Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Finding Treasures; or Foraging to Stave of the Insanity that Invariably Results When This Wild-at-Heart Primate Tries to Find Fulfillment in the Rat Race

I became a hardcore forager about four years ago. It wasn’t something I had planned on. I moved to a small city in upstate NY at the age of 28 to get a Master’s degree because I thought it would make my life better. It was late August, a few days before classes began. I took a long bike ride out to a state park. I was exploring the trails around a lake and wandered into the forest. After bushwhacking for a while, I found a downed tree with a beautiful orange-colored fungus on it. I took a photo and vowed to figure out what type of mushroom it was and if it was edible. That fungus would change my life in some profound ways.

The fungus of destiny. The very Chicken of the Woods or Laetiporus sulphureus I found on that fateful day.

I got back on a trail and headed towards my bike when I encountered a woman walking a golden retriever. The dog shoved his head in my crotch and wagged his tail vigorously, as if I was the greatest thing he had encountered, ever. The woman was named Jean. The dog was named Tyler.

“Just taking a walk around the lake?”, she asked.

“Yes, I just moved to town and was doing some exploring.”, I responded.

I told her that I was about to start grad school, and when I mentioned the school’s name, she said, “that’s where we have our meetings sometimes.”

“What meetings?”, I asked.

“Our mushroom club meetings. I’m the president of the club.”, she responded.

No more than five minutes after I had found a mushroom and became curious about it, I ran into the president of the local mycological society. This stuff is impossible to make up. I’m not typically one to believe in fate, but sometimes I wonder.

“Are you serious? I literally just saw a mushroom right over there and wondered what it was.”, I said, pointing towards forest.

“Show me”, Jean said.

I walked Jean over to the log and showed her the mushroom. Without any hesitation, she exclaimed, “It’s chicken of the woods, and its fresh!”

She explained that the mushroom was edible and said, “You can take this home and sauté it. It’s delicious! But you probably won’t eat it.”

“Yes I will.” I promised.

We walked around for a while and she pointed out some other mushrooms. Having known me for less than an hour, she then invited me to join her on a foray with the mushroom club the next day. I accepted. That night I cooked the mushrooms in butter and savored every bite. The next day she picked me up. The rest is history. I became a mushroom person and a forager, and Jean and Tyler became dear friends.

Tyler the golden retriever, one of the most magnificent creatures to walk the face of the Earth.

Flash forward one year. I had learned volumes from Jean and others, and had become more of an expert than am amateur in wild edibles. Jean and I were spending yet another Sunday bushwhacking around the woods when Jean started to pontificate on what it means to be a mushroom person.

“You see, it’s not just about loving the outdoors, getting nerdy with the Latin names for fungi, being more self-sufficient, or enjoying the taste of mushrooms. Foraging is about finding treasure. That’s why I really think we like it!”, she said.

Jean was right. I do like finding treasure, in both wild and urban settings. In fact, as a child, I often dreamed of finding buried pirate treasure and went through a spell where I wanted to be a gold and precious stone prospector (truthfully I sometimes still think about this).

Flash forward four years and switch to present tense. I live in Washington D.C. I struggle daily to cope with the realization that my fancy Master’s degree and a job envied by many don’t fill the sizeable void in my soul. The streets are flooded with young, over-privileged, aspiring policy wonks. The guys wear cheap, skin-tight suits and colorful, striped socks. Even though I’m able to get away with business casual at work, I cringe at the thought that I might somehow be like them. The girls wear ill-fitting, conservative frocks or pantsuits that are otherwise only seen in turn-of-the-century photos of presidential first ladies. The older federal workers’ cheeks are sunken in, all hope or joy drained from their faces, and in stark contrast to the young, hip policy wonks, their suits are baggy enough for two. They wear sneakers and carry backpacks that are probably hand-me-downs (or is it hand-me-ups?) from their children in middle school.

I am hyper aware of the fact that just a few miles from where I live and work, a band of millionaire and billionaire Type-As are holding the most influential positions in government, occupying the most iconic buildings in DC, and they seem to be hell-bent on destroying any and every aspect of society that might actually be decent or noble. They are adults, behaving very, very badly. All of this is soundtracked by the persistent blare of ambulances racing to keep people alive for just a while longer. Had Paul Simon lived in DC, he might have written The Sounds of Sirens.

Pennsylvania Ave. looking towards the U.S. Capitol- a favorite haunt of adults behaving badly.

Yet as impossible as it might seem, DC is actually a great place for a forager. There are a surprising number of fruit trees lining DC’s streets- cherries, serviceberries, plums, mulberries, and apples, to name a few. For those willing to put in a bit of effort, there’s a nearly endless supply of nutritious acorns. And then there’s the stuff. DC is a notoriously transient city. Interns come to town in droves but typically stay for just a few months. Many professionals put in their obligatory few years before they realize how terrible DC is and move, or they finally land that job in international development that necessitates their travelling to Sierra Leone for six months (If I had $100 for every time I met a twenty-something that wants to get into international development because traveling for work is just the best- never mind the poor people that need food- I could be one of those misbehaving millionaire adults destroying the country).

So where was I? That’s right, foraging for stuff. So people move to DC, buy all the stuff they need for the rest of their lives, stay for three months, and put all that stuff on the curb, in alleyways, on porch steps, and in garbage cans. They move to a different place and buy all the stuff they need all over again (though I’m not sure there’s an IKEA in Sierra Leone). Can you imagine a better situation for a person who likes foraging for treasure? Despite my cynicism, I don’t want to come off as unappreciative of well-to-do transients. In some neighborhoods, there is a deeply-embedded and highly laudable culture of recycling and sharing stuff. People neatly place their unwanted stuff in boxes and label it “gratis”. Some go so far as to put up ads on Craigslist to let the world know there’s free stuff for the taking.

My girlfriend and I moved into a small apartment almost a year ago with little more than our suitcases full of clothing. In two short months, we had furnished the entire place at virtually no cost. The only thing we purchased was a cast iron pan and a television. Despite my many misgivings about modern society, I like the idiot box as much as the next guy.

So what kind of stuff did we find to outfit our little abode? To name just a portion of it: a bed (donated by previous tenants); entertainment center; two bookcases; a West Elm sofa (a good company I’m told); a recliner; a plush rocking chair; a computer desk; end tables; mirrors; framed prints and paintings; space heaters; a toaster oven; enough flatware and kitchen utensils for a lifetime; several pots and pans; glasses; plates; bowls; a blender; an electric knife sharpener; a vacuum cleaner; a blue rubber fitness ball; throw blankets; pots for plants; plants in pots; and lots of completely unnecessary, yet tasteful nick nacks and kitsch that would have cost a fortune at some tacky home goods store (One such piece is a gold-framed, black and white photo, circa 1950, of a family that is not our own. It sits proudly on our shelf of oddities).

Gold-framed, black and white photo of a family that I've never met. Highly prized.

And then there’s the clothing. Shirts, pants, shoes, skirts, dresses, hats, jackets, gloves, etc. We've found two bicycles that didn’t work but work now. We've found bike helmets to keep us from cracking our heads when falling off of the two bicycles that work now. We've found a metal frog statue that holds a potted plant. We named him Vincenzo. Who doesn’t need a metal frog named Vincenzo? We've found puzzles and board games. We've found sacks of uncooked rice, freeze-dried coffee, and canned cranberry sauce. We've found power tools, screws, caulking, and garden rakes. We've even found a flatbed handcart that holds up to 500 lbs. so we can haul all of the free stuff we find home. We’ve found it all!

Vincenzo the garden frog.

Admittedly, much of the stuff we haul home gets recycled or donated. Some things seem amazing when we find them. We think- it’s free, why not take it home? Then we get home and ask ourselves “What the hell were we thinking when we picked this up?” I’ve even had a few moments that are downright shameful. Once I found an old leather satchel near some garbage cans in an alley that was discarded for very good reasons. I picked it up, exclaiming to my girlfriend “This is real leather, vintage! I can restore this and take it to fancy work meetings.” Her look said it all- I appreciate your excitement, but what you are holding is a rotting briefcase you just found in an alley, and you should probably wash your hands. Another time, I found a pair of woman’s wool trousers from the 1960s. They smelled like mothballs and perfume. I held them up in front of my lower half to eyeball whether or not they would fit me, exclaiming “These are 100% wool. I can wear these camping. Wool keeps you warm even if it gets wet.”

So what is it about foraging that I love so much? A whole bunch. I love foraging because: I like the hunt; I get a high when I find treasures; the more free stuff I find, the less I have to buy; foraging doesn’t require cash; I like the idea of nature providing; I like the idea of urban streets providing; it forces me to learn about plants, trees, and ecological systems; it forces me to learn about alleyways and dumpsters; it forces me think about how I can use something I just found and am unfamiliar with; it teaches me virtues, like patience; it promotes reuse and recycling; and it helps to combat years of social conditioning that whispers “you need to incur massive debts just to try and keep up with the joneses”. Perhaps more importantly, foraging for treasure awakens a part of my brain that has been hibernating for most of my life- a truly human part of my brain that remembers, almost unconsciously, that foraging is hard wired into our DNA, and that modern, industrial societies- and all of the conveniences that go along with them- are inherently unsustainable anomalies only made possible by finite, dwindling fossil fuel resources.

So yes, from time to time I have to endure puzzled, if not horrified looks from people who learn that I’m wearing shoes I found in a free box on someone’s front stoop. Yes, from time to time I have moments when I want to find something I really want or need but don’t, and then feeling defeated, I convince myself that the tattered straw Panama hat I did find is exactly the thing that will make me whole. But that’s ok, at least I’m not going into debt to obtain things I don’t really need. And foraging for wild food and for stuff has given me and my loved ones countless hours of thrills, laughs, and genuine disappointments (despite the obviously non-serious nature of finding or not finding free stuff). It’s allowed me to experience the full continuum of human emotion.

Whenever and wherever I forage, Jean’s insight always creeps into mind. I could find a pawpaw on the banks of the Potomac. I could find a small, knitted, purple fabric bull, complete with nuts. I could find pounds of invasive wineberries growing along a fence. I could find a vase in the shape of a toucan. It makes no difference to me. It’s all treasure and I love it all.

One of our most prized possessions, a handmade knit bull with complete anatomy.

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