in the wet grass and on rotting logs in the forest edge. A long, thin white cultivar of velvet foot; Enoki, is famously utilized in East Asian cuisine. As with all wild mushrooms, eating the wild form of the mushroom should be done with extreme caution as there are poisonous look-alikes. Velvet foot mushroom was also used as part of an experiment on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1993. Cultures were grown in low-gravity to observe how the fungus orients its growth form. In normal gravity conditions, most mushrooms bend their stems near the base to align the cap pointing up, allowing the spores to fall easily from the gills.However, in the low-gravity environment of the space shuttle, the mushrooms grew at many odd angles, seemingly confused about which way was up. Continuing on my walk I pass red and yellow Amanita mushrooms and giant puffballs the size of basketballs. A walk in the rain allows me a glimpse of these colorful fungi before the next cold night turns them into slimy brown piles of goo.

At the top of a small hill in the forest, I am granted an engaging perspective. Elevated up a few feet, my eyeline sits just above the tops of shrubs and small trees which comprise the forest understory on my property. From this viewpoint, I am able to observe the vertical layering of habitats within the forest canopy. The forest floor displays a range of colorful mushrooms, stealthy salamanders, wood frogs and bright red jack-in-the-pulpit berries all thriving in the shady underworld of wet leaves and rotting stumps. Just above this low-lying world are the shrubs and small trees like spicebush, highbush cranberry and witch hazel. Game birds like bobwhites and ruffed grouse feed on spicebush berries, and grouse use fallen trees as “drumming logs” in their mating ritual. Spicebush swallowtail butterflies glide between branches, the males releasing pheromones while performing elaborate courtship displays to attract a mate. I snap off a few spicebush twigs and stuff them in my pocket to enjoy a cup of spicebush tea while drying off later. Overhead, the oak, maple, black cherry and poplar trees tower overhead, reaching skyward. Virginia creeper is not far behind, crawling up the trees and turning a fiery red in autumn. Crows are making a racket in the top of a white pine tree, likely harassing a raptor. Migrating warblers and other small birds flit between the treetops in the canopy, only discernible with a pair of binoculars or a trained ear. These birds don’t frequent bird feeders, so a walk outside is the best way to catch a glimpse. Walking with my neck craned upward is not smart, but when I trip over a tree root I’m reminded of the hidden ecosystem layer beneath my feet. In the soil amid the interwoven network of tree roots, mycelium threads from fungus stretch across the landscape; the massive, hidden, vegetative body of the small colorful mushrooms we see up above. Bugs, worms, tunneling mammals, reptiles and amphibians find food and shelter in the soil.

On my way back to the house, I am met with a cold wind as I leave the protection of the woods. With winter approaching, these forest layers are about to change but they will still be visible. The forest floor will become covered in a blanket of snow decorated with tracks of rabbits, foxes, and raccoons still wandering the white woods. Under the snow, a maze of tunnels formed by mice and voles offer hidden highways across the landscape. Above, small trees and shrubs comprising the understory layer will lose their leaves but many will still hold colorful berries, a valuable food source for birds like the cedar waxwing. In the bare branches of the canopy, hawks and owls will sit on perches searching for prey.

Standing still and quiet in the forest allows one a chance to appreciate the density and layers of life within. Plants and animals specialized to thrive in their own place in the ecosystem are layered harmoniously, depending on each other. Next time you find yourself with a heightened perspective in the woods, take a moment to look around. Studying a rich, forest ecosystem tends to illuminate an understanding of our own place in the environment.


Do you say possum or opossum? The fact is, in Michigan, we have the North American
Opossum ( Didelphis virginiana) , also known as the Virginia Opossum. We do not have possum. Possum refers to a group of about 70 small to medium sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi. However, many people use the common name possum to refer to opossum. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I chose to write this article. Opossum are one of our most common yet least understood mammals. In addition to being called by the wrong name, some people see opossum as an ugly, scary pest with a menacing grin full of teeth. Like most animals, the more we learn about them, the less scary they become. Setting aside our prejudices, we are able to appreciate this beneficial and interesting critter strolling through our yards in the moonlight.

The opossum is North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are born incompletely developed
and are carried and suckled in a pouch on their mother's belly. In some cases, 20 to 50
opossum have been born in a single litter, but as the mother only has 13 teats, any additional
offspring may not survive due to lack of nutrition. An average litter will yield eight or nine
offspring. Baby opossum, called “joeys”, reside in their mother’s pouch for the first
two-and-a-half months before climbing onto her back. After about four or five months the joeys will leave the mother.

Some people find opossum cute, while others find them to be hideous. Famous for their startling grin of 50 teeth, the opossum have more teeth than any other land mammal in North America. They may have a mouthful of teeth, but opossum do not have much of a brain. Surprisingly small for the animal’s size, the brain of an opossum is about one-fifth the size of a raccoon's brain. The lifespan for opossum is very short, lasting only about two years in the wild. Even in captivity, opossum only live about four years on average. Living outside their native range, the opossum’s wiry body hair and hairless tails are not sufficient adaptations to survive our frigid climate in northern Michigan.

Ever since European settlers began clearing dense forests in the region, the range for opossum
has been expanding northward at a significant pace. Oceana County is north of the native range of opossum. The pre-European settlement range extended as far north as southern Ohio,
Indiana, and Illinois. Since 1900, reports exist of opossum thriving throughout Michigan.
However, living outside of their native range does present some challenges. Michigan winters
are harsh for the opossum, and it is not uncommon for them to lose parts of their ears or tails to frostbite. Their thin, wiry hair is not sufficient insulation against our frigid winter temperatures.

Cursed with a reputation as chicken killers and garbage raiders, the opossum has a surprisingly
diverse diet. Opossum are omnivores, eating a mixture of plants and animals such as fruits,
grains, insects, snails, slugs, eggs, mice, rats, fish, frogs, snakes and carrion. Acting as
groundskeepers, opossum consume many undesirable pests. A single opossum can consume
as many as 4,000 ticks per week, significantly reducing the threat of lyme disease. They also
are known to eat cockroaches, rats, and mice. Opossum are mostly immune to rabies and are
resistant to snake venom allowing them to prey on snakes. Although they have been found
invading trash cans, or raiding chicken coops, the presence of opossum can be more of a
benefit than a burdon. Securing trash cans and eliminating entry points into chicken coops will
limit their negative impacts.

When frightened or harmed, opossum suddenly freeze and lie still as if dead. They have no control over this response, which could be said to paralyze them with fear or have evolved
because almost any predator can outrun them. If left unharmed, a catatonic opossum will
recover in roughly one to four hours. When confronted, opossum may display their teeth
and even hiss. However, rather than fighting, this shy and inoffensive adversary utilizes a
survival strategy of entering a state of apparent death. The opossum’s lips draw back, teeth
bared and saliva foams around the mouth. Eyes are half-closed and a foul smelling secretion is
emitted from the anal glands. An opossum in this state can be prodded and even carried without awakening, but we strongly recommend respectfully leaving them alone.

Orphaned opossum are sometimes taken as pets despite being illegal to keep them without a
wildlife rehabilitation permit. These are wild animals with a short lifespan and they can become
sick from the stress of captivity. Professionals at zoos and wildlife rehabilitation centers are
trained to properly care for wild animals. Opossum at these facilities can be used as educational animals to teach adults and children about wildlife rehabilitation and conservation. Learning about our local marsupial allows us to understand the role of opossum in the ecosystem, and convinces us to dispel any feelings of disgust or contempt for these surprisingly beneficial creatures.

Indian Pipes: The Preferred Flower of Life

Why are most plants green? Because they contain chlorophyll pigments, which are used to absorb energy from sunlight. Many of us have learned about photosynthesis, the process plants use to synthesize foods from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water. This dependence on sunlight is what drives plants to grow upward and trees to reach over one another, fighting for the best spot in the sun. But in the dark, shaded understory of the forest, not much sunlight reaches the forest floor. Some of the plants that live in these darkened locations have found a way to obtain energy without sunlight. In Michigan forests, we have a haunting example of these adaptations found in Monotropa uniflora. The abnormal white color of this plant and the fact that it is usually found in the darkest corners of a forest understory, have led people to nickname the plant ghost plant, corpse plant, or Indian pipes.

Mostly white with specks of black, this forest oddity produces a single, nodding, bell-shaped
flower head atop a scaly stem. Indian pipes are actually a relative of the common blueberry, which has a similarly shaped bloom. The plant occasionally develops a pink coloration as the season progresses, and rare varieties even have a deep red color. If searching for this elusive specimen, look in the understory of dark woods often around beech trees. Indian pipes require moist, thick leaf cover typically found in mature forests. Most of the year, this plant is unseen, living underground and only appearing to bloom for a couple months in the summer. Without the need for sunlight, the only reason Indian pipes poke their heads above the soil is to be pollinated by long-tongued bees. Once pollinated, the flowers heads turn upright, forming a seed capsule. The seeds are then distributed through the forest by wind.

Beyond its ghostly appearance, what makes Indian pipes so interesting is that these plants do not
seek an energy source from above, but rather from below the ground. Without a strong source of
sunlight on the forest floor, chlorophyll and photosynthesis are ineffective. Instead, this plant
adapted a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi found on tree roots. The fungi is
already in symbiosis with the tree roots, acting like a “middleman” connecting the photosynthesizing tree with the Indian pipes. Scientists believe this relationship does not cause harm to the tree. This unique adaptation to obtain energy without harvesting solar energy is uncommon, but Indian pipes are one of about 3,000 non-photosynthetic plants in the world.

As with all wildflowers, we do not recommend picking Indian pipes. Not only will the flower quickly wilt and turn black, but native wildflowers should be preserved as part of the ecosystem and to spark the interest of the next passerby. That said, make sure to bring your camera to take pictures of this photogenic ghost plant.

Indian pipes are said to be the favorite flower of American poet Emily Dickinson, and the flower
was even featured on the cover of her first published book of poetry. She makes frequent reference to the whiteness of the flowers in her writings. Dickinson’s friend and editor Mabel Todd once painted a picture of Indian pipes for Emily, and she responded, “That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none.”