The Quest for Phaeocollybia
The Great Phaeocollybia Expedition
Lorelei Norvell: In 1992 I joined a two-month long expedition (which for me was “the Great Phaeocollybia Expedition of ’92”) with George Barron, Scott, and Scott’s technician Libby Fox. We trekked all through wonderful old-growth forests all the way down from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, through Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the coastal rain-forests of Oregon, and ended in California’s Mendocino County. It was a phenomenal period, though quite exhausting.
When you have George along…. he lives on chocolate, cigars (laughs) and getting up at 6 in the morning. And then he’s all happy taking pictures, and doesn’t quit until the light goes, which meant that I was up until about 2 or 3 in the morning working on my collections, which doesn’t make it easy to get up at 6 the next day. Finally we discovered that it was way better for me to collect one day and stay home the next, because I was wearing out rapidly.
So every other day, I would get some Phaeocollybias and then we would always try to dig. But it actually was on Oregon’s Larch Mountain in 1993 where I found my ‘connection’ after we brought a whole block of earth into the Washington lab and very carefully looked through the soil with forceps to find the large pseudorhiza connecting to a rootlet.
I learned a lot about the development of the organism. Fries had classified Naucoria [a predecessor of Phaeocollybia] in the Gymnopes, because he thought they has no veil. But actually it does have a universal veil, it’s just that no one ever sees it because it forms so far under the soil and then by the time it emerges, there’s nothing left on its surface. We were learning about the ontogeny: how it developed and how it formed.
So we found the physical connection of a Phaeocollybia with the ectomycorrhizal tip of a rootlet. But we weren’t totally convinced, and I’m still not convinced… it’s possible that it could be a parasite. But perhaps not on the tree: it could be parasitizing… Cenococcum, which is another subterranean mycorrhizal fungus that’s everywhere in the soil.
But on the other hand, the Phaeocollybias produce these massive fruiting bodies, so we’re not really sure what’s going on. Or I had always maintained it could be facultative.8 Singer and Smith… Singer said it very definitely was saprobic, and eventually Smith felt the same, as he noted that Phaeocollybia scatesiae came out from very well-rotted wood – but if you could into the wood and found the pseudorhiza you would find it would go down, and we now know it’s not unusual for ectomycorrhizal species to seemingly be on very well-decomposed wood; it’s just a way of traveling through the substrate.
Now George Barron is quite an interesting individual who added a lot to the Great Phaeocollybia Expedition. As a professor (now retired) at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, he worked in soil hyphomycetes. But at heart he’s a photographer. The point of the expedition was to write a field guide on Canadian mushrooms similar to the Breitenbach & Kränzlin books. Scott would do the identifications, while George photographed. And his photography was wonderful. The book never got finished, although George did use many of his fine western photographs in his Mushrooms of Ontario and eastern Canada.
Well, he was an endless source of hysterical moments, and I can remember once we were down at the Mendocino field station. And we were looking… we had spent all of this time looking for The Big Tree (which we never found because the new highway was not on our map) because Scott loved looking at the big, tall redwoods (usually with George grumbling in the back seat because there was not enough time mushrooming). I was fine because we were on Davison Road, which is a wonderful place for Phaeocollybias, but George wanted something a little more photogenic. He tried to take pictures of Phaeocollybias, but he said “They’re impossible!” because of the long, long stems. If you get the whole mushroom – which is what tells you what it is – it has to be stretched out on its side, which is neither pictorial nor sexy and you can’t get close enough to see the details.
But he was looking, and he wanted a really good picture of Amanita muscaria, because Amanita muscaria on the west coast looks different from the Amanita muscaria on the east coast. So we had been driving in the rain until we finally saw the perfect Amanita by the side of the road!
So he had all sorts of energy and got all busy taking a photograph. We got back into the car and drove along until eventually we found another mushroom!. We all disgorge out of the car and George takes his photograph. We look for a while and didn’t find anything else. After we settle damply back into the car, George exclaims from the back seat, “Well! See? It just goes to show! First you find one mushroom, then you find another… and then you’ve got two!”
Now… see, that’s a funny story! But it falls flat (laughing) unless you know George!
Before we set off, I had applied for the necessary collecting permits for the forests and state parks in Oregon. We were collecting at the Van Duzer State Wayside. George generally collected in very drab collecting gear, so he always looked like the archetypal British poacher. He wore brown oilcloth… a little kind of.. um.. poacher hat, and whenever anybody would show up, he would just disappear. He would just dart down because he was taking pictures.
He was down taking a photograph, and a ranger came into the wayside, and he looked down at George and he said “Well, what are you doing? You picking mushrooms?”
“No, no, I’m just photographing them.”
“Well, I do hope you have a permit.”
And he said, “Well, I don’t; but that woman over there does.”
And you know, I thought I did. Turns out, later, my husband had been responsible for getting it; it had never come through. Fortunately, the ranger just said, “Well, I’m sure she does,” and he went on his way, without any problem.
George was never parted from his camera gear, and he said “Well, I’ll tell you why.” He said, “Once I went out to eat in a diner, and left my camera gear out in the car and it was stolen. You can be fooled once but not twice!” and that’s why he always took the camera gear with him.
But he added, “I’m really good at hiding things, too!” After purchasing an extremely good Nikon lens worth several thousand dollars, he had to go off on a trip somewhere, so he hid it in his house. He’s been looking for it ever since. The hiding place is so good that he can’t find it.
The Mystery of Phaeocollybia
So anyway, Phaeocollybia was this whole wonderful mystery to unwrap, an exciting project that did educate me in all sorts of ways of finding out things.
One big problem was learning how to do multi-variant analyses to tease out what was a species and what wasn’t. And recently came one of those ‘wonderful’ moments that make you want to fall on your sword: the very day that the galleys came out for the Phaeocollybia book (laughs) I get the results of the DNA sequencing (funded through the BLM, which is looking for fungal barcodes9), and discovered that two of my “species” are in fact synonyms of Smith’s species. It turns out that my designated tibiikauffmanii type specimen actually represents Smith’s spadicea. Actually, it turns out that there is a tibiikauffmanii, but I selected the wrong bloody type!10 – so I must rename that species, which turns out to be much rarer than we indicated in the book.
The other synonym is rufotubulina, which turns out– quite nicely, actually – to be a synonym of californica. It’s funny: when you first start out as a fledgling mycologist, you want to name all these species, you know: you’re gonna make your mark on mycology. But then after you’ve been after it a while, its downright restful to discover that no, these things are the same – they are a synonym, and so you don’t have to do all that extra work. Of course it would have been good to know that before we published the book….
LS: It does sound like a lot of work.
LN: (laughs) It is, but when you’re a… well, my husband calls me a social Asperger’s. I can talk with people, but I have a tendency to…. sort of augur in and stick with something, and once I get on to it, it’s kind of hard to deviate me off – especially with the mycology, since it’s entertaining and fun.
But writing the papers (laughs) can be difficult – you can get these little mental blocks, or writer’s blocks at the oddest times. I remember I was working on my dissertation… I had been working on it for so long and of course by this time, you are so sick of it – you’re sick of your supervisor, you’re sick of the topic – and you’ve been doing nothing but this for years – and you’re particularly sick of all your family and friends saying “Oh… shouldn’t you have your degree by now? What’s taking you so long?”
So (laughs) you’re just going nutso, and here I was, in a little sort of island in Oregon, trying to teach myself phylogenetic, NT-SYS, and multi-variant analysis from a book and Jesus, it’s not an easy thing to learn, and… I had made things a bit more difficult for myself: For the NT-SYS [Numerical Taxonomy Systematics] program, I figured I needed to check all options to see which particular algorithm to use in order to generate various trees. And of course you do all this testing and at the end of a year of cranking out trees, you discover that, well, yes, you should have just used the default one. So you spent all this time trying to reinvent the wheel, and you feel a little down on yourself.
But there I was: I had successfully defended my dissertation in November 1997, and I was trying to get the printed version (it turned out to be 391 pages) turned in before Christmas. I came down and I had been working and working and working and working and I’m tired, and I’m going on no sleep, and finally the only thing left to write on that goddamn dissertation was the summary: the opening chapter. Now what you normally do of course, is write the summary first. I understood this, but I [she says very quietly] was stubborn. I figured it would be easier when I knew what it was I had said and found, and then I would do the summary and just write it all down!
I had that and the index to do, and I sat down on Monday morning, and I couldn’t do it. I sat there the whole day, and I’d write a few words and then I’d get up and run around the house, trying to outrun my demons, and then I’d sit down again and do the same sentence again. By the end of the day, I didn’t have even one sentence. It was a total sort of melt-down thing. I started again on Tuesday, and I finally was able to get something done by Wednesday, which I emailed to Joe – and he wasn’t real pleased with it, so I sat down again on Thursday. I was down in Oregon, and I had to have it all typed, and ready to plop on the grad school counter in Seattle 180 miles away by four that afternoon. And it’s seven in the morning and I’m just working away, working away, and it became very obvious by noon – if you’ve ever done anything like this, you know how it works: the time just evaporates, it’s melting, it’s… Finally at 12:30 I thought “There’s just no way. I can’t get it all printed. And I can’t get it up there by four this afternoon.”
So I called with this sort of misery thing to Joe and he said “Back up there, Lorelei. What you do is you bundle it all up, put it under the desk, you reintroduce yourself to your family, have Christimas (because this is, oh, I don’t know, about December 16th) and then (laughing) you’ll have another three months to finish it up, tidy it up, and besides you’ll have a chance to massage the damn summary!” And it was really rough – it was that horrible. And (laughs again) anyway, it was really fun.
So I had to spend another I don’t know how many thousand dollars, because you have to pay in order to enroll in the quarter you’re submitting your dissertation, and I was kind of upset about that because I was completely nuts, and… That’s the story of the dissertation!
The Paper and the Book
LS: Now, about that paper to tidy up the species.
LN: Kind of a quasi-monograph. It’ll have a key to all the Pacific Northwest species; and then it will take care of the synonymization of tibiikauffmanii… possibly rifflipes, we’re not certain – it all depends on the type on that one – and rufotubulina, with the various species that they represent; and then the naming of three or four – possibly five – new species that Ron Exeter and I have uncovered. And I don’t know whether that would be in Mycotaxon or someplace else, but it would be available open access, so that people would be able to use it. But it would not be reduplication of the big book.
LS: That was an awful thing to have happen.
LN: Well, the book itself was a phenomenal thing: it’s got 580 color photographs in it and it’s 200 and some-odd pages long, but the BLM decided to slap a $71 charge on it, which is too much for a specialty monograph even though… it’s worth it! What with all the color, I mean… well, you’ve seen it…
I wanted a Breitenbach & Kränzlin type of treatment – I’ve always found those books extremely helpful, because they have the drawings of the micro-characters, which I find more informative than photos. That way, you can point out the things that really are distinctive, and the descriptions are very brief. For my purposes I thought the photos were more important, to give an array of what this thing looks like in various states, because at the end of their life Phaeocollybias all kind of look the same! So with all these photos, we were able to give an idea of the development of each species from beginning to end.
They all kind of “rust out” as it were, and you want people to be aware that… they are difficult to identify, there’s no question. I can do it, but that’s because I have looked at thousands of collections and have a sort of feel for it; but even so, it’s hard. All of the collections from the northwest forests would come through my lab, and it was kind of fun – it was kind of like Christmas: you open a packet of what looks like dried kelp, you guess, and then you look under the microscope.
The ones that are most helpful are the ones where they give you a photograph, so you can begin to tell from the photograph “Well, that’s probably not what they think it is; but it’s close.” I don’t know if it’s because they have access to the book and they can actually look at it, but I have been pleased that the misses now are at least within the realm of possibility. But before our book, basically all anyone had (except my 98 dissertation) were older works that were missing at least ten species.
But two years after the book was out, the book vault minions inexplicably destroyed all 300 copies remaining. I told Ron Exeter “I need some more; I’m out,” but when Ron went in to get them, there was just this empty pallet, with the sign Phaeocollybia on it; we have no idea what happened. But, uh, we were pretty upset.
LS: Yeah, I mean, I feel very lucky: he sent me a copy, and I gave it to a local mycologist to review and he never did and I haven’t gotten it back, so… there went my (Lorelei is laughing and drowning me out)
LN: BLM employees do have copies because they were given the copies first; but unfortunately it’s not otherwise available. I have a few copies here, that we send out because we want people to use them, but not very many.
At first, I thought “Well, fine. (laughs) We’ll get Uncle Sam to pay for a second edition, with these species fixed.” But I then realized that I may not have the time or we may not have the money to turn it out, and it’s kind of difficult to justify spending our tax dollars on a second edition. So instead I hope to write up the paper taking care of those synonymies and the new species, and these days a paper can contain color photographs as well. When all’s said and done, the number of species here in the PNW will probably go up by at least one.