The Humongous Fungus of Iron County, Michigan

A whale is a whale, with flippers and tail, but the Michigan mat just spreads.
Stephen Jay Gould

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
– Walt Whitman

I don’t remember ever learning about the largest organism on the planet in any of my science classes. I do, however, remember playing Nintendo with my brother Micah and my Uncle Paul every Sunday after church while my parents had coffee and windmill cookies with my grandma, and every time Mario would fall into an abyss or accidentally bump into one of those oh-so-dangerous Goombas we would compare the magnitude of our grief to the size of large animals. It wasn’t enough to simply say, “That sucks.” You had to say, “That sucks donkey,” then, in the spirit of oneupmanship, someone else would say, “That sucks elephant.” This would continue until we reached “blue whale,” at which point Uncle Paul would cap off the disappointment by saying, “That sucks mother blue whale.” The female Balaenoptera musculus – blue whale – is the largest animal, land, sea, or sky, but to find the largest organism on Earth I would have to look somewhere else entirely. It would not be enough to limit my search to animals only. For this journey, I would have to delve into the depths of Kingdom Fungi.

However many times Mario died – a rate that went up exponentially as soon as the controller switched to my hands – we were never so forlorn as to say “That sucks humongous fungus,” and yet this it the name the people of Crystal Falls, Michigan have given to the Armillaria gallica (formerly Armillaria bulbosa) fungus they claim to be the largest organism in the world. According to the Crystal Falls home page there is one particular fungus found locally that covers 38 acres, is somewhere between 1500 and 10,000 years old, and weighs as much as a mother blue whale – approximately 100 tons. While most of this organism’s body is located underground in an enormous system of interconnected shoots and masses, it can be seen above the surface in the form of small honey mushroom toadstools which are described not only as edible, but fairly tasty as well.

Aside from its estimated weight the Humongous Fungus has one other thing in common with the largest animal on the planet – both are whales. The main difference between the two is that one is a blue whale whereas the fungus is a white whale, my white whale. After all, I’d been searching for this creature (assuming the term “creature” even applies outside of Kingdom Animalia) for the past four years, since Amy and I took our first vacation together into Michigan’s upper peninsula a couple of weeks after we first met. Though the Crystal Falls home page had painted a picture of a mushroom-obsessed small town with toadstool roofs and quirky fungus memorabilia at every diner, the city that we rolled into that Friday afternoon showed no sign of mushroom pride, not a single ounce.

To give the people of Crystal Falls the benefit of the doubt I should probably explain that we arrived there on the Fourth of July and, if I’d inferred correctly from the attendant at the BP, everyone was relaxing and enjoying the Independence Day festivities in the nearby town of Alpha. Even so, I expected at least one sign on Highway 2 advertising the Humongous Fungus that comprises so much of the town’s web presence. I compared Crystal Falls to the city of Mesick in Michigan’s lower peninsula, a small seasonal vacation town I’d driven through often on the way to Empire Beach or Crystal Lake in nearby Frankfort. Though the fungus in Mesick is nowhere near as massive as the Humongous Fungus of Crystal Falls fame, their streets are lined with mushroom advertisements. Of course, the morel mushrooms of Mesick are much easier to capitalize upon than the giant supposed to lurk below the surface of Crystal Falls. In Mesick, (HYPERBOLE ALERT!!!) you couldn’t fire off a bottle rocket without hitting some sort of mushroom representation, but Crystal Falls was different. We’d have to work to learn the secrets of that town.

Looking closer at the town’s web site, I noticed several clues that I had previously overlooked. The Humongous Fungus was located underneath the Iron County forest near the Wisconsin border, not specifically under Crystal Falls. In fact, the majority of its mass was claimed to be located in nearby Mastodon Township. The web site was brutally honest in saying that “[p]eople are generally disappointed if they actually go to the site looking for the big mushroom.” The information that we read was enough to deter anyone from searching for the Humongous Fungus, but I was a man possessed. Instead of focusing on how my nemesis was located mostly underground, only visible as tiny mushrooms that appear predominantly in the fall, I focused on the word “site.” Where was this site and how could I get there? Amy had located a web site which claimed that the natural wonder could be viewed at the base of a waterfall. There were many nearby waterfalls, but there was no one waterfall that clearly served as the namesake for Crystal Falls. We could have spent the entire weekend disobeying the wisdom of T-Boz, Left Eye, and Chilli, but I had another idea in mind – we would enlist the assistance of one of the locals, the woman at the BP, or, as far as I experienced, the only living soul in Crystal Falls.

I walked into the BP with a friendly smile on my face despite my frustration and said, “Hi. I’m visiting from out of town and I was wondering if you could direct me to the Humongous Fungus.”

Nothing. The woman behind the counter was a brick wall (not literally).

“The giant mushroom that lives beneath Crystal Falls,” I said, attempting to jog her memory. “I read that the town throws a yearly festival in its honor…”

“I don’t know anything about a humongous fungus,” she said. “But if you’re looking for the Fourth festivities those are going on over in Alpha.”

Another dead end. It looked as if I would need to start a new line of questions.

“Could you point me in the direction of Mastodon?” I asked. “I can’t seem to find it on the map.”

“Mastodon’s just south of town on the 2,” she said. The route she described was the same route Amy and I had taken to get to Crystal Falls, and I didn’t remember seeing any town called Mastodon on the way there.

“Any landmarks I should look for?” I asked.

The BP attendant put her hands on her hips and thought about this one. In fact, she thought for an uncomfortably long time. I didn’t feel like I was asking too much of her. I just wanted her to think of the next town over and picture a restaurant or church of even a rival gas station, anything that could help me not to drive right by Mastodon for the second time that trip, but she gave me nothing.

“It’s gotta be between here and the Wisconsin border, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “If you get to Wisconsin you’ve gone too far.”

The woman grinned, confident that nothing was lacking in her directions. I was not quite so assured, but I knew I wouldn’t be getting any more help.

“One last question,” I said. “Do you know of any waterfalls down that way?”

“Yes,” she said. “Head out back of the airport. Should be some falls over there.”

Though the gas station attendant had been less than informative, she’d given us our strongest lead as to where we might find the Humongous Fungus. Driving South toward Mastodon, I found my eyes drifting to the grassy areas on either side of the road in hopes that I might espy a little patch of mushrooms. After some time we rolled past Mastodon Township Offices, a decent sized building with a couple utility trucks parked out front. From there we were able to get Google directions to the Iron County airport, a tiny airfield down a poorly labelled dirt logging road, and one small leap of faith later we were parked at a trail-head with the sound of fast-moving water just ahead.

Up until this point Amy had been a little bit of a stick in the mud, and I couldn’t blame her. She hated riding in cars and I’d trapped her inside of one for a good portion of two days, and when we finally arrived in Crystal Falls I didn’t even know where to begin looking for the giant mushroom I’d been bragging about since she first met me. But when she found out this wild goose chase involved hiking through some of the most majestic scenery in the state, Amy was fully invested. I basked in the serendipity of the fact that I had accidentally brought geology major Amy into an ecosystem constructed on and around a gigantic iron slab. In fact, Amy’s professor had even referenced the township of Mastodon in one of her classes, noting that there has never been a mastodon fossil recovered there.

A few yards down the path it became clear that what the woman at the BP had described as a waterfall was actually just a rapid. I tried my best to disguise my disappointment as Amy had the time of her life climbing up onto towering boulders, navigating twisting and turning paths, and pointing out mineral deposits and fun examples of geological principles, and it ended up working to my advantage.

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In her excitement, Amy was the first one to find a mushroom, a little thing nearly hidden by an exposed root but elucidated by a shaft of light that pierced the tree cover. We ended up encountering three mushrooms total on our trip to find the Humongous Fungus.

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After sending photographs of my findings to the Western Montana Mycological Association, I received the following response:

hi Justin, it will help if we can see clear pictures of the cap, stem, and underside of the mushrooms. Sorry but not able to ID from these pics

As I compared the mushrooms I saw in Iron County with the sample images of Armillaria gallica on a variety of mycological web sites I had this sinking feeling that none of the three toadstools I saw were the toadstools I was looking for. It made me sad for a little bit, but ultimately I came out of the malaise with a higher outlook on the subject. When we had driven through the forest and seen the acres of trees cut down for logging purposes, the humongous fungus had been in those trees, eating away at the stumps. As we hiked through the iron hillside the fungus had been there, and it had been everywhere else, because where can’t a species live that can grow even in the nutrient-poor areas between large food sources. Though I never witnessed the invisible hyphae, once I got to the rapids I was never not surrounded by them.

The question was no longer whether or not I had experienced the humongous fungus. It now came down to whether or not the humongous fungus is paranormal.

Amy and I took a walk some weeks after this experience as I was preparing to write this post, and I asked her point blank what it means to be paranormal. She said, “It has to be unexplained phenomena.” I then asked her if she thought the humongous fungus was paranormal and she said no. It may have been paranormal at some point, but as soon as the scientific team of Smith, Bruhn, and Smith investigated the phenomenon and exposed it to the public it was no longer paranormal. This was Amy’s thought, at least, and it is a thought supported by most people. All the same, her answer felt unsatisfactory. For me there was something much deeper to the humongous fungus than what we knew. Armillaria gallica had been detected in soil samples, but its greater existence had only been inferred. Nobody had ever experienced the entirety of this individual clone, and to my knowledge there is no scientific method in existence yet that can discern the whole without the use of inference. Furthermore, were there a break in the hyphae connecting the entire organism as there must have been when the scientists took the soil samples, would the living cells still be considered part of one organism? Could I take a cubic meter of the fungus home with me and still consider both discrete entities the same organism?

Stephen Jay Gould takes up the ontological question posed by Armillaria gallica in an article in Natural History titled “A Humongous Fungus Among Us.” He writes:

A human observer sees nothing of this interwoven subterranean mat except for the occasional and spatially discontinuous mushrooms that poke through the forest floor.

And later:

But the deeper fascination of this tale lies elsewhere – in the striking way that the underground fungal mat forces us to wrestle with that vital biological (and philosophical) question of proper definitions for individuality.

Gould makes the reader question whether there are levels of individual identity “above” (community, ecosystem, biosphere) or even “below” (organ, tissue, cell) the level of the organism in the classical structural hierarchy, and not just for kicks, but because one must do so in order to truly understand the humongous fungus. His conclusion is probably unsatisfactory for most of us:

Nature is not an intrinsic harmony of clearly defined units. Nature is built at multiple levels, interacting frizzily at their borders.

Armillaria gallica, and for that matter the entirety of Kingdom Fungi, compose some of the frizzy matter at the borders of biological classification from Linnaeus through Darwin. It also exposes a bias in some of the basic tenets of biology, namely that the study of life leans toward those organisms who fit easily into our animal understanding of individuals.

While driving a friend of mine to a bar one evening, she revealed to me that she believes in fairies. She explained that it was not some simple wish that fairies were real; she honestly thought they existed. Her proof was that she had a very realistic dream about fairies. If I were to ask her to point to a fairy, therein proving their existence to me, she would be unable. On the flip side, if she asked me to prove the existence of the largest organism on the planet I would be at a similar loss. I don’t mean to undermine the work of the brilliant scientists who discovered the humongous fungus. Rather, with Gould, I would like to focus on the complexity of this situation. If we traverse the history of science, there are very few people, theories, or schools that can help us to understand the metaphysical implications that Armillaria gallica brings to light. The humongous fungus is not normal. The Greek prefix para- usually means “at or to the side of.” For something to be paranormal, it need only be beside the normal, just beyond the normal, or, as Gould writes, “interacting frizzily” at the border of normal. Of course, by this definition, all we know of nature is paranormal. Who among us could stomach the ramifications of this conclusion.

Just a couple of years ago I was blown away by the fact that Nintendo’s Wii console had access to an online service titled Virtual Console (VC). Through VC, gamers had access to classic games from the NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and a variety of other outdated systems. In other words, I could play the same video games that I played as a boy with my uncle only now I could play them on giant flat screen displays with my hip friends while consuming alcohol. And with all of the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years, I could meet every one of my unfortunate deaths with the words, “That sucks humongous fungus.” Or, I could go crazy and say, “That sucks taiga.” That’s right, not even biomes are out of bounds. But ultimately, I still don’t understand what it would mean to suck a taiga, and I don’t want to. In fact, with all of that wisdom I have a sneaking feeling that I now understand what it means to “suck donkey” or “suck mother blue whale,” and I’m no longer certain I want to make any such exclamations in the future. I think next time Mario meets his demise I might just take a drink instead.

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