Thursday, August 10, 2017

More Than I Imagined

My journey to develop a close relationship with the beings that surround me is pleasantly never-ending. The barrier between me and them has only started to come down in the past couple of years. I am at an interesting transition time now, with the sun setting on my old way of life, while one that aligns with my values is coming to light. The new way will surely lead to less money, less comfort (at least for a time), and more physical and emotional exertion, but it is the only way to a life worth living. Right now, I have amazing experiences with different ecosystems for bits of time, and then walk back into a sterile office environment. This pattern is unsustainable, unsatisfying, and jarring to my being. I want to live in a community that relies on and contributes to the healthy ecosystem around it. Right now, I am learning about and meeting the beings that surround me. I made important progress toward that end during a mushroom walk with Matt Cohen of Matt’s Habitats (Silver Spring, MD).

I’ve been eating some select wild mushrooms for a couple of years, due to becoming best friends with the seasoned mushroom hunter, Joseph Ziobro. But, I’ve never asked him the right questions or tried to come up with a way to conceptualize learning new mushrooms. I fell prey to the belief that most mushrooms would kill me and that there are only a handful that are edible. As I’ve now finally come around to using Tom Elpel’s Botany in a Day for placing plants that I know into families, I am happy to have found a way to start categorizing mushrooms and understanding them more.

I seem to always be surprised when I come to find that something is not as complex and scary as I thought it was. Learning mycologist’s names for mushrooms is a matter of careful observation, patience, making the time, and asking questions. When I learn a mushroom’s name and some of its history, I am let into a space where I’m able to develop a relationship, to begin understanding what this fungus is and does. Matt taught us to ask questions like: is the mushroom growing out of the ground or wood? Does it have gills, pores, neither? What color is it? Does it stain when bruised or cut? Then, we can categorize: boletes, russulas, amanitas, polypores, cup fungus, etc. I’ve been whipped into a frenzy - a good kind of frenzy. I find myself laying down on the forest floor and crawling around on my hands and knees to meet new friends.

Treeful of oyster mushrooms

Aside from the identification aspect, Matt’s class was incredibly important to my perception. As I mentioned above, I had pretty much decided that many mushrooms were killers, and that I should just stick to the few I knew. In the area that I live, Amanita bisporigera, or destroying angel, and Amanita phalloides, or death cap, can kill me in very unpleasant ways. Of course, other mushrooms are also very harmful in significant quantities. But, I came to learn that that there are many edible, good tasting mushrooms - many more than I imagined. My unfounded fear dissolved quickly as I started picking up mushrooms, observing their properties, and nibbling on some of the boletes that passed an initial screening test.

When I eat wild food, I feed my body and soul. I am reminded that there is a whole world out there that does its thing independent of what I do. I realize the importance of connection to the rest of life and the reciprocal relationship I must practice to keep up my end of the bargain. Hunting and gathering is not just about taking, but also giving, and I must do more giving. From a young age, I learned that, in human relationships, I should give as well as take, that I should share. Here, I must apply this in a different context. To truly give, I must live amongst the beings that give me life. Right now, I am still an alien invader. My food comes from way over there, my water from over there, and my shelter and heat from long supply chains. I don’t eat much near my house due to pollution, lack of availability, and the law. I want this to end; it doesn’t feel right.

As someone who has trained for and lived a life largely in his head, I am learning to listen to and yield to the way things feel. When I meet another being, when I eat wild food, I am overcome with joy. I relish the great unknown that is becoming known, wondering what is out there and what else I’ve been missing my whole life. As I sit here, I imagine the mushrooms popping up and the deer moving about. I imagine, not out of intellectual curiosity, but because my soul yearns for connection. I long to get back to biodiverse places.

I tried a russula and a bolete for the first time this past weekend. I cooked up a few pounds of oyster mushroom that I found. I made a delicious sweet and sour drink from staghorn sumac. When I was out setting up hunting blinds the other day, I noticed that the autumn olives were starting to ripen. As I keep track of the plants I know in Botany in a Day, I realize that I’m actually making a dent in learning plants. When I go out to biodiverse places, I feel more and more at home. While in Pennsylvania last week, it seemed that every dead tree was covered in oyster mushrooms and silently shouting to me. As I open myself up to all that’s out there, a whole new world is being revealed to me. One that was always there, but that I ignored.

Staghorn sumac fruit

Sumac tea, the taste of summer - steep in cold water for 20 min

Though I experience the world in its wonder and sometimes think that things are speaking to me, I know that the universe does not care about me and my fate, because I am just one among many. Beings live and die every day. In some ways, that knowing is comforting and liberating, and in other ways it is deeply frightening. I say liberating because this knowing frees me from my old notions that I am really something, that I’m meant to be something amazing, that I’m important enough to warrant some special attention, that some god is watching over me to make sure that I’m taken care of. Knowing that those notions are false, I can let go of the great, impossible expectations that I’ve had for myself. On the other hand, I say frightening because the Earth’s ecosystems, in all of their beauty and wonder, contain real dangers: ticks, hypothermia, snake and spider bites, trips and falls, allergic reactions. The list of dangers goes on long enough that my head implores me to consider staying inside, or at least not venturing far. But, there is no unfeeling the feeling of tasting the wild, literally and figuratively, of making something with material that another being provided. And so, I continue to march on, toward a more wild life.

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