I am Sibylla Brown. I was born in Germany in 1940. In 1946 my father, a German Operation Overcast scientist, was brought to the U.S. My family followed him to the U.S. in 1947, settling in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 1950. I married my husband, Bill in 1962. Bill practiced dentistry in Des Moines for over 40 years. In 1993 we sold our house in Des Moines and moved to a 200 acre farm in Decatur County, Iowa. Except for a small vineyard we had no plans to farm our land. But we did want to take care of it, particularly the overgrown oak and hickory woodlands. We began timber stand improvement in 1993. When we learned our land was actually a rare oak savanna remnant we implemented prescribed fire. These posts share how we restored the rare oak savanna on our 200 acres, what is happening in our lives, and what we are thinking.
The first year Bill and I owned Timberhill mushrooms fruited abundantly throughout the oak and hickory woodlands that dominated our land. But the only species I could identify were the springtime morels. I was clueless how to go about identifying the summer and fall fruiting species. Finally, at the height of the summer mushroom season I collected every species I could find and spread them on newspapers on the dining table. Then I compared them to the illustrations in mushroom field guides I had borrowed from the library. But the picture keying was hopeless. All I accomplished was to ruin the table. One of mushrooms I had harvested deliquesed, deteriorating into a thick, black liquid that soaked through the finish on the table.
Not to be deterred I joined the Prairie States Mushroom Club. On club forays I learned to identify the common genera. In 1998 I took Dr. Lois Tiffany’s field mycology class at Iowa Lakeside Lab. There I learned to use dichotomous keys and the microscope to identify the fungi collected on class field trips. I became adept at viewing and measuring spores and learned how to slice the thinnest possible gill tissue for microscopic study. If the section was thin enough I could count the number of spores on the basidia or in the asci, and distinguish between interwoven, parallel and divergent tissue.
In fifteen years since I have identified hundreds of fungi that fruited here at Timberhill. The more I learned the more cognizant I became of the huge gaps in my understanding of this complex group of organisms. Although my library is filled with mushroom books that I have read I didn’t really understand a lot of what I read. Last month I purchased a copy of Dr. Jens H. Petersen’s wonderful book, The Kingdom of Fungi. I am finally beginning to fill those gaps. With an economy of words and 800 photographs, this book describes fungal morphology and the biology and ecology of fungi. The photographs are simply amazing. Who knew that dung fungi, rusts, and smuts could be so beautiful?
The incredible photographs picture all the processes that I hadn’t been able to envision. For example, I know that decomposer fungi secrete enzymes that break down lignin and cellulose in wood. But I couldn’t picture the process in my mind. On page195 is a photograph taken through an electron microscope of a growing hyphal tip showing the vacuoles that empty enzymes into the surrounding substrate. This photo is accompanied by a photo-diagram of the hypha with arrows to show the release of the enzymes from the tip and further along structure are green arrows that indicate where the nutrients that provide the fungus with nutrients and energy diffuse back into the hypha.
Boletus edulis, the king bolete, is a prized edible that fruits regularly here at Timberhill. Bill and I are thrilled when we collect enough for the table. There are many edulis-like North American boletes and several years ago an expert told me that the species I was collecting here probably wasn’t true Boletus edulis. I did some research and found a key to twelve North American B. edulis-like boletes. However, none of the descriptions fit my collections. On p.128 of Kingdom of Fungi Dr. Petersen writes that B. edulis ”species as interpreted by most mushroom collectors is actually a species group. All members are edible and easily recognized by their white to yellow tube mouths that don’t change color when touched, their pale, netlike pattern at the top of the stem, and their mild nutty taste.” I realized that this description was all I needed. Bill and I will continue to eat all the specimens we find and leave the systemics to the professional mycologists.
Bill and I have three sons, Chris, Alex, and Billy. Chris practices law in Austin, Texas . He also writes short fiction and criticism for various anthologies and online markets. His work has been nominated for the Phillip K. Dick and World Fantasy awards. Alex, who lives in Des Moines, is a painter. He is represented by Feature Inc. gallery in New York and regularly shows his work at other galleries in Geneva, Brussels, and Tokyo. In 2000 he was awarded the Rosenthal Foundation Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Alex also plays guitar in the New York hardcore punk band Gorilla Biscuits. Billy, our youngest contracted viral encephalitis as an infant and is profoundly retarded as a result. He lives in an assisted-care facility in Des Moines.
Chris and Alex were at my side when Bill had open heart surgery on January 22, 2014. After surgery Bill was moved to the intensive care unit. One hour later we were allowed to see him. The unconscious patient we saw in Bill’s bed was a stranger. His face and lips were swollen. There were tubes everywhere: in both arms, in his carotid artery, in his mouth for breathing, as well as those draining his lungs and bladder. It was a shock to see our usually healthy and active Bill in this condition. We were anxious for him to regain consciousness.
Bill’s nurse told us that she would begin trying to wake him up in a few hours. Her first attempt to awaken him was a disaster. He became terribly agitated, flailing his arms and legs, biting down on his breathing tube, when she tried to awaken him. It took 6 people to get him under control and put him back to sleep.
The nurse explained that she had to remove the breathing tubes soon as Bill was conscious. She could only do that if he was calm enough to follow her breathing commands. Every few hours through the rest of the day and night the nurses tried again, but Bill continued to become agitated. I tried talking to him. “The surgery went really well. You’re okay. You can wake up now,” I said while gently stroking his hand. But he couldn’t hear me.
By the next morning, Bill’s second day in the ICU, the boys and I became worried. This was so unlike Bill. When he had knee replacement surgery four years ago he began to wake up from the anesthesia before he reached the recovery room. But the combination of traumatic of open heart surgery, heavy anesthesia, and the drugs he was being administered were having a profound effect. Fear of the grim reaper probably also played a role. Bill’s cardiac surgeon told us that it could take 3-5 days for Bill to wake up.
That was when we took matters into our own hands. After the nurse shut off the IV that was keeping Bill asleep, Alex held his feet, I held his left hand, while Chris took his right hand and began whispering in his ear. “Breathe. Relax and breathe.” When Bill became agitated again Chris told him, “No Dad. Don’t do that. Now relax and breathe.” It took over thirty minutes but Chris finally talked Bill into waking up gently.
After the nurse pulled the breathing tube I could barely hear Bill whisper, “I can hear you.” Then he opened his eyes, looked up at us, and with the trace of a smile he said, “I can see you.”
Ten years ago my husband, Bill, was diagnosed with aortic valve stenosis (AVS), a narrowing of the aortic valve opening. The aortic valve is located between the left ventricle and the aorta, the largest artery in the body. Blood is pumped through this valve from the left ventricle to the aorta. The most prevalent valvular heart disease in patients over 65, AVS is caused by age-related calcification of the valve leaves. (Bill is 77.) Affecting approximately 5 percent of people over 75, it is a common cardiac condition that can be cured by valve replacement surgery.
Patients with this disease may be asymptomatic for years after the diagnosis. In Bill’s case his only problem was shortness of breath when walking up our steep hills. However, his doctor told him that more serious symptoms would appear eventually. Then Bill would need open heart surgery. The symptoms we have been dreading for 10 years occurred last month.
On January 3, while walking through the kitchen, I saw Bill lying in the snow west of the house. He had fainted while feeding the birds. His doctor called the fainting spell syncope, a major sign of severe aortic stenosis. He referred Bill to a cardiologist who did an echocardiogram to evaluate valve function. The cardiac echo confirmed severe aortic valve disease; the valve was 90% narrowed. The cardiologist told Bill he had to have valve replacement surgery within the next two weeks. Bill’s response to that diagnosis was another syncope episode.
“You’re going to the hospital,” the doctor told Bill after reviving him. ”You’re not going to drive, you’re going in an ambulance.”
That was on Monday, January 20. At 7:00 AM Wednesday Bill had open heart valve replacement surgery. There are several replacement valve choices: mechanical, porcine, or bovine. Bill’s surgeon recommended a Trifecta bovine tissue valve. Trifecta valve leaflets are made from bovine pericardial tissue obtained from government inspected abbatoirs. They function just like the leaves of an intact valve. Recently approved by the FDA, Trifecta valves last at least 25 years.
The surgery was very successful. We brought Bill home from the hospital on Sunday, January 27 only four days after surgery. “You make me look good,” the surgeon told him. (He is that good.) Bill is now making steady progress. Although recovery will take three months, his doctor told him that in six months it will be like it never happened. Except that Bill will no longer have a broken heart.
Every time Bill and I completed thinning a portion of the Timberhill woodlands we resolved never to do it again. Since we leave everything where it falls, a recently thinned site is always a mess. We don’t cut and stack the downed logs nor do we pile up the brush. That’s because leaving deadwood where it falls can increase the diversity of a site by as much as 30%. As the wood decomposes it provides habitat for the many saproxylic organisms such as the decomposer fungi and invertebrates, particularly longhorn beetles and springtails. Logs on the ground can shelter salamanders, toads, and frogs.
Last year we realized that we would have to thin the riparian area along Brush Creek. We were reluctant to put up with another mess but we had no choice. Understory trees were filling the canopy and blocking the sunlight needed to stimulate natural shoreline vegetation. The work was completed last month. And is it ever a mess!
Brush Creek flows along our east property line. It meanders more each year creating steep banks that slump and fall into the creek. There is nothing we can do about the erosion on the neighbor’s property east of the creek, but we know that a dense cover of grasses and sedges will help stabilize the banks on our side of the creek. So here we are with another mess of downed wood that will only break down slowly.
The recycling process will begin next spring as the fungi and longhorn beetles begin breaking down the heartwood. Various mushroom and beetle species will continue to soften the wood. The wood softens and sinks into the ground after the bark disappears. When it is almost completely decayed woodlice, millipedes and other organisms will complete the process. Best of all the increased sunlight will stimulate riverbank wild rye, sedges, and other graminoids that will stabilize the banks and control erosion.
Each year since Bill and I began the Timberhill restoration in 1993 I have found new species. 2013 was no different except that the two new species were extraordinary finds.
On May 18 I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a shooting star, Dodecatheon media, blooming just south of the trail in the East Savanna. It’s one of my favorite plants but I’d never seen it in south central Iowa. (We do no seeding at Timberhill so I couldn’t have introduced it.) There are no specimens from south central Iowa at the Iowa State University herbarium. According to herbarium curator, Deb Lewis, the herbarium “database lists specimens mostly from the northern half or so of Iowa, and only from southern counties quite a ways east of you like Washington, Lee, and Des Moines.” It is assumed that any Decatur County populations were planted or escaped from a nearby homestead.
I know that the Timberhill specimen wasn’t planted nor could it have escaped from a nearby homestead. However, it’s possible the seed was tracked in by one of the many visitors we’ve had to Timberhill. Or it could be native? It certainly isn’t the first county record plant found here. When we began restoration the vascular plant list numbered 100. Without any seeding it has increased almost 500% since then.
The large white wax cap (so called because a gill rubbed between two fingers feels like wax) mushroom, Hygrophorus ponderatus, is another unusual find. Large wax caps fruit in fall often after the first frost. On November 9 I collected 5 specimens fruiting under white oaks along the south trail. This species is easily distinguished from the other white wax caps by the arachnoid partial veil in young specimens. This spider web like layer of tissue extends from the edge of the cap to the stalk and covers the immature gills. As the cap expands and matures the partial veil ruptures leaving remnants on the stalk or the margin of the cap.
According to Hesler & Smith’s 1963 Hygrophorus monograph this species is “often [found] in moss-hummocks, in pine and mixed woods [in] Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, ” November through January. It has also been collected in California coniferous woodlands. The most recent treatment of wax caps, Besette, Roody & Sturgeon’s 2012 Waxcap Mushrooms of Eastern North America, also stipulates mixed oak and pine habitat.
So the Timberhill find is unusual not only for its rarity but that it fruited in a deciduous woodland. I have found other mushroom species supposedly limited to coniferous or mixed woodlands at Timberhill. I wish I knew what causes them to fruit in our oak and hickory woodlands.