It started innocently enough. A hike in the Oakland woods after a heavy rain. The ground still wet, the dense foliage sated and glistening. She hiked for exercise, to meditate, to escape the demands of a job in graphic design. It was a routine, an enjoyable way to recharge.
But then, fungi! That was the beginning, the gateway. Suddenly, she noticed them–there, and there, and there–as any of us might do in our own yards: mushrooms. The kind we, and even our pets, sense would kill us with one bite. Yes, my cousin, Lauren, noticed the fungi before anything else. Sprouting up overnight, matted in the dirt, tangled in the weeds, clinging to bark. Varying in placement, infinite in color, size and shape. The more she looked, the more she saw, a modern day Thoreau peering into a seemingly bottomless pond. Fungi. Orange and red, spotted and striped, top heavy and skinny, clustered and solitary, all of them called to her, and she responded with awe—and her camera. Obsessed, evangelical, her images were stunning, her enthusiasm contagious.
And yet, this was only a prelude to something deeper, something both smaller and far more vast. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man, whose profundity grew as he shrank and ultimately merged with the universe. For despite their beauty, their endless photographic potential, fungi were discrete, had limits, the hunt for them a beloved, but self-contained, hobby. Slime mold, well, that was something else. That was a passion. That was love. That was the meaning of life.
My cousin and I are like sisters. I’m three years older, perfect for corrupting her early, which I did. I taught her about cutting class, forging signatures, and especially about boys, leading her astray before our parents knew we were gone. But she taught me a few things, too: about driving ninety miles an hour in the Hollywood Hills, about smoking low tar cigarettes, about the possible side effects of immersion in another culture. After a few months in Paris, she returned unable (or unwilling) to speak English, requiring me to rely on my high school French to communicate with her.
More than anything, however, Lauren taught me about nature, the appreciation of which began in her childhood home. Both of our dads were physicians, but hers was also a naturalist, her house a kind of urban zoo. In the backyard was a giant tortoise so big you could ride him, although I never did. The den was a dedicated aquarium, with built-in viewing spots for my uncle’s rare collection—vipers, lion fish, poison dart frogs from the Amazon among the most exotic. Sadly, some of them didn’t make it. But none went to waste. In the guest bathroom medicine cabinet were jars filled with the pickled unlucky, a surprise if you happened to be looking for an aspirin.
I’m sure there were other unusual pets lurking around. No animal living at my cousin’s was mundane–even the dog. Duchess was her name, and she looked and acted the part: lithe and regal, a descendant of royalty. So when she went into heat, my aunt celebrated the bitch with a wedding and a canine gown that would put “Say Yes to the Dress” to shame.
When her daughter was young, Lauren followed in her father’s footsteps, harboring a menagerie of rats, mice, preying mantises and enough crickets to feed an army. Today, however, she only has a cat, to which I’m deathly allergic. She likes dogs, although, maybe because of Duchess, not enough to own one. Moreover, because of her aversion to interspecies mingling, she nearly pukes seeing me swap spit with my collie and two rescues—something to do with what occurs on the molecular level. But slime. Slime is another matter.
“First,” my cousin says, “slime molds aren’t mold at all. They may seem more closely related to animals than fungi if you see them in their creeping phase. Because they’re so unlike anything else, science has found slime mold difficult to classify. They transform dramatically during their life cycle going from an on-the-move feeding phase to a fixed reproductive phase. Some of the fruiting bodies I witnessed through my close-up lens were stunningly alien and beautiful; pink elongated jelly beans on stalks, fuzzy netted puffballs, geometrically spaced iridescent orbs, tiny blueberries hanging from delicate threads.”
Also, although they are only one-celled, like amoeba, slime mold change form and possess striking intelligence. Indeed, they can solve mazes, optimizing information so efficiently, that scientists are studying them in connection with research on transport systems. All that from the tiniest of entities, something that one can confuse with “dust, dog barf or insect eggs.”
And they can be mercenary, too. Take the Badhamia utricularis, for example, a slime mold predator that “feeds on the poor fungi unable to make a run for it.” It may in fact be the slime mold’s superiority to the fungi (at least in this case) that is partly behind Lauren’s fascination with the creature. Not that she’s abandoned her first love—fungi, in all their wondrous glory, will always hold a place in her heart. But slime mold may lead us to more answers about our own existence. And that, for someone like my cousin, is head turning.
See, Lauren is an atheist, who believes that while there’s currently a limit to scientific explanation, it’s ultimately science, not a god, that’s more likely to tell us who we are. So slime mold, being part animal as well as plant, is a closer model. According to nature writer Adele Conover, even though in some ways slime molds are “like aliens from another planet,” they can help us understand our bodies as “great aggregations of once separate and independent organisms,” metaphorically as “communes.” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2001, Hunting Slime Molds.) In other words, we might have more in common with slime mold than with fungi, and thus the knowledge acquired from them is more relevant.
But what can slime mold do for me? I’m non-committal, indecisive, one of those pesky agnostics. Science is science. The earth is round, climate change is real, vaccinations work. Yet somewhere in me is a space all that data can’t fill, a space I cherish. Call it the fancy, the supernatural, the shadows. It’s where mystery lives, a space that lets me believe that my deceased grandmother helps find my constantly missing eyeglasses. It’s where I go to hope the things I hope for are true, to create worlds of my own making, to counter despair.
“What do you do to escape the madness?” Lauren recently asked me. She meant politics, madness being the code word for the person whose name we refuse to utter. What do I do? I’m a writer so I tell her I wait for rejection notices. “What do you do?” I said, already knowing the (slimy) answer by her adoring tone.
But maybe I’ve been too hasty. Maybe slime mold is more than its name, more than the sum of its parts. Maybe in its ability to thrive in chaos, to transcend temporal concerns, it exceeds its classification, becoming part of the mystery I hold as sacred.
Maybe. But it could be that I’m just jealous. Like back in the day when my cousin got the cute guy. It could be that I’ll never be into slime mold because it’s just not that into me. At the very least, I wonder if she’s thought this relationship through . I warn her that she might get hurt, that the slime might overtake her, like the Blob. But she waves me off, heading straight for the woods, certain that the romance will last.
Ona Russell is the author of three award-winning historical mysteries and has been published in a variety of other venues, including previously in Philadelphia Stories. Ona holds a PhD in literature from UC San Diego, where she also taught for many years. She considers herself a Philadelphian once removed—her mother was born there, her brother lives in Narberth, and her great uncle, architect Louis I. Kahn, had a little something to do with the city. For more info, please visit onarussell.com.