FeedIndex
Filter: first quarter  view all
On what was to be, sadly, Venue's only stop in Oregon, we went off-road to visit the world's largest organism, a colossal fungus in the remote eastern mountains of the state, about an hour west of the arid border with Idaho.



For most of the year, including the day we visited, the organism is only visible through its neighbors' distress. Armillaria ostoyae is a kind of honey fungus that parasitizes, colonizes, kills, and then decays the root systems of its conifer hosts; this leaves behind a tell-tale ring-shaped gradient of long-dead, dying, and recently infected trees.

The super-sized organism consists, for the most part, of underground rhizomorphs: long, shoestring-like threads that branch outward to find and infest new conifer roots.



(Top) Healthy trees, elsewhere in the Malheur National Forest. (Bottom) Trees felled by the world's largest organism, Malheur National Forest.

Much of the northeastern section of Oregon's Malheur National Forest is covered in discontinuous patches of fungus-killed trees. Until recently, however, they were thought to be the work of lots of separate mushrooms.

Then, in 2000, USDA researchers collected samples of fungus from a roughly four-mile square section of the forest, and cultured them together in a Petri dish; it was an experiment designed to map the boundary edges of different fungal individuals. To their surprise, the samples from different patches of forest refused to react with each other as an alien other, and subsequent tests confirmed that they were, in fact, genetically identical—all the samples came from the same individual fungus.

This single organism, which began life as a microscopic spore, had spread into a 2,385-acre web of thin, black filaments—roughly the same footprint as a second-tier American airport, such as Philadelphia International.

Further, based on estimates made for smaller individuals, Genet D, as it was fondly christened, weighs between 7,567 and 35,000 tons (an elephant, for reference, clocks in at a maximum of only 8 tons). The humongous fungus is even up there in terms of its age, which is estimated at anything from 1,900 to 8,650 years (although that is dwarfed in comparison to a 200,000-year-old patch of seagrass in the Mediterranean).


Map from the USDA guide to the Humongous Fungus, which includes GPS coordinates (PDF).

The USDA guide to the fungus (PDF) helpfully notes that the best viewpoint on the destruction wreaked by the world's largest organism is from the other side of the valley, just east of a gravel pit and next to its smaller, 482-acre cousin.

We stopped there and surveyed the devastated forest, briefly mulling the difficulties giant clones such as the humongous fungus pose to the very idea of the individual, while keeping our fingers crossed that the standing-dead trees around us wouldn't choose this moment to fall.


The Humongous Fungus in fruit. Photograph courtesy of the USDA.

In a great essay by the late Stephen Jay Gould—called, of course, "A Humongous Fungus Among Us"—Gould describes "the striking way that this underground fungal mat," in his case, a 30-acre Armillaria fungal clone in Michigan, "forces us to wrestle with the vital biological (and philosophical) question of proper definitions for individuality." He suggests, for example, that entirely new conceptualizations of parent-offspring relationships, let alone wholly new understandings of individuals and super-individuals, might be possible.

For the sake of offering an alternative, Gould asks, "Why not propose that such gigantic mats of rhizomorphs form as congeries, or aggregations made of products grown from several founding spores (representing many different parents), all twisted and matted together—in other words, a heap rather than a person?" To qualify biologically as a single individual, Gould later adds, a creature "must have a clear beginning (or birth) point, a clear ending (or death) point, and sufficient stability between to be recognized as an entity."

The "entity" all around us, then, curled up and knotted through the roots of the forest—"all twisted and matted together" both through itself and through the landscape it thrived within—was equal parts biological mystery only recently solved by genetic testing and a kind of invisible spectacle detectable only in its side-effects, a living and strangely sinister force acting on the hills from below.



Meanwhile, if you go into the Oregon woods on the hunt for the world's largest organism in the autumn, after the first rains, the fruiting honey mushrooms are supposed to be quite tasty.


Taking a cue from the provocative approach of historian Annette Kolodny—who suggests in her recent book In Search of First Contact that Algonquin pictographs and even Norse graffiti carved on rocks near the Atlantic coast, in both Canada and New England, should be considered an early example of what is now broadly referred to as "American literature"—it would be tempting to say something similar for Newspaper Rock, outside Moab, Utah, that this inscribed landform is a kind of national literary feature, a mineralogical Moby Dick for the region.



Less a narrative sequence, however, than a multi-generational graphic palimpsest of random carvings—including nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and, sadly, probably twenty-first-century travelers' graffiti, all adding to the historical layers on display—Newspaper Rock nonetheless promises a Rosetta Stone-like moment.

It—or, to be more accurate, the media surrounding this site, including, in an era of blogs, Twitter feeds, and Tumblrs, its charmingly antiquated name—suggests that this should indeed be some sort of monument to translation and contact, an inscribed physical manifestation of cultures predating Anglophone expansion (that is, military conquest) into the complex lands of the southwest.



Having never visited Newspaper Rock before, with its carved wheels, skinned animals, trains of antelope, serpentine geometry, buffalo-headed hunters with insect legs, and horseback riders, the poetic expectation was that a key to the puzzle of inter-cultural contact had been carved here, some mythic insight or moment of wisdom that required terrestrial near-permanence in the form of petroglyphs that scholars have been trying to decipher ever since.

In fact, it's hard not to wish for a kind of Photoshop layers menu, some kind of lensed device or augmented reality that might remove the various inscriptions that have come at different times and, in the process, see who left what where, and why.



Richard L. Bland, an anthropologist with the U.S. National Park Service, writes in a paper for Arctic Anthropology that, "Petroglyphs are a relatively common form of prehistoric communication, in the sense that those who drew the petroglyphs knew what they meant, as no doubt did many of their fellow tribesmen who viewed them."

Unfortunately, however, "The meaning or significance of these images, however, was generally specific to the individual or group that created them. There was never a cross-cultural standardization of symbols and as a result much of the meaning of many petroglyph series has been lost."



There was never a dictionary, we might say, a central database or archive of meaning from which all other petroglyphs were derived. There was no encyclopedia.

The symbols are as much pure graphic design, then, as they are literary expression; they are realized form as much as they are a mere promise of content.



Bland goes on to suggest that the specific petroglyphs he's studied in the Arctic are a form of "hunting magic," a landscape notation with superstitious consequences, but the inscriptions outside Moab seem altogether more casual (perhaps assisted by the fact that they're now found fenced-in at the edge of a state-run parking lot).

In any case, to put more of an emphasis on expectation than on the actual experience of the site, at least half of the Venue team was gearing up to see Newspaper Rock as if coming into the presence of a foundational text, the small print Europeans didn't see upon their arrival on the continent, a grimoire. Or as if visiting Newspaper Rock should be something like visiting the old British Library Reading Room, sitting down amidst a geology of broadcasts, CTRL-S after CTRL-S preserved in rock form—the Earth itself as hard drive.



It is media with a limited range, however—something to come to, rather than something you tune into from afar.

To use an annoyingly timely analogy, it is exactly not a Facebook Wall, exactly not comparable to anything more contemporary—let alone more sacred—than a painted wall sprayed with what soon becomes visual archaeology.



Seen this way, Newspaper Rock is simply graphomania on the scale of an entire landscape. It is a hillside imbued with a hint of literary content and preserved by order of the U.S. government.



Equal parts rock art, literary history, and historically preserved act of vandalism, the monument is now a kind of appendix on Canyonlands National Park, lying outside Park boundaries but acting, nonetheless, as something of an introductory signpost to the writhing and sinuous geological forms to come at the end of the region's old river beds now paved as all-weather roads.



Indeed, amongst many interesting things to consider here is the overlooked narrative genius of road design in the United States—something Venue explores in a forthcoming interview with Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, a history of the U.S. interstate system—which has transformed this site of geological inscription precisely into a kind of entry gate for this most immersive example of the National Parks, casting however minor a spell on tourists driving by.
 
  Getting more posts...