Your neighbor dies. No one knows why. With family consent, pathologists perform an autopsy to find the cause of death – be it a poison, allergic reaction or chronic malady. People you see every day look fine on the outside, not drastically different now than yesterday, or last year.
Between what you see and what doctors see is a scalpel, a cut, a way of making the unseen seen. What we cannot see is free to swell unchecked. Autopsies allow doctors to travel into the past and see how time, exposure and chance treated a person.
Place a hand on a stump of an old tree. If you walk your fingers ring-to-ring, you can explore and sidestep where (and often when) branches start, fires scar and fungi flourish. Here, as with humans, you can see what brought the tree down.
You can time travel with trees, visually and musically, and you and I likely have more access to stumps than cadavers and time machines, anyway.
Dr. Gregory House didn’t treat a tree before “House” ended last week, but sickness strikes plants all the same. As with humans, bacteria in the soil take advantage of tree wounds, insects bite and harass the tough trunks and fungal diseases are nearly impossible to shake without fungicide.
As anyone who has ever worn flip-flops to a gym or dorm shower knows, fungi don’t just break down detritus beautifully, they also plague the living. Sooty molds can cover leaves, soil fungi can kill off seedlings, rusts can baffle Alaskans.
These fungi can sometimes hurt humans: Claviceps purpurea pretends to be rye grains and hides with the rest of the harvest when threshed. Eating these false grains causes the disease ergot, which makes victims act insane, and might have sparked the Salem Witch Trials.
It makes sense that humans avoid many types of fungi to avoid getting sick with diseases such as ergot. Plants, too, contract fatal sicknesses when infected by some fungi.
However, from fungi we also get morels, button mushrooms and brie cheese. Fungi are the last link in the food chain that turns it into a loop: they decompose dead animals back to nutrients for the trees.
This process — fungi preying on both the living and the dead — can be quite beautiful. When fungi stains wood, the wood becomes spalted. Wood artists seek out spalted materials. Artists craft these wood defects into buttons and bowls. Alaska consumers who prefer birch cabinets with some spalting will pay a lot for what they want.
That’s good for Alaska markets, because the state’s birch forests are rife with fungus-ridden, imperfect trees. In life and death, Alaska trees wear their hardships just under their skin, for anyone willing to take the time to pry them open.