The Origin of Dead Man’s Fingers


Consider the Bygone Mycological Club (BMC), an organization so old that literally every one of its members has bought the proverbial farm. Lest you think otherwise, this does not prevent those members from foraging for fungi. Quite the contrary. They simply go foraging in their current habitat, which is beneath the ground. Since they’re not governed by circadian rhythms, the weather, seasonality, or 9-5 jobs, they can look for fungi morning, noon, and night.

Yet there’s a downside (so to speak) to their foraging. Being hypogeous themselves, they tend to encounter only hypogeous species such as Gautierias, Mesophillias, and various phycomycetes, none of which is a decent edible. Once in a while, they might find an Elaphomyces truffle, and given their identification skills or lack thereof, they exclaim, Wow! A Perigord truffle! After gnawing on a specimen, however, he or she usually realizes that the species in question isn’t the sort of fare any critter other than a squirrel would eat, much less an item which Sotheby’s, not to mention Walmart’s, would ever sell.

Unlike certain other mycophiles, BMCers don’t forage for medicinal fungi. After all, such fungi don’t have the necessary properties that might bring someone who’s dead back to life. Instead, they look for fleshy fungi, although they never seem to find them. The Club’s President, a woman who refers to all fungi as guys because she doesn’t know Latin binomials, will say, Black trumpets are such nice guys, why do they avoid us? At least nobody is accusing us of overcollecting! Addle Pate, the Club’s foray leader, will sometimes remark.

Every once in a while, one of the Club’s more percipient members will realize that fruiting bodies tend not to be subterranean, so they’ll extend their hands upward, ever upward, hoping to grab a morel or perhaps a chanterelle. Eventually those hands rise above the ground, whereupon their fingers will harden and turn black, thus becoming what’s commonly known as dead man’s finger. Almost nobody who sees one of these Xylaria species has the slightest inkling that it actually belongs to a deceased member of a mushroom club.

dead mans fingers fungi at the Bygone reserve

Bad Doggy!


Hardly anything, not even an infant asleep in a stroller, raises the oxytocin of certain people to such Everest-like heights as the sight of a wide-eyed, round-headed Canis familiaris, otherwise known as a dog. Words like lovable, adorable, and cute emerge immediately from the viewer’s mouth.  But the animal in question does not have a lovable relationship with the environment. Quite the contrary. I don’t simply mean the fact that it barks at or runs after birds, especially breeding ones, thus causing a dramatic reduction in their population. I mean something far less obvious — the answering of nature’s call, an act that can transform nature itself into a veritable minefield.

Chacun_son_tour Charles J Sharp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the U.S., domesticated dogs deposit approximately ten million tons of fecal matter a year in yards, urban green spaces, and forested areas. Here I should say they once deposited that amount.  For dog ownership has risen dramatically during the current pandemic, and the volume of dog poop has risen dramatically as well. What becomes of that poop? Some people might think they’re being eco-minded by putting it into an aquamarine plastic bag, then tossing that bag in the trash, but they don’t seem to realize that they’re contributing to the plasticization of the planet (a plastic bag in a landfill can take upwards of 500 years to decompose). Quite a few others leave a poop-filled plastic bag on the ground or simply fling it away — are they expecting the poop fairy to remove it? 

Good boy or good girl, a cute little dog’s owner might say after their canine companion has pooped. But since that typically brown, squishy poop itself isn’t cute, many owners will leave it exactly where it’s been deposited rather than put it in a plastic bag. There it will remain, slowly but surely biodegrading, and (as you’ll soon find out) wreaking havoc on its habitat as it does so. By contrast, the poop of wild mammalians breaks down quickly, and the soil benefits from their poop’s nutrients, which includes all sorts of organic matter.

Since one’s canine companion has dined primarily on processed foods, its poop contains nitrate compounds that tend to reduce the oxygen level in the soil. The change in soil chemistry can be quite harmful to plants…or I should say native plants. This change can either kill them, cause their leaves to drop prematurely, or prevent them from producing any flowers. But invasive plants have a literal field day in what might be called the immuno-compromised soil. For example, garlic mustard is far more common in areas where dogs have been walked than in other areas. Not surprisingly, those other areas are more biodiverse than the areas with dogs.

Garlic Mustard blooming at the edge of a city yard in Pittsburgh shared by Cbaile19 under a Public Domain License via

According to the FDA, one gram of a dog’s poop boasts roughly 25 million fecal bacteria, including salmonella, giardia, Staphylococcus, and E. coli.  These bacteria get transported through the soil and often contaminate local groundwater, rivers, and waterways.  Thus you should be very careful about your drinking water, unless you’d like to get a serious bacterial infection. And be careful what you touch, too. For in your dog’s poop reside roundworms that can cause recurrent diarrhea as well as eye and lung infections.  

If you think your dog’s pee is less pernicious than its poop, you’ve got another think coming.  For this pee is extremely rich in urea, an acidic compound that contains 48% nitrogen.  A little nitrogen is not a bad thing, but too much nitrogen, well, consider a study done in England a while back that documented dogs peeing on lamp-posts. Constant peeing caused the bases of those lamp-posts to crumble. In 2015, a lamp-post fell onto a car in San Diego, narrowly missing the driver. In all probability, dog pee was the cause of its fall.

It’s an easy segue from lamp-posts to trees. In order to mark or counter-mark what they consider their territory, male dogs look around for something vertical, and voila! there happens to be a tree. Up goes a leg, and out shoots a flow of urea that goes down the tree’s trunk and into its roots. If enough dogs pee on a tree, it’s probably goodbye to the tree. A fungus killed that tree, a lot of people will think, not realizing that man’s (and woman’s) best friend caused the tree’s demise. It shouldn’t be a surprise that trees along forested paths have suffered more from the flow of canine urea than trees off those paths.  

So what’s the best way to solve the problem I’ve just described? Perhaps exchange your dog for a more eco-friendly pet such as a goldfish or a canary? This wouldn’t work, since neither of these critters will raise your oxytocin very much. How about giving up your best friend for adoption? That won’t work, either. For you’d be simply bequeathing the dog to a different owner, who would also take it on several lavatorial walks a day.  

Personally, I think the best solution is what I’ve tried to do in this essay — inform folks about the negative effect their pet dogs can have on the natural world. Otherwise, there will be more and more incidents like the one I experienced a few years ago, when I was walking through a wooded area (walking myself, not a dog) in Cape Cod. I happened to see a Labrador retriever squatting and pooping in a hemlock grove. The dog’s owner was gazing at her cellphone, oblivious to this act. Will you please clean up after your dog?, I asked her.  If you don’t like dogs, you shouldn’t be in the woods, she told me. Here’s my translation of this rather abstruse statement: the environment plays second or even third fiddle to my darling doggy.

Why I Dropped Out of the Explorers Club

Once upon a time the Explorers Club was one of the most prestigious organizations on the planet. Its past members included such eminences as Richard Peary, Thor Heyerdahl, Charles Lindbergh, Peter Freuchen, Tenzing Norgay, and Sir Edmund Hillary. But the Club has recently gone downhill to such a degree that actual exploration is no more a part of its agenda than, for instance, frisbee throwing.

The location of the Club’s headquarters — 46 East 70th Street on New York’s Upper East Side — offers a window on its nosedive. The Upper East Side is an upscale habitat where money is the lingua franca, and its denizens (who include many of the Club’s officers) speak it as their primary language. Certain Club members have been known to suggest that the Explorers Club should be renamed The Upper East Side Club. Attempts to relocate it to somewhere else have come to naught…for the same reason that you can’t relocate Wall Street.

In the last twenty or so years, the Club has revamped itself to attract the corporate sponsors who live around the metaphoric corner. To do this, its officers can’t say, “Hey, we’ve got a guy who’s searching for Thule Period Inuit sites on Jan Mayen Land.” The corporate types would blink their eyes uncomprehendingly. But those officers can say, “Here’s a guy who’s an aerospace biochemical engineer.” In fact, a Lowell Thomas Award was recently given to one such individual.

“Remote sensing” is a phrase that nowadays has considerable appeal to the Club’s technocratically-biased higher ups. As a prank, I sponsored a putative explorer named Albert Yetti, an Abominable Snowman expert who used remotesensing to find his subject so he wouldn’t have to leave his UpperEast Side abode. Albert Yetti would have been admitted to the Club if I hadn’t confessed that I created him.

I’ve been one of many members who hasn’t been eager to dance to the corporate drummer. A Club president — a fellow who put an anaerobic tent in his office and lived in it — did not appreciate our nay-saying and threatened to drag us, he said, “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” To my mind, this is a lot like Henry Morton Stanley’s (of Stanley & Livingston fame) positive take on slaughtering his way across Africa to rescue Emin Pasha (who did not want to be rescued). “I opened it [Africa] to the civilizing influence of commercial enterprise,” Stanley said.

In 2017, I asked the Club whether I could give a presentation on my exploration of a remote part of Hudson Bay. “But you’re not an explorer,” I was told. This is true, if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, both of whom have won major awards from the Club, are regarded as explorers. After all, I’ve made 40+ expeditions to the Arctic and Subarctic, but I’m not a technology entrepreneur. Indeed, I have no association whatsoever with either Tesla Motors or Amazon. I have explored a part of the Amazon, but doesn’t count…nor does the fact that I’ve been a Fellow of the Club since 1990.

“You’re not an explorer” was the proverbial final straw, and I let my membership in the Explorers Club lapse. In doing so, I was in good company, for Conrad Anker, Paul Theroux, etc, have also let their memberships lapse. I’m now planning to join the Whiskey Explorers Club, which I suspect is a much healthier organization.

Paradise Found


Thanks to the unabashed tourist meccas of Nassau and Freeport, the word “Bahamas” calls up images of mega-gambling casinos, no less mega-cruise ships, package tours, and hordes of sun-reddened figures lying on a beach.

But consider the 110 square mile Bahaman island of Mayaguana. It’s so off-the-grid that you won’t find it in any guidebook. There are no stores, only shops in peoples’ homes, and no place where the visitor can buy souvenir kitsch. No cruise ship has ever dropped anchor in its waters. The eastern part of the island is uninhabited except for (I was told) several ghosts of pirates. And the only prints on its myriad beaches are invariably one’s own. No, that’s not true — there are also prints from sandpipers, iguanas, and scuttling crabs.

Mayaguana’s Public Library

Mayaguana is 348 miles and at least a century from Nassau, the place a visitor must fly in from. At the airport, a former fire-station, I was picked up and driven to the island’s only accommodation, the 16 room Baycaner Beach Resort, by the facility’s owner, a man named Shorty. I saw only one other vehicle en route to our destination — a bicycle ridden by an elderly woman.

Situated in the scenic village of Pirate’s Cove (pop. 90), The Baycaner defused my skepticism about Caribbean resorts, most of which seem to go overboard in trying to be Luxurious extremis. Instead of a swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs, it boasted the blue-green Atlantic Ocean. The food was entirely local — cracked conch or conch salad, several varieties of fish, crab, rice, beans, corn, and grits. And, yes, the facility has Wi-Fi.

With my guide, a local man named Cando, I spent the first day exploring Pirate’s Cove on foot. The fast growing vegetation included palms, casuarina trees, lots of shrubs, and vivid purple flowers. At one spot, we found a defunct Honda Civic. Since there’s no automobile repair shop on Mayaguana, seriously injured cars end up becoming a part of nature; vines cloaked the Honda’s headlight sockets, and a casuarina was sprouting from its floorboards.

Like most of the island’s 300 residents, Cando was an authority on bush medicine. He pointed to a plant that would help my asthma, another that would cure my hemorrhoids, another that would lower my blood pressure, and then another that have a potent effect on my libido. A plant called Five Fingers (Tabebuia bahamensis) simply made a nice tea.

I had a toothache, so Cando gave me some leaves from the so-called rockbush (Phyllanthis epiphyllan) and told me to chew on them. The toothache seemed to abate…or maybe I’d simply been so distracted by Cando’s excellent tutorial that I had become unaware of it.

We ended up at a small bar that had neither a TV or music bursting from an armada of speakers. As a result, conversation prevailed. One man told me about (what better subject?) all the buried pirate treasure on the island. Yes, there’s pirate treasure even under our local church, another man said. A third man asked me if I knew his cousin in Brooklyn and seemed surprised when I said I didn’t. On Mayaguana, everyone knows everyone else.

On the next day, I was wandering around by myself in search of a local artisan’s home when a police car stopped. The police have almost nothing to do on Mayaguana, so the policeman said,“I’ll give you a lift, mon,” and then took me to the artisan’s house. The woman made such exquisite baskets from the dried fronds of silver top palms that I had no choice but to buy one.

Why, the reader may wonder, had I not yet prostrated myself on a beach?

Answer: There are far more interesting things to do on Mayaguana than getting a suntan. Like, for instance, canoeing on Curtis Creek with Cando.

Curtis Creek is not actually a creek but a saltwater inlet replete with mangroves. As we canoed around it, I saw greenback turtles, nurse sharks, conchs, small baracudas, oyster catchers, and an egret poised to impale a crab with a lightning thrust of its beak. In another canoe, we saw the only other outsiders on the island engaged in Ted Williams’s favorite post-Red Sox activity — bonefishing. “Mayaguana is bonefish heaven, dude!” one of them shouted to me.

Later we dragged our canoe ashore and walked around a spit of land to a beach. Cando told me that this was a good place to find ambergris, a quite valuable aromatic substance from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. We walked for a mile or so, but didn’t find any ambergris. However, we did find a remarkably large osprey nest with two perfectly sculpted eggs lodged in it.

Several of Mayaguana’s offshore cays are inhabited by hutias, a long-whiskered, short-limbed, large-headed rodent thought to be extinct as recently as the 1960s. I wanted to see one of these living fossils, so Shorty took Cando and me to the nearest hutia haunt in his boat. Named for a gannet-like seabird, the haunt in question, Booby Cay, is protected by the Bahamas National Trust.

We were walking along the cay’s long, untrodden beach when I happened to hear a chorus singing in a minor key out in the ocean. This chorus turned out to be a large flock of flamingoes, so large, in fact, that it turned the horizon a pinkish-scarlet color.

We stopped at a limestone depression, a popular hutia hangout, and I picked up some scat. “From a hutia?” I asked. 

“No, from an iguana,” Cando said, then looked at me as if I didn’t know scat from shinola.

As if on cue, two brownish-grey iguanas with golden irises suddenly emerged from the island’s brush and peered at us as if we were a highly unusual species. Actually, they were a highly unusual species themselves. Known as Bartschi’s rock iguana, they’re found nowhere else on the planet except on Booby Cay.

Is it any wonder that I gave the iguanas more or less the same stare that they gave me? And is it any wonder that, having encountered these critters, I didn’t mind not finding any hutias?

That night, my last before departing for Nassau, I treated Shorty and Cando to drinks at what I had begun calling The Pirate’s Treasure Bar. “Here’s to Mayaguana,” I said, lifting my glass, then added: “May it never change…”

If you’re going to Mayaguana, you’ll probably need to overnight in Nassau. A good mid-priced option is The Orange Hill Beach Resort (, while a higher price option is The Sandy Port Resort (

Bahamasair ( has twice weekly flights to Mayaguana. You can contact The Baycaner Beach Resort, the island’s only place to stay, via its website: (