View attachment 46799 The forest air is sweet and winy with decay. It’s raining hard. I wipe drops of cold water from the tip of my nose, open an umbrella and ready myself for a walk with my old friend Nick, emeritus professor of the history of science and amateur mycologist.
For the last 15 years I’ve accompanied him on autumn mushroom hunts; today we’re visiting Thetford Forest, in Suffolk. Both of us carry trugs, traditional English wooden baskets of willow and sweet chestnut, to hold what we will find. Perhaps tiny fungi with hairlike stalks, or lumpy shelves on the trunks of rotting trees, or pale masses like discarded round pillows, or splayed red starfish arms emerging from the ground.
Hunting for mushrooms can feel surprisingly like hunting animals, particularly if you’re searching for edible species. Looking for chanterelles, I’ve found myself walking on tiptoe across mossy stumps as if they might hear me coming. It’s a bad idea to walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. Instead, you must alter the way you regard the ground around you, concern yourself with the strange phenomenology of leaf litter and try to give equal attention to all the colors, shapes and angles on the messy forest floor.
Once you’ve achieved this relaxed and faintly predatory gaze, brilliant wax-yellow chanterelles often appear from behind leaves and twigs and moss, and now they look quite unlike the false chanterelles growing beside them. Nick says that with enough experience, ‘‘you can reliably tell, at least for the commoner species, what the thing is, even if they are enormously variable, and you could not begin to explain how.’’ He has been an enthusiastic mycologist since his teens and has the names of at least several hundred species committed to memory.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi that live as networks called mycelia, made up of tiny branching threads. Some are parasitic, others feed on decaying matter and many are mycorrhizal, growing in and around plant roots and sharing nutrients with their host. Picking a mushroom doesn’t kill the fungus; in a sense, you’re merely plucking a flower from a hidden, thready tangle which may be vast and very ancient: One honey fungus in Oregon covers almost four square miles and is at least 2,400 years old.
Soon Nick and I see scores of mushrooms, set in ragged half-circles, with broad tops that look like cooling milky coffees inexplicably placed among dead leaves. They’re cloud caps, a common species here, and considered toxic. We leave them and walk on. A little while later, Nick spots a yellowish gleam in the long grass. This is more interesting. He crouches beside it, and frowning, pushes a thumb and index finger underneath the specimen and gently pulls it free of moss and grass. ‘‘Tricholoma,’’ he says. ‘‘Tricho*loma sulphureum.’’ Mycologists generally use scientific names to describe fungi, as their common names vary widely. The mushroom he holds is sometimes called the sulfur knight, or the gas agaric. He offers it to me to smell, and an unpleasantly sulfurous tang makes me wrinkle my nose. He puts it in the basket.
I am not very good at identifying fungi, but I am getting better. Over the years I have not only learned to identify a few species by looking at them or smelling them, or seeing what color their cut surfaces turn; I have also become intrigued by the curious place they occupy in our imaginations. We have been foraging and eating mushrooms for millenniums, and they still have the power to disturb us, to conjure the deepest human mysteries of sex and death. Nineteenth-century sensibilities were horrified by the common stinkhorn, a fetid fly-attracting species that bursts out of a membranous egg into a shape perfectly described by its scientific name, Phallus impudicus. In her later years, Charles Darwin’s daughter Henrietta went into the woods to collect stinkhorns for the express purpose of bringing them back to be ‘‘burned in the deepest secrecy of the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids,’’ according to a memoir by her niece. Our continuing pieties about sex are reflected in the way some modern field guides describe the distinctive odor of mushrooms like Inocybes as ‘‘unmentionable’’ or ‘‘disgusting’’ rather than the more accurate ‘‘spermatic.’’
The unpredictable flowering of beautiful alien forms from rotting wood, dung or leaf litter in a forest moving toward winter is a strong and strange conjuration of life-in-death — in Baltic mythology, mushrooms were thought to be the fingers of the god of the dead bursting through the ground to feed the poor. But mushrooms have a more direct relationship to mortality. Many of them, of course, are deadly. You might survive if you eat a destroying angel or death cap, but you’ll probably need a liver transplant. And the particular toxicity of fungi is as mysterious as the forms they take. A mushroom can contain more than one kind of toxin, and the toxicity can change according to whether it has been cooked, how it has been cooked, whether it has been eaten with alcohol or fermented before ingestion.
When you collect edible fungi, your expertise in identification is all that keeps you from death or serious illness. There’s a daredevil side to it, a sense of repeatedly staking your life against terrifying possibilities. Today’s vogue for wild foods, spurred in part by famous foraging chefs and a nostalgic desire to reconnect with the natural world, has resulted in some popular guides that feature a selection of edible and poisonous species. Nick thinks they are irresponsible, even dangerous. ‘‘They don’t explain the full range of things you might be running into,’’ he warns. Many toxic fungi closely resemble edible ones, and differentiating each from each requires careful examination, dogged determination and the inspection of spores stained and measured under a microscope slide.
Puzzling out tricky specimens is satisfying in itself: If you call on Nick the evening after a fungus expedition, you will find him at a table spread with fungi, several frighteningly expensive volumes on mycological identification, a microscope and a magnifying lens, wearing an expression of joyous, fierce concentration. ‘‘For some species, the colors are unbelievably variable,’’ Nick says of one group, the russulas, ‘‘and they get washed out by rain, and then the exact distribution of the warts on the spores is an alternative. So you’re doomed, as an ordinary citizen. Because the colors won’t do it, and you haven’t got a powerful enough microscope.’’ Fungi force us to consider the limits of our understanding: Not everything fits easily into our systems of classification. The world might be, it turns out, too complicated for us to know.
After a couple of hours, the rain has eased. Nick’s trug is full of small, difficult and poisonous species. Mine is heaped with edibles, including several crab brittlegills with shining caps the color of toffee apples. We start back to the car through a stand of pines. The air is damp and dark under the trees. Taut lines of spider silk are slung between their flaking trunks; I can feel them snapping across my chest. Fat garden spiders drop from my coat onto the thick carpet of pine needles below. I’m about to step back onto the path when something catches my eye under a tree a few yards away. I know instantly what it is, though I’ve only ever seen it in books.
‘‘Cauliflower fungus!’’ I cry, and run up to it. It’s a pale, translucent, fleshy protuberance the size of a soccer ball that seems to glow in the dripping shade, its complicated folds an unnerving cross between boiled tripe and a sea sponge. Looking at it, I remember its Latin name, Sparassis crispa, and that it is a parasite on conifers. And also that it is fragrant and delicious when torn and simmered in stock. I sit down on the wet ground and regard it more closely.
We are visual creatures; to us, forests seem places made of trees and leaves and soil. But all around me now, invisible and ubiquitous, is a huge network of fungal life, millions of tiny threads growing and stretching among trees, clustering around piles of rabbit droppings; stitching together bush and path, dead leaves and living roots. We hardly know it is there until we encounter the fruiting bodies it throws up when conditions are right. But without fungi’s ceaseless cycling of water, nutrients and minerals, the forest wouldn’t work the way it does. Perhaps the greatest mystery of mushrooms is that they are the visible manifestations of this essential yet unregarded world. I reach forward, break off half the brittle, furled mushroom and place it in the basket, eager to taste this souvenir from a place full of life that is nothing like our own.
Helen Macdonald teaches at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book, ‘‘H Is for Hawk,’’ won the 2014 Samuel Johnson prize and was the 2014 Costa Book of the Year.
By Helen Macdonald - NY Times/Nov. 9, 2015
Photos: 1-Victor Schrager, NY Times; 2-mushroom in quote Pinterest
This article is offered for all members interested in knowing what they're picking during their fungus hunting--as food or spiritual inspiration.