Much of the grandeur of our Creator’s design is hidden from our view—including the largest single organism on the planet.
In the 1990s, in the hardwood and coniferous forests of Upper Peninsula Michigan, a team of young PhD candidates stomped through the woods, digging periodically in the soil. Plunging their hands deep in the rotting forest floor, they searched for strange black tendrils reaching far and wide amongst the tree roots. Assessing each sample with DNA “fingerprinting,” Myron Smith and his colleagues were looking for the boundaries of an individual giant mycelium fungus. For the entire first year of fieldwork, the hardworking students could not find the edge, where the organism ended (“Strange but True: The Largest Organism on Earth Is a Fungus,” Scientific American, October 4, 2007).
This enormous fungus stunned the researchers, who even then vastly underestimated the species’ potential size. In 2003, an even larger and older fungal organism in Oregon’s Blue Mountains was discovered. This particular fungus, Armillaria ostoyae, commonly called honey fungus, covers 2,384 acres (four square miles), weighs more than 7,500 tons, and is estimated to be somewhere between 2,400 and 8,000 years old. That makes it the largest organism on the planet by area, weight, and volume—roughly equivalent in weight to 40 blue whales. The bulk of its large mass is below the ground as black filaments, analogous to plant roots. It pops above ground to be visible only as small fruiting bodies or mushrooms that aid in spreading the organism.
The sheer size of these fungi has fascinated biologists everywhere. James Anderson, one of the original discoverers of the Michigan fungus, is quoted by the Smithsonian Magazine: “I wish all of the substrate [soil, wood, and other matter the fungus grows on] would be transparent for five minutes, so I could see where it [the fungus] is and what it’s doing. We would learn so much from a five-minute glimpse” (“This Humongous Fungus Is as Massive as Three Blue Whales,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 15, 2018). Even in this modern age, with our most sophisticated instruments, something so large can still evade scientists’ ability to study it fully.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the general function of the mycelium in the ecosystem—and it is as amazing as its size. It can have either a mutually positive (“symbiotic”) impact or a negative (“parasitic”) impact on the trees with which it coexists. Mycelia take up sugars in the form of plant starches from tree roots, and in turn make various minerals and nutrients more available to the roots. A “mycorrhizal network” can form between the trees within a forest when they share the same type of mycelium. Long before computer scientists collaborated online, this fungal tree network was sharing nutrients between roots and filaments and even chemically communicating states of stress. When faced with dangers like invasive plants or damaging insects, surrounding trees can release defensive chemicals to deter the threat (“Exploring the Underground Network of Trees—the Nervous System of the Forest,” Harvard.edu, May 6, 2019).
On the other hand, these organisms can digest and destroy not just dead trees, but also living trees. Yet this parasitic capacity may have some beneficial effects, ensuring more variety in tree species inhabiting a forest and improving forest resistance to tree diseases and insects. Much as forest fires, though dangerous, promote long-term forest health, parasitic mycelia provide another type of forest “pruning” that helps maintain balance.
For thousands of years, humankind had no clue about the planet’s most massive organisms just beneath our feet. And, surely, there is much yet to discover. Like a child peeking down a rabbit hole, we get only glimpses of the otherwise invisible and undiscovered.
All of creation, seen or unseen, gives evidence of God’s existence. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, New International Version). Putting it another way, the psalmist states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, New International Version).
Most of the pervasive Internet is hidden from view—however, many are awed by the magnitude of its content, and no one would say that it occurred by random chance. No one can reasonably claim that any form of information system or technology could come about by anything other than the intelligent design of engineers and computer scientists. Similarly, the level of complexity, genetic information, and chemical “languages” found within massive mycelial networks could never have separately or randomly evolved. The mycelial network could no more spontaneously interweave itself than a new denim thread could spontaneously weave itself into a pair of jeans.
Like the lowly mycelium fungus, much of the grandeur of our Creator’s design is hidden from our view. Thousands of years before human beings ever knew about it, the fungus was vital for sustaining trees’ lives and forests’ health through its chemical factory, information network, defense system, and cleanup crew. Countless generations of humans and animals alike have walked the earth unaware of the behemoth lurking beneath. Similarly, some of the most breathtaking aspects of creation, whether or not we are aware of them, surround our oblivious selves.
Long ago, and far from the forests of Michigan or Oregon, a moment of wonder and awe occurred when two men were made aware of the unseen, all-encompassing power of God. In Dothan, on the southern plain of Jezreel—now a contested Jewish settlement in the West Bank—the prophet Elisha and his servant were hunted. A vengeful king’s army surrounded Dothan in the night, and Elisha’s servant rose the next morning to the fearful sight of the horses and chariots of the Arameans encircling the city.
Elisha responded to his fearful servant with the encouragement that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then the prophet of God turned and prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.”
The Eternal God answered and opened the servant’s eyes, “and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17, NIV).
In that moment, Elisha was asking God to open his servant’s eyes to what was already there. Their eyes were then both opened to the real power that had existed before they were born and would continue to exist after they died. Even when invisible to the eyes of man, God, His angels, and the spirit world are very real and all-encompassing. The spirit realm is much bigger and far more expansive than a mere 40 blue whales. All around two men sheltering in Dothan were thousands of angels in all their unseen, fiery glory—surrounding, protecting, and shielding God’s mortal servants the whole time.
The Apostle Paul prayed for the people of his day, asking that “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened... you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power” (Ephesians 1:18–19). The works of God’s hands, making up the fabric of the physical creation, are an exquisite witness of breathtaking design by a Master Creator. In an age of looming peril, we do well to open our eyes to that witness.