One man’s mushroom

Every backyard has a treasure. If you can’t find a treasure, someone else will.

Native Russians had an amazing plant that healed wounds and stopped bleeding, they told travel writer Lawrence Millman. It was round and light on the outside, and dark inside. They would apply the powder inside to broken skin, and the wound would clot up and not get infected.

Turns out, this wasn’t a plant, it was a fungus – the puffball mushroom. In my schoolyard, we called them smoke bombs, for the puff of spores they release when squeezed. You were supposed to stomp on smoke bombs, not keep them in seal hide pouches. Fungal Band-Aids, under our noses.

Puffballs in my yard, Sept. 8.

Another mushroom, Hericium, also grows all over, including in Russia and Alaska. This mushroom, known here as lion’s mane, is incredibly delicious sauteed with garlic, salt and pepper — or deep fried. You can find Hericium here on dead poplar that has decayed for a few years. I spent the summer collecting these treats in Interior Alaska.

A baby lion's mane mushroom – safe to eat cooked and very distinguishable. July 7.

Even with mushrooms, different people see value in different species.

Imagine you get a bunch of people, everyone with different treasures, and put them together so there’s at least one person who adores each little thing in your backyard. A person to the bald faced hornets, to the poplar, to the chickadees, to the silt, to the pond, to the bedrock. This medley of treasure hunters makes up the scientific community. Imagine what you could find out about your backyard if they all converged on it.

The great thing, especially about Alaska, is… they are. Scientists aren’t just interested in some faraway places, but the habitats we connect to. For me, this is the Fairbanks area. Our ecosystem’s a trove of interesting and useful things, from the physics of the Tanana River in moose hunting season to the biology of creatures built for minus 40.

I piece together these snippets of Alaska, my home, but you can do this anywhere. Go outside and try it yourself. You’ll see new value once you start asking questions.

Just off Fairbanks's doorstep - the Tanana River, July 7.

Here’s a little challenge:

For those in the Fairbanks area, Lawrence Millman will speak tomorrow (Friday, Sept. 9) at 7 p.m. in the Wood Center Ballroom for the UAF Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series. He specializes in fungi and circumpolar cultures. He did the hard work finding out about fungi from scientists and ethnomycologists (that is, people who interweave mushrooms and culture). You can learn interesting tidbits about ecosystems and cultures all around the world just by showing up.

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