Everywhere I turn in springtime, the world is greening, unfurling, flowering, blossoming, and bursting upward from the soils. On Saturday, I wander with two friends in the evergreen mingled with hardwood forests on the slope of Mt. Emily near my home in La Grande, Oregon. A faint animal path leads us to a reflecting pool created by wallowing elk.
Look up the word “wallow” in the Merriam Webster dictionary and the definitions match a fine spring day:“1 .to spend time experiencing or enjoying something without making any effort to change your situation, feelings, etc.: and 2: to roll about in deep mud or water.”
To wallow is to immerse in the sensuality of the moment. To wallow is to be curious, too. For it is in being curious that each one of us can be citizen scientists in a universal quest to know this rich earth. And it is in being curious that leads to a deeper appreciation of nature’s complexity. After a good dose of investigation, then it’s time for more outdoor wallowing, with all senses alert.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” Yes, I believe that is more true than ever, as I kneel by a coral mushroom pushing its way upwards through the pine needles, not far from the elk wallow. My friend Jean McKern shared her secret place in the forest where the edible coral mushrooms grow.
I broke off a piece of the cool, moist coral mushroom, leaving the remainder intact where it belongs to continue its role in the woods, decomposing. The act of gathering and carefully harvesting wild foods links us that much more to our true nature, which is Nature with the big “N”. In every melt-in-your-mouth, wild bite of mushrooms sautéed in butter, garlic and lemon, the connection between us and the forest-fertilized soils strengthens.
The part of a mushroom that we see growing is the fruiting body of the fungi. Underneath the soil, mycelium threads throughout the soil. This is the vegetative part of a mushroom that absorbs nutrients. You might argue that mycelium runs the world – decomposing plant material, holding soils together, and increasing the ability of plants and conifers to absorb water and nutrients. That’s just the beginning. (Watch this TED talk by Paul Stamets to find the six ways mushrooms can save the world! )
With my mushroom cradled in a big pocket, I head on, following Jean and my friend Ric to gaze into the elk-sized pool of water that’s part of a small stream. Peering into the reflective waters, I can imagine a great six-point bull that once rolled here for pleasure and to lure in a receptive cow elk who took her turn too. Elk also wallow to loosen winter coats, to dislodge parasites, repel mosquitoes, and for coolness in summer heat. If fresh, I’d have smelled the powerful musk, put my hand on hoof prints, and stirred the muddy water. This is likely an abandoned wallow, with the forest plants growing around its edges, perhaps now a breeding place for frogs and salamanders.
We didn’t find a frog here, but not far away in the waters of a spring house under the ponderosa pines, a froglet popped up and gave us a big-eyed stare before swimming away. Even our human-created places can offer wildlife a foothold if we keep a light touch.
When moseying anywhere where nature has a foothold, the chances for awe are there for those willing to wallow. On this afternoon spring stroll, a pair of pileated woodpeckers hammers on a snag. Two kestrels give their killy killy calls from high up on the bare limbs of the tree. The forest floor luxuriates in the sunny brilliance of Heartleaf Arnica in bloom. I return both satiated and insatiable. Nature has this way of sparking curiosity and desire to be right back outside again, even if it’s to walk a block in town with its own set of spring surprises in every new bloom.