The extraordinary before us

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By Whitney Johnson, Director of Visual and Immersive Experiences

Dramatic landscapes, close-in human emotion—these are often the images that stand out.

However, in a time of lockdowns, normally globe-trotting photographer Jan Vermeer stumbled upon a quieter inspiration. Stuck at his home in the Netherlands last spring, he began to notice the small things nearby, particularly the fungi growing in his yard.

Dreamlike landscapes, in miniature.

He found himself unexpectedly enthralled by the white stalks and bright red polka-dotted tops of the the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) wild mushroom, pictured above.

“My neighbor had even nicer looking ones. I asked him if he would mow around them when he cut his grass, so I could make an image."

What was it about the fly agaric mushroom that Jan found so fascinating? For one thing, the way the light fell through the cap of the fungi, giving the intricately patterned underside a vibrant glow (above left). The fly agaric is known to be poisonous and psychoactive.

Jan’s interest soon spread beyond his neighborhood. Near the Dutch-German border, he found the Ramariopsis pulchella, the small purple fungus shown above, to the right. He discovered that European conservation groups are monitoring that particular fungi as possibly threatened.

Before this year, Jan walked past the fungi, tiny objects that would pop up around wood rot after long rains. In accounts first in our Dutch-language edition and this month in National Geographic, Jan writes about learning how fungi helps the ecosystem and exhibits extraordinary (and humbling) diversity.

“With fewer fungi, a forest would be less rich ecologically,” writes Jan. “And more boring."

Getting together: To mate, a Schizophylum commune mushroom need only bump its fibrous mycelium against another so cells connect. This species can have tens of thousands of mating types and can reproduce with compatible ones.

Whoa, Nellie! One common name of Fomes fomentarius is hoof fungus, because as it ages, it looks more and more like a horse’s hoof.

Points of their own: Less than two-and-a-half inches tall, Xylaria hypoxylon is known as carbon antlers or stag’s horn fungus.

Slime is beautiful, too: Growing alongside fungi was this organism from a different life category: the slime mold Badhamia utricularis. It is orange or yellow in its early stage, with the slate gray appearing as it matures.

What I appreciate about Jan’s story is how adversity inspired discovery. If we can learn anything from a pandemic that has struck so many and disrupted everyone, it is how precious and beautiful life is, even that of a modest mushroom.

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Your Instagram of the day

A child who lived: For 10 years, Yolanda and Jason Lucas had struggled unsuccessfully to bring a child into the world. On assignment for an upcoming Nat Geo story on infant mortality, photographer Da’Shaunae Marisa encountered the couple. Yolanda (above left) went to see evangelical preacher Joel Osteen, who told her to “activate her faith.” Yolanda bought a carseat and SUV to prepare. “The difference is that this baby is going to live,” she said. These days, Yolanda and Jason are celebrating 20 years in business, 25 years of marriage, and 13 years with their son, Jason Harper Lucas II (above right).

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Even smaller beauties: Using microscopes, photographers can see the beauties that we normally cannot. In this image, a rainbow collection of combs is actually the surface of a freshwater snail’s tongue, or radula, which is covered in tiny teeth used to rasp food down to a digestible size. The photograph was one of thousands submitted to 46th annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. “That combination of a beautiful image with significant scientific potential represents the ideal” of the competition, Nat Geo’s Oliver Whang writes. For me, these photographs are a wondrous journey into an unknown world.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Kimberly Pecoraro and Gretchen Ortega helped produce this, and Amanda Williams-Bryant, Rita Spinks, Alec Egamov, and Jeremy Brandt-Vorel also contributed this week. Have an idea or a link? We’d love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend!

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