Puffs of Memory



My neighborhood was populated by kids born at the tail end of the boomer years.  The street was filled with modest, ranch-style houses, driveways that were made for a single car, and lights that came on at dusk and told us it was time to get inside for supper.  Each September, a squad of eight to ten of us would assemble at one driveway to make the trek to elementary school.  Based on criteria that still remains a mystery, we would decide whether the day was one to bike through the streets or walk through the open fields behind my house.

While there were mornings when summer still clung to our backs with humid hugs, more of the days were crisp, clear, even a bit chilly.   We would walk at a rapid pace then, because energy was ours to squander, because we were too busy talking about the latest episode of our TV shows to care, because we wanted to get to school in time to play in the yard before the bell rang.  Sunshine was a given, and we were oblivious to most of the natural phenomena that went on around us.  It wasn’t that our lives were carefree then; it was that, for just that moment, were were too busy moving into the morning to give our problems much space.

But there was one bit of nature that prompted us to break into a sprint to be the first to reach it.  One of us would yell, “Smokers!”, and suddenly all of us would begin hopping around like our feet were aflame.  Brownish or greenish “smoke” would cloud around our ankles as we scrambled to stomp on the mushrooms before others got to them.    It wasn’t until the last bulbous mass had been irrupted that our dedicated quick march resumed. Our mothers would have had a fit if they had seen the condition of our clean shoes, but it would be the end of the day before anyone asked us about them, and by then we could honestly say we couldn’t remember what had happened.

Gem-studded puffball, ready for stomping.

Gem-studded puffball, ready for stomping.

The cause of our abrupt kid dance was the puffball mushroom.  According to National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mushrooms, some puffballs (order Lycoperdales) can grow larger than a soccer ball, though most would be better suited to a ping pong table than a soccer field.  Alone or in clumps, they have no stalk, and appear in  fields and along the edges of woods from July to early November.  Early in their development, they have the solid flesh typical of mushrooms. Some varieties are even good eating.   As time goes on, the interior dries, and spores develop.  Some, like the Gem-studded Puffball, manifest a kind of pore at the top when the time comes to disperse the spores that form part of their reproduction process.   Puffballs manufacture millions of spores, and these may be dispersed by rain, animal activity, or, of course, the frantic dancing of little boys.

All mushrooms reproduce through spores, though how they are dispersed varies, says the Audubon guide.  In addition to the “puffs” of puffball mushrooms, spores can be dispersed on the legs of wandering insects, in the droppings of birds and animals, or simply by dropping off from the mushroom.  In fact, mushroom enthusiasts sometimes find it necessary to make a “spore print” in order to identify the species.  Try an experiment: take a mushroom from your lawn or the woods.  If you need to carry it any distance, place it carefully in a paper bag.  Using a pocket knife, cut the stalk close to the base.  Put it upright on a piece of white paper, and place a glass over it.  In anywhere from a few hours to overnight, you’ll have a spore print of your mushroom. Of course, if your lawn contains puffers, it’s probably better to give in to your inner child and stomp the heck out of them.

Decades later, I still find myself traveling to school in September, now as a teacher.  The thirty miles of travel from home means that walking through fields to get there is a thing of the past.  More cares pull at my sleeve, seep into my dreams.   However, observing my natural surroundings has not diminished, but rather increased with time.  In the moments when I find myself in the woods that border my own house, strolling with my dog in the cool September mornings before school, it still gives me great pleasure to encounter the small natural treasures of my youth.  I have read about them, I understand how they develop and grow.  But each time I see them, I think not of Latin names and classifications, but of the goofy moments when a group of boys elbowed each other out of way to be the first to get a puff of green smoke out of the ground.



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