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Through Magic Glasses and Other Lectures By Arabella B. Buckley Characters: 27800

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

t was a lovely warm day in September, the golden corn had been cut and carted, and the waggons of the farmers around were free for the use of the college lads in their yearly autumn holiday. There they stood in a long row, one behind the other in the drive round the grounds, each with a pair of sleek, powerful farm-horses, and the waggoners beside them with their long whips ornamented with coloured ribbons; and as each waggon drew up before the door, it filled rapidly with its merry load and went on its way.

They had a long drive of seven miles before them, for they were going to cross the wild moor, and then descend gradually along a fairly good road to the more wooded and fertile country. Their object that day was to reach a certain fairy dell known to a few only among the party as one of the loveliest spots in Devon. It was a perfect day for a picnic. As they drove over the wide stretches of moorland, with tors to right and tors to the left, the stunted furze bushes growing here and there glistened with spiders' webs from which the dew had not yet disappeared, and mosses in great variety carpeted the ground, from the lovely thread-mosses, with their scarlet caps, to the pale sphagnum of the bogs, where a halt was made for some of the botanists of the party to search for the little Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Though this little plant had now almost ceased to flower, it was not difficult to recognise by its rosette of leaves glistening with sticky glands which it spreads out in many of the Dartmoor bogs to catch the tiny flies and suck out their life's blood, and several specimens were uprooted and carefully packed away to plant in moist moss at home.

From this bog onwards the road ran near by one of the lovely streams which feed the rivers below, and, passing across a bridge covered with ivy, led through a small forest of stunted trees round which the woodbine clung, hanging down its crimson berries, and the bracken fern, already putting on its brown and yellow tints, grew tall and thick on either side. Then, as they passed out of the wood, they came upon the dell, a piece of wild moorland lying in a hollow between two granite ridges, with large blocks of granite strewn over it here and there, and furze bushes growing under their shelter, still covered with yellow blossoms together with countless seed-bearing pods, which the youngsters soon gathered for the shiny-black seeds within them.

Here the waggons were unspanned, the horses tethered out, the food unpacked, and preparations for the picnic soon in full swing. Just at this moment, however, a loud shout from one part of the dell called every one's attention. "The fairy rings! the fairy rings! we have found the fairy rings!" and there truly on the brown sward might be seen three delicate green rings, the fresh sprouting grass growing young and tender in perfect circles measuring from six feet to nearly three yards across.

"What are they?" The question came from many voices at once, but it was the Principal who answered.

"Why, do you not know that they are pixie circles, where the 'elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves' hold their revels, whirling in giddy round, and making the rings, 'whereof the ewe not bites'? Have you forgotten how Mrs. Quickly, in the Merry Wives of Windsor, tells us that

"'nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing,

Like to the Garter's compass, in a ring:

The expressure that it bears, green let it be,

More fertile-fresh than all the field to see'?

"If we are magicians and work spells under magic glasses, why should not the pixies work spells on the grass? I brought you here to-day on purpose to see them. Which of you now can name the pixie who makes them?"

A deep silence followed. If any knew or guessed the truth of the matter, they were too shy to risk making a mistake.

"Be off with you then," said the Principal, "and keep well away from these rings all day, that you may not disturb the spell. But come back to me before we return at night, and perhaps I may show you the wonder-working pixie, and we may take him home to examine under the microscope."

The day passed as such happy days do, and the glorious harvest moon had risen over the distant tors before the horses were spanned and the waggons ready. But the Principal was not at the starting place, and looking round they saw him at the farther end of the dell.

"Gently, gently," he cried, as there was one general rush towards him; "look where you tread, for I stand within a ring of fairies!"

And then they saw that just outside the green circle in which he stood, forming here and there a broken ring, were patches of a beautiful tiny mushroom, each of which raised its pale brown umbrella in the bright moonlight.

"Here are our fairies, boys. I am going to take a few home where they can be spared from the ring, and to-morrow we will learn their history."

* * *

The following day saw the class-room full, and from the benches eager eyes were turned to the eight windows, in each of which stood one of the elder boys at his microscope ready for work. For under those microscopes the Principal always arranged some object referred to in his lecture and figured in diagrams on the walls, and it was the duty of each boy, after the lecture was over, to show and explain to the class all the points of the specimen under his care. These boys were always specially envied, for though the others could, it is true, follow all the descriptions from the diagrams, yet these had the plant or animal always under their eye. Discussion was at this moment running high, for there was a great uncertainty of opinion as to whether a mushroom could be really called a plant when it had no leaves or flowers. All at once the hush came, as the Principal stepped into his desk and began:-

"Life is hard work, boys, and there is no being in this world which has not to work for its living. You all know that a plant grows by taking in gases and water, and working them up into sap and living tissue by the help of the sunshine and the green matter in their leaves; and you know, too, that the world is so full of green plants that hundreds and thousands of young seedlings can never get a living, but are stifled in their babyhood or destroyed before they can grow up.

"Now there are many dark, dank places in the world where plants cannot get enough sunlight and air to make green colouring matter and manufacture their own food. And so it comes to pass that a certain class of plants have found another way of living, by taking their food ready made from other decaying plants and animals, and so avoiding the necessity of manufacturing it for themselves. These plants can live hidden away in dark cellars and damp cupboards, in drains and pipes where no light ever enters, under a thick covering of dead leaves in the forest, under fallen trunks and mossy stones; in fact, wherever decaying matter, whether of plant or animal, can be found for them to feed upon.

"It is to this class, called fungi, which includes all mushrooms and moulds, mildews, smuts, and ferments, that the mushroom belongs which we found yesterday making the fairy rings. And, in truth, we were not so far wrong when we called them pixies or imps, for many of them are indeed imps of mischief, which play sorry pranks in our stores at home and in the fields and forest abroad. They grow on our damp bread, or cheese, or pickles; they destroy fruit and corn, hop and vine, and even take the life of insects and other animals. Yet, on the other hand, they are useful in clearing out unhealthy nooks and corners, and purifying the air; and they can be made to do good work by those who know how to use them; for without ferments we could have neither wine, beer, nor vinegar, nor even the yeast which lightens our bread.

"I am going to-day to introduce you to this large vagabond class of plants, that we may see how they live, grow, and spread, what good and bad work they do, and how they do it. And before we come to the mushrooms, which you know so well, we must look at the smaller forms, which do all their work above ground, so that we can observe them. For the fungi are to be found almost everywhere. The film growing over manure-heaps, the yeast plant, the wine fungus, and the vinegar plant; the moulds and mildews covering our cellar-walls and cupboards, or growing on decayed leaves and wood, on stale fruit, bread, or jam, or making black spots on the leaves of the rose, the hop, or the vine; the potato fungus, eating into the potato in the dark ground and producing disease; the smut filling the grains of wheat and oats with disease, the ergot feeding on the rye, the rust which destroys beetroot, the rank toadstools and puffballs, the mushroom we eat, and the truffles which form even their fruit underground,-all these are fungi, or lowly plants which have given up making their own food in the sunlight, and take it ready made from the dung, the decaying mould, the root, the leaf, the fruit, or the germ on which they grow. Lastly, the diseases which kill the silkworm and the common house-fly, and even some of the worst skin diseases in man, are caused by minute plants of this class feeding upon their hosts."

Fig. 22.

Three forms of vegetable mould magnified.

1, Mucor Mucedo. 2, Aspergillus glaucus. 3, Penicillium glaucum.

"In fact, the fungi are so widely spread over all things living and dead, that there is scarcely anything free from them in one shape or another. The minute spores, now of one kind, now of another, float in the air, and settling down wherever they find suitable food, have nothing more to do than to feed, fatten, and increase, which they do with wonderful rapidity. Let us take as an example one of the moulds which covers damp leaves, and even the paste and jam in our cupboard. I have some here growing upon a basin of paste, and you see it forms a kind of dense white fur all over the surface, with here and there a bluish-green tinge upon it. This white fur is the common mould, Mucor Mucedo (1, Fig. 22), and the green mould happens in this case to be another mould, Penicillium glaucum (3, Fig. 22); but I must warn you that these minute moulds look very much alike until you examine them under the microscope, and though they are called white, blue, or green moulds, yet any one of them may be coloured at different times of its growth. Another very common and beautiful mould, Aspergillus glaucus (2, Fig. 22), often grows with Mucor on the top of jam.

"All these plants begin with a spore or minute colourless cell of living matter (s, Fig. 23), which spends its energy in sending out tubes in all directions into the leaves, fruit, or paste on which it feeds. The living matter, flowing now this way now that, lays down the walls of its tubes as it flows, and by and by, here and there, a tube, instead of working into the paste, grows upwards into the air and swells at the tip into a colourless ball in which a number of minute seed-like bodies called spores are formed. The ball bursts, the spores fall out, and each one begins to form fresh tubes, and so little by little the mould grows denser and thicker by new plants starting in all directions.

"Under the first microscope you will see a slide showing the tubes which spread through the paste, and which are called the mycelium (m, Fig. 23), and amongst it are three upright tubes, one just starting a, another with the fruit ball forming b, and a third c, which is bursting and throwing out the spores. The Aspergillus and the Penicillium differ from the Mucor in having their spores naked and not enclosed in a spore-case. In Penicillium they grow like the beads of a necklace one above the other on the top of the upright tube, and can very easily be separated (see Fig. 22); while Aspergillus, a most lovely silvery mould, is more complicated in the growth of its spores, for it bears them on many rows branching out from the top of the tube like the rays of a star."

Fig. 23.

Mucor Mucedo, greatly magnified. (After Sachs and Brefeld.)

m, Mycelium, or tangle of threads. a, b, c, Upright tubes in different stages. c, Spore-case bursting and sending out spores. s, 1, 2, 3, A growing spore, in different stages, starting a new mycelium.

"I want you to look at each of these moulds carefully under the microscope, for few people who hastily scrape a mould away, vexed to find it on food or damp clothing, have any idea what a delicate and beautiful structure lies under their hand. These moulds live on decaying matter, but many of the mildews, rusts, and other kinds of fungus, prey upon living plants such as the smut of oats (Ustilago carbo), and the bunt (Tilletia caria) which eats away the inside of the grains of wheat, while another fungus attacks its leaves. There is scarcely a tree or herb which has not one fungus to prey upon it, and many have several, as, for example, the common lime-tree, which is infested by seventy-four different fungi, and the oak by no less than 200.

"So these colourless food-taking plants prey upon their neighbours, while they take their oxygen for breathing from air. The 'ferments,' however, which live inside plants or fluids, take even their oxygen for breathing from their hosts.

"If you go into the garden in summer and pluck an overripe gooseberry, which is bursting like this one I have here, you will probably find that the pulp looks unhealthy and rotten near the split, and the gooseberry will taste tart and disagreeable. This is because a small fungus has grown inside, and worked a change in the juice of the fruit. At first this fungus spread its tubes outside and merely fed upon the fruit, using oxygen from the air in breathing; but by and by the skin gave way, and the fungus crept inside the gooseberry where it could no longer get any

fresh air. In this dilemma it was forced to break up the sugar in the fruit and take the oxygen out of it, leaving behind only alcohol and carbonic acid which give the fermented taste to the fruit.

"So the fungus-imp feeds and grows in nature, and when man gets hold of it he forces it to do the same work for a useful purpose, for the grape-fungus grows in the vats in which grapes are crushed and kept away from air, and tearing up the sugar, leaves alcohol behind in the grape-juice, which in this way becomes wine. So, too, the yeast-fungus grows in the malt and hop liquor, turning it into beer; its spores floating in the fluid and increasing at a marvellous rate, as any housewife knows who, getting yeast for her bread, tries to keep it in a corked bottle.

Fig. 24. Yeast cells growing under the microscope. a, Single cells. b, Two cells forming by division. c, A group of cells where division is going on in all directions.

"The yeast plant has never been found wild. It is only known as a cultivated plant, growing on prepared liquor. The brewer has to sow it by taking some yeast from other beer, or by leaving the liquor exposed to air in which yeast spores are floating; or it will sow itself in the same way in a mixture of water, hops, sugar, and salt, to which a handful of flour is added. It increases at a marvellous rate, one cell budding out of another, while from time to time the living matter in a cell will break up into four parts instead of two, and so four new cells will start and bud. A drop of yeast will very soon cover a glass slide with this tiny plant, as you will see under the second microscope, where they are now at work (Fig. 24)."

"But perhaps the most curious of all the minute fungi are those which grow inside insects and destroy them. At this time of year you may often see a dead fly sticking to the window-pane with a cloudy white ring round it; this poor fly has been killed by a little fungus called Empusa musc?. A spore from a former plant has fallen perhaps on the window-pane, or some other spot over which the fly has crawled, and being sticky has fixed itself under the fly's body. Once settled on a favourable spot it sends out a tube, and piercing the skin of the fly, begins to grow rapidly inside. There it forms little round cells one after the other, something like the yeast-cells, till it fills the whole body, feeding on its juices; then each cell sends a tube, like the upright tubes of the Mucor (Fig. 23) out again through the fly's skin, and this tube bursts at the end, and so new spores are set free. It is these tubes, and the spores thrown from them, which you see forming a kind of halo round the dead fly as it clings to the pane. Other fungi in the same way kill the silkworm and the caterpillars of the cabbage butterfly. Nor is it only the lower animals which suffer. When we once realise that fungus spores are floating everywhere in the air, we can understand how the terrible microscopic fungi called bacteria will settle on an open wound and cause it to fester if it is not properly dressed.

"Thus we see that these minute fungi are almost everywhere. The larger ones, on the contrary, are confined to the fields and forests, damp walls and hollow trees; or wherever rotting wood, leaves, or manure provide them with sufficient nourishment. Few people have any clear ideas about the growth of a mushroom, except that the part we pick springs up in a single night. The real fact is, that a whole mushroom plant is nothing more than a gigantic mould or mildew, only that it is formed of many different shaped cells, and spreads its tubes underground or through the trunks of trees instead of in paste or jam, as in the case of the mould."

Fig. 25.

Early stages of the mushroom. (After Sachs.)

m, Mycelium. b1-3, Mushroom buds of different ages. b4, Button mushroom. g, Gills forming inside before lower attachment of the cap gives way at v.

"The part which we gather and call a mushroom, a toadstool, or a puffball is only the fruit, answering to the round balls of the mould. The rest of the plant is a thick network of tubes, which you will see under the third microscope. These tubes spread underground and suck in decayed matter from the earth; they form the mycelium (m, Fig. 25) such as we found in the mould. The mushroom-growers call it 'mushroom spawn' because they use it to spread over the ground for new crops. Out of these underground tubes there springs up from time to time a swollen round body no bigger at first than a mustard seed (b1, Fig. 25). As it increases in size it comes above ground and grows into the mushroom or spore-case, answering to the round balls which contain the spores of the mould. At first this swollen body is egg-shaped, the top half being largest and broadest, and the fruit is then called a 'button-mushroom' b4. Inside this ball are now formed a series of folds made of long cells, some of which are soon to bear spores just as the tubes in the mould did, and while these are forming and ripening, a way out is preparing for them. For as the mushroom grows, the skin of the lower part of the ball (v, b4) is stretched more and more, till it can bear the strain no longer and breaks away from the stalk; then the ball expands into an umbrella, leaving a piece of torn skin, called the veil (v, Fig. 26), clinging to the stalk."

Fig. 26.

Later stages of the mushroom. (After Gautier.)

1, Button mushroom stage. c, Cap. v, Veil. g, Gills.

2, Full-grown mushroom, showing veil v after the cap is quite free, and the gills or lamell? g, of which the structure is shown in Fig. 27.

"All this happens in a single night, and the mushroom is complete, with a stem up the centre and a broad cap, under which are the folds which bear the spores. Thus much you can see for yourselves at any time by finding a place where mushrooms grow and looking for them late at night and early in the morning so as to get the different stages. But now we must turn to the microscope, and cutting off one of the folds, which branch out under the cap like the spokes of a wheel, take a slice across it (1, Fig. 27) and examine."

Fig. 27.

1, One of the gills or lamell? of the mushroom slightly magnified, showing the cells round the edge. c, Cells which do not bear spores. fc, Fertile cells. 2, A piece of the edge of the same powerfully magnified, showing how the spores s grow out of the tip of the fertile cells fc.

"First, under a moderate power, you will see the cells forming the centre of the fold and the layer of long cells (c and fc) which are closely packed all round the edge. Some of these cells project beyond the others, and it is they which bear the spores. We see this plainly under a very strong power when you can distinguish the sterile cells c and the fertile cells fc projecting beyond them, and each bearing four spore-cells s on four little horns at its tip.

"These spores fall off very easily, and you can make a pretty experiment by cutting off a large mushroom head in the early morning and putting it flat upon a piece of paper. In a few hours, if you lift it very carefully, you will find a number of dark lines on the paper, radiating from a centre like the spokes of a wheel, each line being composed of the spores which have fallen from a fold as it grew ripe. They are so minute that many thousands would be required to make up the size of the head of an ordinary pin, yet if you gather the spores of the several kinds of mushroom, and examine them under a strong microscope, you will find that even these specks of matter assume different shapes in the various species.

"You will be astonished too at the immense number of spores contained in a single mushroom head, for they are reckoned by millions; and when we remember that each one of these is the starting point of a new plant, it reminds us forcibly of the wholesale destruction of spores and seeds which must go on in nature, otherwise the mushrooms and their companions would soon cover every inch of the whole world.

"As it is, they are spread abroad by the wind, and wherever they escape destruction they lie waiting in every nook and corner till, after the hot summer, showers of rain hasten the decay of plants and leaves, and then the mushrooms, toadstools, and puffballs, grow at an astounding pace. If you go into the woods at this season you may see the enormous deep-red liver fungus (Fistulina hepatica) growing on the oak-trees, in patches which weigh from twenty to thirty pounds; or the glorious orange-coloured fungus (Tremella mesenterica) growing on bare sticks or stumps of furze; or among dead leaves you may easily chance on the little caps of the crimson, scarlet, snowy white, or orange-coloured fungi which grow in almost every wood. From white to yellow, yellow to red, red to crimson and purple black, there is hardly any colour you may not find among this gaily-decked tribe; and who can wonder that the small bright-coloured caps have been supposed to cover tiny imps or elves, who used the large mushrooms to serve for their stools and tables?

"There they work, thrusting their tubes into twigs and dead branches, rotting trunks and decaying leaves, breaking up the hard wood and tough fibres, and building them up into delicate cells, which by and by die and leave their remains as food for the early growing plants in the spring. So we see that in their way the mushrooms and toadstools are good imps after all, for the tender shoot of a young seedling plant could take no food out of a hard tree-trunk, but it finds the work done for it by the fungus, the rich nourishment being spread around its young roots ready to be imbibed.

"To find our fairy-ring mushrooms, however, we must leave the wood and go out into the open country, especially on the downs and moors and rough meadows, where the land is poor and the grass coarse and spare. There grow the nourishing kinds, most of which we can eat, and among these is the delicate little champignon or 'Scotch-bonnet' mushroom, Marasmius Oreades,[1] which makes the fairy-rings. When a spore of this mushroom begins to grow, it sucks up vegetable food out of the earth and spreads its tubes underground, in all directions from the centre, so that the mycelium forms a round patch like a thick underground circular cobweb. In the summer and autumn, when the weather is suitable, it sends up its delicate pale-brown caps, which we may gather and eat without stopping the growth of the plant.

"This goes on year after year underground, new tubes always travelling outwards till the circle widens and widens like the rings of water on a pond, only that it spreads very slowly, making a new ring each year, which is often composed of a mass of tubes as much as a foot thick in the ground, and the tender tubes in the centre die away as the new ones form a larger hoop outside.

"But all this is below ground; where then are our fairy rings? Here is the secret. The tubes, as we have seen, take up food from the earth and build it up into delicate cells, which decay very soon, and as they die make a rich manure at the roots of the grass. So each season the cells of last year's ring make a rich feeding-ground for the young grass, which springs up fresh and green in a fairy ring, while outside this emerald circle the mushroom tubes are still growing and increasing underneath the grass, so that next year, when the present ring is no longer richly fed, and has become faded and brown like the rest of the moor, another ring will spring up outside it, feeding on the prepared food below."

"In bad seasons, though the tubes go on spreading and growing below, the mushroom fruit does not always appear above ground. The plant will only fruit freely when the ground has been well warmed by the summer sun, followed by damp weather to moisten it. This gives us a rich crop of mushrooms all over the country, and it is then you can best see the ring of fairy mushrooms circling outside the green hoop of fresh grass. In any case the early morning is the time to find them; it is only in very sheltered spots that they sometimes last through the day, or come up towards evening, as I found them last night on the warm damp side of the dell.

"This is the true history of fairy rings, and now go and look for yourselves under the microscopes. Under the first three you will find the three different kinds of mould of our diagram (Fig. 22). Under the fourth the spores of the mould are shown in their first growth putting out the tubes to form the mycelium. The fifth shows the mould itself with its fruit-bearing tubes, one of which is bursting. Under the sixth the yeast plant is growing; the seventh shows a slice of one of the folds of the common mushroom with its spore-bearing horns; and under the eighth I have put some spores from different mushrooms, that you may see what curious shapes they assume.

"Lastly, let me remind you, now that the autumn and winter are coming, that you will find mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and moulds in plenty wherever you go. Learn to know them, their different shapes and colours, and above all the special nooks each one chooses for its home. Look around in the fields and woods and take note of the decaying plants and trees, leaves and bark, insects and dead remains of all kinds. Upon each of these you will find some fungus growing, breaking up their tissues and devouring the nourishing food they provide. Watch these spots, and note the soft spongy soil which will collect there, and then when the spring comes, notice what tender plants flourish upon these rich feeding grounds. You will thus see for yourselves that the fungi, though they feed upon others, are not entirely mischief-workers, but also perform their part in the general work of life."

[1] Shown in initial letter of this chapter.

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