Monday, January 29, 2007

If you don't know it, don't kick it

By Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 28, 2007)

“What's that?” my husband asked, his right boot poised over the spongy red blob.

“Don’t touch it!” I shouted, halting his kick in mid-air. “That’s a mushroom, I forget what it’s called, but it stinks like crazy if you knock it over.”

“You’re kidding me,” he said. “That’s a mushroom?”

I admit it didn’t look like any mushroom you’d find in the produce rack, but the strange object that emerged after yesterday’s rain was indeed a fungus. Its botanical name, Clathrus columnatus
 does little to define its form or characteristics. Not so its common moniker. Columned stinkhorn mushroom paints a much more appropriate picture.

Imagine a decaying slab of meat left in the sun for hours – that’s the odor a c
olumned stinkhorn  emits.

Picture four separate tentacles sticking out of the ground, joined together at the top. Oh, and mentally paint them bright red. That’s how a c
olumned stinkhorn looks. It’s so unusual looking - so oddly shaped - you instinctively want to reach out and touch it. Resist the temptation.

Columned stinkhorn belong to a family of off-smelling ‘shrooms called stinkhorns, members of the order Phallales. At some stage in their development, all stinkhorns, which emerge from white egg-like growths, produce a foul smelling mass of spores. In columned stinkhorn, the odiferous spoor mass looks like gray-green slime coating the inside of each tentacle. 

Although the mushroom’s fetid odor shouts, “stay away!” to people, its message is more a seductive, “come hither” to flies and beetles. That’s a good thing too, because carrion-loving insects are essential to the plant’s propagation. Spoors are inadvertently collected when the insects crawl over the plant surface in search of food. When they fly away, they carry with them tiny spoors transported to new locations.

Despite my insistence that he leave the mushroom alone, my husband had to prove to himself that the object was truly a fungus and not some red spongy toy left in the middle of the grassy path. He got down at ground level to inspect it more closely.

“I don’t smell anything,” he said sticking his nose right next to the mushroom.

“And I can’t believe you can’t smell it,” I said moving quickly away from the rancid odor. “This is one of those times when it’s a good thing to be congested.”

Before coming upon the mushroom, we had been discussing a bronchial cough my husband has been complaining of lately.

“Take me word for it,” I said. “It doesn’t smell good.”

I’m not sure he believed me but he got up from the ground and managed to control his urge to give the spongy blob a hard tap with his toe.

One of the reasons I like taking walks is making discoveries. Today it was a red mushroom that smelled like dead meat. Maybe tomorrow it will be ripe loquats or a hawk flying off with a snake in its talons. There’s a world of mystery and wonder waiting to be uncovered if just step outside and take a peek. Open you eyes, ears and, yes, noses to nature. You never know what weird and wondrous things you’ll find.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Magic Made Real

By Sherry Boas

(first appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 21, 2007)

Photo by Selena Dittberner

In the morning when the sky is just beginning to show signs of brightening, I push off from shore in my old rowboat to glide through the 12-acre lake by my home.

I’ve been rowing every morning for months and love every minute of it. The time I spend pulling those two aluminum oars through the calm pre-dawn water provides much more than an upper body workout. It’s meditative and entertaining; a time for reflection and escape into a quiet world where birdsongs and breezes take priority over cell phones and computer screens. Rowing exercises mind as well as body. Senses are stimulated; awareness heightened well before that first drop of caffeine is consumed.

During the 45 minutes it takes to paddle my 43-year-old skiff back and forth through the clear water, I’m always on the lookout - listening, thinking, watching and smelling. My awareness is so finetuned, my skin practically tingles with expectancy. Each time I’m out there – each and every time – something wonderful happens.

This morning the magic happened as I rowed a path between two large wading birds and neither flew away. On one side of the lake stood a great blue heron, elegant and sleek and well camouflaged among the weeds. On, the other – about 100 feet away – was a common egret. I saw the egret first. About 32-inches tall with snow-white body and long black legs, the egret stood out against the backdrop of greenery. Yet, despite its exposed position, the bird seemed fairly oblivious to my ever-nearing presence.

By contrast, the heron was completely unsettled by my sudden emergence into his stalking territory. His body seemed to shrink as he moved deeper into rushes and reeds. Attuned to his anxiety, I forced myself to look away. I’ve learned over the years that wild animals allow me to get closer if I keep my head down and refrain from staring. Following that reasoning and by keeping my oar strokes steady, I managed to glide past both birds without scaring either away.

It was just a little thing, but to me it was magic made real. I had succeeded at something I had never done before. I had seen both birds before but had never been able to overcome their natural nervousness. On previous rows, the heron always flew away well before my boat got within what I considered a threatening distance. And this time I got even closer, passing less than 25 feet away from the more timid of the two.

My morning paddle takes me up and down the lake’s length several times, and each time I passed the spot where both birds fished, they stood their ground. They may have remained by chance but I prefer to think not. I’d rather believe they’re getting to know and accept me – not as an intruder into their world of water and weeds but as a familiar face and non-threatening presence; another being seeking sustenance and strength from a habitat where magic can happen with the simple stroke of an oar.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Stop downloading -- and smell the roses


Sherry Boas
(first appeared in Orlando Sentinel January 14, 2007)

Photo by Selena Dittberner

Sounding like a SWAT team officer, my 14-year-old son swept into my home office and commanded, "Step away from the computer!"

Translation: "Mom, you've been working too long."

Toby's none-too-subtle suggestion hit its mark. I lifted my fingers off the keyboard, released the mouse and pushed back my chair. How right he was. Repeat offender that I am, I had once again overdone it.

Most of us are guilty of similar excesses. We choose sitcoms over sunsets, computer screens over natural scenes and Web pages over real places where warm breezes, fragrances, textures and sounds stimulate the senses in more ways than cyberspace ever can. By reaching so greedily into technological vaults -- filled though they be with a wealth of diversions -- we overlook treasures in our own backyards.

What price can be put on hearing a sandhill crane's cry as it flies overhead? What payments should be rendered each time you drink in the sweet scent of a new bloom -- orange blossom one month, jasmine another? What value can be placed on viewing a predawn sunrise with your children before the school day and workday begin?

Despite the occasional backslide, for the past few years I've been reorganizing my priorities. Spending time with my family is No. 1 on my must-do list. Being aware of my surroundings and taking better care of myself are running neck-and-neck for No. 2.

There is so much joy to be found in everyday things. I don't regret the change of focus at all. Surprising benefits of this realigned schedule are a lightened stress load, a healthier body and a happier family.

Time speeds up when I sit down at my computer so, in order to slow it back down, I try hard to keep my son's admonishment in mind.

Step away from the computer.

Simple words from an almost-adult on the verge of entering his own crazy vortex of swirling distractions. Even if only a few minutes are taken each day to stretch weary limbs, look out a window or walk into another room, stepping away keeps the magic from turning mundane, the fun from becoming humdrum.

We Floridians live in an amazing state filled with incredible skyscapes, constantly changing seasons, weird and fascinating wildlife, myriad flowering plants and more natural secrets to discover than any of us can probably uncover in a lifetime of searching. Who wouldn't welcome a chance to step away -- however briefly -- from the cluttered cubicles we've constructed to inhale a breath of fresh air?

Simple pleasures are all around us. Finding the joy in seeking them out to share with others is what this column is all about.