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Mushroom hunter

October 6, 2009

Ralph and I took a long walk on Sunday. We walked through the woods, up the hill and onto a neighboring gravel road. It is narrow and lined with sugar maple, butternut (valiantly holding out against butternut canker), red maple and a stand of balsam fir that smells like heaven when the wind is blowing just right. All those sugar maples are a vibrant, burnished, golden yellow. The afternoon sun shines through the leaves, turning them transparent and making the whole world seem dipped in gold. It’s really, really beautiful.

It was a quiet walk, not a lot of talking, both of us lost in thought. I think that all that quiet made us both notice where we were walking more than we might have otherwise. This attention to our surroundings meant we both noticed the huge number and variety of mushrooms underfoot. And as soon as we started noticing a few, more and more started popping out of the background leaf litter. They were everywhere. We were both wishing we knew more about mushrooms.

When I managed a CSA farm several years ago, Ralph and I both participated in the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms. He worked with one of the farm owners to cut and haul the sugar maple, hop-hornbeam, and ash logs out of the woods, and I worked with the other farm owner to inoculate the logs with mushroom mycelium. There was just about nothing better in the world than the shiitake mushrooms when they burst like little miracles out of those logs in the springtime. And sauteed with olive oil and garlic, they were way more fresh than anything you see in the grocery store. They almost squeaked with freshness. I miss that a lot.

So I’ve been excited that Ralph has been getting into mushrooms lately. He came home after visiting a friend toting a handful of sawdust inoculated with wine-cap mycelium. He’s cultivating them in a sawdust pile under our lone oak tree and we’re hoping to see them do their mushroomy thing in the springtime. He also recently went to a mushroom talk at the University of Vermont’s Horticulture Farm, led by a man who, when he’s not a mushroom hunter, has a day job as a local public radio host.

When we discovered our fungus bonanza on our walk, Ralph picked some of the more common mushrooms and saved them. He took some photos and sent them to the aforementioned mushroom hunter, and low and behold, they’re edible, even palatable. The mushrooms pictured here are Armillaria mushrooms, commonly called honey fungus, and they were everywhere. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them. It was amazing to see all that food, there on the forest floor. It was another little miracle.

Ralph went back today to look for them again and they were mostly past their prime. Peaked in two days. It’s a fleeting season, apparently. Just to keep things exciting, there is another species of mushroom that apparently closely mimics the Armillaria and of course, this mimic has the charming quality of being deadly to people who eat it. That’s what you have to love about mushrooms. Amazing little organisms that could potentially kill you or add a lovely earthy note to your dinner plate. I won’t pretend I’m not every-so-slightly relieved that they were past their peak when he went back. The last time Ralph brought home wild mushrooms, I was on the edge of my seat, just waiting to melt into a little puddle of poisoned death on the floor during dinner. I fool myself into thinking I played this off coolly. Now, don’t get me wrong, he does his homework. The last mushroom was a morel and he was very clear about the ID. But it was thrilling in a mostly safe kind of way nonetheless.

Photos in this post courtesy of Ralph.

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