Wednesday, August 16, 2017

A Second Chance for Chanterelles

A severe drought in DC raised hell with the wild edibles this summer. For example, the wineberries near me- which typically arrive on cue around July 4th - failed to fruit. They started to flower, produced a handful of unripe berries, and then just quit. Flowers, fruit, and leaves shriveled up and fell to the ground. In my almost five years in DC, I have never known so many consecutive weeks without rain. I’m sure the tourists didn’t mind the drought, as it was sunny, cloudless, and warm for almost two straight months. But I’m no tourist. I’m not interested in looking at marble statues of long-dead, strange-looking, over-privileged white men.

In previous years, the ripening wineberries also signaled that it was time to start looking for chanterelle mushrooms. I figured it was pointless to check out my chanterelle patches given the drought. However, if I didn’t check, I knew I would regret it. So I set out in the forest, which generally reminded me of how my mouth feels when I wake up in the morning after a night of heavy mouth breathing. As expected, I didn’t find a single chanterelle. I would have to wait until next year. I was gutted.

I love all wild edibles (philosophically if not for taste). However, mushrooms will always hold a special place in my heart. They were my first deep dive into the world of wild foods and taxonomic classification. They taught me that with careful observation, patience, hours logged, and rigorous study, I could make sense of a universe that initially seemed too massive and complex to comprehend (Scientists estimate 5-10 million species of fungus!) Mushrooms challenged me, and frankly scared me. I don’t mind indigestion. I shrug off nausea. I find vomiting more annoying than concerning. However, it’s hard to shake off renal and hepatic failure- the most severe symptoms of mushroom poisoning. Yet, the more I learned, the more confident I became, which ultimately led to something that can only be classified as obsession.

There are those times of the year when a particular mushroom is all I can think about. I’ve considered taking vacation the entire month of May to look for morels. In autumn, I think so much about hen of the woods that I probably appear distracted and withdrawn to close friends. Around Independence Day, it’s chanterelles. Normally I like to root for the underdog, but not in the case of chanterelles. They are one of the top dogs in the mushroom world and their position at the front of the pack is justified in every respect. Their flavor blows me away- a perfectly composed and executed symphony of sweetness, earthiness, nuttiness, and apricotiness (if that’s a word). I sometimes consider putting dried chanterelles under my pillow so their aroma can permeate my dreams. So you can imagine my disappointment when that bastard drought took them away from me.

About three weeks ago, the rain started to fall again. It fell hard and often. It fell to the point where I was getting flash flood alerts on my cell phone. While others were complaining, I was thankful. Rain is life, and the best friend of mushroom hunters.  

Katya and I went camping last weekend in West Virginia. It was supposed to be a standard trip- hiking and relaxation by the river. We had chosen our destination for two reasons. First, in the Spring, we had accidentally left some critical tent components at our campsite there, and we hoped to retrieve them. Second, timber rattlesnakes are purported to be abundant in the area, and despite my general preferences for longevity, a maladapted, counter-evolution-oriented slice of my brain makes me terribly intrigued by venomous snakes.

We arrived at the trailhead around 3:30 pm, packed our bags, and headed down the trail. The early stretches of the trail meandered through spruce and white pine forest. We made it about five feet before realizing that the forest floor was absolutely carpeted in mushrooms. There were russulas, suillus, and boletes in every direction. I was examining what I thought to be a Red Capped Scaber Stalk when Katya yelled “I think these might be King Boletes!” Indeed, they were boletes- two beautiful specimens with elegant brown caps and perfect white gills. However, King Boletes (Boletus edulis), or porcini, have white reticulation, or webbing, that runs down the length of the stalk. These boletes had white webbing, however it only covered the uppermost third of the stalk. We ultimately decided the specimens were Noble Boletes (Boletus nobilis), an interesting edible variety which I have never personally found. We dashed around the woods looking for more. We saw hundreds of Bitter Boletes (Tylopilus felleus), which as the name implies are wholly unpalatable, though not toxic.

Katya and I knew it was going to be a different kind of weekend. The forest was alive in a way I rarely see. Despite being August in West Virginia, the temperature was cool, holding in the high 60s. The soil was visibly moist, and droplets of water hung from every tree and shrub. It was exactly what two mushroom-starved people hope to encounter. We walked further down the trail, though our progress was slow. Every five seconds, we stopped to examine and photograph another specimen that we had never seen, such as the Scaly Vase Chanterelle (Turbinellus floccosus) and American Caesar mushroom (Amanita Jacksonii).

Hail Caesar. Purported to be edible though I'm years away from eating an Amanita.

We meandered through the coniferous forest before skirting the edge of a massive wetland area. After walking a half mile or so, we spotted a lonely, beautiful Golden Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) right next to the trail. I was somewhat stunned, as I have never found chanterelles this late into August in the mid-Atlantic. That lonely chanterelle would be anything but lonely by the end of our trip.

As we continued down the trail, we started to see more and more chanterelles. There were stretches on the trail where we spotted clusters every few yards. We spotted more yet when we moved out of the spruce-wetland area and entered the mixed hardwood-rhododendron forest that lined the river’s edge. Katya and I would sometimes go off trail to look around.  However, the vast majority of chanterelles were either smack-dab in the middle of the overgrown foot trial, or speckling the steep hillsides abutting it. There were so many mushrooms that we had to be careful when moving through taller grasses so not to step on hidden chanterelles. Remember, we were both carrying large, heavy packs, with an original goal to camp and relax, not spend hours harvesting mushrooms. It was getting later in the day and we wanted to get to camp before nightfall. However, we certainly weren’t going to leave any chanterelles behind. So we bent down time and time again, under the weight of our heavy loads, using our knives to liberate every good-sized, golden flavor bomb we spied.

This is what we saw every two feet or so.

After a few hours of bending down, standing up, traversing rough terrain, and fording the river, we finally arrived at our campsite just before dark. We immediately found the missing pieces to our tent- right where we left them all those months ago. After setting up the tent, we gathered wood and started a campfire. We cooked instant mashed potatoes before taking an evening dip in the river and calling it a night.

The next morning, we lounged around the campsite, cooked some oatmeal, and took another swim. We wanted to head out relatively early, as we had to hike out about eight miles, and we knew it would be slow going if we found as many chanterelles on the way out as we had on the way in. We took down our camp and headed down the trail around 10 am. We walked just a few feet before spotting a chanterelle. It was an absolute bonanza for the next few miles. Unlike our experience on the hike into camp, on the hike out, it proved very fruitful to get off-trail and explore the hardwoods at the base of the steep hills framing the valley. There were chanterelles everywhere- not in small, diffuse patches, but literally everywhere. The entire forest was a chanterelle patch!

We were starting to feel more like agricultural field hands than weekend foragers. Katya and I darted around in a frenzy, climbing hills, weaving our way through trees and brushes, gathering giant chanterelles in a methodical, job-like fashion. Our sacks were starting to overflow with mushrooms- extra weight on top of our already heavy loads. When you really want to find a mushroom and can’t, it’s heartbreaking. You would give anything to find just one. We on the other hand, were having a once-in-a-lifetime day for mushroom foragers, a day when you find such great numbers of choice edibles that awe and excitement are replaced with “Oh shit, another one. Now I have to bend down and pick it up”. This went on for hours, during which time we barely covered a few miles.

Just look at that golden flavor bomb. Katya's loving it.

As we moved uphill away from the river, things quieted down some. We moved through a rocky stretch of maple-dominated forest where we encountered few mushrooms. It was a nice break. It was getting later in the day, we still had hours of hiking ahead of us, and it would be a 3.5-hour drive back to the District. We took advantage of the lack of fungus, hastening our pace to cover four miles quickly. My shoulders and legs were on fire from the weight and constant bending down. We just had a few more miles to go. Despite our love for chanterelles, a part of us hoped we would make it to the car without spotting another mushroom. That proved not be the case. One particular forest road doubling as a foot trail was completely littered with chanterelles. The steep hillsides below and above the road were littered as well. Katya and I looked at each other, quietly accepted our duty, and gathered every last one of them. There were times on those hills when I was deeply envious of hooved mammals that walk on all four.

It was 6:30 pm by the time we finally reached the car. We immediately dropped our packs and reveled in the sensation of no longer feeling like beasts of burden. Our burden had been chanterelles – 10 lbs. when all was said and done. Despite my previous levity about not wanting to find any more, too many chanterelles are really no burden at all.

Those bags looked much better on the car than slung over our shoulders.

The following evening, we invited our dear friend Matt over and made a completely over-the-top meal made with our bounty- bucatini with chanterelle cream sauce. We used an absurd amount of chanterelles, which would have cost $100 had we bought them in a store. Our only costs were time, effort, and taxonomic nerd-out sessions that allow us to recognize and safely enjoy Nature’s gifts. We dried the remainder of the mushrooms, ultimately giving away or bartering most of what we found. We set aside a large bag for Katya’s mother. I traded some with coworkers- chanterelles for a hand-me-down rain jacket and recently caught Alaskan seafood (halibut and shrimp). 

When I share Nature’s gifts with others, I experience far more joy than I ever could from hoarding. Every time I am able to share what I have gathered, I am reminded that despite propaganda and institutions that aim to convince people it’s a dog-eat-dog world, human beings are social creatures who grow stronger in their cooperation with and dependency on others. I cannot possibly find or produce all that I need and want by myself, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to live in such a lonely world. Like so many mushrooming experiences, this one connected me more deeply to the Earth and my fellow humans. Those chanterelles may not have showed up on Independence Day like I was used to, but like all hip, cool organisms, they are cooler still for showing up fashionably late. Now I just need to figure out how to take the entire month of August off from work.

This article was written in loving memory of all the wineberries that never got the rain they needed.

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.