Saturday, August 6, 2011

In The Woods

For the past three days I've been rooting in the damp woods of central Pennsylvania as a participant in the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) annual foray. This is a first NAMA foray for me, so I was as puzzled as many of you by what exactly would happen. Here's the story:

Bolete display table at NAMA

If that sounds totally weird, well, that would be a description fitting many of us. Who besides a fungi-lover not only enjoys rain but can spend weeks trekking off-trail in dripping forests, then emerge to social events where half the conversations in Latin. To most of the world, "fungi" = plague. Mycology is weird by definition. It is also fascinating.

Normal people are surprised to discover how many fungi there are on planet earth. If you count the zillions of unicellular organisms, like yeasts and molds, there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands. Even if you just count the macro-fungi - those big enough to be seen with a naked eye - there are thousands. How many thousands it's hard to say, because fungi as a kingdom are woefully understudied. Barely a year passes that new species aren't discovered, described and named. In fact, mycology is one of the few fields in which a science-minded individual can hope to make a truly original contribution.

(News Flash: On Sunday, the last day of our foray, identifying mycologists announced that one of our forages had discovered a new species of Amanita.)

Some of the energy that drives an event like the NAMA foray derives from this. Yes, NAMA is an energetic event.

Every day, buses queue up and take hundreds of us into the forests and fields where we scour earth, water, flora and sometimes fauna for mushrooms. Some foragers, like yours truly, are looking for tasty edibles, but most search for beauty, strangeness, rarity or utility.

Meanwhile, back at the campus where our conference is taking place, non-foragers learn from experts. Lecture and workshop topics range from quirky (making dyes from mushrooms) to the esoteric (a tour of ascomycetes[one of the phyla]). Finally, skilled mycologists and university graduate students work day and night with microscopes, chemical stains and exceptional skills in Latin to identify and name what the foragers bring in.
Collections on tables, ID crew on stage

My NAMA experience began with a 5 hour drive from Weehawken NJ, my home, to Clarion PA, site of Clarion University, with three friends from the New York Mycological Society, the local club in which I am active. That part was uneventful. Once we arrived in town things changed. Two of us realized we didn't have a towel as required (?!) so we hustled off to a big box to buy some. Lucky for me I pass through Clarion every time I drive to Ohio, which is frequently, so I could get us to the store fast.

On campus we confronted one of life's predictable mysteries: in an environment rich with graphic designers, artists, cartographers and writers, colleges in general seem unable to create useful maps. Clarion University was abuzz with wandering mycology buffs asking one another where this or that place was, grousing about the huge numbers of stairs that had to be negotiated, and going off in wrong directions. Eventually w e all got registered, received our room and meal keys, picked up the paper-thin scraps of cotton passing for sheets and checked into our (dorm) rooms.

This was only the second time I've been in a dorm since college, and while I suspect the room I'm in is a cut above many, it is just a depressing as I remember. We've got beds and absolutely nothing else. No bathmats, no wastebaskets, no soap, no clothes hangers - nothing.

I've not been in the room very much, however. Every day begins at 6:30. The first buses leave for foray sites at 8:30 and return at 11:30. I spend maybe half an hour sorting out my finds, filling out voucher slips (which include my pathetically inadequate attempts to identify things) handing them over to the mycologists and discovering I'm wrong, then setting them out to be catalogued and photographed by those energetic grad students. "Lunch", provided by Chartwells AKA "gluten free? Oh, you can have the spaghetti"' ends at 12:45 and the second round of forays runs 1 - 4:00. Following "dinner" there's evening lectures and fun stuff, such as prizes awarded by Audobon Field Guide Author Gary Lincoff.

Somewhat surprisingly the forests here haven't been very productive. Instead of shopping bags full of chanterelles, like we pulled out of Vermont last week, there's been maybe 4 quarts. Foragers in the deep white pine woods of Cook Forest State Park found very little of any species, and some genii, like the usually-abundant Amanita, have been rare.
Colorful chicken mushrooms

Nonetheless there are hundreds of things to admire, including the beautiful (chanterelles), the bizarre (insect-eating Cordyceps), the deadly (Amanita virescens) and the illegal (Psylocibia sp.) It's been a great time. I've learned a lot and discovered future hunting grounds. Even made some new friends. Still I'm glad to be heading home tomorrow. I've got three bread formulas to tweak, a business contract to negotiate and several secret chanterelle sites to clean out before taking a vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Which, like it or not, you'll hear plenty about.

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