I often get asked how I got into the business of traipsing through the underbrush and scavenging in the sediment. Did I get all learned up in fancy college? How do I keep from dying valiantly by the miasmal dagger of a rogue toadstool? How can one discern the Shitakes from the shinola?
Here’s a guide for the slapdash forager, the swarthy swashbucklers after my own heart, armed with nothing but a rusty pocketknife, mud-soaked boots, and the gallant heart of a hunter.
Hone your mushroom mind. This is a sublime state of mushroom gnosis, where the detritus comes alive with crowning caps, and the lichen lean in to whisper sweet nuthin’s in your ear. Never forget that you are a hunter-gatherer. You have a second sight that comes alive when beckoned, enabling you to spot your prey in the vast sprawl of primeval morass. We have to process a staggering mess of stimuli these days, dulling our best senses and thwarting spontaneous shamanic illumination at every twist and turn. Visualize the mushroom, and let it guide you where it will. Suddenly you will slip into a state both lucid and liminal, a primal summoning of your nomadic lust. This is the quintessence of foraging. I swoon at the very thought of it.
Because you aren’t a super-sentient forest crone living in a hollowed out toadstool conversing with the deer & the dryads, you have no idea what you just dug up. After your hunting spree in the witchwood, you’ll want to take your precious toadstools home and identify them like a bona fide mycophile. Bust out the bifocals. Make a spore print, if you wanna show pony around. Check your specimens against your guidebooks, or use the vast swamp of myco-porn on the Internet. Become CONSUMED by minutia- it’s the only thing that will keep you topside of the soil. Here’s a smattering of my favorite resources for the budding forager:
The Fifth Kingdom: The crème de la crème of mycological textbooks.
Wood Decay Fungi: Keys, photographs, and descriptions of macroscopic fungi utilizing wood as a substrate in the Northeast United States.
MushroomExpert.com: Featuring my most favorite mushrooming tool, “What’s This Thing In My Yard?”
MykoWeb: The main attraction at MykoWeb is The Fungi of California. It contains photographs over 600 species of mushrooms and other fungi found in California, with over 480 of the species with descriptions. There are currently over 5400 total photographs of the mushrooms. Included are links to other online descriptions, and photos of the species treated plus references to common field guides. Hubba hubba!
Mycological Societies hold local forays, invite guest lecturers, provide cookies, and typically have a handful of resident nut job mycologists who are just chomping at the bit to help you classify your mushrooms. Bring in your haul! High five your brethren! Best of all, you will enjoy the company of sympathetic folk who know their way around an artfully-placed mycological pun, and swoon at the curves of a bodacious Bolete. Find your local chapter online at the North American Mycological Association.
Fungi and their arboreal blood brothers are inextricably linked in labyrinths of mycorrhizal matrimony. Morels love Ash, Amanitas love Aspen, and so goes the symbiotic Saturnalia of the forest floor. Knowing which fungi are sweet on which trees can often be the key to identifying ambiguous mushroom mysterions. Mushroom Expert has a fabulous catalogue of North American trees with their frequently associated mushroom kinfolk.
You simply must invest in the following tomes, of biblical importance in the Botanarchy Homestead:
Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora
All that the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora
The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms by Gary Lincoff
SOMA Wild Mushroom Camp is held every January by the Sonoma County Mycological Association in the redwood-studded wilds of Occidental, California. It’s three days of woodland reverie, featuring forays, mushroom cuisine, and workshops on mushroom identification, cooking, dyeing, paper-making, medicine-making, photography, cultivation, and more. As my love of mushrooms approaches religious ferocity, this was just about the quintessence of happiness for me. We ate homemade mushroom chocolates, and traipsed through the fandangled forest like Hansel and Gretel, with overflowing baskets and the folksy wisdom of our fearless leader, Gary Lincoff (he was that year’s guest speaker). Before the foray, I chastised my boyfriend for his behemoth basket with a cool “let’s not get cocky here, kid.” Much to my surprise, we filled the entire basket, and were chastising ourselves for our paltry accoutrements (we are from the parched mushroom wasteland of Los Angeles, after all). By the end of the foray, I had of reams of Russulas and heaps of Amanitas shoved down my cleavage, and was bartering mushroom real estate with my fellow frolickers. We ate wild mushroom pizza for WEEKS. Then we went back to camp, identified our burly bounty, ate a wild boar, drank some homemade wine, met some folks changing the world with emergent mushroom technology, and listened to Lincoff wax poetic late into the eve on foraging psychotropic ‘shrooms.
The Indiana Jones of wild Cordyceps, Daniel Winkler leads medicinal mushroom forays into Tibet and the Bolivian Amazon, as well as the glamorous hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest. Altogether badass, his field guides to edible mushrooms are also top-notch, and he’s doing wonders for rural communities whose economies are based on mushroom-medicine.
The mushroom spirit is a capricious mistress who eats chumps like us for breakfast. Mushrooms, by their very nature, are destroyers. Therein lies their mystery and moxie. There are plentiful reasons they have the nom de guerres ‘Destroying Angel’ and ‘Death Cap’…they allow us to walk between worlds, yet they often slam the door behind them. There is nothing glamorous about sacrificing children whilst being ravaged by Satan in a robust bout of Amanita psychosis (well, maybe there is…but it ain’t worth the gamble when you get right down to it), or having your liver decompose in mere hours in a necromantic tango with the Deadly Galerina. Every year she claims new souls, and even the most reverent and skilled are not above her diabolical law. Experts die at the behest of these sorcerous specters every year- do be a dearheart, and DON’T BECOME ONE OF THEM.
I have a knife and a field guide on me at all times (an Opinel and The Field Guide to Edible Mushrooms of California, should you ask). You never know what sort of illuminated treasures lie in wait within the cracks and crevasses of urban decay. You have promised your heart to the wildwood now, and must always be prepared for her succulent surprises.