Wednesday, September 14, 2011

At Least We Have Mushrooms

            If you’re sick of reading about wild mushroom adventures, you can rejoice: the season is rapidly nearing an end. But be forewarned,  it’s not over yet. In fact from the point of view of most foragers, it’s just now reaching a peak.

            Fall is the time of greatest variety of species, and in many cases the greatest bounty within species. In the worst of years there’s usually something out there. Damp years there’s ALWAYS something out there, and hurricane years … well, they’re rare.

            There’s a trail I park at where I can tell what the mushroom take will be with a glance out the windshield. An oak at the turnout sprouts a Maitake every good year. This time there were two.
            I parked, pulled my collection knife from my pocket, and walked over. The mushrooms – also called hen-of-the-woods or most properly, Grifola frondosa – were the most tender of their species I’d ever touched. Thinking – knowing – there’d be more beneath other oaks up the mountain, I stuck the Maitake twins in my car, grabbed a collection basket and two shopping bags, glanced at but did not pick up my backpack, and took off.

            The forest was as damp as a dishtowel. Sunlight filtering through the trees was muted by a scrim of fog. The day was windless and utterly silent, save for the distant drumming of a grouse and the occasional scratch and thump of a falling acorn. I was thinking about a post my friend Paul Sadowski put up several days back, in which he’d said foraging in the East this fall was a “Mushroom a minute,” the best he’d ever seen. Taking in the forest floor, I calculated one per second. Stripping away the inedibles would maybe equal one per minute, I acknowledged. And then I spotted hedgehog mushrooms.

            Sweet tooth, some call this genus. There’s two species, both good edibles – the whitish Hydnum repadnum (also called pied de mouton, or sheep-foot) and the smaller, orange Hydnum umbilicum. My find was the latter and I eagerly pounced. Each was about the size of a thumb, big for H. umbilicum. There were at least ten, and in a place I rarely found any. I dropped them into a quart berry container, stuck this in my collection basket and trekked on, feeling very optimistic.

            I don’t recall the moment I first noticed mosquitoes. I could have been in a dull few seconds between  ever-proliferating patches of H. umbilicum and a remnant batch of black trumpets, which I was in fact surprised to see. Or it could have been when I ducked into a very damp spot to gather 40 hedgehogs, which were not small in this area but the size of silver dollars.

            Mosquitoes don’t usually bother me. I’m one of those lucky ones whose bites don’t itch or swell. But the noise and feel of little wings on the skin is annoying, and when there’s enough of them the gnawing does hurt. Brushing them away as I harvested I wondered about DEET-ing myself. But the stuff I carry is 100% and stinks like hell. I wasn’t sure I wanted the car to reek of it. So I postponed the application.

            1/4 mile later I was bitten head to toe, though not minding too much because I had more H. Umbilicum than I’d ever seen and another Maitake tree was in sight. And then I got to that tree. And forgot about everything. The Maitake was a giant hemisphere nearly 3 feet in diameter. Never had I found one so huge. And it was not stale.

            5 minutes of cutting and cleaning were followed by several more minutes maneuvering the monster into a shopping bag. I chose the largest, sturdiest one, but even as I turned to go back down the trail I had an inkling it would be insufficient. The handles strained and the paper sagged. I knew the mushroom was damp. I determined to get back to the car as quickly as I could.

            This turned out to not be an easy task. Every ten steps there was another batch of Hydnum. Some were as big as dessert plates – I simply could not pass them by. Plus an occasional chanterelle, honey mushroom or lacterius showed itself. I simply had to collect.

            For each new find I had to set the bag down. It was too heavy to hold while I bent and cut. At about the fifth stop the inevitable happened – a tear. No problem – I’d carry it under an arm.

            By this time the basket was too heavy for me to swing it around easily, which meant that mosquitoes landing on the sack-carrying arm couldn’t be brushed away. Hurrying now and cursing, I almost missed the biggest treat of all: a patch of maybe 20 chanterelles, each one bright orange and big as a softball.

            I put the bag down one more time. My back-up bag was just enough to hold the chanterelles. I picked up the Maitake… and its bag shredded into fragments.

            That last quarter mile between chanterelles and car will go down as the bookend to an extraordinary and extraordinarily uncomfortable mushroom year. What began in the chilly May rain as friends and I fought hypothermia foraging morels ended in a sweat-and-mosquito bath on a rocky steep trail. I carried that Maitake baby-to-chest, while both arms got chewed to shreds, my glasses skidded down my nose, and my shirt acquired more unpleasant scent than any dozen bottles of DEET. By the time I finally unloaded, all I could think about was my condo’s pool and the relaxing laps I’d do as soon as I got home.

            Later – much later –a pool-water-smelling me sat at the dinner table smirking over an excellent haul and an even better story. Leslie was staring at her laptop looking peeved. I knew there was a message from our condo management,  and she’s on the board. “Unbelievable!” she exclaimed, raising her eyes to me. “You didn’t go swimming today, did you?”
            “Uh, yes…”

            “When did you have time?”

            I gestured at the kitchen counter. “All this took only an hour.” My story swelled in my throat.

            “Oh. Well. Too bad.”


            “A-202 let their dogs swim in the pool yesterday.”

            My story stopped dead. “What?” I exclaimed. “What kind of morons live here?”

            She rolled her eyes sympathetically, in just the right way to show solidarity while calming my outrage. Right, I thought. Indulgent, half-witted dog-owners. Probably  though they would have fled a forest at the first buzz of mosquito. “Fine them,” I suggested. “If I get sick I’ll sue them. But in the meantime, we have mushrooms.”

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