The days here grow longer and soon the weather will begin to warm. In anticipation and celebration of long days foraging in the woods, I have written today’s story.
In Search of Fungi
I first noticed him as I passed through a sparse forest of live oak and entered a meadow that was bisected by the dirt road I walked. His was a stumbling, awkward gait as his eyes scanned the distance for an unseen something. He saw with a thousand yard stare. He looked at nothing and everything while ignoring the uneven ground in front of his feet. His clothes were old and dull in color. Hair unkempt and hands dirty, his knees were caked with dirt from pushing aside brush and crawling over the ground. His left hand was burdened with an obviously heavy shopping bag. It had the same ragged and unkempt look as the rest of his attire. On a city street of vacant buildings and trash filled alleys, I would have given him a wide berth. I would have thought drugs, alcohol or a mind long strayed from the norms of society. I might even have crossed the street to avoid his notice. But here, on this narrow dirt track miles from the nearest paved road, I recognized him as a kindred soul.
Besides, he wasn’t dressed, or behaving, too differently than I. As I neared him, his eyes broke free from whatever unknown distant reality bound them. With a nearly maniacal intensity, he focused on me. “Really hit the jackpot today,” he said as he reached with his right hand into his bag, “here…let me show you. You want one?”
From his bag, he pulled a large, flowery, apricot orange colored shape…a chanterelle…a mushroom. I glanced discretely at his overflowing bag and the offered fungus. I complimented him on his success while feeling vaguely jealous, “Wow, you did great….no thanks, I think I’ll be OK today.” Then, I continued on my way.
Slung over my shoulder, half hidden from sight, my own backpack was filled with a pleasing quantity of fresh chanterelles…enough for a good week’s worth—including enough for dinner guests—of soups, risottos and ravioli. It was a good day to be in the woods.
Yes, my fungi foraging attire is old and often dirty. I am armed with a pocketknife, and I lug a bag, or a basket. I work to blend, unnoticed, into the wooded environments I haunt. Attuned to the voices or footfalls of approaching interlopers, I’ll stop to remain as silent and still as a statute, unseen and unheard until the unwary pass by. Occasionally, I even wear camouflage.
In answer to your unspoken questions concerning my apparent descent into eccentricity, I’ll answer by saying, “It all started a long time ago.”
I can remember the day. It was a fall day, and it was cold. I was out running, dealing with the psychological baggage I carried after a hard day in my inner city office. “Look at the scenery…look at the scenery”, I would tell myself as I plodded along mile after mile. Well, after I had run far enough to warm myself, and far enough to forget that I had ever been in an office, I happened to look down. There I saw my first chanterelle…. “What could that be?” I thought, then I wondered, “Could it be?….hmmm…”
I picked it, put it in my pocket, and kept running. That one moment was the beginning of a decades long romance with fungus…mushrooms.
After several days of inquiries, my one chanterelle was identified by a co-worker of my wife. Identification confirmed, I went looking for more that afternoon … I found more, and was almost hooked. My infatuation with the mushroom may not have progressed to the deep relationship of today except for the happy coincidence that one of our cookbooks contained a recipe for an exquisite wild mushroom risotto (if any of you ask, I’ll be happy to share the recipe).
Pushing back from the table that night, satiated, I knew that first risotto had sparked an unquenchable passion. From that day on I would eagerly await the first rains of the fall. For the next few years, when those rains came, you could find me wet, happy and dirty while I scrambled through the brush of our nearby forest parklands on a constant search for new species of mushrooms. While I retained a strong affection for the chanterelle, I flirted with many others. With a good humor, my wife patiently accepted my new obsession and often accompanied me on my forest forays. Over time, we learned to see, a skill we refer to as “mushroom eyes”. The forest floor may host a cornucopia of wild fungi, but without the eyes to see them, you may as well be walking in a desert.
We learned which fungi nourished, the secretive chanterelles, tree borne oysters, regal boletus, solitary morels, and meadow dwelling agaricus. We learned which species twisted the mind …though I won’t bore you by naming their species here. We learned which species sicken and kill, the formidable amanita, the Death Cap, the Destroying Angel, the Panther, and more.
We sadly read the reports of foragers who were not native to our forests, and who made the fatal error of assuming that they picked and prepared a variation of a delightful edible found in their homeland.
Time has a way of mellowing passion. We’ve given up the exuberant searches of past years. While we still forage in the forests of our new home, we search for just a few varieties of choice edibles. The chanterelles are here, but not in profusion. We look for morels, Shaggy Manes, Shaggy Parasols, and we’ve got a few logs tucked back in the woods where we grow our own.
The background I have given you sets the stage for an incident which happened here in our new home. In our small community word gets around. Tidbits of information get passed from mouth to mouth. Resumes of the island’s inhabitants get built in these conversations… “He’s an artist with a backhoe…oh, if you need a well, he’s the man that can find water….she is a master gardener…the only person to ask.”
Not only do these conversations define who you are in the community—sometimes not a good thing—your verbal resume is a resource which people may call upon in times of trouble. A few casual words may lead to any number of curious requests and strange adventures.
While walking with neighbors one day, I inadvertently revealed my fungal passion when, upon spying a mushroom of interest, I excused myself from our conversation, abruptly turned, left the path we walked, and headed into the woods. Later, to excuse my boorish behavior, I explained what I was doing. Reports of that day have spread by mouth through the community. So, I wasn’t surprised when the phone rang one early spring day and a troubled stranger asked for my help.
“They’re growing everywhere” he said, “I don’t know what they are…I’ve heard you could help me”. After a brief introduction, I learned that he was a landscape architect. By way of dirt road and foot path, his commercial garden was about two miles away from our home, and he was clearly in distress. I offered to help as soon as I could walk over. I pulled on my hiking boots, pocketed my knife and a bag, and set out on a brisk half hour walk.
He stood by his gate, anxiously awaiting my arrival. Brows furrowed, face tense, in staccato phrases he outlined his problem, “I’ve been tearing them up… dumping them into the woods by the cartload.”
His fingertip jumped erratically as he pointed to the frilly shapes, “Look, you can see them…there… and there… and even under here…”
He didn’t have to tell me where they were, I’ve got a trained eye for this sort of thing—”mushroom eyes”. I had already seen them. What he saw as a problem, I saw as gold.
I looked around in awe as I stood in his garden. Awestruck not from the beauty of his flowers, although the spectacle of his irises in full bloom is certainly deserving of awe, but it’s early spring so no flowers have yet bloomed. Nonetheless, I stood in awe at what grew from every pot, every flower bed, and every gravel or mulch pathway in the vast expanse of the garden. Truly, I had hit the jackpot. I stood in Valhalla, theValhalla of all mushroom hunters everywhere.
“They are morels, black morels” I said, “they are a spring mushroom which usually appear around here in the early days of April…but, I’ve never seen anything like this…Usually, there are one or two them at a time in the woods, and nothing this size. This is unbelievable.” Hundreds upon hundreds of black morels, some the size of grapefruits, beckoned me. My pocket knife was out in a flash as I pulled a grocery bag from my back pocket and dropped to my knees.
He said, “I don’t want them. Help yourself…” which I had already started to do, so I continued to help myself to pound after pound. After he watched me work, he enquired, “How much are these worth?”
I answered, “Oh, anywhere from $25 to $40 a pound….they’re great on pizzas”. After a silent pause he found his own pocket knife and a bag, and then dropped to his knees to join me in the dirt. Together we harvested the entire garden.
There are some benefits to being an amateur mycologist—that’s the formal word for what I do when I forage for mushrooms—especially if you have a taste for exotic pizzas, risottos, ravioli or wild mushroom soups.