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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The mysterious 'stuf' was mistaken for a fungus. © Wayne Sage

February 2002

The 'stuf' of dreams

The chance to unearth a rare life form proved irresistible.

David L. Sperling

The mysterious 'stuf' was mistaken for a fungus.

© Wayne Sage
Unearthing alien life?
What we find in the fields
Humongous Fungus fun facts

In these days of heightened mail awareness, I suppose the hand-written envelope sealed with tape, thick with papers and something heavy inside should have been a clue.

The contents slipped back and forth as I tilted the letter. It was early October, the correspondence had a return address and it was adorned with cheery stamps including two one-centers of colorful kestrels. How bad could it be?

I slit open the letter and out poured a three-page single-spaced typed letter, what looked like a hand-drawn treasure map and six bright color photos. Here's the tale Wayne Sage of North Prairie laid before us:

Dear Sirs:

Enclosed you will find six photographs of something I hope you can identify. As a subscriber to your magazine, I'm hoping that perhaps you may know of someone within the DNR (or elsewhere) who can make an identification of what appears in the photos.

I'm tempted to say it looks like something out of a bad science-fiction movie such as 'The Stuff from the Deep Dark Woods.' If I had to venture a guess, I would say it's some type of fungus, but I'm not a mycologist, I don't really know what this stuff is, so from here on out I'm going to refer to it as 'stuf.'

There was no mistaking that our reader had found something odd. The photos showed big, brightly-colored blobs of something in a big mound that I couldn't readily identify. The photos had been taken earlier in the year in June, but this was not our writer's first encounter with the "stuf."

The stuf is located in the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Over a year ago, my wife and I were hunting for wild asparagus, and I spotted the stuf from a distance of roughly a hundred yards. At that time, that's as close as I got to it, and mentally I wrote it off as some type of garbage that had been dumped there. I thought it an odd place to dump something, though, because the spot is not near any road or trail.

This year, again in May sometime, we were gathering wild asparagus and wandered much closer to the stuf. Curiosity got the better of me and I went directly to the stuf to investigate.

What I found growing (?) amongst a small patch of sumac was a large multi-colored patch of stuf measuring roughly 14 feet by 11 feet with a hump of the same stuf in approximately the middle of the patch. The hump measured about three feet or so in height and diameter. The colors when viewed live could only be described as "electric" – much more brilliant than the more muted colors in these photos. These pictures were taken after an extended period of rain, and that may explain the washed-out look at the time the photos were taken.

Now I was really hooked as Mr. Sage laid out a detailed description with scientific precision, numbered photographs and a diagram. This was looking more and more like a well-crafted field observation:

  • The stuf looked like dried cotton candy; a fibrous, almost woven or wound texture, especially when viewing the underside of a patch. Mr. Sage touched it and said the stuf felt like a cotton ball, sort of soft, dry and fibrous.
  • There was no detectable odor from the stuf, just the normal early summer smells of growing vegetation.
  • Stuf was "growing" near the bottom of a gentle slope with southern exposure.
  • It was unclear why there was a great hump of stuf that appeared to be growing hump over an old tree stump.
  • There were other signs of past human activity in the area including some old pieces of rusting metal and decaying lumber. Most of it was long since covered with vines.

One of the photos showed "migrating" stuf – rough patches about 12-18 inches across that appeared irregularly extending 15-20 feet from the main blob of material.

Mr. Sage also enclosed a sketch that provided a sense of the size and spread of the material.

I've hiked, tramped and explored much of Wisconsin and the Midwest. I've done the same in many other areas of this country and in rainforests in several different countries. I've seen many wondrous, beautiful, amazing and, yes, weird things of nature. However, I've never seen anything like the stuf or anything close to it. So my curiosity has been raised greatly.

So was mine.

The lurid glow of a scarlet waxy cap mushroom. You can see why Mr. Sage might have thought the 'stuf' was a fungus. © Donna Krischan
The lurid glow of a scarlet waxy cap mushroom. You can see why Mr. Sage might have thought the 'stuf' was a fungus.

© Donna Krischan

I had visions that the site would prove to be one of those great botanical finds like the Humongous Fungus in the Malheur National Forest of eastern Oregon – a massive mycelium Armillaria ostoyae that extends 3.5 miles across 2,200 acres. Its shoestring-like filaments form an underground hairy network of rhizomorphs three- to nine-feet-deep that spread unnoticed for an estimated 2,400 years, sucking the life from tree roots.

Or perhaps the colorful fruiting bodies would contain heretofore-unknown chemical compounds that would hold the key to a cancer cure or a natural means of digesting toxic wastes.

Unearthing alien life?

I was on a mission as I shuttled the package down to Kelly Kearns in DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources. A native plant biologist, Kelly works on rare plant conservation and coordinate efforts to control invasive species. Moreover, she has written for this magazine about alien plant species. I teased her and asked if DNR had sort of a botanical "X-Files" work unit up for a little detective work.

Actually, they are accustomed to such visits from me. One of my favorite tasks here in the agency is stopping by the biologists with an unidentified slide of a bird, insect or plant asking them to "Name That Critter" so we don't misidentify species for our readers. Kelly looked at the photos. She scratched her head. She read the letter and looked again. She'd never seen anything like it.

Kelly was reasonably skeptical and thought it unlikely that we were looking at plant material, but she had certainly come across fungi in vivid colors in her day, so she e-mailed a short note to Ron Kurowski, the DNR naturalist at the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest (SUKMSF) based in Eagle:

RE: Strange colorful blob in SUKM

We have reports of a very strange occurrence that a visitor photographed and reported. The "thing" is a large hump (unknown what is in it) in the woods, approximately three feet high by five feet in diameter. It is covered with a soft fibrous very lumpy mat with intermingled patches of very bright orange, red, green, gray and brown. As the material spreads on the ground, the lumps become lighter orange. The close-up photos look like the fiber could be either a type of very odd moss or fungal mat, or more likely a refuse pile or an artistic use of very brightly dyed felt! Apparently it has been there at least two years. No one in our office has ever seen anything like this and we suspect it is not any kind of plant growth, but are all curious as to what it could be. We are hoping that when you are in the area, you can search for it and figure out if it is, indeed, a living organism, a piece of wildlands art, or some odd refuse pile!

Kurowski responded two hours later:

Sounds like something that should be on "Unsolved Mysteries." I'll go check on it, but I hope that I won't be abducted by some alien spaceship.

We waited. A week went by. Then two.

I was wondering if we would get a report that Ron had come down with some weird ailment.

Then an e-mail came from Ms. Kearns:

It looks like your colorful blob in the SUKMSF mystery has been solved.

I quickly opened Kurowski's message.

I found the spot and it is some fibrous material similar to pink fiberglass insulation, but painted different colors. I suspect it was used as a backing for gun or bow target practice.

He said that the property managers would see to it that the "stuf" was properly collected, moved and disposed of. And his message ended:

Darn, and here I thought we had something for the "National Enquirer".

I sighed, picked up the phone, had a nice conversation with our writer, Mr. Sage, and thanked him for forwarding a detailed account, quality photos and a genuine mystery.

What we find in the fields

I got curious and made a few inquiries around the agency to determine how often DNR property managers find that someone has used public spaces as a dumping ground. I was pleased to discover that this is a relatively rare occurrence. Most property managers find the occasional bag of refuse, and the odd bit of metal junk, but by and large, public lands are not used as dumping grounds.

The bigger cleanup costs have come when the state made big land purchases that either included former dumping grounds or included undeveloped property that had been vacant for a long time and received relatively few visitors. For instance, Copper Culture State Park in Oconto included portions of a closed landfill and a paper company dump; Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee naturally contained some waste as portions of the property were formerly a municipal dump, Nike missile base and railroad dump; portions of the Hank Aaron State Trail are built in an old railroad yard in an industrial corridor. Surely major purchases like the Dells property, the Big Addition, lake flowages and major Stewardship Fund purchases include abandoned developments and vacated parcels used as dumping grounds. But that is a story for another day. I still relish the hunt for endangered insects, giant hibernacula, ancient bacteria and the unfound fungus amongus.

David L. Sperling edits Wisconsin Natural Resources and occasionally hunts the edible mushrooms that are easy to identify.

Humongous Fungus fun facts
The Humongous Fungus weighs about as much as

  • 13 African elephants
  • half the Statue of Liberty
  • one blue whale
  • a Boeing 757-300 airplane
The Humongous Fungus is as large as 28 football fields.