I photograph by myself quite often, many times out completely alone in the middle of nowhere just wandering. It is rare that I get freaked out, even when thinking about if I were to get hurt, fall into a hole, or who knows what. However, such a morning happened earlier this summer while I was exploring a swamp, Lakeville Swamp. This Michigan Nature Association preserve is quite expansive and quite varied in habitat. From thick, dense Cedar trees with knarly roots going everywhere, to more open wetland areas with winding streams and wildflowers.
I found myself wandering a bit deeper in than I usually go. Navigating around can be quite difficult if you are trying to stay at least partially dry. I found some Yellow Iris I photographed for awhile, some stream scenes, somewhat typical stuff. It was when I was making my return trip to my car where I became a bit unsettled. I stopped in this area with these dead roots that were traversing this small stream. It was quite graphically interesting to me, so I started figuring out how I wanted to photograph it. It was the things I stumbled on next that had quite an influence on how I ended up processing this image.
When I setup to photograph this scene, I looked down at the ground and saw one of the weirdest things I have ever seen – ever. I am pretty used to not knowing what many things are, having to look them up later. Various plants, fungi, snails, and insect names escape me quite often. But was one of those times where I actually said out loud “What the F— is that??!” (pardon my expletive – but it was THAT weird!) I found a stick, tapped at it a little bit, it didn’t seem to be alive. I then flipped it over. Well, that certainly didn’t make things better because it was even WEIRDER on the bottom! Another WTF murmured to myself. I immediately took out my iPhone and texted a pic to my wife. As you can see, her reaction was similar to mine…
And of course, I had to take some higher res photos of it ….
I then started looking around for others like it and about 10 feet away I stumbled upon a dead fawn. It couldn’t have been more than a few days old I was guessing, perhaps even still-born. There were no signs of trauma from a predator, it was just laying there… still as the dead roots nearby and destined to return to nature like the large dead tree that was nearly sheltering it. It was a haunting scene, and I don’t normally photograph such things, but after encountering the “alien spore” just moments before, I felt compelled to at least document it in case it was related at minimum. I couldn’t help but see the relationship between the tree and the fawn. That resulted in this photograph.
At this point, I am thoroughly disturbed and made a prompt (and perhaps wise) decision that I am done exploring this area as thoughts ran through my head of anything from some type of disease happening here to being in an episode of the Twilight Zone.
Well, I took to Facebook when I got home and couldn’t find anything remotely like it in any of my fungi or plant books, and I was determined to find out what the heck I had stumbled upon. After horrifying my friends , people started taking guesses ranging from some type of animal byproduct (possible afterbirth from a fawn?) to alien life and I was Patient Zero, probably having gestating spores inside me by now. Internet picture searches were turning up nothing.
My detective of a wife ultimately identified what it most likely is… a Gymnosporangium.(or Cedar-Apple Rust) Given it is a fungal disease found on Cedar trees and I was in a Cedar swamp, it fit the habitat. While it didn’t have the coloration of the pictures we found, the tentacle structure was quite similar, and we concluded it must be a decaying/dead one. And unfortunately, I could not lay claim to discovery of an alien species, and I still live today to tell the tale. But I was right about the thing producing spores from its tentacles (or technically called telial horns).
The events of that morning remain fresh in my mind, and no doubt had some influence how I ended up processing the images of the roots and the fawn…. dark, a bit erie, haunting. Our connections and emotions with a place often bring out the brilliance and thrills of being there that impact our photographs of them. Sometimes those emotions turn in directions we never expected, even if our imaginations get the best of us.