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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:
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."
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:
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.
So was mine.
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:
Kurowski responded two hours later:
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:
I quickly opened Kurowski's message.
He said that the property managers would see to it that the "stuf" was properly collected, moved and disposed of. And his message ended:
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.
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.