After the heavy rains, and the extensive flooding throughout the Glen Kens around Loch Ken, the sharp frost meant that the ground was solid enough to amble along upon. So we ventured into the mossy wood just beyond the frozen fairways of the neighbouring golf course.
As we moved deeper into the hazel generations, I noticed what seemed to be rolls of toilet paper scattered about the place. Tut-tut, I thought, how thoughtless of someone! But I decided to make a closer inspection; it seemed to be some sort of fungus growing around dead sticks. And there were more deposits as we ventured further into the wood.
Odd, we mused. It seems too cold for sprouting bodies to emerge from the mycelium underground. I picked up one of the loose sticks to have a closer look. Such delicate feathering, such miniscule fronds. I broke off a section and poised it on a bare outstretched finger. The feathery bit seemed to move, shrinking before my eyes, as it turned to liquid.
Really?! This frosty fungus is really a manifestation of water crystallisation in a particular environment? How delightfully remarkable! And with those thoughts we ambled a bit further, before turning back and finding our way to our warm fire again.
But the delight stayed with me for the entire day, and on into this morning, so that I had to investigate further. I’m grateful to Scientific American for an educative piece called ‘Strands of Ice that Look like Hair‘ which explains the phenomenon. It turns out that we weren’t far wrong, either: without the fungus Exidiopsis effusa working its capillary magic on rotting wood, the water would not be drawn towards the freezing point at the end of the ice ‘hairs’ and the amazing crystal formation would not occur. Apparently we shouldn’t be that abashed; scientists had puzzled over this strange phenomenon for a century!
This amazing thing feels to me, now, like yet another way in which something apparently magical and wondrous becomes yet more entrancing as preliminary answers are revealed that lead to more questions. We had quickly identified that the ‘fungus’ was actually water crystals, by the simple expedient of using our body’s warmth to melt them. But to learn that a saprophytic fungus was responsible for eliciting the conditions for that crystallisation, wow! What further wonders might there be to be discovered, if we only continue to ask the right questions?
Richard Dawkins poses just such a conundrum in his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he confounds the persuasive folk-myth that wonders and mysteries are destroyed by understanding them. The answer is that yet more wonders are waiting to be revealed, if we only continue to look.
And so, with that sort of exhortation in our hearts and minds, we can continue to grapple with the new realities in which we find ourselves. Surely, there are more wonders ahead.