Nature Notes: Exploring the Great Sleep

Winter Landscape Copyright Jill Henderson-Show Me OzBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

I like to refer to winter as The Great Sleep, because although life outside the window pane seems dull and lifeless, it is anything but. Yet to find that elusive bit of life, one must go in search of it. Even this self-avowed nature freak has to remind herself of this from time to time. So today, I took a stroll through the woods with my eyes – and my senses – wide open.

I like winter. Not because it’s cold, but because it’s probably one of the best times for hiking the vast tracks of wild areas here in the Ozarks. During winter, one can tramp shamelessly through the thickest undergrowth, peeking into hollow tree cavities and turning over rocks and logs without worrying about encountering ticks, chiggers and copperheads. Besides, winter affords the attentive explorer with sights and sounds not found any other time of year.

The first thing that caught my attention on my walk today was a large cluster of mushrooms clinging to the dead stump of an oak tree. These particular bracket or shelf mushrooms are Many-Colored Polypores (Trametes versicolor or Coriolus versicolor) named for the concentric rings of green, cream, purple and brown that adorn their upper surfaces. Here in the Ozarks, almost all polypores are commonly referred to as Turkey Tails.

Many colored PolyporeBracket mushrooms abound in the deciduous woods of the Ozarks. They are called bracket mushrooms because of their habit of protruding outward in an almost horizontal position in overlapping layers. The stem ends of bracket mushrooms are thick and dense; seizing their perch with a tenacity that belies their delicate appearance. The tips of bracket mushrooms become thinner and thinner, until ending in a smoothly rounded and softly scalloped edge. Their flesh feels somewhat like cold, human skin.

Today, the colors of these winter mushrooms contrast sharply with the wet, almost black wood of the stump on which they grow. I step back for a wider look, much as an artist might look at a painting. It is easy to admire their symmetry and composition and I make a mental note of how perfectly all of the colors in this painting complement one another. This one small piece of nature cements in my mind something that I have known all my life: nature is a fabulous artist!

Continuing through the woods with my eyes focused on the ground, I quickly find several other kinds of fungi. Some are quite beautiful and some are oddly interesting. But one, a dark brown to bluish black mushroom, which is most often found in a startling way, can be downright creepy.

Image Via: I knew their scientific name, I always referred to these mushrooms as jelly fingers. In my mind, it was the only way to describe them. Later, I found out they are sometimes called jelly fingers, but that their botanical name is really Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). This latter moniker more accurately describes what these cold, wet, gelatinous fungi feel like when encountered unexpectedly. I have bumped into them many times while picking up rotten oak limbs from the forest floor and I can unequivocally say that wrapping a bare hand around a bunch of these little fellas is enough to make your hair stand on end!

Today, I had the leisure of finding the jelly fingers before they found me, and for the first time I was able to see how truly beautiful and unique they really are.

After leaving the jelly fingers to themselves, I discovered a dazzling little patch of what appeared to be a group of mixed lichen and moss growing in a miniature garden on a limestone rock. It consisted of a patch of delicate blue-green lichen the texture of handmade paper fanned out into thin, overlapping ruffles. The lichen was nearly surrounded by a soft, tightly mounded carpet of electric green moss blooming with hundreds of maroon, micro-thin hair-like strands covering the entire surface.

Butted against this moss was a mound of another type of moss that resembled a microscopic fern. The millions of minute, feathery, leaf-like structures were each tipped by a fiery red globule, like a crazy miniature Christmas tree. Dotted here and there among the mosses were small, upright clumps of spiky sage-green lichen that looked like fantastic coral.

Moss, Lichen & LimestoneTogether, these plants have grown, survived and flourished upon a mottled limestone rock no bigger than 12” in diameter. They grow so closely together that it is hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins. Over some unknown length of time an incredible symbiotic relationship has been formed to ensure their mutual survival. They have, in a sense, become one collective organism. I run my hand lightly across the plants and feel their many textures. They are a testament to the reality of harmony and coexistence among different species.

Such a small thing, this little fairy garden; living in such an obscure niche and imposing itself on nothing but the rock on which it survives. Something in my heart tells me that the exquisite combination of color and texture in this pint-sized collage could never have been invented, nor replicated, by human hands. While I fancy myself an amateur botanist and desire to know the names of the plants that I encounter, this living sculpture was such a beautiful thing that I decided against naming the parts of it for fear that doing so would corrupt my memory of it. Some things are more beautiful and mysterious when left unnamed.

Fairy PoolI found many, many wonderful bits of living art on my walk through the woods; from the grand, sculptured branches of the mighty oak tree standing starkly against the sky, to the intricate textures and crevices of tree bark, where small insects and moths await spring. From the minute veins of leaf mold creep against the dark damp soil like frost on a window, to a magical fairy pool hidden in the hollow of a split oak where the birds come to drink, The Great Sleep is one of the most interesting and beautiful times to be fully awake.

The seemingly simple bits of nature that we don’t always see remind me that life not only persists, but thrives under the hard, cold moon of January. And as I walk through the forest, I become yet another part of the spirit and energy of the seemingly invisible life throbbing all around me. By looking and really seeing the fullness of life – even in winter – we open a door onto a deeper, more spiritual understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.

I hope you get a chance to do some exploring of your own!

Happy hiking!

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz
© 2013 Jill Henderson

A Journey of Seasons by Jill HendersonExcerpted in part from
A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country

If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.

Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.

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