On our Way Back
from the Mushroom Hunt

...and why we bothered going in the first place.

The Mushroom Hunt

December 23, 2011


Okay, so you're there in the forest, on your foray, and you've almost stepped on something like this:


What a crazy creature!
You look at it for a minute, then get your face pretty darn close to it.
And yet, you hesitate.
Can I touch it? Will I die?
Yes. And no.
Can I smell it?
Can I eat it?
Don't get ahead of the game, now, darling.

You can touch mushrooms of any kind. You can smell them. Even if they're toxic, you'd have to eat them to make you writhe in pain. With that said, it's never a bad idea to rinse off your hands before digging into that sandwich I had you bring.

So now what? Can I even identify this creature? Maaaybe. But the fun's in the lookin'.

The Investigation: Looking Closely

Here's what to notice when you're out on your foray, so that when you get back you have half a chance of figuring out what sort of thing you've found:

  • The trees. What kind are they? Oak? Pine? Sequoia? Maple? Under (or on) which kind is this mushroom sitting?
  • The ground. Is it leafy? Covered with a needle bed? Sandy? Rocky?
  • The moisture. In the air, on the ground, beneath the leaves. Touch and go.
  • Location, location, location! How can you find the mushroom again? Make a little mind map, leave yourself hints with a couple rocks, and memorize this very spot. You may need to come back to it for more reference, particularly if you're just starting out.
  • Take some pictures. Close-up ones. Then, gently uncover the stalk all the way down to its very bottom. Perhaps pull it out a little, for the sake of science. Take good note of it. Namely: What is the stalk's overall shape? What color is the mycelium attached to the base? Is there, or is there not, a volva?

    [Oh hold yer horses. What, now, is a volva? Take a look at this:

    Feel better, now?]

    Lastly, check out all the other little details. They will help you figure out whether you should even bother dreaming about sautÉed mushrooms. Those details are:

    Okay, so now that you've gathered all these details, consult your best mushroom reference. Consider that mushroom references are organized by region. I use David Arora's Mushrooms Demystified, which is for California and the West Coast. I also use his All That the Rain Promises and More, and the Audubon Field Guide on Mushrooms. Then, learn how to use your guide. This is not an easy process (Did I ever say this was going to be simple?) but determination eventually does pay off. Trust me on this. It's worth the bother.

    And finally, a blaring warning: Do not rush this process! Be nitpicky. Use your intuition as well as your sharpest logic. Mushrooms do not care if you misidentify them! If you are not sure, then don't put them in your mouth or anybody else's (squirrels, for example, can and do eat mushrooms we cannot). Satisfy yourself with the fact that you have gathered the highest quality information possible and used the identifying keys appropriately, and leave it at that until you get better at it.

    Why Mycology?

    So, I've skirted through the process of mushroom identification with you for two reasons. One, to show you that it is not impossible. Two, to create an avenue for asking my favorite question: Why? That is, why bother?

    These simple reasons (that still need to be proven) come to mind:

  • 1. Fungi and their corresponding mycelium increase moisture retention in the soil.
  • 2. Fungi help improve soil aeration, either directly or with the help of micro- and macro-organisms. Our soil is a tough clay, so the more air the merrier.
  • 3. Fungi continue the nutrient cycle, helping to break down organic (and sometimes decidedly not organic) material into chunks small enough to be reused by surrounding life.
  • My ultimate goals for pursuing fungi-focused improvements to land at Windward are to show that the "simple reasons" I stated above are actually true here. I hope to be able to confirm that fungi do indeed help improve soil permeability and water retention, and that matter is more efficiently broken down when fungi are at work, particularly on this marginal land. This endeavor is important to me because this land is important to me. I live here; derive my life from this land to a degree.

    We can get into a discussion of value another time, perhaps, but I'd like to ask just this: Is there a place you value? Why do you value it? And what would you be willing to do to improve its quality and make it a place you would want to be as long as you haven't completely decomposed?

    Contemplate that, as you tuck into your peanut-butter sandwich, knowing that the mycelium beneath you have likely had a part in making your lunch.

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