THE STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Do not go out and try to eat all the mushrooms pictured here. The author may or may not know what he’s talking about and he’s almost certainly mad.
This morning I commuted into the city of Pittsburgh between six and seven. I don’t have to do it five days a week like most of those in the cars around me so I can’t even really complain about traffic. Still, I do come in very early to negate the worst of it.
I arrived in the quiet neighborhood I work in and parked in the back lot. I stuffed a bag and a knife in my shorts pockets, walked past my workplace and out onto the adjacent golf course. Crossing, I paused at each great oak tree to walk a little circle around it, staring intently at the ground. I did this to all the trees with no satisfaction. Then I noticed a cluster of bulbous half-moons projecting from a stump. My pulse quickened as I reached for the knife and bag.
It wasn’t a great morning but I do have a little bag of pheasant backs in the fridge now for later.
I’ve fallen in love with fungi over the last couple of years. I’d shied from these spongy non-plants for decades, dismissing the entire clade as likely dangerous and at least unworthy of my time. Readers of my book know that I’ve spent months at a time out in the wild and I’ve done a fair amount of foraging while out there. But the multifarious mushrooms were shunned without a moment’s thought – it was just easier than having to learn them all.
Things started to change during my long walk from central New York to Maine when I spent a day at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire with a hydrologist. Stepping over a log covered with ubiquitous tiny white shelf mushrooms, he paused to scrape a few off and offer me one.
“This one is called an angel wing,” he averred. That could only be good, so I ate it and did not die. I ate many more over the following month’s hiking and also did not die – not even close.
A few years later, I was running through the woods of Pittsburgh’s North Park when I passed a little old man hunched over with a sack, looking intently at the forest floor. I passed, then stopped and went back, my curiosity getting the better of me.
“Old man, what seek you in the wood today?” I queried with words to that effect.
“I’m hunting the chanterelles. This is a good place. Come, I’ll show you!”
How could I possibly resist? And so, I spent the next 20 minutes helping to scour the leaf litter of a certain hillside before he found a prize which he held out to me: three shriveled grayish black horns.
“These be trumpets of death, here take them home and cook them for yourself!” That could only be good. So I did cook them (and again, did not die).
Later in the day, I told my girlfriend by phone about the whole experience – old man to “… and then I ate them all!”
Her response was swift and maybe predictable: “Don’t ever eat the mushrooms that a little old man with a sack in the forest offers you!”
It was then that I first realized I was falling under a spell, or a sort of mushroom madness. I can’t even really confirm that there was a little old man.
I can’t really say I’ve fought it either. I’m more interested to let it run its course – to see where this all leads me. Suffice it to say, this has been an interesting year. To me, it seems I’ve broadened my horizons, looked forward a little more to every foray beyond my doorstep and enhanced my diet profoundly. To the skeptics (friends and family), the mushroom madness has clearly taken me.
I’ve set aside the fly rod at times to wander up the bank and into the woods in search of dryad’s saddle.
I started a phone interview with an outdoor writer this April by asking him to hold on a minute while I cut the three morels I’d just spotted.
At the beginning of the year, I had six varieties of mushroom I could ID confidently. That was enough – I didn’t need to keep expanding my horizons or pushing my luck. I now have fourteen.
I hate sunny summer weekend days at public parks and I was grimacing this July to tolerate such a day while out with Susan. Then we walked around to the shady side of the hill and I started to notice the bright orange cones peeking through the leaf litter. Instantly, my mood shifted from perturbed to ecstatic. My chanterelle bag overflowed.
I’ve made a habit of frequenting the woods behind my workplace at night, making my way from log to log, pushing bits of mushroom into cracks and punctures in the wood. I call it my farm. As a note, this part is completely normal, something all competent adults do, I’m pretty sure.
Last week I plucked an enormous (beyond soccerball size) puffball from a city park where I’d set out on a vigorous run, three minutes earlier. A fellow on a park bench turned and stared at the tofu beach ball in my embrace as though he’d never seen one of these before.
Whirling to meet his gaze, I hissed, “It’s mine! All mine!” and hurried off home with it.
Back at home I spent an hour or so butchering and then trying to fit it all in my fridge. Other foods would have to be thrown out to make space and I certainly didn’t know how I’d consume it all. Maybe I could use it to add insulation to my walls for winter. But it was mine, all mine, that much was certain.
I scouted and photographed a certain property with a business associate this summer. This rapidly devolved into the filling of my mushroom bag with bright fuiting masses. I got some photos too, or whatever.
I walked a trail through government property recently – a place where trail-goers were strictly forbidden to depart the trail. But looking downhill, I spotted reddish-orange masses blooming in the floodplain. Staring, I realized that these were all chanterelles the size of chicken of the woods. I could hear their elfin voices beckoning when I was quiet. I looked over each shoulder, had another listen and…
But then, once in a great while, I find myself asking “why?” Why would I go on tromping across the thorny woodlots of western Pennsylvania, exerting, and invariably ending, wet, tired and hurt in some way for the pursuit of fungi that will enhance a meal or two?
I wake the next day to find it’s rained overnight. The next thought is of chicken of the woods or hen of the woods or shrimp of the woods responding to this new dampness. I don’t just wonder; I see in my mind’s eye, nascent nodules forming on the logs of the forest, spongy sprouts oozing their way up through the humus. Maybe this was what old John Muir really meant when he claimed that the forest was calling and he must go.
I just want to find them all, to go places others would never think to look, to understand them – the way they think, and to let them know who’s master of the fungal forest, who’s the top level predator of this acreage.
It’s only mushroom madness and this is just a desperate cry for help. Or not. We’ll see how it plays out. November frost offers a palliative, and hope for the afflicted.