I am always impressed that no matter how diverse National Forest users are (4 legged, 2 legged, spore bearing, cone bearing, it’s quite a varied crowd), we all share one commonality. We need this place, and we’d all throw a righteous hissy fit if something were to happen to our preferred habitat. “Come now Anna, you cannot possibly need the woods. The National Forests enrich your life, but you’ve lived in concrete boxes before without perishing,” you might reply. This is only half-true. Before I discovered my love of mycology and started to revel in the places it brings me to, I was bordering on spiritual code blue. But this is not an entry about my pre-mushroom angst, or a litany about hating the city. I will firmly maintain, however, that learning wildcraft changed my psyche and fed a soul that was starving for some source of joy and truth in a monkey-world gone mad. And I am far from alone.
Most obvious to me are the other mushroom people— there is a fervor, a light spring in the step when you see a mycophile in his or her element, be it the woods, lab, cultivation workshop or at the identification table. For those who hunt as voraciously as I do, the woods feel like an innately correct milieu— a place where the senses come alive, the mind clears itself, and primal intuition functions keenly. It just feels RIGHT.
There are other woodland denizens as well, of course. Sometimes my encounters with them are positive, other times not so much. Often, other people who use the woods are flustered and confused that I would hunt fungus— as though these fruiting bodies are no more than the vilest veggie in the world. I delight in disabusing them of this notion, and encouraging them to see my pursuit as a legitimate pastime.
In particular, off roaders, shooters, anglers and other red-blooded Americans find me a strange bedfellow, and raise an eyebrow when they pass my camp and its profusion of identification guides and stem butt shavings. I am well aware that Americans are generally mycophobic, and I’ve become accustomed to discussing my passion with people only to see them shudder, cringe or furrow the brow and urge me to do something less dangerous. It does however surprise me even more when one of my fellow Forest addicts reacts in such a way, and I endeavor at every turn to engage these individuals in a way that will help them understand how simply rapturous it is to spent time in the Forest pursuing mushrooms.
The reason I stick with this ferociously positive attitude stems from an experience I had not long ago in the Tahoe National Forest during the spring porcini season. I spent the day sliding down and trudging up steep, snow-soaked hillsides, filling my basket with all manner of edible fungi: Clavatia sculpta (sculpted puffballs), Gyromitra montana (snowbank false morels), Spring King porcini (Boletus rex veris), the oft maligned and semi-deadly false morel (Gyromitra esculenta, one of my favorites from a flavor and texture perspective, by the by) etc and so on. I was pretty pleased with myself when I decided to pitch camp at the head of an earthen road that wound down into a shaded mountain meadow.
In the semi-dusk, I managed to burn my paw on my cooking pot, and so I trudged over to a 4’ deep snowbank and stuck my stinging finger into it, cursing myself for being too lazy to deploy the headlamp in the gloom, and for not bringing a stick of butter on my camping trip. I heard the whizzing growl of an approaching dirtbike, and craned my gaze over my shoulder to see a middle aged man, somewhat rotund but still fit, come zooming up the switchbacked forest service road. He evidently spotted me because he throttled back instead of taking the next curve with all the juice his bike could summon. Sure enough, he made a beeline for me and my snowdrift, coming to a shuddering, puttering halt about 2 yards away.
“Hey, have you seen another fella pass by here on a bike?” He killed the engine, saving me the task of hollering my reply.
“Can’t say I have, sorry. I did just make camp about 20 minutes ago, so I haven’t been posted up all that long.”
The helmet nodded. “OK, well if you see another dude riding an orange dirtbike, can you tell him I went back?”
“Hey, did you hurt your hand or something?” I blushed.
“Um yeah, I burned my finger a little bit. It’s not bad.”
“What are you doing out here alone?”
I shrugged and squeezed the snow a little tighter. “Hunting mushrooms. Found some good ones today!”
His face blanched. Pale as a sheet, he quaked, “Oh jesus, you should be careful. That is SUCH A DANGEROUS HOBBY.”
I tried to examine him using my Wise Mind. I saw a man enjoying his day. He was a lover of engines, moderate speeds, trees, places that folks don’t typically visit. I guessed he was married with kids, and supposed he’d been biking these forest roads and dirt paths since he before he finished his Eagle Scout project. I also tried to put myself in his shoes for a second, in a limited way: I imagined taking up his hobby right this moment, bodychecking him off his bike and tear-assing off into the woods to find the burliest mud pits, gnarliest log jumps, clutchest curves I could. I blanched, pale as a sheet, and quaked, “Your hobby is also REALLY DANGEROUS. You should be careful, too.”
He thought about it for a second, rocking back on his narrow seat and letting a small smile play on his wide, honest face.
“Not if you know what you’re doing.”
“I saw some mushrooms in the meadow down that way,” he pointed past my truck and into the darkening depths of the Forest. “They looked like golf balls, or the top of a meringue pie. Big, too.” He cupped his hands to show me the size.
“Oh yeah, those are puffballs most likely,” I replied. “They cook up like tofu if they’re solid white inside. Good for the fry pan.”
The small smile spread a little wider, got a little more knowing.
“Mushrooms still give me the creeps, but that’s completely cool.”
My socially anxious hand cooled down and stopped melting the snowbank, and the pain of my burned finger retreated underneath a small charge of glee.
“Thanks for the tip.”
“No problem. Happy hunting. If you see my buddy, tell him to hurry on in, cause that snow-chilled Coors won’t last all night.”
It may sound cliched because it is, but Woody Guthrie’s words resounded in my ears as I bedded down that night:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I was walking a ribbon of highway
I saw above me an endless skyway
I saw below me a golden valley
This land was made for you and me
I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
And all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me
The sun comes shining as I was strolling
The wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice come chanting
This land was made for you and me
As I was walkin’ - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin’
But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
Right now, I am sitting smack dab in the middle of the El Dorado National Forest. Technically, this spot is co-managed by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD, one of my favorite new acronyms), because not 200 yards from here lies a reservoir, a crystalline blue vastness surrounded by the Sierra Nevada wilderness. I know I look a bit out of place right now— even though this campground is pretty developed (potties, faucets, picnic tables, fire rings, the works), the irony of using a laptop in the woods is not lost on me. Most especially since a troop of evening fishermen and their kids just strolled by and gave me the oddest look. Not disgusted (damn you yuppie scum), or even perplexed (why bother with the computer when sunset on the lake is approaching?). Just a little surprised, sort of like seeing a dog walk on two legs, or seeing a school teacher in the grocery store (like: oh, you’re doing that. Huh. Well, go figure). It reaffirms for me that almost anything can happen in the woods— the free for all ecology here ensures strange encounters with other life forms. Once you step out your door and into the shared habitat that is the national forest, it becomes clear that these places are neither wild nor domesticated, but a snarl of both that is sometimes jarring.
I’ve mentioned this topic of sharing the woods before, largely to note that most of my current haunts are favored by shooters. Luckily, it’s more complex than that— all sorts of beings cross my path, and each time it simply reinforces the notion that I have to be tolerant, friendly, and adaptable. I’ve noticed lately that once I am more than 5 miles into the Forest, I start waving at everyone that passes, be they ranger, logging truck, family of campers or cyclists careening down one-lane mountain roads, blind-curve oblivious. All but the latter wave back, and the bikers are mad (as in, profoundly unsafe) anyway, so I don’t blame them for not noticing my gesture.
And that’s just the human population; there are plenty of others that inhabit the woods, and not all of them are natives or friendlies. Today, I bombed up to 5800’ above sea level to take a peek at the early summer snow line. It’s a heady experience, literally: after about an hour I start to notice the skinny air, and have to take deep monster breaths to keep my arteries infused with O2. Mushrooms love spots where the snowpack has just dissipated, and for a short time the snow line yields spring/summer fungi that love the combination of hottish sunshine and damp imparted by the departing snow. As I zoomed up to my destination, I crossed two cattle guards. You see, the National Forest Service often leases grazing land to ranchers who let their herds loose in the replanted forests and fragile meadows that are America’s commons. It might be obvious that I am opposed to the policy— cattle are devastating to the environs they visit, and considering that much of the Northern California woods are in recharge mode after a century and more of mining, logging, reservoir flooding and other nonsense, it adds insult to injury to let cattle trample and graze on the delicate lifeforms that are struggling to survive and regrow in these spaces.
I turned off the paved road onto a rutted track following a ridge line and some huge power lines from the reservoir (personal sentiment aside, mushrooms love to grow around power stations and transmission towers). About a mile down the road, I spotted a prime piece of habitat to inspect; a mix of pine and fir stood in soggy, recently melted ground. I found a pull out and headed up hill, walking along the transmission lines. Sure enough, right underneath one of the transmission towers, I found some puffballs:
A short distance from the truck, I encountered a quagmire. A small, pure stream of runoff licked away at the muck, emerging from the other end of the temporary swamp a deep, treacly black-brown. The smell was incredible— oil from logging trucks mingled with a huge swath of cow manure to create a most pungent odor. I circumvented the spot as best as I could, but it was bordered by thickets on either side, so I ended up doing an exaggerated tiptoe through a shallower bit of the shit-field. On my third stride, I noticed that in the muck right next to my ooze-coated shoe was a series of very large, fresh looking paw prints. Despite my disgust, I was simply too curious to pass the tracks by, and took a few snapshots. I am a lousy tracker and could not tell if the paws belonged to a mountain lion or a black bear, but figured a little investigation on the net would clear up the mystery of who else had been trudging through the poo-pile. Either way, bear or big cat, it’s odd to see evidence of something so wild imprinted in the filth left behind by human greed and need.
Although I think that grazing cattle in the National Forest is unethical and grotesque use of public space, I am not going to let that rob me of my love for this place, nor my appreciation of the adventures I get to have in the parklands. The story that follows is the reason why.
One of the people who’s taught me a lot about mushrooms, David Campbell, told me this one. He was driving his huge van fast and furious down a single lane that wound along a steep mountainside in search of summer porcini. He tore around a particularly satisfying curve, and drove straight into a herd of cattle that were milling around the road and an adjacent meadow. He tried to halt, but he also had to dodge a few bodies before the vehicle slowed. By then it was too late— the herd was totally startled and the stampede was on. To make matters worse, the stragglers he’d maneuvered around, as well as several other cows in the meadow, ended up behind the van. Desperate to avoid getting slammed by a stampeding heifer, David stepped on the gas, trying to match the pace of the herd. However, the acceleration made the cows even more panicky, and soon they were all tearing down the hill at breakneck pace, van hemmed in on both sides. David looked in the side and rear views, and saw the surging and dipping heads of cattle running full tilt. He glanced at the speedometer, and saw it climbing past 20mph, up to 23…24…At that moment, the fear that had him in a vice grip somehow transformed into wild enjoyment, a terrific double shot of adrenaline and terror. He laughed maniacally and stepped on the gas. “If this is how I’m going to die, I’m at least going to make it good,” he thought. “And if this is how my van is going to get smashed, I want to test her one last time before we part ways.”
They pelted down the mountainside for a good 3/4 mile, reaching speeds in excess of 30 mph (a dangerous speed for a rugged logging track even if you aren’t in the middle of a freaking stampede). At long last, the steep inclines on either side of the road broke, and the cattle turned downhill and scattered into the open spot, mooing like the devil’s own herd. David drove clear of the mess before he threw her into park, engaged the E break and treated himself to a few minutes of panting, sweating and shaking. Once he recovered a little bit, David pressed onward. There were still porcini out there, and he intended to find them.
I once addressed the issue of GPS waypoint nomenclature in this blog. Naming landmark mushroom patches is critical. If you own a GPS unit and have the presence of mind to name your waypoints, you will find the tool handy as all get out and retain awesome boasting rights that others will lovingly hate you for. Point: if you don’t label your waypoints, you might think a chanterelle patch is where you parked the car and spend some time wandering around the woods wondering where on earth the vehicle could be. Counterpoint: sometimes, it just makes plain sense to name a spot 4Bags.
There are two mushroom hunters I know who drive giant white Dodge Ram vans into the gnarliest spots on earth. They chose the Rams for a simple reason: when you’re blazing through some nasty territory, be it a decrepit logging road covered in clay or up above near the snow line in the Rockies on washboard gravel tracks, it’s critical to be able to have the vehicular equivalent of fight or flight. To wit: these vans can either dodge or ram anything in their way. Of course, Norm and Dave will tell you that there are plenty of northern Cali mushroomers who drive huge unmarked white vans, but I conducted a informal poll of others who haunt the woods with a similar degree of frequency as these two gents. Each of my respondents told me that finding those two vans parked on a forest service road is a sure sign that Norm, Dave, and a metric assload of mushrooms are close by.
Besides being diehard mushroom hunters, Norm and Dave also seem to thrive on sharing their passion and thrill of the hunt. For years, they’ve run forays for all sorts of mycophiles. Their outfit, Wild About Mushrooms, goes whole hog when it comes to the best parts about mushroom hunting— WAM camps are all about awesome food, abundant wine, huge fires, and lots of lore sharing and storytelling. And of course, since they’re both crack fungal scouts, going out with WAM means coming home happy, sometimes ecstatic.
Dave is more the adventuring type; he frequently goes out alone, camping for days at a time in ruined forests and controlled burn zones, with no one around for miles except for drunken gun nuts and deer. He skips town as soon as the Idaho flash floods trigger the giant western porcini, and makes a trip to Italy each year to make sure he gets a crack at the finest fungi in the EU. Norm is also adventurous, no question, but he also is more the curmudgeonly engineer of this duo, waiting for his intrepid partner in crime to phone him up from the patch and summon him forth for the hunt. Despite his day job at Tesla Motors, Norm tag teams mushrooms with Dave fiercely. Norm’s eye for the quarry is uncanny— he routinely enjoys walking behind others who are hunting, just so he can point out all the prime specimens that were left behind. He also delights in other prankery— stealing baskets and maps, supergluing wine keys to tables, hiding garlic cloves inside tea kettles, using an air horn as a safety whistle…none of these antics are off limits to the ironically named Norm.
Obviously, I am fond of both of these chaps. They both seem to have figured out what’s important, given the fundamental parts of their respective personalities. For David: freedom, spontaneity and a deep commitment to giving the Forest Service a what-for when they really need it, and sharing the joy of his discoveries with others. For Norm: excellence, precision, preparedness, and a sense of the absurd embedded like a gem in a sharp mind. And somehow for both of them, white Dodge Ram vans are also critically important. And large tarps.
Morel season is one of those things that makes people strange in the head. In the fall, when many different prized species are abundant, mushroomers are a chummy bunch, and its a pretty rosy, bucolic experience to hunt fall fungi. Many of the autumn mushrooms live on the coast, in valleys and lush woodlands that are a delight to visit. Morels, on the other hand, are one of the few mushrooms worth eating that come up during the spring. The most abundant morels are called disturbance morels, or Morchella conica. They grow in burn zones, slash piles, wood mulch, roadside debris and other disturbed habitats. Finding them is very rewarding: they’re disguised to look like pine cones, leaves and a variety of other things, so learning to spot them is rather tough, and very satisfying once you get the hang of it. Once you find one morel (usually spotted out of the corner of your eye), it’s likely you’re actually surrounded by others that you failed to notice, so I typically hit the deck the second I see one of these little honeycombed beauties. Since they grow in recently disturbed areas, morels rove across the countryside in a way that’s less than predictable. For this reason amongst others, morel hunters are a secretive lot— finding them is such a challenge that having someone zoom your patch is a distinct and painful possibility. One time, I brought a small batch of fresh morels to a friend, and he passed it around to his companions to smell. A youngish woman with dreds and a big grin noted, “Wow, they smell like blood.” I guess that’s true to some extent: to me the aroma of morchella is earthy and carnal, and their flavor is indescribably wild. The main thing that made this comment stick in my mind, however, is that being a good morel hunter is like being a fungal bloodhound. You have to know what to look for in the environment, rather than just knowing where to look. Chanterelles are almost painfully loyal: they grow perennially in partnership with various plants, and so you can return to the same spot each year to gather mushrooms. Since morels live wherever the hell they please, knowing how to chase them requires an uncanny sensibility for where they thrive.
So now that I’ve presented the dramatis personae, it’s time to talk about 4bags. One day in mid-May, Norman Andresen and David Campbell went out after Morchella conica in the wilds between Lake Tahoe and the American River. Norm and Dave knew that it was going to be a good weekend out, and as the vans rolled northeast into the pine-fir vastness of the Sierra Nevada, there was much excited chatter on the walkie talkies to keep the drive from becoming monotonous. An exploratory mission the week before had rendered significant tonnage of morels, and it seemed only logical to expect even better results now, considering that the air had warmed into the mid-60s and there were scattered showers all week long. They had two other friends with them this time: Kevin and George, also van drivers (and therefore men of merit and fortitude in the face of bad roads and high gas prices).
They caravanned down a busted out forest service road, trying to leave plenty of distance between them so that gaping potholes, felled branches and other hazards would be visible long enough to respond appropriately (see: Dodge or Ram). Every so often, a pause to check the GPS and cross reference it with the USFS map; oftentimes there is no signage out there, and if it exists it can be deceiving (I’ve several times bombed down a paved road that the Forest Service told me led out, only to discover a closed road block and a turnabout). Also, sometimes the map doesn’t match the GPS, and neither of them really seem to align with the architecture of the land.
After a couple stops to briefly snoop about in a few likely looking habitats, Norm and David announced they’d gotten to an area that was worth hiking around for a while. It’s a funny thing about mushroom hunting: sometimes you spend a few hours in a single spot, not more than 100 yards from your vehicle, picking to your heart’s content. When you get back to home or camp, you realize that your day in the woods did not supply you with any cardio. Other days, mushroom hunting means walking for miles and pretending you’re just enjoying the exercise. David Arora once interviewed a Southeast Asian mushroom hunter who flatly stated, “On the days that we don’t find enough mushrooms, we walk a REALLY long way.”
Most forays fall somewhere in between, really. So when David, Kevin, George and the irascible Norm alighted from the vans at the Best Prospect, they took a hike to find some prime patches. Up the snarled hill they went, wading through piles of logging slash and sprightly new poison oak, tipping over logs and poking their noses into recently sprouted holly (morels often grow underneath the detritus that stacks up in logged areas, and so kicking over bark bits and flipping over downed branches is a winning strategy, even though it’s sort of annoying to both mushroom hunters and the lizards that also favor such spots). They crested a ridge, where the logging slash gave way to a mix of replanted fir, incense cedar and ponderosa that was old enough to give them some shade and keep the thicket plants at bay. Despite the newfound niceties of being in a grove that was harvested 30 or more years ago, Kevin and George were silently cranky about the facts so far: they hadn’t uncovered a single morel. In fact, they hadn’t even spotted two of the precursor species that indicate the burgeoning presence of Morchella conica: Gyromitra esculenta— the False Morel— and Gyromitra montana— the Snowbank False Morel (aka G. gigas in older books).
After about 3 hours of meandering up and down the ridge line, all efforts to find morels completely busted, the sun started to sink into the west and it got to be time to beat feet back to the vans and unpack the camp chairs, good red/green, and make some chow. Kevin and George were thoroughly dejected, and the downward tromp back to the wagon circle resounded with disappointment at each step. Norm and Dave brought up the rear, heads shaking in some bewilderment. There should have been a million morels on that ridge, popping up along each erosion control mound, in each truck track, inside each pile of discarded cellulose that wasn’t good enough to make floors, chairs or custom cedar sweat lodges.
As the team trudged towards a tepid and troubling evening, Norm fished out his Garmin Rino GPS and stared at it for a moment, then pointed to his left.
“We need to go this way. We’ve got just enough light.” David smirked at Norm.
“Yup, I think it’s high time, don’t you?”
They struck out southwest, following a path blazed by countless trucks, dozers and other heavy machinery. Kevin and George wore knitted brows, thinking of camp luxuries (fire, food, wine, bed), but not for long. Norm tucked the Garmin into his overall breast pocket after about a half mile. Smile wide, he announced, “Welcome to 4Bags, gentlemen.”
The sun died on their tired backs, the crickets woke up to sing, the mosquitoes came and went, the moon rose, and still they continued to pick morels.
The next morning, Kevin was pleased, but there was an edge of peeve thrown in there. As he restarted the fire from the previous night’s embers, Norm came yawning and stretching out of his van, bleary but self-satisfied.
“Why didn’t we go to 4Bags to begin with? I mean, if you found a patch like that, why did we spend all day wandering around wondering what we were doing wrong?”
Norm gave him a sleepy, bemused grin. “We knew that 4Bags was there. We wanted to see if we could find another one.”
Mushroom hunting sometimes requires diversion. Naturally, there are several semantic incarnations “diversion”, and I’ve learned that most permutations of the word apply in one way or another to mushrooming.
Of course, mushroom hunting is a diverting enterprise— what’s better than knocking off for a few nights of camping, fires, mushrooms, and good wine/food/stories? But that’s not the sort of diversion I’m going to focus on; my intent is more cautionary than laudatory.
Sometimes, it’s critical to create a diversion in order to hide the fact that you’re mushroom hunting. In some places, I don’t bother to conceal what I’m doing, because mushrooming is socially acceptable and common enough that folks are going to pin you for a mycophile no matter what you do, and are unlikely to make a fuss. For instance, one time I was poaching (as in, picking mushrooms without a license, a very common but none-too-advisable practice) near Arcata. I was trying to stay clear of paths and people, but spotted a cluster of queen boletes next to a one lane road that wound through the park. I simply could not resist, and grabbed them just as a trio of middle aged folks strolled by. I was not carrying a basket, having opted for a paper bag in order to buffer my odds of avoiding a bust. I don’t even think they saw me snagging the mushrooms. However, when I nodded to them in silent, somewhat shamefaced greeting, one of the fellows sang out at me:
“You find any good mushrooms?”
“Uh yeah, some nice queens,” I stammered.
“Awesome!” chimed in one of the walkers, a lady with greying hair and a turquoise bracelet. “Did you go to the Humboldt Fungus Fair a few weeks ago? It was a blast!”
“No, I’m just passing through. I did attend the fungus fair in Eugene this year, it was exceptionally cool.”
I knew these people were going to spare me.
However, the simple fact is that life usually isn’t so easy for mushroom hunters. The best spots to hunt are typically not well maintained bits of nature, but rather the strange, semi-autonomous and semi-capitalized vastness that is governed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Given this, many of my favorite places to go for mushrooms are full of logging trucks (since the truckers are paid by the load, they often fly down the decrepit forest road system at speeds in excess of 40), shooters who set human-shaped targets against grandfather cedar trees and let fly with modified assault rifles, hostile rangers, and (with the least frequency of all) hyper-vigilant nature lovers who think mushroom hunting is in some way damaging to the environment. Typically, these people are easy enough to share the wilderness with; loggers are usually courteous, shooters self-contained, and park rangers/nature nuts scarce enough not to be worth worry. However, there are times when a diversion is in order. Below I will enumerate a few time-tested strategies to avoid detection.
1) Hide. The human brain is a powerful tool, but it also looks for certain sorts of information more than others. One reason political cartoons exaggerate facial features is because the human brain places exceptional stock in the face and head, making it disproportionally ‘large’ in the memory. Same thing with hands; for whatever reason, homo sapiens are prone to notice hands in the immediate environment (ironically, more easily than we notice threats like snakes, pits, and daytime television…perhaps this is a testament to our species’s social nature…). The point of all this is that if you can hide your face and hands, you’re very unlikely to be noticed by someone who doesn’t know you’re there. It’s uncanny, as a matter of fact; standing still and hiding your most human features makes one virtually invisible. Of course, it’s also important not to wear bright colors if you want to take advantage of this strategy, but if you’re willing to commit to earthtones you might find it insanely simple to vanish just by concealing your paws in your sleeves and pulling up a hood. If that fails, you can always pretend you’re a deer. I know it sounds absurd, but standing stag-like with your fingers emulating antlers is (reportedly) a good way to evade detection…I am not sure I agree with this recommendation, given the number of big game hunters in the woods, but again it’s a matter of concealing your humanity so that no one asks you questions.
2) Hide What You’re Doing. This is perhaps the easiest and most fun way to throw people off the scent of your fungal fancy; just pretend that you’re doing something other than hunting mushrooms. In state parks and other high use areas, I strongly suggest bringing along binoculars. If you hear the rumble of an approaching vehicle, whip out the scopes and pretend you’re looking at the most wonderful, rare titmouse you’ve ever seen. Bird watchers are rather depraved (insofar as I think their hobby is both boring and pointless), but they also enjoy a lot more leeway than mushroom hunters because they usually don’t eat their prey. Another way to hide your intent is to carry mountain bike racks on your vehicle.
3) Hide Your Edibles. If someone (usually a pissy ranger or self-righteous yuppie nature user who thinks that picking a mushroom is tantamount to cutting a tree) accosts you about mushrooming, it’s important to demonstrate that you are not just hunting species with culinary/market value. Anytime I’m in the woods I keep two collections: the harvest and the scientific inquiry bunch. Show them the latter first, rattle off a few Latin binomials, and they’ll snore long before they bother to ask you about the relative tonnage of your morel, porcini, matsutake or chanterelle haul.
4) Bluff/Turn On the Charm. One of my mushroom buddies was on a foray that was anticipated by the Tahoe National Forest ranger crew, and managed to avoid capture and steep fines by virtue of his mellifluous tongue. One of the foray attendees left a confirmation email at the ranger station, and unfortunately the email contained the following statement (paraphrased): “Technically, we will all need to go to the USFS station and pick up a free mushroom gathering permit for the foray. If you don’t get to it, don’t worry; since it’s a free permit and we’re only going to be hunting mushrooms recreationally, the chances we’ll run into trouble are pretty slim.” This is normally true, except when it shows up on a reception desk and is construed as a challenge to Forest Service vigilance. Flash forward a couple days, and Lou found himself at a miniature road-block, Westie chock-full of great mushrooms. The rangers don’t do traffic stop style investigations; usually they ask you to get out of the vehicle and come talk. Lou took advantage of this when he hit the shroom-perimeter, strolling out of the car and chatting with the rangers with as much pluck and courage as possible. They asked him if he’d been out picking mushrooms.
“Of course not,” he replied. “I’m here for the fly fishing.”
“We heard there was an illegal mushroom ring operating in this part of the Forest this weekend. Did you see any of them?”
“Yeah, I am not sure I’d even know what to look for. A big group? Like, hunting mushrooms commercially?”
“Yes. And yes.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you. I wish I could.” He struggled to hide the smirk that emerged on his features the second Ranger Doug asked him about illegal mushroom rings.
5) Take Your Licks, But Don’t Take Them Seriously. Sometimes, the shit just hits the fan and you have to fess up to the fees associated with wildcraft. It’s also the fast track to libertarianism, because getting a ticket for mushrooming is like getting a DUI for driving under the influence of fresh blackberries. That said, one of my mentors received a triple misdemeanor charge when he strayed off parkland into private property. He was not being terribly conspicuous, but the landowner did notice his presence and alerted county authorities, who charged Dave with a three crimes for his porcini-lust, and threatened a couple months in jail for the offense. Outraged (and Scottish), David arrived at court and disputed the severity of the punishments requested by the Sheriff’s office. Apparently, the DA smirked and the judge chortled when David came past the bar and made his case for being a relatively harmless trespasser who was gleaning fruit from private land without intent to sell what he’d found. He was promptly convicted, and offered a chance to participate in a diversion program. David, like most mushroom folk, highly values his clean wrap sheet and immediately agreed to any program that would keep him from carrying a conviction forward. Of course, the diversion our discerning judicial system offered David was wildly inappropriate: they enrolled him in a cognitive restructuring support group for shoplifters. For 3 months David sat in a plastic, public school grade chair once a week, and was asked to disclose his deep seated compulsions towards thievery. He was asked to clap when his classmates told everyone that they managed to walk into a mini-mart without stealing some Hostess products or nail clippers, or a can of Spam. He told them all about how he was unable to stop himself from picking mushrooms; how he should keep his hands visible in the woods so he doesn’t ‘ethically slip’, how he felt terrible for the financial loss he incurred upon the mushroom-hating property owner who phoned the sheriff to pick him up when he was spotted in the woods, hiding neither face nor hands. Of course, he didn’t take all this humiliation seriously, but it did scar him enough to tell me that all other sorts of diversion are better than being tangled up with the legal system and taking their favorable offer: the most debasing and profane of all forms of diversion.
6) Become Indispensable/Irritatingly Invested. Don’t try to steal attention from your mushrooming, but rather relish it and flaunt it. Divert negative attention from mushrooms by loving them. Divert suspicion by talking loudly about how amazing it is to find fungi. Divert stereotypes by focusing on edible and scientifically interesting species, rather than psychoactive ones. Share knowledge, encourage anyone who’s interested, and make sure that people understand what you’re doing; it’s not logging, or even fishing. Mushrooming serves the biological agenda of the fungi who produce fruiting bodies, and collecting them ethically is engaging in a partnership with inscrutable organisms that need our help. Even if one must pretend to be deer in order to enjoy the encounter, it’s well worth the absurdity.
One of the people who taught me about mushrooms was Paul Stamets. Although he is now one of the most well known and highly regarded experts in mycology, when he started out in the 1970s he struggled to find acceptance amongst his bemushroomed peers. Despite the challenges, he did find mentors in the field eventually, and he was very clear about how he feels deep gratitude for those who offered him their tutelage. I transcribed one particularly cool story Paul told me about Dr. Alexander Smith, a great naturalist and mycologist whose books are some of the most useful field identification guides out there, despite the fact that they were authored many years ago.
Despite the fact that mycologists are typically very bright, scientifically minded people, they are also fond of practical jokes. There is something about spending a lot of time with fungus that makes you start to notice humor in the unexpected. For instance, when growing mushrooms, despite all one’s best intentions the fungus is still in charge of the process, and its behavior is often arcane and inscrutable. There is a reason that fungi were originally dubbed cryptogams— derived from the Latin meaning hidden marriage— because their reproductive habits are difficult for us monkeys to understand. For example, some fungi have 26 sexually compatible genders. Some fungi mate with the hyphae of sexually compatible mycelium, and others recombine their own spore DNA, effectively having sex with itself in order to produce genetically diverse spawn. This is all too complex to address in depth, but the point is that fungi are tricksters by design, and mycophiles often tend to develop some of those personality traits as well. As soon as the cultivator forms an expectation, the fungus seems to relish bucking it. This applies to both ends of the spectrum of experience— both in terms of success and failure. For instance, some of my most successful cultivation projects were the ones I thought were totally doomed (I once harvested mushrooms from piles of contaminated substrate that I had let sit for almost 3 weeks in 100+ degree weather in the middle of the Texas summer), and the ones I approached with the most care didn’t do a damn thing. This fact has changed my impression of what’s funny; there is an acrid bite to my sense of humor that grew out of my experiences growing cantankerous fungi.
So without further ado or bellybutton gazing, here is the story Paul told me about Alexander Smith.
I met Dr. Daniel Stuntz, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, who took me under his wing. In one particular event, we went the North American Mycological Congress in 1975 or 1976, I don’t quite remember, at the Cispus Environmental Center down by Mt. Adams in southern Washington State. There is a large conference there. I was a very long haired hippie, and I was treated like a lepper. Everyone avoided me. At the time, it was the Charles Manson sort of phobia about long hairs, and so there was a real chasm in our society. Most people don’t realize that, there was tremendous stratification in our society against long hairs and against the hippie movement. That was the polarity that was happening in a very big way. So I was avoided by everyone at this conference and I was in the auditorium, and I went out collecting mushrooms. I was sorting my mushrooms on a table writing down Latin binomials. I had Alexander Smith’s books out, and Daniel Stuntz’s books and I was trying to identify these mushrooms, and I was doing a pretty good job, I have to say. This elderly man comes up to me, and he’s wearing a little felted red hat with fishing lures in it, and he says, “Son, what do you have? What did you find?”
I just started rattling off names like Cystoderma cinnabarinum and Cryptoporus volvatus. I didn’t know who he was, I just rattled off all these Latin binomials, and he looked at me and he said, “That was excellent.” He said, “Who are you?”
I said, “I’m Paul Stamets, I’m just self taught…and I’m just getting started at The Evergreen State College.” And I said, “Who are you?”
And he goes, “I’m Dr. Alexander Smith.” And I said Oh my gosh… I just about swallowed my tongue. And I said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…” And I apologized for my identifications and he goes, “No, you did a really good job.”
So it was a really nice encounter. Here was The Godfather of Mycology, and I’m in a one on one experience with him. If I’d known who he was, I wouldn’t dare utter a single word to try and identify a mushroom, but I didn’t know who he was so I just rattled off these names thinking “what the heck.”
So that night, he’s the keynote speaker. He’s the keynote speaker at this conference. There are four or five hundred people at this conference. And everyone’s there waiting for Alexander Smith—Alex, as he was known—gets up on stage and he goes, “Before I begin my lecture, I want everyone to meet a new friend of mine.” I’m hanging out in the back, because I wanted to be near the door to escape, and he goes, “Paul Stamets, are you in the audience?” And he brought me up in front of the stage, and he put his arm around me. And he said, “I think this young man has a great career, a great future in the field of mycology.” I was like, “oh my gosh!” You know, I had a stuttering habit, still, and it was really nice and I was really touched, and he gave his lecture.
The next morning, everyone’s gathering around the cars and we’re going to go on forays, hunting mushrooms in the woods. And everyone wants to be with Alex, right? He’s the top dog, and Alex goes, “Nope, Paul and I are going to go out alone.”
So everyone goes, “Ugh, why is Stamets getting all the attention?” And so we went out in the old growth forest. Alexander Smith spent a lot of time in the Olympic National Forest in 1947 and 1949, and I knew his literature intimately. There’s a psilocybe mushroom called Psilocybe veliculoso that he identified and named. And so Alex and I went out into the old growth forest together and I’m way out in the old growth forest with him, and he finds this red russula mushroom. Now these are red, chalky stemmed mushrooms with white gills, and they’re very fragile. There’s Russula aranpolina, the Shrimp Russula, which tastes like shrimp with butter when you cook it. And there’s other russulas that are not edible, or are bland. And he picks up this red russula and he goes, “Paul, this is one of the best of the mushrooms.”
And I said, “Really?”
And he says, “I eat this one raw!” Now, you shouldn’t eat mushrooms raw, you should always cook mushrooms except for truffles, but all the other mushrooms you should always cook before you eat them. And so he took a big bite out of this mushroom. And he’s eating it, I’m in the old growth forest with him, and here he is, the father of my field! And he hands me the mushroom and I took a bigger bite out of the mushroom. And I said to myself, “If Alex is eating it, I’m eating it, I’m taking a bigger bite out of the mushroom.” Well all along, he bit this mushroom, and it’s related to russula emetica. Emetic means you’ll throw up, you know? And so what he’d done is he bit this mushroom off and he rolled it in his mouth, so he didn’t lacerate all the tissue. And I put the mushroom in my mouth and I munched it, and chewed it, lacerating all the tissue and got the hottest pepper response you can imagine. I mean, this is overwhelmingly painful. And he spits out the big chunk of the mushroom after waiting about 30 seconds. I have tears in my eyes, my face is going red, I’M ON FIRE, we have no water, and he belly laughs at me, and points his finger at me and says, “Now you’ll learn a lesson you’ll never forget—NEVER TRUST A MYCOLOGIST!” I was ready to attack this guy, “You tricked me!”
Anyhow, the field of mycology has a lot of tricksters. I’m a Merry Prankster. Dusty, my wife, and I were indoctrinated or accepted into Ken Kesey’s group, we have a plaque on the wall. And so, I like that Merry Prankster attitude that the mycologists have, because they love playing tricks on each other, and on the unsuspecting public. Now, be that as it may, we also have a duty not to poison our customers, so we’re careful and we draw the line very carefully. But, if you go out in the woods with me, I’d be very skeptical of what I tell you.
There are several different types of mushroom hunters. Some pick for a living, some for sport or the table, some simply because they get great satisfaction from getting out in the woods and having an excuse to stroll in a leisurely fashion, rather than hiking as fast as possible, thereby missing all the cool features of the landscape. However, one thing that mushroomers tend to share is their passion for the hunt, and mycophiles love to share their big fish (or, more often, big trouble) stories.
“One time, I found so many morels I had to take off my pants and make them into a bag so I could tote them all home!”
“Last weekend, I saw some shaggy manes in someone’s lawn, right next to their rose bushes. They were just opening up and I knew they’d go bad by the end of the day, so I decided it was worth it to rummage through my neighbor’s bushes to save the mushrooms! Too bad she saw me through the window and chased me off. One thing’s sure, I won’t get invited to Dixie and Earl’s next barbecue!”
“I don’t know what this is…it stains mulberry red when cut. I think I’m going to put it in soup.”
“I was out in Colorado collecting porcini, and decided to take a short cut through an unpaved pass to save myself about 100 miles on the freeway. I did it because I was worried that my buddy Norm would zoom me; he left the Bay Area about 7 hours behind me but Norm’s a beast, and so while I stopped at an Econolodge after 12 hours on the road, I got a call from Norm in the early morning that he simply pushed through the night and was already at our rendezvous point. He was also cranky, so I decided it was well worth the risk to traverse the pass so I could link up with him as quickly as I could. The locals called it String Bean Pass, but even calling it a ‘pass’ is a serious overstatement. Really, String Bean is a single lane, total washboard, with a precipitous drop off the whole way across the 6000’ crest. My van’s a two wheel drive, and I’m not good at heights. It took me more than 3 hours to get through that 5.5 miles of mountain, and I was on the edge of a heart attack the entire time, I assure you. Never, ever again. Not even for porcini. Not even if Norm threatens to pick every single one in North America.”
“I thought I saw a patch of chanterelles down that hill, and decided to go down and investigate, even though these old knees don’t really like going off-trail anymore. Anyhow, sure enough, a few steps down the slope I stepped in a pile of pine needles and lost my footing! I fell ass over teakettle all the way down the hill…so lucky I didn’t break anything…anyhow, as I shook my head and started to pick myself up, I noticed that I’d fallen right into a huge patch of Boletus mirabilis, the Admirable Bolete. They were the only good edibles I found the whole foray! Oh, and the so-called chanterelle patch was just some old, yellow madrone leaves. Sneaky bastards!”
“When I was hunting bioluminescent fungi in Brazil, I had to go out at night. I am afraid of jaguars, and the rainforest at night is a creepy, intensely wild place…but when you see these beautiful glowing mushrooms, and you pull one of these things up and look at the green-glowing gills, I’d say it’s truly a religious experience. It makes my work as a mushroom photographer so rewarding, and it’s such a completion to know that these things are OUT THERE, and then to FIND them…it’s like a fabulous easter egg hunt for people who really like to live on the edge of life.”
Given these sorts of anecdotes, it’s only a matter of time before one starts to wonder just where the breaking point lies with mushroom hunters. When is the terrain too rugged, the weather too bad, the road too windy, the local predators too imposing? When does risk outweigh the thrill of the hunt?
Although I am sure I could conduct a poll to answer this question and I would get all sorts of data about which species is worth the most crazed behavior (I strongly suspect that Morchella esculenta—blonde, thick walled natural morels— or Boletus rex veris— the spring king porcini— would win), but that’s not how my brain works. I rely instead on this story, which I use like a parable to define the limits of mushroom-inspired courage and nerve.
My friend Joe Spivack is a diehard mushroomer from Eugene, OR. He is one of the instructors of “How to Identify 100 Mushrooms,” a very popular course offered by Lane Community College that has been running for 20 years or more. Joe and his wife mapped the chanterelle patches on the BLM land near their home before they signed papers on the place. They have a load of shiitake logs, trade mushrooms for their CSA membership, and tinker with medicinal tinctures made from the many beneficial fungi that grow wild in central Oregon.
Joe also fed me a sample of the weirdest mushroom I’ve ever eaten: a two foot long tongue of yellowish, black tufted fungus called the Greening Goat’s Foot, or Albatrellus ellisii (Ellis’s Polypore is another very common name for this weirdo). The Greening Goat’s Foot is delicious and very compatible with all sorts of cooking oils and spices like the morel. However, it in some ways trumps the morel because it has a winning texture; since it has no gills but is instead a polypore mushroom, it has a marvelous quality in that it’s substantial through and through, since the fertile tissue has the same consistency as the rest of the mushroom. Sometimes, gilled mushrooms are a pain in the bum because the gills don’t grill, saute or roast as well as the rest of the cap, leaving a small patch of mushy-strange that can be a turn off unless the gills are properly spiced. The Greening Goat’s Foot has a consistent texture throughout however, and its solid, meaty fruiting form is very good if prepared on kebabs or as a grilled meat substitute. However, most people don’t even think to eat it because it’s hairy, mottled, and stains from yellow to a sickly pickle green when it’s bruised. Not terribly appealing, sure, but it really is an awesome food mushroom. However, if you weren’t diehard about your mushrooms, the chances of sampling it are very slim indeed. I only mention this strange polypore because it illustrates pretty clearly how open-minded Joe is, and just how enthused he is about his wild edibles.
And now that I’ve established a baseline for Joe’s fanaticism, it’s time to hit you with the counterpoint, the fable that I use as an internal measure to determine how far I should be willing to go for mushrooms.
Like many Northwesterners, the Spivacks love their golden chanterelles; they go particularly well with a fall/winter garden of kale, cabbage and carrots. Each August, Joe sneaks off to check in on a series of patches. Between late summer (almost indistinct from early summer, spring, or February given the fickle pushmepullyou between drear and drizzle that makes the Pacific Northwest the verdant, grim heaven on earth that it is) and Halloween, Joe can expect to harvest bucketloads of wrinkle-gilled, fruity chanterelles from the replanted fir stands and alder-salal-huckleberry-ivy scrambles of the Willamette Valley and Coastal Range. Joe’s got a name for each patch: The Pit, The Flat Spot, The Quiet Creek, The Ugly-Assed Alder Grove and several other spots that yield huge bounties of golden chanties every fall (and sometimes a few in the spring as well!). Joe also likes to track the mycelium from year to year: when he goes out after chanterelles on his back 9, he carries a small bundle of plastic flags, along with a map of the property. When he finds blooming chanterelles, he plants a flag and makes a corresponding mark on the map. They’re color coded by season, those marks and flags, so you can look at the map or the land, and see how the mysterious chanterelle mycelium creeps across the landscape year by year.
Like a lot of chanterelle fanboys, Joe knows a good mushroom day when he gets home with kneeling pains— in certain places in the Northwest, the chanterelles roll out like a river of gold, and the dedicated hunter becomes a harvester on hands and knees. On one legendary occasion, Joe and his hunting partner hit a chanterelle Glory Hole (yes, mushroomers actually call good patches glory holes). They busied themselves at once with harvesting their find, fully cognizant of the fact that they would never be capable (or willing) to haul all the chanterelles out of this marvelous patch. Obviously, they didn’t hike much that day, and managed to score about 180 lbs of chanterelles in 2 hours.
But onto the cautionary part of this tale, the make or break of whether or not to stick around long enough to pick. This is what Joe related to me when I asked him when to call it quits:
This is a really bizarre story. It’s kind of grotesque. I don’t even know if I should tell it.
Once we were out mushroom hunting in this fairly far of spot out in the Coast Range. I was with a good friend John, who I go mushroom hunting with a lot….We found this….feces dump that looked like it was sasquatch. It was this HUGE, perfectly pretzeled, human-looking feces that was about the size of a cow’s feces. It was this huge, log-like tied up thing about 9 inches tall, and it was right next to this pile of chanterelles that we were picking.
And we were like “OH MY GOD!” It was so scary to us. It’s hard to talk about because you usually don’t think of feces as SCARY so much as gross…but when we saw it, it seemed like it was steaming, and it was so huge…and it didn’t look like something that came out of a bear. It looked like something that came out of a person who was half human…And we were like “Ooooughh, my GOD, what living thing could do that?”
And we actually left the spot. We didn’t want to touch it, and we were like, “Whatever could do that….we better just get outta here.” I am not one bit sorry we decided to beat feet.
So I guess what I’m saying: if you don’t fancy the monsters that live near your mushrooms, it’s best to go home with a small basket than brave unknown perils. This of course is not to say that you shouldn’t snatch a couple shrooms before you dash to safety.
There will be some mycophiles who might read this blog and rightfully shake their heads in disgust. The controversy that surrounds the species Dictyophora indusiata is a little ludicrous, to be sure, but I simply can’t help but discuss it because it’s also hilarious and I sincerely hope that the qualities assigned to dictyophora are real. That said, you might want to approach this somewhat like an Onion article, dear reader (in terms of the veracity of content, not quality of humor mind you), and to be aware that there are many people who are rightfully skeptical of the miraculous properties of dictyophora. In fact, a friend of mine who will remain anonymous gets furious whenever dictyophora is mentioned; he strongly believes it’s a cruel joke on female mushroom hunters, and when I first asked him about it he got genuinely upset. Another mushroom nut I know, who is a bit less sensitive, simply dismissed the dictyophora theory as “poppycock”. So there you go, maybe a helping or two of salt is in order.
I first heard about dictyophora from Damian Pack. Several years ago, he attended a mushroom conference, and one of the lectures was given by Dr. Holliday, a mycologist who co-authored an article about dictyophora in the Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001. Dr. Holladay specializes in tropical and equatorial fungi, and one of the species that he supposedly encountered was an infamous sub-species or strain of Dictyophora indusiata in Hawaii. This species was also the topic of his lecture, and Damian was stunned when Dr. Holliday stood in front of the group and proclaimed that this mushroom exudes a pheromonal odor that can trigger human female orgasm. He noted that in a trial where women and men were asked to sniff the mushroom, 100% of female respondents noted that the smell made them feel aroused, and 6 out of the 16 female participants experienced sexual climax. He also explained the history of dictyophora in indigenous Hawaiian culture: apparently for generations, women have been aware of the arousing potency of dictyophora, and finding them and smelling them is apparently quite the tradition.
Dictyophora is an aptly named fungus for several reasons. Like a couple other related genera (Phallus in particular), dictyophora mushrooms look a whole lot like penises. They also grow amazingly fast once they pop, and can reach full bloom over the course of 45 minutes or so, and tend to use olfactory stimulation to spread their spores. The common octopus stinkhorn, a relative of Dictyophora indusiata, starts as a rubbery white egg with a warren of gelatinous pockets inside. It’s not bad to eat, though I am not terribly fond of the texture. Once the egg opens, however, the fungus expands into a bright red fruiting body that is somewhat round, and is made up of interlocking fibers of tissue that makes it look something like a fungal jungle gym. It also smells strongly of poop. This strange fruiting body attracts flies using its pungent scent, and the insects bang against the octopoid branches of the mushroom, knocking free spores that drift off, cling to the fly’s body, or are otherwise ejected into the biosphere. There are many fungi that reproduce more or less like this; stinkhorns do come in all shapes and colors, and grow all over the world. One species I saw from Missouri looked like thin, lime green tongues with sticky pink tips. I will not tell you what my imagination did with that, but they are very suggestive in a totally gross sort of way.
Anyway, so there is this growing body of knowledge about stinkhorns and their allied species, and Dr. Holliday was one of the experts. Damian described him as a serious, dry fellow who didn’t seem to be at all self-conscious about his discovery, or it’s middle school locker room nomenclature. However, there was an eruption of hilarity and some outrage from the audience at the conference, and after the lecture people’s tongues really started to wag. Damian said he tried not to get caught up in the “mushroom drama”, but it was clear that some people were really excited about the idea of a female aphrodisiac being isolated in nature, whereas others were angry. Those in the latter camp were upset for two reasons. First, if Holliday’s presentation was just an elaborate fabrication, it was a serious waste of everyone’s time and a disservice to the pursuit of mycological research. Second, and perhaps more personal, was the implication for those who bought into the notion and went hunting dictyophora. Since dictyophora has a series of look alike species that ALSO have an aroma (the aforementioned poop smell that gives stinkhorns their name), there were some folks who suspected that Dr. Holliday was trying to trick people into hunting and smelling stinkhorns in the hopes of getting their rocks off. Now, it might sound silly to get angry about something like this, but I must assure you that the stench of the stinkhorn is truly spectacular. The friend I mentioned who is a Holliday-hater took me out mushrooming the afternoon we first discussed dictyophora, and as we walked past a landscaped bed of roses and rhodies, I caught a whiff of something nasty. My buddy pointed out the striking octopoid spheres.
“Smell one,” he suggested.
“I’m not sure I want to,” I replied, eyeing the mushrooms dubiously.
“Well you should at least smell it once. Here.” He picked a piece and handed it to me and I, ever trusting, took a big noseful of one of the most unpleasant odors I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t gag, but it was a near miss.
“Now you know why I’m pissed about dictyophora,” my friend said flatly. “Imagine going to Ecquador or Guatemala and hunting for mushrooms in the buggiest, most dangerous spots on earth, and having to smell each and every stinkhorn you find. Talking people into doing that is just plain mean.”
I nodded and tried to rub the stench out of my nose.
At the end of the day, I will say I am not totally convinced that Holliday’s theory is a hoax. Damian told me that he visited Holliday some time after the uproar at the conference where the idea was first presented, and Holliday insisted that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for dictyophora to use pungent smells to reproduce. After all, the subterranean truffle has volatile oils that are very closely related to human and pig pheromones, which is one way the fungus attracts attention and gets help spreading its spores. Given the scent-producing strategies of other stinkhorns, it is also possible that at some point in evolutionary history, the chemical mix that makes certain dictyophora smell sexy came about. Furthermore, Damian told me he was impressed by the plaintive tone Dr. Holliday adopted when discussing his discovery; the good doctor was flustered at the negative attention, and wondered aloud why he would put his academic reputation on the line for a stupid joke. Although I wasn’t there, I can see that: the mycological community is small, and one of the primary offenses is messing up the taxonomy of mushrooms— since we’re so far from classifying all that’s out there, it’s considered crass and unthinkable to make the task even harder by introducing ill thought out theories and ideas.
I do know that since I have a rather tragically infantile sense of humor, I think that dictyophora is funny. I will not be hunting them anytime soon, nor do I think I could be convinced to smell another stinkhorn in this lifetime, but it’s a fun bit of trivia.
It’s very embarrassing to get lost in the woods with your friends, especially if you are all reasonably invested in woodcraft. Of course, it can also be a catastrophe— a friend of mine once spent an entire night holed up in a burned out stump, arms wrapped around his 3 year old daughter to keep the cold winter rain off her. By the time the fire department found him the next morning, Joe was hypothermic, rubber boots full of icy rainwater. Naturally, this incident changed Joe’s perspective, and he forever afterward became a strong proponent of GPS, walkie talkies, safety whistles and compasses. So yes, the threat of getting lost is far more dire than simple embarrassment. However, this entry is dedicated to the social experience of getting turned around and mixed up in the woods, rather than a treatise on wilderness survival. To wit: there are two types of lost: one, when you’re abysmally, horribly, and dangerously lost, and two, when you’re lost enough to know that you will get back home sooner or later, but not necessarily fast enough to hide the fact that you got lost in the first place.
I have gotten lost in the woods before, most epically and inconsequentially. I managed this feat largely because I am not the best tool using monkey out there; if I were an electronic adept it would never have happened. I was at Sea Ranch, in southern Mendocino County. My crew from Portland and I had just finished the weekend at SOMA Camp in Occidental, and we rented a beach house for a couple extra days of mushroom hunting in that lovely January green that only the North Coast of Cali can pull off. The first day, I went out by myself and found some lovely hedgehogs (H. rapandum, the steak sized kind, rather than H. umbilicatum, the scallop scale species), then in the afternoon we sauntered up the coastal hillside in search of black trumpets. We were richly rewarded for our efforts.
Quick note, black trumpets are The Sex to Oregonian mushroom hunters. We have lobster mushrooms aplenty, which is the common Russula brevipes—short stemmed russula— infected by Hypomyces lactiflorum. Lobsters are almost unheard of south of the 40th parallel, and so they give Northwesterners bragging rights…however, the strange and often-spoiled lobster mushroom pales in comparison in terms of flavor, culinary versatility, and preservability (yeah, I don’t think that’s a word either, but you know what I mean…) with the black trumpet, a California native that doesn’t stray far north of Arcata. Black trumpet chanterelles, Craterellus cornucopoides, are rubbery like morels, which means it’s abundantly easy to wash and dry them without losing a lot of mass. They also have an unmistakable flavor, like fruit+meat, coupled with a texture that’s simultaneously tender and substantial. So what I am saying: finding black trumpets was a big coup de teat for Team Portland (yes, teat, sort of like a coup de tits, but slightly less buxomatic).
After such a propitious and prosaic start, I was pretty revved up the following day when we set off hunting. I was so excited, in fact, that I totally neglected to charge my cell phone. I didn’t have coverage anyway because I’m not with Verizon, and simply didn’t think of how handy it might be to have a well-charged timepiece. So, when we all jumped out of the car and decided on a meet up time, I was without a clock. My friend Don, ever helpful, offered me his GPS to keep track of the time with. Of course, we did not think to set a waypoint at the cars, or do any sort of tutorial about how to use the different arcane buttons and toggle switches on the unit. No, he just showed me how to check the clock, and I nodded and figured all was gravy.
We decided to return more or less to the place where we found the first black trumpets, and at once stumbled into the largest fruiting of winter chanterelles I’ve ever seen. Like a 1000 man marathon, the yellow feet marched down that steep hillside facing the ocean in troops of 10 and 20, all pristine and somewhat pearlescent in the dewy sunlight. And then there were the trumpets. Midnight purple, charcoal grey and jet black, they pushed up in numbers from the duff like hell’s pep band. It was simply a fantastic day in the woods; my basket was full to overflowing after an hour, picking only the most lovely and robust mushrooms. I could have stayed there all afternoon, and likely would have, except for the fact that once we got into the chanterelle patch, everyone scattered far and wide. After an hour and change, I could no longer hear the gasps of delight or shouts of elation that marked our first few minutes in the yellow foot patch. It also occurred to me that I had made a very common mushroom hunting error; I was so excited by what was right at my feet, I had not looked up to check the gestalt of my surroundings from time to time, and so I had no landmarks to help me figure out where I had strayed.
I struck out west, heading towards the failing sun and the ocean. Easy enough, I thought, I must have headed east off the trail where we discovered the chanterelle hill. I came upon the trail, and did not recognize it at all, and could only conclude that I had headed too far north, or too far south. It was at this point that I thought to try using the GPS. After mistaking my position for the cardinal rose, zooming out to the entirety of North America, changing the time zone setting somehow, and otherwise failing to use the unit properly, I threw up my hands in despair, and decided to do the one thing I knew I could do; I walked down the hill to Highway 1, a mere 500 yards or so from my befuddled and unclear position.
And imagine my good fortune! When I arrived at the road, I discovered a call box, and dialed up CHP to see if they could give me directions.
“Um, hi, I’m Anna and I’m calling because I got separated from my friends in the woods and I’m lost. I’m at Call Box 1173 on Highway 101.”
“Ma’am, 1173 is on Highway 1, not 101.”
“Oh right, yes, I meant Highway 1 of course.” I could feel the blush rushing up my face and into my hairline. “So, I don’t think I’m far from where I need to be, but I was supposed to meet up with my friends about 15 minutes ago, and I know they’ll get worried.”
“Do your friends get cell phone coverage out there? I can call them and let them know you’re OK.”
“Oh yeah, Don has Verizon, so his phone works out here.”
“Great, what’s his number? I’ll put in a call to him for you once we’re done with this.”
“Ummm…” I fished in my pocket and pulled out my dead, uncharged phone. “I can’t get Don’s number, my phone’s dead and I haven’t memorized it.” More blushing, and a somewhat amused silence on the other end of the line.
After an eternity, Mr. CHP spoke up again. “So, what exactly do you want me to do for you, ma’am?”
I started stammering about directions, centerspersed with a pile of apologies. At that moment, a cheerfully tubby middle aged man pulled off the highway and poked his head out the window of his SUV.
“Hey you! Do you need some help or something?”
I quickly terminated the call with CHP, and my new friend got out of his car and sauntered over to the call box.
“Ummm hi, I’m Anna and I got lost in the woods while I was hiking with my friends.” Ever conscious of how folks react to mushroom hunters (especially lost mushroom hunters on extremely private property), I tried to stand in front of my absurdly overflowing basket.
“Nice chanterelles! Too bad you got lost, do you know where you started out? I work here, so I’m sure I can figure out where you need to go.”
“Jeez, not far from here. We parked the cars at Madrone Meadow, I know that, but I am not sure if that’s north or south of here.”
He pulled a map of Sea Ranch out of the glovebox, and unfolded it with a chuckle and a shake of his head.
“OK, we’re here, you see? Madrone Meadow is that cul de sac right there. You want to walk about 0.4 miles south and it’ll be on your left. I’d give you a lift, but the car’s full and we’re late for a party. Good luck, and nice mushrooms!”
I gave him a few black trumpets, thanked him, and hustled off south. Now all my thoughts were consumed with the shame, the embarrassment, the questions my friends would ask me…I knew I was late enough to have caught their attention, and I sorely hoped they hadn’t decided to launch a search mission. At long last, I arrived at the cars, sweaty and concerned but otherwise intact. At first, I didn’t see anyone at the cars and freaked; not only had they gone out looking for me, but they’d also not left anyone behind just in case I found my own way home. As I walked the final hill to the vehicles, I noticed that I was wrong; Pam was in the Corolla and appeared to be slouched low in the passenger’s seat.
“I’m here,” I exclaimed as I strolled up.
“Oh, hey…” Pam opened her eyes and stretched. “Sorry, was just taking a little snooze.”
“Where’s everybody else? I got totally fucking lost!”
“Oh, you did? Whoa. Didn’t you have Don’s GPS?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know how to use it.”
“Haha, yeah, they’re kinda tough to figure out. The first time I used one, I put a waypoint at a chanterelle patch but didn’t label it, so I thought it was the car! I spent about half an hour wandering around in this patch of mushrooms, wondering where the hell I could have parked. Sometimes they’re more of a hassle than they’re worth…anyway, the others got so lucky out there they decided to go out for another hour.”
“Do you have any water?”
So that’s how I got lost in the woods, even though I had a GPS, the ocean to navigate by, a major highway to travel on, a CHP call box and a local helper who didn’t decide to confiscate my mushrooms.
Obviously, it was a good lesson in humility, and also makes me far more self-aware when I am in wilder areas that aren’t so clearly marked.
Before I begin, I wish to bring the reader’s attention to the second half of this post’s title: although the facts of this story are true, I did put my own spin on it.
I know a very glamorous and classy broad who’s into mushrooms. She must remain anonymous for all the right reasons, but I assure you that whatever she’s up to, it’s usually good. She’s Italian-American, of course, and has a heart-shaped face, almond eyes, rapier wit, ready smile, and a well deserved swagger. She knows her boletes (and suillus and leccinum too) inside and out, and makes her own grappa. She field IDs coccora like it’s her job, and has an excellent selection of hats. She also is given to sharing home-distilled spirits around campfires, and she tells bawdy jokes, both of which make her even more popular. She’s also a heavy hitting professional in the medical community, hence her anonymity.
At this point I am going to adopt the pseudonym Delilah for our intrepid heroine. When I met her at mushroom camp, Delilah told me about an experience she had with the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, the red one with white spots that everyone likes to discuss.
Most people who eat the fly agaric are trying to get high, but there are exceptions. Some folks report that you can parboil Amanita muscaria in salted water in order to remove the psychoactive chemicals in them. Once you pour the water off, the fruiting bodies can then be cooked safely. Some folks say it’s best to double parboil the mushrooms; others swear by a single round with a hefty dose of salt to get rid of the psychoactive.
As a small side note, let’s quickly review the psychoactive properties of A. muscaria. Primarily, ibotenic acid is the trip juice that makes the fly agaric a legendary entheogen, with muscimol playing second fiddle. The neurochemical consequences of eating fly agarics (and a host of allied species, like the panther amanita) seem to vary in great measure: some people report a profound sense of wellbeing, strength and boundless energy, others shake their heads and recount prolonged episodes of confusion, racing thoughts, physical discomfort and mouth full of the tongue-itus.
So let us return to Delilah. Like many Italian-Americans, Delilah loves amanitas. She lived in the Santa Cruz mountains as a girl, and grew up hunting the verdant woods of that southerly bit of the coastal range that hugs the Pacific. As a self-taught American mushroom hunter, I started out with a very deep respect for, and fear of, poisoning myself with my new hobby. Delilah, however, told me that until she was in high school, the very idea of mushroom poisoning was never addressed in her house. It was just assumed that people knew what the fuck they were doing, and that they would find the right amanitas, fry them in a light batter, and finish the day without organ failure.
About a decade ago, Delilah was faced with a challenge. The fly agaric is one of the most plentiful amanitas in Northern California, and since it’s both easy to spot and almost impossible to misidentify, Delilah decided to try denaturing some of them, in hopes of enjoying a nice tasty mushroom snack without the attendant trip. She sliced her mushrooms and boiled them vigorously for about 5 minutes, strained off the red-stained water and rinsed the mushrooms in cool tap water, patted them down, battered them and fried them in butter and salt.
They were delicious with a glass of chardonnay.
For 6 years, Delilah picked A. muscaria and ate it just like that. Not a single hallucination or strange body-effect, just nice fried mushroom and some weird red parboil water to pour onto the compost pile.
She even made it into a tradition: once a year, Delilah threw a pre-holiday dinner party for her lady friends, where they would all get very merry, eat and drink too much, and tell stories into the wee hours before donning their woman-in-holiday-mode skins and part ways until the coming January. Before the party each year, Deliah cooked up a few slices of fly agaric, sipped a glass of good white, then set about making her house ready for guests.
The 7th year into this wholesome routine, Delilah hit a snag. She munched her muscaria morsels without a second thought, set down her wine glass and went about some chores. Somewhere between putting out the cheese plate and restocking the TP in the downstairs bathroom, Something Happened. The first thing she noticed were her hands, which of a sudden seemed too powerful to be handling fragile Scotts Tissue rolls. She could crush them so easily, if she wanted to…it felt great, but also made her quite aware that she needed some fresh air. She stepped outside, and the late November night didn’t deliver the slightest chill to her. She stood on the porch, a slight quiver in her knees and eyeballs, trying to focus. After about 5 minutes of trying to forcibly re-enter the world of Average, Delilah realized that she’d grown to a rather unusual height. It wasn’t that she was really taller, but more longer, a stretched version of herself that could tower over those wee concerns and considerations that took up so much of her time. Wow, she thought, those mushrooms just punched my card.
She managed to call her BFF and tangentially explain the situation.
“I simply can’t imagine throwing a party in this state,” she remembers saying. “I might accidentally step on the table. Or on someone’s Cheshire tail. Don’t want that for me, or for anybody.”
BFF was resourceful, and redirected the party to a local Olive Garden, where many bread sticks were sacrificed at the altar of the Altered Party, but no real harm was done, and Delilah was spared the impossible task of hosting people in her accidentally profound condition.
Apparently, that night was straight paradise. Not enough to eat the mushrooms for fun, but enough not to fear them.
A year later, Delilah found herself collecting some fly agarics. She had done some thinking and research since her last encounter with muscaria, and decided that the potency of her last batch was a statistical abnormality, an outlier, and that it should not dissuade her from using the tried and true boil-pour-fry method. Also, should it go wrong again, she wasn’t averse to the trip induced by muscaria.
So she boiled, fried and sampled sparingly. This time around, she did not just get tall and feel like she was blessed with Shaolin guts and wisdom. No, this time was disassociation and confusion, darkness, questions without answers, answers without questions, thought without language, sensation without meaning. It was bloody awful. BFF intervened again and saved the day, but extracted a promise: no more fly agarics before the annual Gal Gala, no matter how hard you boil them. Some things are more important than experimentation.
Delilah agreed, and hasn’t eaten the fly agaric since.
Candy caps are lovely little critters. They’re small mushrooms, a rusty orange color with white milk that oozes from the gills when they’re cut. When you dry them out, they smell like maple syrup. The first candy cap I found was just north of the Oregon-California state line, all by itself. I’ve been told that’s outside their normal range: candy caps are primarily found in Northern California, especially in the Bay Area. Anyway, I was delighted and took it back to Texas with me in December. It was a really fragrant specimen, and I loved the expressions on people’s faces when I gave them a chance to smell my mushroom. Flash forward to today, and I find an email in my inbox from my mother. The subject line is “The Power of the Candy Cap!!!!!
I opened the message and read one of my mom’s classically cute emails:
Hey there sweetie, here’s a little bit that you may want to save in the “stories of shrooms”……….for days, if not weeks, when ever I opened a particular cabinet I can smell a sweet aroma, that I was having difficulty identifying. finally it dawned on me that it was, perhaps, a candy cap smell, although I thought the little sweetie was long gone……not so! As I searched the cabinet, low and behold, in the bottom of the mortar and pistil was ONE, just 1 tiny, VERY TINY, dried cap emanating its glorious flavor! Has it been there over 6 months???? or possibly longer
The scientific name of the candy cap is Lactarius rubidus— it is part of a genus of mushrooms that secrete a milky substance called latex when they’re torn or cut. Although the candy cap is very pungent, the smell doesn’t really emerge until the mushroom dries out. And here’s the rub: there’s another mushroom that looks almost exactly like the candy cap: Lactarius rufulus. However, while the rubidus smells like maple, rufulus has the odor of burnt sugar in the best case. In the worst case, it carries a unpleasant chemical smell. Honestly, it can be quite revolting. This is how I discovered the distinction.
I went mushroom hunting with some friends in Oakland, CA. It was a good day and we found lots of different sorts of mushrooms by the day’s end. The most exciting thing to me were the three large hillside patches of candy caps that we stumbled across. We collected a bunch of them and felt very pleased with ourselves. That night, I stayed at my friend Gwynn’s home. Gwynn lives on a boat called Peloton, which is moored in Redwood City. We set out our pile of candy caps to dry and went to bed. They were all over the small cabin, in the oven, next to the space heater, and we even had to stow some outside to dry the next day. When we woke, the whole vessel smelled like a candy factory that had just experienced a very serious chemical spill. Distressed, we took the mushrooms onto the deck. Gwynn went to work, and I set about the task of figuring out what was wrong with these candy caps. Since they don’t smell strongly when fresh, I had planned to go through each dried mushroom anyway and smell every one to make sure of my field identification— lumping together a bunch of small mushrooms can be a very unwise thing to do, and I had every intention of inspecting each specimen before giving it the go ahead to be used in cookies or something. However, I now discovered a new definition for agony, because I really wanted to use the true candy caps in the pile of mushrooms on Peloton’s deck, but they were all jumbled up with noxious, stinky ruffled milk caps. For 2 hours I sat there, sniffing and wincing, occasionally excusing myself in order to stick my sore nose into a coffee can to clear out the fumes.
The following week, I attended SOMA Camp in Occidental, CA. One of the hot topics during that foray was the distinction between L. rebids and L. rufulus. One way to tell them apart is that true candy caps almost always have a small dimple on the top of the cap. They also tend to have rough caps— it sort of feels like lizard skin— and ruffled milk caps are a bit smoother. Finally, the latex of true candy caps is white but watery, whereas their stinky cousins have a milk that is thicker. It’s like the difference between the appearance of skim milk and half and half.
That day in Oakland, I am guessing we gathered from 1 patch of real candy caps and 2 patches of falsies, but I don’t know, because we were so excited we just dumped all our mushrooms into the basket together.
So take this warning from me: try to keep mushrooms from different patches separate!