Magic in the Night Woods
Some friends were asking me about a nighttime glow on the horizon south of the farm the other night. I told them that it was from the lights shining into the sky above a city 30 miles south of the Currant Farm. I explained that the reason the light was so visible from so far away, was because the country around the farm was so wonderfully, naturally dark with almost no light pollution. The multitude of visible stars and planets, especially on frigid, clear nights this time of year, are like nothing anyone ever sees in the city.
It got me to thinking about how much I love to venture into the woods on the Currant Farm at night. When there’s snow on the ground and a bright moon, the woods are a magical theater of shadows and shapes and one can see great distances through the silhouettes of the naked trees. I’ll find a place to stop, usually against an old tree on a hillside. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see the absolutely silent specter of one of the many owls that share the farm, swooping down to the forest floor to collect dinner. Eventually and inevitably, I’ll spot some other residents of the woods, deer, raccoons, possums, rabbits and occasionally a bob cat or a pack of coyotes. Of course, if I see the latter, I never see the former but it’s always magic.
In the late spring, my nighttime hunt is for Foxfire sometimes called fairy fire or will-o-the-wisp. After my eyes have become completely accustomed to the dark, I pick my way carefully through woods to an area where I know there is damp rotting wood from fallen trees, most often oak. And then, all of a sudden, there it is! An ethereal, blue-green glow in the distance. As I come up upon it, it appears as if the light is emanating from the rotting logs. Sometimes, it’s so bright one could read by it. It always takes my breath away.
These phenomena have been reported and written about as far back as Aristotle who described it as a heatless fire in the wood. In fact, the source of the glow is strands of several different fungi, or mycelium, that are consuming the rotting wood. These are bioluminescent fungi. Sometimes, I can even find a glowing mushroom cap. It wasn’t until the early 1800’s that scientists discovered the source of light was a chemical reaction between the wood and the fungi resulting in a light-emitting compound called luciferin (from the Latin, Lucifer). This is the same substance responsible for many bioluminescent plants and animals including our beloved fireflies.
I’m always fascinated by the science but when I actually find these otherworldly nonpareils on a warm spring night in the deep woods of the Currant Farm well, It’s just magic.
Cheers from the farm,