The Orphaned Woods: Puffballs

It was late summer, Jon wasn’t home and I was sitting on the back porch eating lunch when I heard the tree fall in the woods.

I’d heard a tree fall once before so I was familiar with the sound. But this time there was no cracking or braking, no rumble as it hit the ground.  There was nothing violent about its descent.   It came down slowly, the sound of it falling softened by the branches and summer leaves of the surrounding trees.

It felt gentle. I thought of that trust exercise that people do when they intentionally fall back into someone’s arms, believing they will be caught.

That afternoon when I went for a walk in the woods, there was the big old apple tree, dead for as long as I can remember, laying across the path.  It had toppled from its rotted roots.  It just couldn’t stand upright anymore.

Since then the dogs jump and I step over the fallen tree.  It’s thick enough that I’d have to cut it was a saw to clear it from the path.  Each time I pass it, I think that maybe next time I’ll bring my bow saw and cut it up.

That hasn’t happened yet.

Today, just before stepping over the fallen apple tree, maybe because of the snow topping it off like a hat, I noticed the puffball.  It was about the size of one of my dryer balls and when I bent down to look at it then take a picture, Fate checked it out too.

Fate sniffing the puffball

I didn’t know much about puffballs, except that the first time I kicked one by mistake, a brownish puff of smoke came out of it.

Since reading about them, I discovered that the big white mushrooms that grow in the pasture are puffballs before they turn brown.  They’re basically mushrooms without the stem or gills.

Their spores are the brownish “smoke” that comes out of them.  So when I kicked that puffball, I was actually helping to spread its seeds.  If some animal doesn’t step on them and break them open, their outer skin eventually cracks or breaks off exposing their inside.

Even a drop of rain can kick up the powdery spores and release them into the air.

When I was in kindergarten we took a walking field trip to Duffy’s Park, a few blocks from the school.   It was just an open lot of grass with some trees on one edge. Miss Corin, my teacher, picked one of the dandelions that grew there.   She plucked the yellow petals revealing their fluffy white seed roots.

It seemed like magic to me when she told us that the yellow dandelions turned into those white balls of fluff that I made wishes on.   That I was actually spreading the seeds when I blew on them and made a wish.

I never made the connection between the big round mushrooms growing in the pasture and the brown or purple puffballs I also found there.  I obviously didn’t learn my lesson in Kindergarten but it’s finally sinking in.

Some plants and flowers can be unrecognizable in their many stages of development and throughout the seasons.   The bark on a Black cherry tree looks completely different when it’s young than when it’s old.  And there are so many variations of pine and oak trees I can’t imagine identifying them without being able to also see their leaves, pinecones, and/or acorns.

This spring I’m going to keep an eye on those big round white mushrooms that grow in the pasture.  It might be like watching grass grow, but I’d love to witness their gradual transformation into puffballs.

I’ve also read that some of them are edible.  But I’m not ready to go there yet.

The inside of another puffball I found in the woods.  This one was about six inches round, exposed and already rained on.

Fate knocked the Puffball with her nose, breaking it open.  So I gave it a squeeze to see the spores drift out.

Back Into The Orphaned Woods

“The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in the little life on the land.” from Pastoral Song by James Rebanks

Overcast and breezy, wearing long sleeves and socks, I made my way back to The Orphaned Woods. The mosquitos are gone, the mud drying, and the tall grasses tickle instead of tug at me as they did in the damp heat a couple of weeks ago.

A wildflower that I’ve never seen before greets me just over the Gulley Bridge. Later I find out it’s a Turtlehead, traditionally used as a medicine for digestive issues.


Over the fallen stones and into the woods, the footpath is overgrown and the  White Snakeroot blooming.  The earth is welcoming beneath my feet, and I breathe in the trees feeling once again that this is where I belong.

I look around me to see what has changed.

A dead branch, the size of a small tree has fallen on a tall thin Hickory, bending it to the ground.  I remove the branch and the hickory springs up reaching way over my head.  Still hunched from the experience, I push the thin tree with both hands and all my body weight, trying to straighten it.  I imagine it eventually finding its place again in the canopy.

A well-camouflaged Tree frog.  I only saw him because he hopped out of my way.

There are more fresh leaves on the forest floor than the last time I was here.  But also, hickory nuts in their bright green outer shells, deep red Hawthorn berries, and acorns in more shapes, sizes, and colors than I knew existed.

A Hawthorn berry

There are fewer and smaller mushrooms, but more puffballs. Textured yellow ones with long oval openings like a cartoon mouth, the spores cupped inside waiting to be released.

A tiny mushroom growing in a moss forest on a dead tree.

Since the fallen maple has blocked the path I’ve been walking for a couple of years, I’m finding new paths.  Mostly ones made by deer.  Fate leads the way, looking back to make sure I’m following her. The new path does not go by the little waterfall, or under the Japanese honeysuckle with the Robin’s nest.

So I’m becoming familiar with new places in the woods, finding new favorite spots to visit and watch as they change with the seasons. Although it’s still months away I can already picture the forest covered in the snow, the trees bare, the sky finding its way into the Orphaned Woods.

Zinnia found every bit of water and mud hole to run through. There’s still a little pool where the Shagbark Hickory uprooted in a windstorm.

The Purple Mushroom

I was throwing the ball in the pasture for Fate and Zinnia when I came across this purple mushroom. Its powdery purple insides were filled with bubbles of water from the rain.  It was big, about six inches round.

I’ve seen white and brown puffballs in the pasture this size before, but never a purple one.

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