I don't fish or hunt. I'm not even much of a gardener. But somewhere in my DNA is a link to my hunter-gatherer past. Every August when the blackberries ripen, I succumb to the urge to harvest. Every autumn, I glean our apple tree to convert into crisps and sauce. Then, there is mushrooming.
I find a special sense of satisfaction in methodically searching the duff under a stand of tan oaks, poking here and there, and gathering mushrooms. There is a distinctive smell of decaying wood and decomposing leaves made pungent by fall rains. It is peaceful, quiet in the forest. I'm new enough at this that I still experience a certain awe at the cornucopia of fungi on the North Coast.
My most frequent companion is Ed, my father-in-law. He brings a thermos and we end our search with the ritual warming of the hands around a cup of green tea. We are no experts, so we limit ourselves to the few species we can identify with confidence. And, even then, when I return home and cook up the bounty of edible mushrooms, the evening's meal is greeted with a healthy skepticism.
Mushrooms are about much more than just eating. They have an of-the-earth, spiritual quality. A special relationship with damp, dark woodlands. An indicator of ecological balance. Many cultures have identified their medicinal potential. (After all, penicillin is derived from fungi). As dyeing agents, mushrooms produce an amazing spectrum of color-fast dyes. People play games with them, draw on them, dance with them, or wear them, according to mushroom expert and author David Arora. Mushrooms have been used to start fires, smoke out bees, poison enemies, break down toxic wastes, assist with reforestation, and plug leaky roofs. And, of course, there are the consciousness-altering, psilocybin-containing "magic mushrooms" popularized for my generation by the likes of Carlos Castañeda and Timothy Leary.
So once again, mushroom season has arrived on the North Coast. The chanterelles, boletes, russulas, and amanitas have received the first soaking rains of autumn. It takes 4 to 6 inches of rain to really hydrate the mycelia and power fungi growth, Joann Olson, a local amateur mycologist, said in a recent interview on KHSU. Mycelia are an intricate web of fine threads that digest nutrients; they can be minute, almost invisible, or absolutely massive. Author Paul Stamets contends that the largest organism in the world is an immense mycelium covering a 2,400-acre site in eastern Oregon. Mycelia have a symbiotic relationship with green plants such as trees, ferns or grasses, exchanging sugars for mineral salts and water.
Usually by late December, the optimum period for mushrooms here begins to wane as the weather becomes too cold. Most species prefer temperatures of 40-70 degrees. So get ready, as the forest floor begins to burst forth with the likes of "Pig's Ears," "Angel Wings," "Velvet Foot," "Giant Sawtooth," "Plums and Custard," "Witch's Hat," "Man on Horseback," "Destroying Angel" (deadly), "Ma'am on a Motorcycle" and more.
It is this seemingly overnight "flush" of mushrooms that has been reflected in our language, making "to mushroom" a synonym for spreading, growing or developing.
Dedicated mushroom hunters are very careful not to reveal their most productive locations. Some contend that there is more secrecy about mushrooms than Humboldt County's better-known agricultural crop. Although mushrooms are everywhere, they prefer the company of trees. Popular edibles like King Boletes and chanterelles can be found throughout our abundant conifer forests. Oyster mushrooms often grow on dead hardwoods. I look for matsutake or pine mushrooms up in the groves of chinquapin, madrone and tan oak. It's important to be respectful of private property and remember that it is illegal to gather mushrooms in many parks, and some public areas require permits. When you are collecting, bring waxed paper bags (not plastic) for separating the different kinds of mushrooms and a small trowel for digging up an unknown fungus, so you can bring the mushroom to someone for review.
But finding mushrooms always seems like the easiest half of the equation. Identification is the greater challenge.
While the identification of mushrooms increasingly involves molecular scrutiny, methods used since medieval times are still embraced by most contemporary mushroom hunters. Does the stalk snap open cleanly? Does the mushroom stain when cut? What does the mushroom smell like? (My father-in-law uses his nose to detect the distinctive "dirty sock" smell of matsutake.) Are there juices when broken? What is the color? What is the habitat? These and other cues are all considered by amateur and professional mycologists. It is part science, part art.
In France, where pharmacists are trained to identify certain fungi, anxious mushroom hunters can take their finds to a pharmacist who will declare whether they are dangerous or edible. However, since CVS or Walgreens won't help you here, and if this all seems as overwhelming, even as mystical to you as it does to me, you should start by connecting with the local Humboldt Bay Mycological Society. This is a nonprofit organization devoted to the "appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment of fungi." It meets at 7 p.m. on the third Wednesday of each month at the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bayside. The society sponsors field trips and helps with identification. It hosts an annual Mushroom Fair, this year coming up on Sunday, Nov. 20, at Redwood Acres, where 200 to 300 local species of mushroom will be on display.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, my wife and I joined a gathering of friends for a rich, creamy chanterelle soup and autumn farmers' market abundance. We had to ask: "Where did you find them so early in the season?" Even when pushed to the point of impoliteness, the responses remained vague and imprecise. Our hosts' mushroom utopia was destined to remain a secret, to be passed on as a family heirloom. I can't blame them, because the delicious soup spurred me to plan my first outing of the fall.
Rees Hughes of Arcata is co-editor of the two-volume "Pacific Crest Trailside Reader," just released by The Mountaineers Books. If you’d like to write for “Get Out!” please pitch your column idea to Carrie Peyton Dahlberg, at email@example.com.