In Summer 2009 I went to the States to meet the biggest living organism found so far. It is said to be at least 2200 year old, but some people say it could as well be much older.
It is situated in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon and has a size of about 2385 acres and a weight of about 600 tons. But theses numbers are only assumptions, in fact nobody can really tell, as the actual body is growing in the forest soil as mycelium and rhizomorph strings. The organism is a fungus of the species Armillaria.
This organism seems to be so simple – as far as we know, it has no brain, no nervous system, no extremities or genitals like the animals do. It grows, monotonously to all sides, in search for food. But in fact, the fungus are incredibly complex beings, more familiar to animals then to plants. The mushroom – that is the interesting thing to us, is only the fruit, growing out of the complex structure of the myzelium.
As it´s cells are permanently regenerating themselves and probably non of them are older then 2 years, it might as well be seen as an immortal organism … I wanted to get a feeling for how this creature is functioning, wanted to explore its entity – wanted to act in a similar monotonous way the fungus does.
With the preparation of the project I had set 33 breakpoints to go out and search for traces of the fungus. I entered the coordinates in the GPS and followed the way it pointed out, through all kinds of forest terrain. Some areas were very hard to enter and as well I couldn´t find traces at all of the breakpoints.
By walking through this forest, at first I came to the point that the fungus is a ruthless killer. but in the end, by developing this work I came to think that it just acts in the same way most creatures do – it lives on other organisms.
But by killing the trees, other species get the space and chance to develop. So the death of one always enables the life of another. Only most plants are living in an photoautotrophic way and produce the organic substances they need to grow by photosynthesis. But still they also fight for light, water and the other substances they need.
There wouldn´t be a world like this without the animals, the plants, the bacteria and other tiny organisms and also it wouldn´t be the same without the fungus. By working on organisms, I find that all forms of life are standing equally next to each other, are in need of each other and the whole of us is building the pattern of the world as it is.
support by Nikolaus Gansterer
08/02/09 Arriving in John Day, Oregon
After a lot of theoretical engagement with the Armillaria Fungus and an exciting ride from Los Angeles up to Oregon, Nikolaus and I finally arrived in John Day. I was able to get an appointment with Craig Schmidt, who is a specialist on tree diseases and had researched the Armillaria in the Malheur National Forest. We were able to join him to the forest, to see a tiny part of the biggest so far known living organism.
The traces were not so many as I had expected. Craig showed us how we could find them. The best chance is in the stock of a freshly fallen tree. But as there was a forest fire, just a few years ago the trees of a big part of the area had died too long ago. The black, so called shoestring rhizomorphe of the Armillaria looks very similar to the dark roots of the trees. As Craig showed us, one can tell the difference by the white center of the rhizomorph, compared to the brown of the roots.
08/04/09 First Day in the Woods
After meeting Craig, I got prepared to go out in the woods and start my project. I divided the space the fungus is situated in 33 breakpoints and enterd the coordinates to a GPS. I hoped to get as close as possible to the fungus with the car, as I would still be exploring an huge area by foot, which would probably not have comfortable footpaths.
I was a bit frustrated, because I could hardly find traces of the fungus and the forest felt as impenetrable as a jungle. At the end of the day a storm came up and I was still in the middle of fallen trees, like in a huge game of pick-a-stick ... I had only managed to access breakpoint F3 and F4 – but there is still plenty of time.
08/05/09 Entering the Area from the West
I managed to find a good access from the west. A couple of little roads are traversing the area, but some have not been used for longer time and fallen trees make the passing through impossible. I started my day´s march close to breakpoint B7. Unfortunately I couldn´t make it till there, because the hill was too steep to climb it. I gave B7 up – for ever. With midday a good flow started. I was able to reach 4 breakpoints and at two of them I found the Armillaria - not much of it, but I found it.
08/07/09 Cemetery of Trees
I found a perfect place to leave the car, being able to explore the area in all directions. The fungus is situated on a higher level and some points are offering a great few to the nearby Strawberry Mountains.
As long as the sky is sunny, the search for the fungus is wonderful, but as it´s getting dark and rainy, the whole place makes me fell depressed. Dead trees every where – in some areas you can not even see a living one – but still the decline makes space for other organisms.
08/10/09 A new Method
At some places it was very difficult to find the organism. The wood fires had killed the trees so they had broken above the stock and that meant that I had no chance to get down to where I could find the traces.
Today Nikolaus came to join the search. He remembered a childhood game we found very useful for our research ... as it was so difficult to find newly fallen trees, he started to look for dead ones we could just knock over. And it helped a lot. We found a lot of Armillaria traces under those trees.
08/11/09 Nights in the Wilderness
As long the sun is shining, it feels ok, walking on a piece of land that has been treated by fires, storm and the fungus. But when ist gets rainy, stormy or then it turns night, strange feelings can rise, bearing the bad plots of the scary movies, I had seen in my youth. Accompanied by Nikolaus we spent a few nights with the Armillaria and howling wolfs (or what ever) around sang us in our sleep.
08/12/09 Bringing the Organism to the world wide web
After having collected quite a lot of data and Gunter Geyer had helped me code a website, I could give the fungus a space in the internet. I needed some days to get this started. We stopped in the "Little Pine Inn" Motel in John Day. The owner had lived with her husband close to my home in Bavaria. I started sorting and evaluating the material I had collected and we learned cooking with the microwave and the coffee machine.
08/17/09 The Surface
This is how it continued. I was spending my days either with the fungus or with the reflection on the fungus. At every breakpoint I had taken a sample of soil, I had studied the traces of the fungus and made photos of the place – and the forest floor. This skin began to fascinate me. It stood in dependence with the fungus just like trees, the animals, the whole area.
So I found that the work should have a further level. On the on side I wanted to show the marking of the fungus´skin and on the other side, us the historical material that google earth can give me and illustrate the process of mutation of the images from above, with historical satellite photos.
08/20/09 The Neighbors
The fungus I was searching for all those days is the biggest living organism found till now. The stranger it was, that hardly anyone in the area knew about it. The most interest seamed to lay in the hereby caused forest decline.
08/28/09 Last Breakpoints
Today I entered to the last 4 breakpoints! At the evening we went out to a rodeo.
09/23/09 Back to find the fruits
After a trip to Alaska to see some ice, before it´s getting real cold, I came back to find some of the fruit of the Armillaria. Craig Schmitt said that the third week in September would be the best to find it.
Nikolaus had gone back to Vienna. Now I was travelling with Petra Schneider, the other woman how got the travel grant from the Bavarian goverment. After all the cold up in the north, we were happy the come down to the heat again – but since I had left, there had been no rain, so no mushrooms had the chance to grow.
09/25/09 Meeting Greg Whipple
But in the end I had luck! I was able to meet Greg Whipple, the person who had found the fungus.
At this evening, we said Good bye! to the fungus, dropped the rental car in Baker and got on a greyhound that took us over to Salt Lake City.