Our backyard is like no other backyard in town. It’s somewhat of a liminal place, located as it is on the exact boundary where the town ends and the country begins. On the country side, the lower corner of our yard is a tangle of wild hawthorn, snowberry, and Oregon-grape, where deer saunter along the paths and quail scurry in the underbrush, all presided over by two mature Douglas-fir trees. One day, I was wandering in this part of our yard when I noticed something unusual on top of a fallen birch tree that had toppled over the fence separating our property from that of our neighbours.
This… thing… was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was a bright spot of unlikely yellow in a landscape otherwise dominated by dull greens and shades of brown. It was a brilliant spot of colour in the shadowy undergrowth. And I was certain that it was nothing that I had ever seen before in my life. I knelt down beside it and peered at it closely, my nose only a few inches from its surface. I was fascinated. The thing had a textured, porous surface and parts of it appeared to be expanding outwards along the surface of the birch bark. I felt slightly alarmed by it. I feel comfortable identifying most of the plants and animals that I encounter in my local woods, but this was something different. It wasn’t a plant. It wasn’t an animal. It wasn’t even a lichen or any kind of fungus that I had seen before. Perhaps – I paused and thought back to a biology class that I had taken in university years before – was it a slime mold?
Slime molds are odd creatures; once considered fungi, they are now recognized as a unique class of organisms in and of themselves. They are officially a member of the Kingdom Protista, which is something of a catch-all kingdom for anything that’s not a plant, animal, fungus, or bacterium. Some slime molds (plasmodial slime molds) are basically giant cells composed of thousands of individual nuclei (in comparison to most cells, which have only one nucleus each). Other slime molds (cellular slime molds) live as single-nucleus, individual cells most of the time but can join up to behave like a multicellular organism when conditions are right. Slime molds typically live in moist environments, such as on rotting logs, or even in gardens and lawns, and ingest microbes such as bacteria and the spores of fungi. They also show unexpected intelligence, being able to find the shortest routes through mazes and anticipate future changes in their environment.
I grew up in a forest, which makes it hard for me to believe that I had never seen a slime mold before that day. But I’m sure I would have remembered if I had seen one before. And I didn’t remember ever seeing anything even remotely similar to a slime mold. In fact, I don’t think I had even heard of slime molds before that biology class. And in that class, I had been excited to learn about an organism I’d never heard of before, but I don’t know if I had ever really expected to discover one in the wild, or if I did, that it would look the way it did. So different. So bizarre. So alien, even.
I returned to the spot a couple of days later and my slime mold had visibly aged. It was still fascinating, but I felt thankful that I had seen it while it was still in its prime.
I was thrilled when I stumbled across my yellow slime. It was the perfect reminder of why I always try to be alert to any pieces of unexpected wonder that might cross my path. I see so many people who are so wrapped up in their own lives that they rarely notice anything outside of them – but outside, in the real world, there is so much, much more. My slime mold was also a reminder of how so much diversity of life can exist even on a mere acre of land on the edge of town. I could likely spend a lifetime in our backyard and still not see or learn everything that is there.
As I watched my yellow slime, I wondered: where had it come from? where was it going? what – if anything – was it thinking? what does its universe look like? In its unfamiliarity, it had an other-ness about it that I had never experienced before – an other-ness that awed and humbled me.
I’ve seen a few more slime molds since that first one, and I’ve even had a few opportunities to introduce them to other people. While I can’t say that anyone else has been quite as excited by slimes as I am, I think they did feel a least a tiny bit of that awe and wonder that I experienced that first time. After all, it’s not every day that you get to meet a slime mold.