Saturday, April 15, 2017

How a 7am Train Ride Got Me into Mycology

It's October 11th, 2008, at around 7 something AM on a Saturday morning and I'm on a train heading into the city. Two of these things are my favorite things (October, a Saturday) and two of these things sit more on the conflicting side of my temperament (Morning, the city) The early train is quiet, streaked with that cliched golden morning light that really does exist, as it turns out, and the car's persistent rocking is lulling me back into a dream-like state even as it rushes me towards the looming grey maw of New York.
I'm given the minimum of information. There's a society of sorts, they do this on the regular, there will be a large group, and people trained in its specifics. Obviously, I'm sold. Told only to bring five bucks, my own knife, and a brown paper bag, I'm worried about making it on time.  

Somewhere in New Jersey just south of the city, in a rather unassuming park, a group of about forty enthusiasts descends, issuing tips on where to look, how to handle, and to never ever eat without clear and certain identification. They range from older hippie, to fresh-faced kindergartners, and a lot of flannel is involved. These are the members of the mycological society, a not-so-secret, but not exactly sought after group. On that fall morning, I began a strange journey that continued throughout the next almost decade.  I've met some great people, I've eaten some weird things, and I've gotten an array of looks when I try to talk to other people about it. If we know each other, chances are you've given me one of those looks.

Mycology is, at its simplest, the study of fungi. It can also be so much more than that, food, medicine, environment, ecology, the answer to questions that weren't even asked. My experiences with it are largely in the dabbling range. There are mushroom walks, what I call 'hunts', that occur in your friendly neighborhood mycological association from Spring through Fall. If you're afraid of commitment, you don't need to join. If you're afraid of the expense, they are largely free. They are always welcoming, there's almost always food, it's almost always vegan, or at least vegetarian, and members love to share what they know and point out finds along the way.

That October morning, as we wandered through the park poking at old logs and looking under fallen leaves, we had no idea what to expect, and certainly no idea how to find anything. To this day, despite my passion for it, I remain one of the worst locators of wild mushrooms, unless Wholefoods counts. At the end of the afternoon, we had managed to scrounge up a few poisonous varieties, a pair of choice edible bluets, and a tiny nub of hen of the woods donated by a member that took pity on us. We placed our meager haul on a group table with everyone else, and the walk leader ran through what each one was, and what the choice edibles were. 

Mushrooms are decidedly strange things, and have a weird way of bringing people together. My work mug is decorated with several types of mushrooms, and now I know that a colleague and her husband go on hunts every now and then, have a few new places to explore, and that chicken of the woods mushrooms are good in scrambled eggs. Yes, there's a hen of the woods as well as a chicken of the woods. Even though the nomenclature for mushrooms is widely diverse and often very amusing, in this case, two of the sought after edibles have to do with chickens. Go figure.
I've mourned not taking the opportunity to stop the car and forage that same chicken of the woods variety I spotted on a tree during the commute to my old job, where I watched it grow from its vibrant orange to a dull and crumbled brown as the days passed.  A matter of weeks later, I spotted a familiar orange glow from my desk at home, only to find a substantial growth of the mushroom in question in my own backyard. Sometimes we do get second chances, it would seem. I've had long conversations over cups of freshly brewed chaga, a process that I hear involves grinding the unwieldy chunks down and slowly bubbling it like a witches brew until it turns into a slightly thicker and darker-than-coffee elixir that tastes kind of like coffee and a lot like earth. There are a couple of chunks hiding in my cabinet now, I may be a bit daunted by that process, or worried that my spice grinder wouldn't be able to handle it. I've run through campgrounds in Rhode Island after a thunderstorm, taking pictures of countless mushrooms springing out of every conceivable surface. As I've mentioned, I've haunted a farmer's market with vendors that grow or forage wild varieties not usually found, like lion's mane, which, at a distance, look like puppies but are decidedly not puppies. That same market offers a chaga tincture, for those too wary to brew their own tea. I may or may not have a bottle of lion's mane tincture in my house now. Why, you may ask. Why not? I've even discovered that I can, in fact, kind of draw, if I'm drawing mushrooms. My expanded library contains several volumes of mushroom identification guides, a gorgeously illustrated coffee table book, and a weighty textbook on radical mycology to round it out.

I have a strange relationship with mycology. Out of context, it may sound crazy to run around with a group of strangers in the woods putting things that were just in the ground that morning into your mouth. There's a certain level of trust, or maybe blindness, that goes along with that activity. Additionally telling people those kinds of stories, and then encouraging them to join you on the next one, well that shows you who your friends really are. It's a strange, wonderful, vast and diverse field that means a lot of things to a lot of people. You don't even have to go far to find out what it means to you.

1 comment:

  1. Non only you write well Vanessa, but you are such an interesting person !! Love your story !!