Outside Online Archives

Outside magazine, July 1998

By Hampton Sides

What is foxfire, and how do I find it?
— Steven M. Yates, Sugar Land, Texas

There are subjects you stumble on from time to time that baffle and disturb hard scientists. Foxfire, a mysterious blue-green glow caused by fungi growing on rotten timber, is one of them. Not to be confused with the many varieties of luminescent mushrooms, foxfire occurs when fungal enzymes react with oxygen in the air, giving the decaying log an eerie shine. While there's little doubt that this phenomenon — also known as "faery fire" or "will-o'-the-wisp" — actually exists, it borders on the magical, and unless you know exactly how to hunt for it, finding foxfire can be almost impossible. To improve your odds, suggests Clyde Hollifield, a self-taught naturalist from North Carolina and one of the country's few foxfire authorities, you need a warm, moonless night and "old, damp, manky woods." Hunt around for wet logs marred by telltale signs of fungal infestation: bark that's streaked and splotchy and studded with soft mushrooms. You may see the glow right away, but usually you'll have to scoop out chunks of soggy wood and stir them around. Once oxidized, the mushroom's enzymes begin to shine a bright, elfin green. "You can see foxfire glowing through a brown paper bag," enthuses Hollifield, "or write your name with it on the ground. Throw it in a creek and it'll look like emeralds floating downstream; water won't put it out." Maybe not, but time will — the light show usually fades by morning. "That glow is the tree's finale, its last gasp," he says with a sigh. "It may have been waiting 30 years getting ready for this one night, but it will only glow once. And then it's gone forever."

What makes fish taste "fishy"?
— Ben Fortna Jr., London, England

Sensory experts will tell you that because "fishy" is not one of the four official flavors — bitter, sweet, salty, and sour — you can't actually taste it. You can only smell it. Semantics aside, our taste buds know "fishy" when they come across it, and here's how it happens: As fish flesh ages, its fatty oils become exposed to oxygen in the air, causing a chemical reaction that generates odorous compounds called amines and unsaturated aldehydes. The result, explains Scripps Institute marine biologist Richard Rosenblatt, is the "reek of fish oil going rancid." But this doesn't mean that the fish is spoiled — even the oiliest salmon will be safe in the fridge for a few days. Of course, when it comes to freshwater fish, there's often a simpler explanation: Namely, the mildewy smell of algae and mud that tends to rub off on catfish and other bottom feeders. Best advice for a fragrant fillet? Rinse like hell, and go heavy on the lemon.

Where does smog go after it rains? Does it harm anything?
— I. Stephens, Mesa, Arizona

Urban dwellers are bracing for the brown season, those summer months in which hot air masses squat on layers of cool air, trapping the ick of city life in a low-lying holding pattern. Combine this temperature inversion with hot, ozone-producing sunlight and mountains to check the breeze, and you get what meteorologists refer to as a "smog episode." In short, you get Los Angeles, or Mexico City, or even Phoenix. When this happens, the sweetest relief is rain: A storm moves in and the haze disappears. Some of it, especially particulate matter, gets "ingested" into water droplets and comes back to haunt you as acid rain. The rest is blown free of your fair metropolis and may ultimately become someone else's problem. Miraculous though they may seem, rainstorms don't wash away smog; they just spread it around.

Jupiter, the planet to watch in July, rises at midnight early in the month and remains high in the southeast until just before dawn; with every passing week, it rises half an hour earlier. On the third, the Earth will be 94.5 million miles away from the Sun, the farthest point in its 365-day orbit. The full Moon occurs six days later. The 23d is an ideal time to view Neptune, currently the most distant planet in our solar system; it will be low in the southern sky around midnight, observable through binoculars as a bluish dot in the constellation Capricorn. Also prominent in July is the constellation Scorpius, whose "heart" is the giant red star Antares, visible low in the south during the evening hours.
— Jean Quashnock

Send your questions for The Wild File to Outside, 400 Market St., Santa Fe, NM 87501, or submit them here.

More Culture