Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: In the Garden and the Wild, Ends Are Also Beginnings

By Ron Sullivan
Friday November 24, 2006

I suppose it’s the season that’s pulling my thoughts toward the organisms and processes of decay: molds, mildews, earthworms, compost in general. Certainly I’m encountering them a lot lately, in the garden and in the wilds. We’ve had just enough rain to encourage little brown mushrooms to pop up, and the more annoying fungi and their companions on plants and walls and books and shower curtains are getting bolder too. Our winter companions, fungi are often such agents of destruction that we can just plain hate them.  

We depend on fungi, though, directly in the kitchen and less directly in the cellar. Molds make cheese blue, or even bleu; yeasts make bread rise, and wine and beer ferment. Where would we be without those? And there are all those tasty edible mushrooms.  

But we also depend on fungi in their destructive role, uncomfortable though we find it. “Well rotted” is a gardener’s phrase, and as gardeners we get up close and personal with a process that’s more impersonal than our minds would prefer. The manure pile—product of another process we’d rather not have our noses in—and the composter are lively factories of soil-enriching stuff only because they’re also sites of destruction.  

The scent of finished compost is perfume to a gardener, and we can fork the pile over beforehand to see who’s working for us. We might find worms, or sowbugs, beetle larvae, all manner of crawlies. Looking closer, we see the mycelia of assorted fungi threading through the darkening mass.  

Walking in the woods just this time of year, the land damp but not yet sodden, we can see fungi as a delicate white rime on the edges of each fallen leaf in an understory pile. We can see the fruiting bodies of the fungi that are destroying the living trees as well as the fallen leaves and dead wood, and part of what they’re doing is turning living and formerly living things into nutrition and nursery for other living things.  

The forest lives longer than anything in it—though we don’t know for sure how long those intertwined nets of underground life live, come to think of it. As a hen is an egg’s way of making another egg, maybe the forest is the mycorrhizal web’s way of making more mycorrhizal webs.  

We cherish our individuality, and the individuality of the people and other beings we love. I, for one, won’t give up mine till they pry it from my cold dead fingers. But we live on others’ lives, and eventually other lives will feed on what’s left of us, all thanks to the organisms of decay. I still think death is a really bad idea but life on our level hasn’t come up with a way to live, to nurture itself, without it.  

So let us give thanks, however tentative and conditional, to the other side of the web that holds us all and promises a literal, if incomprehensible, continuation of all our lives beyond the beginning and the end of what we can perceive firsthand.