The Riches Of Fall's Forest Floor

WE always call him "the retired policeman." While he is certainly retired, there is no factual foundation for the rest of our title for this gentleman. Perhaps we started with the name because he has an Alsatian - the usual breed for police dogs.

Anyway, I ran into him in the park the other day. As we chatted, he stooped down and picked something up, putting it in his pocket. It was a horse chestnut.

"Ah," I said, taking a couple of these shiny brown nuts out of my own pocket, "you haven't grown up, either." He grinned. He knew what I meant.

I have no doubt that when both of us were 7 or 8 we were no different from any other small British boy. We searched eagerly for the largest, toughest "conkers," pierced them with a skewer, threaded through with a string, and then dared all comers. Playing "Conkers" involves swinging your conker at your opponent's (which is hanging loose) in an attempt to smash it before it smashes yours.

"The only thing is," I confessed to the retired policeman, "I keep bringing them home, and my wife asks, 'What are you going to do with them all?' I say, 'I'm going to plant them.' But the truth is, I just like picking them up and taking them home."

"Put them in a bowl," suggested the erstwhile terror of the criminal fraternity. "That's what I do."

It seems that neither of us is prepared to rejuvenate to the point of actually challenging someone to a conker-fight.

The woods this autumn are full of beechnuts, acorns, and chestnuts - the fruit of a hot summer. It is even slightly hazardous walking under the oaks and chestnut trees. A sporadic bombardment - the chestnuts, still in their shells, land with loud thumps on the spongy earth - has been continuing for some weeks.

And now the leaves are starting to fall in sympathy, though this, too, is a process spanning weeks, a gradual thinning of the trees and a consequent buildup underfoot. An increased breeze and down more come, spiraling or zigzagging on the lively air, as if choreographed. "Fall" is by far the better term for this season. "Autumn" sounds too solemn and classical for such a merriment of flutter and float, of shedding and casting off and letting go. It is dropping time.

But it is also - and I have found this unexpected each time I am freshly aware of it - a time when some things come up out of the dank leaf-mould. "What goes up when the rain comes down?" was about the most complicated riddle I could bend my mind round as a child. I am, however, remembering such nonsense because of a riddle for autumn that I thought of: "What comes up as the leaves come down?"

Well, the answer is not umbrellas, but mushrooms. Mushrooms, toadstools, fungi of all sorts. Some of them, it's true, do look like miniature umbrellas. Hosts of small brownish ones congregate on an old damp tree stump, and they might be (in miniature) the hastily lifted umbrellas of thousands of Ukiyo-e girls surging up over a bridge in a Japanese print of a sudden rain-shower.

I have always found toadstools, appearing without warning in woodlands, an irresistible pleasure: but not to pick up and take home, just to discover and admire. This year in the local woods, they have been somewhat prolific.

The variousness of their colors is no less marvelous than their variety of form, which ranges from intricate delicacy to undulant ugliness, with surfaces as smooth as petals, to surfaces like burnt pie crusts or overbaked bread. For color, there are ghostly white ones; grays and browns; ochres and rusts. I happened on a remarkable sprouting of rich gamboge-yellow toadstools on the edge of one of the unofficial paths. I had to "stop and stare." Though they're technically "fruiting bodies," some of the more felicitous types of fungi are like flowers in their fresh beauty. They also strike me as no less astonishing than some marine species: anemones, perhaps, seaweeds, even coral; and the woodland floor takes on an aura of the seabed in the fungus season.

The red ones - the color of Campbell's tomato soup - with white spots on their surface (like croutons) are every child's idea of a toadstool, largely thanks to generations of children's book illustrators finding it impossible not to paint them. But there are also, under the beech trees, purple ones - an indefinable purple, strong but not intense, deep but not dark, soft but not dim. At first you notice a scattering of five or six, and then you see more and more of them until they seem everywhere. Fallen beech leaves are not purple, but the color or tone of these fungi does act as a rather effective camouflage.

Toadstools seem to divide into those wanting to be seen - loudly advertising their presence, probably as a warning to creatures with a meal in mind, and those that have evolved ways of trying not to be seen, for similar reasons.

On the edge of a gravel path - some growing through the stones - is a small colony of orange fungi. They are not knobs or canopies, but bear a strange resemblance to open flowers. My personal analogy is with the scraped insides of cooked orange skins - a similarity that is likely to be obscure except to marmalade-makers. I do not believe, however, that they are trying to look like orange skins, but more like the fallen leaves on the ground around them that can be rusty colored and turn up, cup-like, at the edges.

The most effectively disguised ones I have discovered this year, though, are growing a few yards from the orange skins. They are in the shade of a rowan, or mountain ash tree, that is busy, just at present, dropping its bright red berries. The small toadstools grow in among these bright berries and they appear - until you look much closer - just like these berries.

When I spotted them, and penetrated their disguise, I couldn't help saying aloud: "Look at that! Now that's clever."

Fortunately, there was no retired policeman at hand to overhear me. I wouldn't like him to think I was a nut.

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