“…[S]mall mute deer prints lead right up to the door and the huge windows, dart across the frozen pool sparkling with rime, then meander through drifts to twin apple trees and ice-claggy fruit. So they have learned how to walk on water, browse the fragrant marvels tucked beneath the surface of the world, even how best to come and go in a season oblique with bullets and ice…Often, I see them browsing in the yard, but when I slip outside for a closer look they smell my strong human scent, amble down to the fence, and leap back into their pandemonium of green. This summer I intend to disguise myself as a conifer or a mushroom. A recent issue of Field and Stream tells me how: To fool deer and rabbits, take something without much tannin (yellow birch, pine, mushrooms, hemlock, wintergreen, or some aromatic conifer, for example) and dry it for a week or two. Chop it up, then fill a jar half full of it. Add 100-proof vodka. Filter through a Melitta filter. Put in an atomizer. Apply liberally to bury your human smell. Let your thoughts mushroom.”
-Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses (1991)
“Earth knows no desolation/She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.”
-George Meredith, English novelist and poet (1828-1909)
The creek is low and rank with dead salmon. Strewn about its banks are gnawed fish heads, fish tails, discarded fish guts, even whole fish, barely touched. Dragged out by hungry carnivores, the corpses find their way deep into the forest, making landfall on loamy beds of conifer needles, spilling garlands of amber eggs along the way, trailing entrails. Here, out of their element, they break down and become terrestrial beings in the afterlife. Their molecular constituents are bequeathed to the soil, to be refashioned, reused, recycled anew. From death springeth life, ever and ineluctable and not without a little unpleasantness.
An opaque film coats the water’s surface: malodorous and viscid, a slick of rotting fish slime leaving a bathtub-ring on the rocks. The creek is drying up, its current turbid and sluggish; ghostly pale carcasses line the shallow creek bed like fallen leaves, ovate and etiolated. A few straggling fish ply the waters yet—their breathing is labored, and their crimson spawning colors are splotched with fuzzy white rot. Mallards, mergansers and coots ravage the wasted corpses, sieving for roe. Bears and osprey and eagles sate themselves on salmon and are soon wearied by it. They move on to fresher fare. These predators build their bodies on the flesh of others until eventually they too must die, and bodily disaggregate—and the cycle is complete.
Along the water’s edge, aspens and willows and alders have shed their colors and stand mute, barren, dormant in the autumn chill. Their leafy accoutrement, degraded to earthen shades, lies composting on the forest floor. Leaves to earth, fishes to ashes, dust to duff. Thrust up from this windfall are the fungi, fruiting when all else has gone to rot. They are the consummate decomposers, decontextualizers, virtuosic maestros of soil remediation. They liaise with plants underground, symbiotically exchanging those fundamental currencies of life: water, carbohydrates, protection from attack. Akin to a universal solvent, fungi liberate nutrients that others find impossible to extract and digest on their own. They sequester toxins in their flesh and synthesize potent chemical compounds de novo in a sort of mycological alchemy. Fungi achieve these inimitable feats, among much, much else—and they get it done with absolutely zero fanfare. Theirs is a dirty job, lowly and thankless, but it is an indispensable service nonetheless.