If you only know me through this blog, you might not know it, but there are certain things about my life which are definitely “old school”. Here’s one: my mountain bike- both my “main ride” and my “back-up bike”- have rim brakes, specifically V-brakes. I’ve been riding my main ride* since 2004, and though I’ve upgraded a few components over the years- new fork(s), new rear shock**, tubeless rims- the basic set-up is the same.
*Ellsworth Truth. Great bike, so-so company. My frame is a replacement frame, now out of its (reduced to 2 year) warranty. When it breaks I’ll probably go 29”er.
** Cane Creek Cloud Nine. Best performing, most reliable, easiest-maintenance bicycling suspension component I have ever owned. Cannot recommend this product highly enough.
Over the last couple of years, other riders have commented on my “old school” brakes, and asked when I planned to “go disk”, to which my response is generally, “Why”? V-brakes are light, reliable, a cinch to set up and maintain, and in typical Utah riding conditions, brake just fine with 1-finger effort. But finally this year, I am forced to admit that I have found the Achilles heel of rim brakes.
Oh sure, sure. I can see you now, nodding your head all smarty-pants-like, thinking how he “finally got it.” You think I’m going to say something about braking power or wet braking or riding in snow or maybe even rim wear. Well you’re wrong- it’s none of those things.
Tangent: Especially not the wet/snow braking thing. Because why would anyone want to ride in the rain? Wet trails trash your cabling and components, hypothermia- yuck. What’s that? You live in someplace where it rains a lot/all the time? Yeah, that used to be my problem too. That’s why I moved to Utah.
Nested Tangent: This reminds me of a minor rant about boosterism and the Pac-Northwest. People in every “cool” part of the country love to work little proselytizing-testimonial-endorsements into conversations about how great it is where they live. We all do it- yes, including me*. Here in Utah, the most common testimonial endorsement usually relates to ski conditions and proximity. We love to say things like, “You can ski and golf in the same day!” Really? You really need to ski and golf in the same day? What are you, some kind of checklist-activity freak? OK, so I got up this morning, ran 5 miles, then I biked, then I skied half a day, then I did yoga, then I floated in the Great Salt Lake and then I went flyfishing. Tomorrow I’m going paragliding, skate-skiing and then panning for gold…
*But why do we do it? Are our egos really so tiny and fragile that we actually need affirmation from others regarding our choice of where we live? Why can’t we just say, “I live in Utah.” And when the listener says, “Yeah but you can’t get a beer there and women can’t vote and contraceptives are illegal…” or whatever, instead of going into some lifestyle-defense pitch, just say, “Yeah, you’d hate it. You should stay in New Jersey.”
Coloradans use this “ski and golf” line as well, but there it’s even sillier, because any day that includes both golf and skiing along the Colorado Front Range also involves at least 3 hours in the car…
In the Pac-Northwest, they go on about the beauty of the place and all the activities and how hip the cities are etc., etc. But sometime during the standard Northwest-Lifestyle-Testimonial, the victim- woops I mean listener- inevitably asks, “Yeah but doesn’t it rain a lot?” to which the testifier always says with a big smile, “Oh that’s OK- you get used to it! We just do stuff in the rain!”
I’ve heard that “do stuff in the rain!” line at least a dozen times from Pac-Northwest evangelists and I think it’s ridiculous. Doing stuff in the rain sucks. It sucks to bike in the rain, it sucks to ski in the rain, it sucks to run in the rain. The Pac-Northwest has a lot of good things going for it, but the copious rains is not one of them.
Seriously, it’s ridiculous. What if I told you I lived in this great place with beautiful scenery, nice people and low cost of living? And I was going on and on about how great it was. But you happened to know that the trails in this place were almost always covered in manure. And so after I’d been going on for a while you asked, “Yeah but, isn’t there a lot of manure on the trails?” And I smiled and said, “Oh that’s OK- you get used to it! We just do stuff in the cowshit!”
And snow? You don’t need disk brakes for snow- you need skis. Yeah, yeah, I know all about snow-biking. But it always seemed a bit like skiing sand dunes- fun to do as a novelty, but at some point a receding season is like an ex-spouse or your old Steve Miller* records- you need to let go…
*OK since I just made fun of Northwesterners and snow-bikers, I’ll share another embarrassing tidbit about myself. My iPod contains- and I frequently still listen to- Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits 1974 – 1978. Wait it gets worse- I just bought it like 2 years ago. We were having a neighborhood garage sale, and Hunky Neighbor put out a table of old CDs and I picked it up for a buck. I only play it alone, in the car, with the windows rolled up so I can sing along. One of my Life Goals is to figure out how to sing along to “Rock’n Me” without having to change octaves every time the chorus comes around.
Yeah so anyway, the weakness of V-brakes isn’t any of those things. Give up? Ok I’ll tell you- it’s Maple leaves.
Maples leaves get caught up in V-brakes and stick there. And even though they don’t slow you down, they make that wildly-irritating card-in-spokes noise* that makes you think they’re slowing you down. I say Maple specifically because here in Utah when you ride over a trail covered with fallen leaves, those leaves are almost always Aspen, Maple or Oak. Aspen leaves never get caught- they’re too small and round. Oak leaves do sometimes, but Maple leaves are the worst. Their broad, lobed form gives them maximum spread to lock into a V-brake, and their thin-ness means that when dry they easily get punctured by a tire lug, allowing them to be picked up and spun over and around into the brake.
*You can actually hear that “wildly-irritating card-in-spokes” noise in this video.
Side Note: Oak leaves don’t seem to get picked up as often, and I’m convinced it’s because they’re tougher, thicker, and so don’t get lug-punctured as easily as Maple leaves. Also they don’t seem to drop their leaves all at once as Maples do, and so the trails generally aren’t “carpeted” with them as they often are with Maple leaves. But when they do get stuck in a V-brake, they don’t disintegrate, meaning that without manual intervention, they never come out.
As you might expect, mtn biking as often as I do, I think a lot about leaves this time of year. Whereas during the summer I tend to categorize trail types based on their form, grade and surface (smooth descent, fast singletrack, technical ledgy climb, etc.) in the late Fall I find myself categorizing them based on fallen leaf-type: Aspen, Maple, Oak or PLT.
Side Note: If you look pay attention, you’ll notice that even “evergreen” PLTs drop needles in the Fall. Practically no tree is really “evergreen”; they just don’t lose all of their needles/leaves every year, which is which why botanists use the term “persistent” rather than “evergreen” to describe the foliage of things like Pines and Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany and Live Oaks.
Back East BTW, I remember the White Pines of Maine would drop a beautiful carpet of golden needles every Fall. I haven’t seen it probably 30 years, but I remember the floor of the pine grove around our cabin practically lit up with fresh needles.
So anyway, there are a lot of leaves on the trails- well on the ground, really- right now. What happens to all of those leaves?
On trails of course, they often get ground up by feet, paws, hooves or tires, but that’s not a real answer; you’re still stuck with lots of leaf bits. No, the real answer is that they get decomposed by an army of microscopic and/or creepy-crawly things, including earthworms, nematodes, insects, protozoans, snails and various bacteria, who eventually break down the dead leaves and other organic matter into soil components that can be used by plants. But the super-soldiers of this army, who do the lion’s share of the work of decomposition worldwide, are Fungi.
Throughout this blog we’ve bumped into Fungi from time to time. We saw them when we talked about the symbiotic relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and tree roots, and we visited them again when we talked about lichens.(pic below right, on oak bark. Species = Xanthomendoza montana.*) Except for mushrooms and lichens, you don’t see Fungi all that much, and that makes them easy to put out of mind. But that’s a shame, because Fungi are the connecting glue of the living world. Something like 70,000 species of fungi have been described, but this is thought to be only a fraction of all species.
*Thanks to Larry St. Clair of Brigham Young University for the ID. Larry has helped me out multiple times, he’s an awesome guy, and his lichen guide is the best around.
Even when you do see them, Fungi are hard to get your head around for many reasons. But for me the 3 most important reasons, and the things that really distinguish them conceptually from the other 2 great kingdoms of multicellular life- plants and animals- are these: Fungi don’t have bodies, they don’t have individuals, and they have no real distinction between movement and growth.
Quick Reminder/Tutorial: Fungi are eukaryotic, like plants and animals. I explained the difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic creatures (like bacteria) back in the lichen post. Short version: eukaryotic cells have a standard, complex structure including a well-defined nucleus, a membrane(s) and organelles. In addition to the 3 multicellular kingdoms, there are a number of unicellular eukaryotic kingdoms, including protozoans, algae and slime molds (which can sometimes be multicellular as well.)
When you see a mushroom, you’re not seeing the body of a fungus, but rather a specialized reproductive organ (which we’ll come back to in a moment.) The “body” of a fungus, usually called the mycelium, is a network of growing threads or filaments, called hyphae (pic right), that usually spreads and grows throughout something else, such as soil, wood or flesh. This lack of- or rather flexibility of- body lends itself to all kinds of intimate relationships with other living things. These can be symbiotic, mutualistic relationships, such as we saw with mycorrhizal fungi and lichens, or they may be parasitic, such as we saw with Dutch Elm disease. Closer to home, examples of parasitic fungi include Athlete’s Foot and yeast* infections (Candidiasis.)
*Yeasts are (usually) unicellular fungi.
These hyphae may seem inconsequential, but they’re practically everywhere; the total mass of fungi has been estimated at nearly ½ a ton per acre across all vegetated land on the planet. You can dig up or scratch out bits, pieces and strands of hyphae, but you can’t really pick up and separate a real, complete “fungal body” distinct from the substrate (soil, wood, flesh, etc.) within which it lives. This is the first mind-bender of Fungi: it has life, it has mass, it has significant physical presence and scale- but it has no body*.
*Strictly speaking, I suppose one could argue that some specific fungi do have what could conceivably be considered bodies. Arguably, the fungal partner constitutes the “body” of lichens, and I have no idea about such past characters as the prehistoric maybe-fungus, Prototaxites.
Mycelia in many ways behave in manners we would associate with individuals- they eat and grow and mate- but probably “colony” is a better analogy; if you divide a given hyphal network in 2, then it’s 2 separate mycelia. This confusion of “what comprises an individual…” entered the public consciousness in the early 1990’s, when the “Humungus Fungus” was announced in Southern Michigan. This fungus, which was an “incidence” of Armillaria bulbosa (“Honey Fungus”), was estimated to cover >30 acres and weigh something like 10 tons. But it wasn’t really clear whether the Humungus Fungus should be considered a single living thing, a colony of living things, or a number of separate, extremely similar (possibly identical) things. In a sense a mycelia is analogous to a clonal stand of Oak or Aspen, but unlike those organisms, which have clear, individual components (i.e. trees), there really is no “fungal individual.” This is the second mind-bender of Fungi: complex, highly-evolved multicellularity without any real concept of an individual.
Growth and Movement
The third mind-bender for me about fungi is the lack of any real distinction between growth and movement. Animals grow and they move; the distinction is easy. Plants grow, and-for the most part- don’t move. But Fungi just grow. Or do they move? It’s not quite clear.
Side Note: You can of course define plant growth as “movement” if you want to be more liberal in your use of the term. Plants grow toward light, and vines and creepers certainly achieve something that looks a lot like movement through their growth. And long-lived clonal stands of Oak or Aspen might well migrate along, up or down a hillside to the extent that after a 1,000 years or so the stand occupies a completely different spot than it did originally.
Fungi, like animals, don’t make their own food. They eat other stuff. And like animals*, they don’t wait for it to come to them- they go it. But they go to it by growing to it, and onto it, and around it and through it. This high surface-to-volume ratio makes fungi highly efficient at absorbing nutrients (eating.) While we’re on the topic of eating, you might think that fungi go through a leaf-litter eating/clean-up frenzy every Fall. But Fungi are busy whenever conditions- specifically moisture and temperature- permit. Most North American forests have many years worth of un-decomposed organic debris on/in the ground, ranging from around 10 years worth in Eastern deciduous forests to something like a 350 year backlog in Subarctic Boreal forest, where decomposition is limited by extreme cold and too much moisture**.
*Most animals anyway. Anemones are an obvious exception, and I suppose you could even argue the case for something like an Ant Lion or many spiders.
**Because frozen soil inhibits runoff.
Aaah so what, you may be thinking. They still sound like plants of a sort. But if you’re not yet convinced that fungi are different- and BTW they’re more closely-related to us than they are to trees- then consider how they mate.
Plants mate at a distance, through mechanisms like flowers, pollen and such. Animals mate by physical contact*, achieved by going to each other. Like animals, fungi also mate** by going to each other. Same species mycelia connect and exchange genetic material by linking hyphae; they grow to each other. The mechanical specifics of these connections are probably as widely varied (or more so) as those in the animal world.
The genetics also vary; though sexually-reproducing species generally practice meiosis, many (most?) fungi use an alternating-generation haploid-diploid reproductive schema, similar to what we’ve seen with mosses, ferns and lycophytyes.
*Oh sure, there’s a bit of distance in the “last mile” contact in the mating of lots of animals, such as sperm transmission in fish or scorpions, but by and large these creatures are still going to each other.
**Sexual species that is. Many fungi reproduce asexually.
But that’s the simple part. The really mind-bending thing about fungal reproduction is a completely different concept of gender. Fungi species are either homothallic or heterothallic. Homothallic fungi can mate with any other fungus of the same species they bump into. But a heterothallic fungus can only mate with another fungus of the same species, but of different mating type. And here’s the thing- many species have more than 2 mating types- like 3, 4 or even more! As if that weren’t confusing enough, some species appear to switch mating types as they grow.
Fungi don’t come above ground- or rather “out of substrate”- to mate, but they do so to propagate. When the 2 hyphae meet they grow a specialized organ, the mushroom (one of the few cases where fungi grow real organs), that serves to disseminate spores via wind or water.
So. They’re alive; they’re complex and evolutionarily advanced. They’re everywhere, and they serve as the linchpin of decomposition and material re-use that make the living world work. But they have no bodies, no individuals, no “self”, and somehow move without, well, moving. Fungi remind me of something.
The True Nature of The Force
Like most geeky teens who grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I loved Star Wars. I loved the action, the drama and the special effects, but most of all I loved the idea of The Force. An all-pervasive bodiless-yet vital thing, that connected all life, transcended any concept of individual, and to which we were somehow linked. I wanted, really wanted, the Force to somehow be real- not because I wanted to “worship” or gain spiritual guidance from anything, but simply for the sense of connection and commonality between all living things it hinted at. And I guess, deep-down, I still do.
As a skeptic, non-theist and general un-believer, I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts or “Forces”, and so The Force always remained a nice story, but nothing more. Until now. Because now I realize that there is a Force, that is real, that pervades and permeates the entire Living World and, in the big picture- bigger than me or my little worries or my short life- links us all together, to each other and to all other living things, through birth, growth, consumption, life and eventually death. That Force is Fungi.
When I roll across rotting leaves, The Force is with me.