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17 June 2011 @ 01:16 am

Mushroom hunting sometimes requires diversion. Naturally, there are several semantic incarnations "diversion", and I've learned that most permutations of the word apply in one way or another to mushrooming.

Of course, mushroom hunting is a diverting enterprise-- what's better than knocking off for a few nights of camping, fires, mushrooms, and good wine/food/stories? But that's not the sort of diversion I'm going to focus on; my intent is more cautionary than laudatory.

Sometimes, it's critical to create a diversion in order to hide the fact that you're mushroom hunting. In some places, I don't bother to conceal what I'm doing, because mushrooming is socially acceptable and common enough that folks are going to pin you for a mycophile no matter what you do, and are unlikely to make a fuss. For instance, one time I was poaching (as in, picking mushrooms without a license, a very common but none-too-advisable practice) near Arcata. I was trying to stay clear of paths and people, but spotted a cluster of queen boletes next to a one lane road that wound through the park. I simply could not resist, and grabbed them just as a trio of middle aged folks strolled by. I was not carrying a basket, having opted for a paper bag in order to buffer my odds of avoiding a bust. I don't even think they saw me snagging the mushrooms. However, when I nodded to them in silent, somewhat shamefaced greeting, one of the fellows sang out at me:

"You find any good mushrooms?"
"Uh yeah, some nice queens," I stammered.
"Awesome!" chimed in one of the walkers, a lady with greying hair and a turquoise bracelet. "Did you go to the Humboldt Fungus Fair a few weeks ago? It was a blast!"
"No, I'm just passing through. I did attend the fungus fair in Eugene this year, it was exceptionally cool."
I knew these people were going to spare me.

However, the simple fact is that life usually isn't so easy for mushroom hunters. The best spots to hunt are typically not well maintained bits of nature, but rather the strange, semi-autonomous and semi-capitalized vastness that is governed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Given this, many of my favorite places to go for mushrooms are full of logging trucks (since the truckers are paid by the load, they often fly down the decrepit forest road system at speeds in excess of 40), shooters who set human-shaped targets against grandfather cedar trees and let fly with modified assault rifles, hostile rangers, and (with the least frequency of all) hyper-vigilant nature lovers who think mushroom hunting is in some way damaging to the environment. Typically, these people are easy enough to share the wilderness with; loggers are usually courteous, shooters self-contained, and park rangers/nature nuts scarce enough not to be worth worry. However, there are times when a diversion is in order. Below I will enumerate a few time-tested strategies to avoid detection.

1) Hide. The human brain is a powerful tool, but it also looks for certain sorts of information more than others. One reason political cartoons exaggerate facial features is because the human brain places exceptional stock in the face and head, making it disproportionally 'large' in the memory. Same thing with hands; for whatever reason, homo sapiens are prone to notice hands in the immediate environment (ironically, more easily than we notice threats like snakes, pits, and daytime television…perhaps this is a testament to our species's social nature…). The point of all this is that if you can hide your face and hands, you're very unlikely to be noticed by someone who doesn't know you're there. It's uncanny, as a matter of fact; standing still and hiding your most human features makes one virtually invisible. Of course, it's also important not to wear bright colors if you want to take advantage of this strategy, but if you're willing to commit to earthtones you might find it insanely simple to vanish just by concealing your paws in your sleeves and pulling up a hood. If that fails, you can always pretend you're a deer. I know it sounds absurd, but standing stag-like with your fingers emulating antlers is (reportedly) a good way to evade detection…I am not sure I agree with this recommendation, given the number of big game hunters in the woods, but again it's a matter of concealing your humanity so that no one asks you questions.

2) Hide What You're Doing. This is perhaps the easiest and most fun way to throw people off the scent of your fungal fancy; just pretend that you're doing something other than hunting mushrooms. In state parks and other high use areas, I strongly suggest bringing along binoculars. If you hear the rumble of an approaching vehicle, whip out the scopes and pretend you're looking at the most wonderful, rare titmouse you've ever seen. Bird watchers are rather depraved (insofar as I think their hobby is both boring and pointless), but they also enjoy a lot more leeway than mushroom hunters because they usually don't eat their prey. Another way to hide your intent is to carry mountain bike racks on your vehicle.

3) Hide Your Edibles. If someone (usually a pissy ranger or self-righteous yuppie nature user who thinks that picking a mushroom is tantamount to cutting a tree) accosts you about mushrooming, it's important to demonstrate that you are not just hunting species with culinary/market value. Anytime I'm in the woods I keep two collections: the harvest and the scientific inquiry bunch. Show them the latter first, rattle off a few Latin binomials, and they'll snore long before they bother to ask you about the relative tonnage of your morel, porcini, matsutake or chanterelle haul.

4) Bluff/Turn On the Charm. One of my mushroom buddies was on a foray that was anticipated by the Tahoe National Forest ranger crew, and managed to avoid capture and steep fines by virtue of his mellifluous tongue. One of the foray attendees left a confirmation email at the ranger station, and unfortunately the email contained the following statement (paraphrased): "Technically, we will all need to go to the USFS station and pick up a free mushroom gathering permit for the foray. If you don't get to it, don't worry; since it's a free permit and we're only going to be hunting mushrooms recreationally, the chances we'll run into trouble are pretty slim." This is normally true, except when it shows up on a reception desk and is construed as a challenge to Forest Service vigilance. Flash forward a couple days, and Lou found himself at a miniature road-block, Westie chock-full of great mushrooms. The rangers don't do traffic stop style investigations; usually they ask you to get out of the vehicle and come talk. Lou took advantage of this when he hit the shroom-perimeter, strolling out of the car and chatting with the rangers with as much pluck and courage as possible. They asked him if he'd been out picking mushrooms.
"Of course not," he replied. "I'm here for the fly fishing."
"We heard there was an illegal mushroom ring operating in this part of the Forest this weekend. Did you see any of them?"
"Yeah, I am not sure I'd even know what to look for. A big group? Like, hunting mushrooms commercially?"
"Yes. And yes."
"Sorry, I can't help you. I wish I could." He struggled to hide the smirk that emerged on his features the second Ranger Doug asked him about illegal mushroom rings.

5) Take Your Licks, But Don't Take Them Seriously. Sometimes, the shit just hits the fan and you have to fess up to the fees associated with wildcraft. It's also the fast track to libertarianism, because getting a ticket for mushrooming is like getting a DUI for driving under the influence of fresh blackberries. That said, one of my mentors received a triple misdemeanor charge when he strayed off parkland into private property. He was not being terribly conspicuous, but the landowner did notice his presence and alerted county authorities, who charged Dave with a three crimes for his porcini-lust, and threatened a couple months in jail for the offense. Outraged (and Scottish), David arrived at court and disputed the severity of the punishments requested by the Sheriff's office. Apparently, the DA smirked and the judge chortled when David came past the bar and made his case for being a relatively harmless trespasser who was gleaning fruit from private land without intent to sell what he'd found. He was promptly convicted, and offered a chance to participate in a diversion program. David, like most mushroom folk, highly values his clean wrap sheet and immediately agreed to any program that would keep him from carrying a conviction forward. Of course, the diversion our discerning judicial system offered David was wildly inappropriate: they enrolled him in a cognitive restructuring support group for shoplifters. For 3 months David sat in a plastic, public school grade chair once a week, and was asked to disclose his deep seated compulsions towards thievery. He was asked to clap when his classmates told everyone that they managed to walk into a mini-mart without stealing some Hostess products or nail clippers, or a can of Spam. He told them all about how he was unable to stop himself from picking mushrooms; how he should keep his hands visible in the woods so he doesn't 'ethically slip', how he felt terrible for the financial loss he incurred upon the mushroom-hating property owner who phoned the sheriff to pick him up when he was spotted in the woods, hiding neither face nor hands. Of course, he didn't take all this humiliation seriously, but it did scar him enough to tell me that all other sorts of diversion are better than being tangled up with the legal system and taking their favorable offer: the most debasing and profane of all forms of diversion.

6) Become Indispensable/Irritatingly Invested. Don't try to steal attention from your mushrooming, but rather relish it and flaunt it. Divert negative attention from mushrooms by loving them. Divert suspicion by talking loudly about how amazing it is to find fungi. Divert stereotypes by focusing on edible and scientifically interesting species, rather than psychoactive ones. Share knowledge, encourage anyone who's interested, and make sure that people understand what you're doing; it's not logging, or even fishing. Mushrooming serves the biological agenda of the fungi who produce fruiting bodies, and collecting them ethically is engaging in a partnership with inscrutable organisms that need our help. Even if one must pretend to be deer in order to enjoy the encounter, it's well worth the absurdity.
09 June 2011 @ 09:16 pm
Sasquatch In The Patch

There are several different types of mushroom hunters. Some pick for a living, some for sport or the table, some simply because they get great satisfaction from getting out in the woods and having an excuse to stroll in a leisurely fashion, rather than hiking as fast as possible, thereby missing all the cool features of the landscape. However, one thing that mushroomers tend to share is their passion for the hunt, and mycophiles love to share their big fish (or, more often, big trouble) stories.

"One time, I found so many morels I had to take off my pants and make them into a bag so I could tote them all home!"

"Last weekend, I saw some shaggy manes in someone's lawn, right next to their rose bushes. They were just opening up and I knew they'd go bad by the end of the day, so I decided it was worth it to rummage through my neighbor's bushes to save the mushrooms! Too bad she saw me through the window and chased me off. One thing's sure, I won't get invited to Dixie and Earl's next barbecue!"

"I don't know what this is…it stains mulberry red when cut. I think I'm going to put it in soup."

"I was out in Colorado collecting porcini, and decided to take a short cut through an unpaved pass to save myself about 100 miles on the freeway. I did it because I was worried that my buddy Norm would zoom me; he left the Bay Area about 7 hours behind me but Norm's a beast, and so while I stopped at an Econolodge after 12 hours on the road, I got a call from Norm in the early morning that he simply pushed through the night and was already at our rendezvous point. He was also cranky, so I decided it was well worth the risk to traverse the pass so I could link up with him as quickly as I could. The locals called it String Bean Pass, but even calling it a 'pass' is a serious overstatement. Really, String Bean is a single lane, total washboard, with a precipitous drop off the whole way across the 6000' crest. My van's a two wheel drive, and I'm not good at heights. It took me more than 3 hours to get through that 5.5 miles of mountain, and I was on the edge of a heart attack the entire time, I assure you. Never, ever again. Not even for porcini. Not even if Norm threatens to pick every single one in North America."

"I thought I saw a patch of chanterelles down that hill, and decided to go down and investigate, even though these old knees don't really like going off-trail anymore. Anyhow, sure enough, a few steps down the slope I stepped in a pile of pine needles and lost my footing! I fell ass over teakettle all the way down the hill…so lucky I didn't break anything…anyhow, as I shook my head and started to pick myself up, I noticed that I'd fallen right into a huge patch of Boletus mirabilis, the Admirable Bolete. They were the only good edibles I found the whole foray! Oh, and the so-called chanterelle patch was just some old, yellow madrone leaves. Sneaky bastards!"

"When I was hunting bioluminescent fungi in Brazil, I had to go out at night. I am afraid of jaguars, and the rainforest at night is a creepy, intensely wild place…but when you see these beautiful glowing mushrooms, and you pull one of these things up and look at the green-glowing gills, I'd say it's truly a religious experience. It makes my work as a mushroom photographer so rewarding, and it's such a completion to know that these things are OUT THERE, and then to FIND them…it's like a fabulous easter egg hunt for people who really like to live on the edge of life."

Given these sorts of anecdotes, it's only a matter of time before one starts to wonder just where the breaking point lies with mushroom hunters. When is the terrain too rugged, the weather too bad, the road too windy, the local predators too imposing? When does risk outweigh the thrill of the hunt?

Although I am sure I could conduct a poll to answer this question and I would get all sorts of data about which species is worth the most crazed behavior (I strongly suspect that Morchella esculenta--blonde, thick walled natural morels-- or Boletus rex veris-- the spring king porcini-- would win), but that's not how my brain works. I rely instead on this story, which I use like a parable to define the limits of mushroom-inspired courage and nerve.

My friend Joe Spivack is a diehard mushroomer from Eugene, OR. He is one of the instructors of "How to Identify 100 Mushrooms," a very popular course offered by Lane Community College that has been running for 20 years or more. Joe and his wife mapped the chanterelle patches on the BLM land near their home before they signed papers on the place. They have a load of shiitake logs, trade mushrooms for their CSA membership, and tinker with medicinal tinctures made from the many beneficial fungi that grow wild in central Oregon.

Joe also fed me a sample of the weirdest mushroom I've ever eaten: a two foot long tongue of yellowish, black tufted fungus called the Greening Goat's Foot, or Albatrellus ellisii (Ellis's Polypore is another very common name for this weirdo). The Greening Goat's Foot is delicious and very compatible with all sorts of cooking oils and spices like the morel. However, it in some ways trumps the morel because it has a winning texture; since it has no gills but is instead a polypore mushroom, it has a marvelous quality in that it's substantial through and through, since the fertile tissue has the same consistency as the rest of the mushroom. Sometimes, gilled mushrooms are a pain in the bum because the gills don't grill, saute or roast as well as the rest of the cap, leaving a small patch of mushy-strange that can be a turn off unless the gills are properly spiced. The Greening Goat's Foot has a consistent texture throughout however, and its solid, meaty fruiting form is very good if prepared on kebabs or as a grilled meat substitute. However, most people don't even think to eat it because it's hairy, mottled, and stains from yellow to a sickly pickle green when it's bruised. Not terribly appealing, sure, but it really is an awesome food mushroom. However, if you weren't diehard about your mushrooms, the chances of sampling it are very slim indeed. I only mention this strange polypore because it illustrates pretty clearly how open-minded Joe is, and just how enthused he is about his wild edibles.

And now that I've established a baseline for Joe's fanaticism, it's time to hit you with the counterpoint, the fable that I use as an internal measure to determine how far I should be willing to go for mushrooms.

Like many Northwesterners, the Spivacks love their golden chanterelles; they go particularly well with a fall/winter garden of kale, cabbage and carrots. Each August, Joe sneaks off to check in on a series of patches. Between late summer (almost indistinct from early summer, spring, or February given the fickle pushmepullyou between drear and drizzle that makes the Pacific Northwest the verdant, grim heaven on earth that it is) and Halloween, Joe can expect to harvest bucketloads of wrinkle-gilled, fruity chanterelles from the replanted fir stands and alder-salal-huckleberry-ivy scrambles of the Willamette Valley and Coastal Range. Joe's got a name for each patch: The Pit, The Flat Spot, The Quiet Creek, The Ugly-Assed Alder Grove and several other spots that yield huge bounties of golden chanties every fall (and sometimes a few in the spring as well!). Joe also likes to track the mycelium from year to year: when he goes out after chanterelles on his back 9, he carries a small bundle of plastic flags, along with a map of the property. When he finds blooming chanterelles, he plants a flag and makes a corresponding mark on the map. They're color coded by season, those marks and flags, so you can look at the map or the land, and see how the mysterious chanterelle mycelium creeps across the landscape year by year.

Like a lot of chanterelle fanboys, Joe knows a good mushroom day when he gets home with kneeling pains-- in certain places in the Northwest, the chanterelles roll out like a river of gold, and the dedicated hunter becomes a harvester on hands and knees. On one legendary occasion, Joe and his hunting partner hit a chanterelle Glory Hole (yes, mushroomers actually call good patches glory holes). They busied themselves at once with harvesting their find, fully cognizant of the fact that they would never be capable (or willing) to haul all the chanterelles out of this marvelous patch. Obviously, they didn't hike much that day, and managed to score about 180 lbs of chanterelles in 2 hours.

But onto the cautionary part of this tale, the make or break of whether or not to stick around long enough to pick. This is what Joe related to me when I asked him when to call it quits:

This is a really bizarre story. It's kind of grotesque. I don't even know if I should tell it.

Once we were out mushroom hunting in this fairly far of spot out in the Coast Range. I was with a good friend John, who I go mushroom hunting with a lot….We found this….feces dump that looked like it was sasquatch. It was this HUGE, perfectly pretzeled, human-looking feces that was about the size of a cow's feces. It was this huge, log-like tied up thing about 9 inches tall, and it was right next to this pile of chanterelles that we were picking.

And we were like "OH MY GOD!" It was so scary to us. It's hard to talk about because you usually don't think of feces as SCARY so much as gross…but when we saw it, it seemed like it was steaming, and it was so huge…and it didn't look like something that came out of a bear. It looked like something that came out of a person who was half human…And we were like "Ooooughh, my GOD, what living thing could do that?"

And we actually left the spot. We didn't want to touch it, and we were like, "Whatever could do that….we better just get outta here." I am not one bit sorry we decided to beat feet.

So I guess what I'm saying: if you don't fancy the monsters that live near your mushrooms, it's best to go home with a small basket than brave unknown perils. This of course is not to say that you shouldn't snatch a couple shrooms before you dash to safety.

01 June 2011 @ 02:53 pm
Never Trust a Mycologist!

One of the people who taught me about mushrooms was Paul Stamets. Although he is now one of the most well known and highly regarded experts in mycology, when he started out in the 1970s he struggled to find acceptance amongst his bemushroomed peers. Despite the challenges, he did find mentors in the field eventually, and he was very clear about how he feels deep gratitude for those who offered him their tutelage. I transcribed one particularly cool story Paul told me about Dr. Alexander Smith, a great naturalist and mycologist whose books are some of the most useful field identification guides out there, despite the fact that they were authored many years ago.

Despite the fact that mycologists are typically very bright, scientifically minded people, they are also fond of practical jokes. There is something about spending a lot of time with fungus that makes you start to notice humor in the unexpected. For instance, when growing mushrooms, despite all one's best intentions the fungus is still in charge of the process, and its behavior is often arcane and inscrutable. There is a reason that fungi were originally dubbed cryptogams-- derived from the Latin meaning hidden marriage-- because their reproductive habits are difficult for us monkeys to understand. For example, some fungi have 26 sexually compatible genders. Some fungi mate with the hyphae of sexually compatible mycelium, and others recombine their own spore DNA, effectively having sex with itself in order to produce genetically diverse spawn. This is all too complex to address in depth, but the point is that fungi are tricksters by design, and mycophiles often tend to develop some of those personality traits as well. As soon as the cultivator forms an expectation, the fungus seems to relish bucking it. This applies to both ends of the spectrum of experience-- both in terms of success and failure. For instance, some of my most successful cultivation projects were the ones I thought were totally doomed (I once harvested mushrooms from piles of contaminated substrate that I had let sit for almost 3 weeks in 100+ degree weather in the middle of the Texas summer), and the ones I approached with the most care didn't do a damn thing. This fact has changed my impression of what's funny; there is an acrid bite to my sense of humor that grew out of my experiences growing cantankerous fungi.

So without further ado or bellybutton gazing, here is the story Paul told me about Alexander Smith.

I met Dr. Daniel Stuntz, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, who took me under his wing. In one particular event, we went the North American Mycological Congress in 1975 or 1976, I don’t quite remember, at the Cispus Environmental Center down by Mt. Adams in southern Washington State. There is a large conference there. I was a very long haired hippie, and I was treated like a lepper. Everyone avoided me. At the time, it was the Charles Manson sort of phobia about long hairs, and so there was a real chasm in our society. Most people don’t realize that, there was tremendous stratification in our society against long hairs and against the hippie movement. That was the polarity that was happening in a very big way. So I was avoided by everyone at this conference and I was in the auditorium, and I went out collecting mushrooms. I was sorting my mushrooms on a table writing down Latin binomials. I had Alexander Smith’s books out, and Daniel Stuntz’s books and I was trying to identify these mushrooms, and I was doing a pretty good job, I have to say. This elderly man comes up to me, and he’s wearing a little felted red hat with fishing lures in it, and he says, “Son, what do you have? What did you find?”
I just started rattling off names like Cystoderma cinnabarinum and Cryptoporus volvatus. I didn't know who he was, I just rattled off all these Latin binomials, and he looked at me and he said, “That was excellent.” He said, “Who are you?”
I said, “I’m Paul Stamets, I’m just self taught...and I’m just getting started at The Evergreen State College.” And I said, “Who are you?”
And he goes, “I’m Dr. Alexander Smith.” And I said Oh my gosh... I just about swallowed my tongue. And I said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…” And I apologized for my identifications and he goes, “No, you did a really good job.”
So it was a really nice encounter. Here was The Godfather of Mycology, and I’m in a one on one experience with him. If I’d known who he was, I wouldn’t dare utter a single word to try and identify a mushroom, but I didn’t know who he was so I just rattled off these names thinking “what the heck.”
So that night, he’s the keynote speaker. He’s the keynote speaker at this conference. There are four or five hundred people at this conference. And everyone’s there waiting for Alexander Smith—Alex, as he was known—gets up on stage and he goes, “Before I begin my lecture, I want everyone to meet a new friend of mine.” I’m hanging out in the back, because I wanted to be near the door to escape, and he goes, “Paul Stamets, are you in the audience?” And he brought me up in front of the stage, and he put his arm around me. And he said, “I think this young man has a great career, a great future in the field of mycology.” I was like, “oh my gosh!” You know, I had a stuttering habit, still, and it was really nice and I was really touched, and he gave his lecture.

The next morning, everyone’s gathering around the cars and we’re going to go on forays, hunting mushrooms in the woods. And everyone wants to be with Alex, right? He’s the top dog, and Alex goes, “Nope, Paul and I are going to go out alone.”

So everyone goes, “Ugh, why is Stamets getting all the attention?” And so we went out in the old growth forest. Alexander Smith spent a lot of time in the Olympic National Forest in 1947 and 1949, and I knew his literature intimately. There’s a psilocybe mushroom called Psilocybe veliculoso that he identified and named. And so Alex and I went out into the old growth forest together and I’m way out in the old growth forest with him, and he finds this red russula mushroom. Now these are red, chalky stemmed mushrooms with white gills, and they’re very fragile. There’s Russula aranpolina, the Shrimp Russula, which tastes like shrimp with butter when you cook it. And there’s other russulas that are not edible, or are bland. And he picks up this red russula and he goes, “Paul, this is one of the best of the mushrooms."

And I said, “Really?”

And he says, “I eat this one raw!” Now, you shouldn’t eat mushrooms raw, you should always cook mushrooms except for truffles, but all the other mushrooms you should always cook before you eat them. And so he took a big bite out of this mushroom. And he’s eating it, I’m in the old growth forest with him, and here he is, the father of my field! And he hands me the mushroom and I took a bigger bite out of the mushroom. And I said to myself, “If Alex is eating it, I’m eating it, I’m taking a bigger bite out of the mushroom.” Well all along, he bit this mushroom, and it’s related to russula emetica. Emetic means you’ll throw up, you know? And so what he’d done is he bit this mushroom off and he rolled it in his mouth, so he didn’t lacerate all the tissue. And I put the mushroom in my mouth and I munched it, and chewed it, lacerating all the tissue and got the hottest pepper response you can imagine. I mean, this is overwhelmingly painful. And he spits out the big chunk of the mushroom after waiting about 30 seconds. I have tears in my eyes, my face is going red, I’M ON FIRE, we have no water, and he belly laughs at me, and points his finger at me and says, “Now you’ll learn a lesson you’ll never forget—NEVER TRUST A MYCOLOGIST!” I was ready to attack this guy, “You tricked me!”
Anyhow, the field of mycology has a lot of tricksters. I’m a Merry Prankster. Dusty, my wife, and I were indoctrinated or accepted into Ken Kesey’s group, we have a plaque on the wall. And so, I like that Merry Prankster attitude that the mycologists have, because they love playing tricks on each other, and on the unsuspecting public. Now, be that as it may, we also have a duty not to poison our customers, so we’re careful and we draw the line very carefully. But, if you go out in the woods with me, I’d be very skeptical of what I tell you.
01 June 2011 @ 01:15 pm
The Great Dictyophora Debate

There will be some mycophiles who might read this blog and rightfully shake their heads in disgust. The controversy that surrounds the species Dictyophora indusiata is a little ludicrous, to be sure, but I simply can't help but discuss it because it's also hilarious and I sincerely hope that the qualities assigned to dictyophora are real. That said, you might want to approach this somewhat like an Onion article, dear reader (in terms of the veracity of content, not quality of humor mind you), and to be aware that there are many people who are rightfully skeptical of the miraculous properties of dictyophora. In fact, a friend of mine who will remain anonymous gets furious whenever dictyophora is mentioned; he strongly believes it's a cruel joke on female mushroom hunters, and when I first asked him about it he got genuinely upset. Another mushroom nut I know, who is a bit less sensitive, simply dismissed the dictyophora theory as "poppycock". So there you go, maybe a helping or two of salt is in order.

I first heard about dictyophora from Damian Pack. Several years ago, he attended a mushroom conference, and one of the lectures was given by Dr. Holliday, a mycologist who co-authored an article about dictyophora in the Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001. Dr. Holladay specializes in tropical and equatorial fungi, and one of the species that he supposedly encountered was an infamous sub-species or strain of Dictyophora indusiata in Hawaii. This species was also the topic of his lecture, and Damian was stunned when Dr. Holliday stood in front of the group and proclaimed that this mushroom exudes a pheromonal odor that can trigger human female orgasm. He noted that in a trial where women and men were asked to sniff the mushroom, 100% of female respondents noted that the smell made them feel aroused, and 6 out of the 16 female participants experienced sexual climax. He also explained the history of dictyophora in indigenous Hawaiian culture: apparently for generations, women have been aware of the arousing potency of dictyophora, and finding them and smelling them is apparently quite the tradition.

Dictyophora is an aptly named fungus for several reasons. Like a couple other related genera (Phallus in particular), dictyophora mushrooms look a whole lot like penises. They also grow amazingly fast once they pop, and can reach full bloom over the course of 45 minutes or so, and tend to use olfactory stimulation to spread their spores. The common octopus stinkhorn, a relative of Dictyophora indusiata, starts as a rubbery white egg with a warren of gelatinous pockets inside. It's not bad to eat, though I am not terribly fond of the texture. Once the egg opens, however, the fungus expands into a bright red fruiting body that is somewhat round, and is made up of interlocking fibers of tissue that makes it look something like a fungal jungle gym. It also smells strongly of poop. This strange fruiting body attracts flies using its pungent scent, and the insects bang against the octopoid branches of the mushroom, knocking free spores that drift off, cling to the fly's body, or are otherwise ejected into the biosphere. There are many fungi that reproduce more or less like this; stinkhorns do come in all shapes and colors, and grow all over the world. One species I saw from Missouri looked like thin, lime green tongues with sticky pink tips. I will not tell you what my imagination did with that, but they are very suggestive in a totally gross sort of way.

Anyway, so there is this growing body of knowledge about stinkhorns and their allied species, and Dr. Holliday was one of the experts. Damian described him as a serious, dry fellow who didn't seem to be at all self-conscious about his discovery, or it's middle school locker room nomenclature. However, there was an eruption of hilarity and some outrage from the audience at the conference, and after the lecture people's tongues really started to wag. Damian said he tried not to get caught up in the "mushroom drama", but it was clear that some people were really excited about the idea of a female aphrodisiac being isolated in nature, whereas others were angry. Those in the latter camp were upset for two reasons. First, if Holliday's presentation was just an elaborate fabrication, it was a serious waste of everyone's time and a disservice to the pursuit of mycological research. Second, and perhaps more personal, was the implication for those who bought into the notion and went hunting dictyophora. Since dictyophora has a series of look alike species that ALSO have an aroma (the aforementioned poop smell that gives stinkhorns their name), there were some folks who suspected that Dr. Holliday was trying to trick people into hunting and smelling stinkhorns in the hopes of getting their rocks off. Now, it might sound silly to get angry about something like this, but I must assure you that the stench of the stinkhorn is truly spectacular. The friend I mentioned who is a Holliday-hater took me out mushrooming the afternoon we first discussed dictyophora, and as we walked past a landscaped bed of roses and rhodies, I caught a whiff of something nasty. My buddy pointed out the striking octopoid spheres.

"Smell one," he suggested.
"I'm not sure I want to," I replied, eyeing the mushrooms dubiously.
"Well you should at least smell it once. Here." He picked a piece and handed it to me and I, ever trusting, took a big noseful of one of the most unpleasant odors I've ever encountered. I didn't gag, but it was a near miss.
"Now you know why I'm pissed about dictyophora," my friend said flatly. "Imagine going to Ecquador or Guatemala and hunting for mushrooms in the buggiest, most dangerous spots on earth, and having to smell each and every stinkhorn you find. Talking people into doing that is just plain mean."
I nodded and tried to rub the stench out of my nose.

At the end of the day, I will say I am not totally convinced that Holliday's theory is a hoax. Damian told me that he visited Holliday some time after the uproar at the conference where the idea was first presented, and Holliday insisted that it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective for dictyophora to use pungent smells to reproduce. After all, the subterranean truffle has volatile oils that are very closely related to human and pig pheromones, which is one way the fungus attracts attention and gets help spreading its spores. Given the scent-producing strategies of other stinkhorns, it is also possible that at some point in evolutionary history, the chemical mix that makes certain dictyophora smell sexy came about. Furthermore, Damian told me he was impressed by the plaintive tone Dr. Holliday adopted when discussing his discovery; the good doctor was flustered at the negative attention, and wondered aloud why he would put his academic reputation on the line for a stupid joke. Although I wasn't there, I can see that: the mycological community is small, and one of the primary offenses is messing up the taxonomy of mushrooms-- since we're so far from classifying all that's out there, it's considered crass and unthinkable to make the task even harder by introducing ill thought out theories and ideas.

I do know that since I have a rather tragically infantile sense of humor, I think that dictyophora is funny. I will not be hunting them anytime soon, nor do I think I could be convinced to smell another stinkhorn in this lifetime, but it's a fun bit of trivia.
31 May 2011 @ 01:45 pm
 Getting Lost

It's very embarrassing to get lost in the woods with your friends, especially if you are all reasonably invested in woodcraft. Of course, it can also be a catastrophe-- a friend of mine once spent an entire night holed up in a burned out stump, arms wrapped around his 3 year old daughter to keep the cold winter rain off her. By the time the fire department found him the next morning, Joe was hypothermic, rubber boots full of icy rainwater. Naturally, this incident changed Joe's perspective, and he forever afterward became a strong proponent of GPS, walkie talkies, safety whistles and compasses. So yes, the threat of getting lost is far more dire than simple embarrassment. However, this entry is dedicated to the social experience of getting turned around and mixed up in the woods, rather than a treatise on wilderness survival. To wit: there are two types of lost: one, when you're abysmally, horribly, and dangerously lost, and two, when you're lost enough to know that you will get back home sooner or later, but not necessarily fast enough to hide the fact that you got lost in the first place.

I have gotten lost in the woods before, most epically and inconsequentially. I managed this feat largely because I am not the best tool using monkey out there; if I were an electronic adept it would never have happened. I was at Sea Ranch, in southern Mendocino County. My crew from Portland and I had just finished the weekend at SOMA Camp in Occidental, and we rented a beach house for a couple extra days of mushroom hunting in that lovely January green that only the North Coast of Cali can pull off. The first day, I went out by myself and found some lovely hedgehogs (H. rapandum, the steak sized kind, rather than H. umbilicatum, the scallop scale species), then in the afternoon we sauntered up the coastal hillside in search of black trumpets. We were richly rewarded for our efforts.

Quick note, black trumpets are The Sex to Oregonian mushroom hunters. We have lobster mushrooms aplenty, which is the common Russula brevipes--short stemmed russula-- infected by Hypomyces lactiflorum. Lobsters are almost unheard of south of the 40th parallel, and so they give Northwesterners bragging rights…however, the strange and often-spoiled lobster mushroom pales in comparison in terms of flavor, culinary versatility, and preservability (yeah, I don't think that's a word either, but you know what I mean…) with the black trumpet, a California native that doesn't stray far north of Arcata. Black trumpet chanterelles, Craterellus cornucopoides, are rubbery like morels, which means it's abundantly easy to wash and dry them without losing a lot of mass. They also have an unmistakable flavor, like fruit+meat, coupled with a texture that's simultaneously tender and substantial. So what I am saying: finding black trumpets was a big coup de teat for Team Portland (yes, teat, sort of like a coup de tits, but slightly less buxomatic).

After such a propitious and prosaic start, I was pretty revved up the following day when we set off hunting. I was so excited, in fact, that I totally neglected to charge my cell phone. I didn't have coverage anyway because I'm not with Verizon, and simply didn't think of how handy it might be to have a well-charged timepiece. So, when we all jumped out of the car and decided on a meet up time, I was without a clock. My friend Don, ever helpful, offered me his GPS to keep track of the time with. Of course, we did not think to set a waypoint at the cars, or do any sort of tutorial about how to use the different arcane buttons and toggle switches on the unit. No, he just showed me how to check the clock, and I nodded and figured all was gravy.

We decided to return more or less to the place where we found the first black trumpets, and at once stumbled into the largest fruiting of winter chanterelles I've ever seen. Like a 1000 man marathon, the yellow feet marched down that steep hillside facing the ocean in troops of 10 and 20, all pristine and somewhat pearlescent in the dewy sunlight. And then there were the trumpets. Midnight purple, charcoal grey and jet black, they pushed up in numbers from the duff like hell's pep band. It was simply a fantastic day in the woods; my basket was full to overflowing after an hour, picking only the most lovely and robust mushrooms. I could have stayed there all afternoon, and likely would have, except for the fact that once we got into the chanterelle patch, everyone scattered far and wide. After an hour and change, I could no longer hear the gasps of delight or shouts of elation that marked our first few minutes in the yellow foot patch. It also occurred to me that I had made a very common mushroom hunting error; I was so excited by what was right at my feet, I had not looked up to check the gestalt of my surroundings from time to time, and so I had no landmarks to help me figure out where I had strayed.

I struck out west, heading towards the failing sun and the ocean. Easy enough, I thought, I must have headed east off the trail where we discovered the chanterelle hill. I came upon the trail, and did not recognize it at all, and could only conclude that I had headed too far north, or too far south. It was at this point that I thought to try using the GPS. After mistaking my position for the cardinal rose, zooming out to the entirety of North America, changing the time zone setting somehow, and otherwise failing to use the unit properly, I threw up my hands in despair, and decided to do the one thing I knew I could do; I walked down the hill to Highway 1, a mere 500 yards or so from my befuddled and unclear position.

And imagine my good fortune! When I arrived at the road, I discovered a call box, and dialed up CHP to see if they could give me directions.

"Um, hi, I'm Anna and I'm calling because I got separated from my friends in the woods and I'm lost. I'm at Call Box 1173 on Highway 101."

"Ma'am, 1173 is on Highway 1, not 101."

"Oh right, yes, I meant Highway 1 of course." I could feel the blush rushing up my face and into my hairline. "So, I don't think I'm far from where I need to be, but I was supposed to meet up with my friends about 15 minutes ago, and I know they'll get worried."

"Do your friends get cell phone coverage out there? I can call them and let them know you're OK."

"Oh yeah, Don has Verizon, so his phone works out here."

"Great, what's his number? I'll put in a call to him for you once we're done with this."

"Ummm…" I fished in my pocket and pulled out my dead, uncharged phone. "I can't get Don's number, my phone's dead and I haven't memorized it." More blushing, and a somewhat amused silence on the other end of the line.

After an eternity, Mr. CHP spoke up again. "So, what exactly do you want me to do for you, ma'am?"

I started stammering about directions, centerspersed with a pile of apologies. At that moment, a cheerfully tubby middle aged man pulled off the highway and poked his head out the window of his SUV.

"Hey you! Do you need some help or something?"

I quickly terminated the call with CHP, and my new friend got out of his car and sauntered over to the call box.

"Ummm hi, I'm Anna and I got lost in the woods while I was hiking with my friends." Ever conscious of how folks react to mushroom hunters (especially lost mushroom hunters on extremely private property), I tried to stand in front of my absurdly overflowing basket.

"Nice chanterelles! Too bad you got lost, do you know where you started out? I work here, so I'm sure I can figure out where you need to go."

"Jeez, not far from here. We parked the cars at Madrone Meadow, I know that, but I am not sure if that's north or south of here."

He pulled a map of Sea Ranch out of the glovebox, and unfolded it with a chuckle and a shake of his head.

"OK, we're here, you see? Madrone Meadow is that cul de sac right there. You want to walk about 0.4 miles south and it'll be on your left. I'd give you a lift, but the car's full and we're late for a party. Good luck, and nice mushrooms!"

I gave him a few black trumpets, thanked him, and hustled off south. Now all my thoughts were consumed with the shame, the embarrassment, the questions my friends would ask me…I knew I was late enough to have caught their attention, and I sorely hoped they hadn't decided to launch a search mission. At long last, I arrived at the cars, sweaty and concerned but otherwise intact. At first, I didn't see anyone at the cars and freaked; not only had they gone out looking for me, but they'd also not left anyone behind just in case I found my own way home. As I walked the final hill to the vehicles, I noticed that I was wrong; Pam was in the Corolla and appeared to be slouched low in the passenger's seat.

"I'm here," I exclaimed as I strolled up.

"Oh, hey…" Pam opened her eyes and stretched. "Sorry, was just taking a little snooze."

"Where's everybody else? I got totally fucking lost!"

"Oh, you did? Whoa. Didn't you have Don's GPS?"

"Yeah, but I don't know how to use it."

"Haha, yeah, they're kinda tough to figure out. The first time I used one, I put a waypoint at a chanterelle patch but didn't label it, so I thought it was the car! I spent about half an hour wandering around in this patch of mushrooms, wondering where the hell I could have parked. Sometimes they're more of a hassle than they're worth…anyway, the others got so lucky out there they decided to go out for another hour."

"Do you have any water?"

So that's how I got lost in the woods, even though I had a GPS, the ocean to navigate by, a major highway to travel on, a CHP call box and a local helper who didn't decide to confiscate my mushrooms.

Obviously, it was a good lesson in humility, and also makes me far more self-aware when I am in wilder areas that aren't so clearly marked.

31 May 2011 @ 12:50 pm
 A Tale of Two Poisonings, or, It Was the Worst of Times, It Was the Best of Times

Amanitin poisoning is a nasty way to go. Just ask Emperor Claudius. Agrippina, Claudius's wife, dispatched a deadly dish of amanitas to the imperial table in AD 54, and that lethal dinner placed Nero at the helm of the Roman state, altering the Empire's destiny for the worse.

At the time, mushrooms were a favored treat of Roman aristocrats, who called them "food of the Gods." Amanita caesaria was the chief prize for the Roman table, and inspired poets, playwrights and politicians to rave of its royal appearance and flavor. When Claudius gobbled up a poisonous feast of mushrooms served by the infamous assassin Locusta in AD 54, he was an aging leader whose succession and reputation were in question. Although keenly interested in imperial expansion, justice and civic works, Claudius wasn't popular; he was lame in the legs, and he wasn't even born in Rome. Furthermore, his intended heir, Brittanicus, was a minor and Claudius's strapping stepson Nero posed a serious threat to the youth's succession. Agrippina was Nero's mother, as well as and Claudius's fourth and terminal wife, and she desperately wanted to keep Brittanicus out of the picture so that her unbalanced but handsome son could take the reins of power once Claudius shuffled off the mortal coil. And so, with villainous intent, Agrippina enlisted the help of the notorious poisoner Locusta to do away with her noisome imperial spouse before he had a chance to amend his will upon Brittanicus's 18th birthday. The crafty assassin chose amanitas as his weapon of choice, and the rest, as they say, is history. Other sources implicate Claudius's taster as the culprit, but I prefer to think that Agrippina went whole hog and hired a pro when she decided to murder her husband and unleash the unholy insanity of Emperor Nero on the Roman body politic. Anyway, Claudius ate the mushrooms and promptly croaked, and Nero ruled Rome until his suicide in AD 69. AD 69 is a year that will stand in infamy as one of the most politically unstable eras in Roman history, a year where no fewer than 4 emperors were proclaimed, ruled, and promptly got snuffed. Although Nero was eager to divorce himself from the Julio-Claudian side of the family, he showed his stepfather some respect by proclaiming that Claudius was divine. The Roman Senate seconded the motion, and subsequently there was much theatrical hulabaloo, drinking, killing, and various other excesses that characterized a good old fashioned Roman deification in the first century AD. And in such an ignominious way, the mushroom-poisoned old man was reinvented as a part of the ever-expanding Roman pantheon.

So that's amanitan poisoning in the worst of times. Let us turn our attention now to something less sordid, more reasonable, and infused with a spark of hope.

Amanitas are impressive mushrooms, and I find them so tempting and so exquisitely dangerous that I always seem to collect them, prod them, consider eating them, and then discard the notion as absurd while pacing the kitchen. Of course not everyone feels that way, but I have a terror/insatiably curious response to amanitas, and I know that less cautious souls have perished from so-called harmless mistakes.

Given this, I thought it both reasonable and wise to learn about amatoxin poisoning, in the hopes that I might scare myself out of a stupid experiment with those lovely skirted mushrooms. In my quest to get informed and get scared of amatoxins, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Todd Mitchell, a physician and clinical researcher who is the go-to man for one novel treatment of amatoxin poisoning: silibinen. Silibinen is derived from milk thistle and is administered intravenously to restore liver function during the course of amatoxin poisoning. Although the drug has been used in Europe for years, it is highly restricted by our good friends at the FDA-- in fact, the only way to get your hands on silibinin in the U.S. is through Dr. Mitchell. Dr. Mitchell received an FDA sanction to stockpile and study the clinical effects of the German-manufactured silibinin in the United States. Since 2009, Mitchell has provided silibinin to treating physicians in 20 amatoxin poisoning cases in North America, adding to the growing body of knowledge about this medication's efficiency in restoring liver function to those unhappy souls that find themselves in amatoxins' deadly embrace.

But before I get ahead of myself, let's do a very brief rundown of amatoxin poisoning. According to Dr. Mitchell, "The toxin itself is quite devious; it's one of the most potent poisons in all of nature. It's structure is a bicyclic octapeptide, meaning it's 8 amino acids that are held together by two rings. That makes it an extremely hardy molecule, very durable, pretty much impervious to anything you might do to it, so that freezing them, drying them, cooking them, boiling them…no matter what you do to them, they still retain their potency."

Essentially, amatoxins disrupt DNA-RNA-protein synthesis, thereby stopping cells from replicating. Also, amatoxins hitchhike from the GI tract into the liver by latching onto bile acids that are secreted into the intestines to digest fatty foods. These bile acids, once done breaking down lipids in the intestines, are cycled back into the liver. Normally this is a neat trick the body does to conserve the time and energy it would take to make new bile, but when amatoxin molecules latch onto bile acids, it's a true disaster. The bile/amatoxin mixture hits the liver like a sucker punch, and since the bile is reintroduced into the GI tract repeatedly, each turn through this cycle is yet another attack on the liver and its capacity to regenerate itself by making new, healthy liver cells. In addition, amatoxin poisoning patients also run the risk of renal failure, since about one third of the poison ends up in the general circulation and the patient's urine. Of course, this portion of the amatoxins in general circulation are also the easiest to flush from the system, provided that urine output is maintained and the patient is aggressively hydrated.

Although amatoxin poisoning is rare, significant strides in intensive care practices and the option of liver transplant have helped mitigate the lethality of such poisonings. In general, the mortality rate from amatoxin poisoning is a mere 10%-15% in the developed world. However, as Dr. Mitchell flatly stated, "what's lost in appreciating that data is that the patients who've had a really large ingestion are in big, big trouble, no matter where in the world they present." Liver and kidney damage are almost assured with amatoxin poisoning, and even if the patient recovers from the incident, the damage can make them medically fragile in the future. It's also important to note that in rural areas around the globe, the standard of care one would see in a top flight liver transplant center in a major U.S. city is simply unheard of. In 3rd world countries, amatoxin poisoning is deadly in about 50% of cases, and it's clear that the discrepancy has everything to do with limited medical facilities. So although amatoxin poisoning can be mitigated with aggressive hydration, activated charcoal flushes of the GI tract, naso-biliary drainage (whereby the amatoxin-infused bile acids are removed from the liver) and, if needed, liver transplant, the value of an effective medication in treating amatoxin poisoning cannot be understated. Silibinin is one possible option that may improve outcomes for patients unfortunate enough to experience amatoxin poisoning.

It was the early morning of January 2, 2007. Dr. Todd Mitchell was the on-call ER physician at his local hospital in Santa Cruz, and he was summoned to admit six patients who were presenting with extreme gastrointestinal distress. The patients, a Latino family of six, all had varying degrees of GI upset, most especially the 82 year old matriarch and her 29 year old grandson. The 82 year old grandmother was visiting from her home country, and had taken the family mushroom hunting in a state park north of Santa Cruz on New Year's Day. That night, they made mushroom tacos and feasted, and over the course of the night each one of them started to fall ill. They brought a basket of mushrooms with them to the hospital, in the hopes that the specimens might help the doctors figure out what was wrong. At the time of admission, ER staff took pains to combat the poisoning right away by providing aggressive hydration via IV. Mitchell, like most doctors who find themselves in this situation, had never treated a mushroom poisoning case before. Nonetheless, he was determined to get the mushrooms identified, and sent them by special courier to the home of David Campbell, a Bay Area mycologist. Unfortunately, all the mushrooms that the family brought in for inspection were nonlethal species. However, given that the cohort presented with symptoms consistent with mushroom poisoning, it seemed logical that the family probably consumed poisonous amanitas, especially considering that one of their harmless mushrooms was also of that genus.

Armed with this hypothesis, Mitchell did what most physicians do when faced with a novel toxin; he googled it. After scanning a few reviews and getting up to speed on amatoxins, he discovered silibinin on the web, and decided to make some very early morning phone calls to Germany to see if he could get access to the drug. The representative that he spoke with agreed to donate silibinin to treat the patients, and they ended the conversation by agreeing that the doses would have to travel by courier from Germany to California at once. 10 minutes after Mitchell hung up, he received another call, this one from the American subsidiary of the company, telling him in a pained voice that it would not be possible to provide the medicine, because the FDA would not allow the treatment to be used. Mitchell, frustrated and flustered, asked who he had to call at the FDA to get an exception granted. His contact didn't know, but referred him to someone at the National Institute of Health who was conducting clinical trials on an oral preparation of silibinin. Again on the phone with the NIH, Mitchell was told that the FDA wouldn't allow the intravenous, EU-approved version drug to be administered. Again, he refused to accept that answer. Without an official contact or inside track, Mitchell was not sure he could get the FDA to relent on behalf of his patients, but he was determined to give them the best possible chance for recovery, so he called and harangued the FDA until they gave him an emergency waiver of their ban on silibinin, and the drug was couriered into the country.

Meanwhile, the poisoned family was declining rapidly, and a liver transplant center in San Francisco agreed to take the patients in transfer on January 3rd. Their labs showed precipitous increases in their coagulation times and pro-times throughout their first day in the hospital, and their liver function was sliding abysmally, particularly for the elderly grandmother and her 29 year old grandson. By the time Mitchell had gotten FDA approval and received the medication from Germany on January 4th, five out of the six patients had acute liver failure, and the 29 year old's prognosis grimmest of all: without a transplant, he was almost certainly going to die.

However, the silibinin seemed to work pretty miraculously; Dr. Mitchell stated, "All of the patients in this family made rapid recoveries of their liver function. We did end up losing the grandmother and she died from kidney failure, which is a known complication of amatoxin poisoning….but even if she died from kidney failure, it was clear that her liver was rapidly recovering." The 29 year old grandson did not end up requiring a liver transplant, and the rest of the family survived this terrifying incident.

The outcomes for these patients was certainly promising and exciting to Dr. Mitchell, but this cohort's success alone was not enough evidence to satisfy the FDA that studying intravenous silibinin was a worthwhile endeavor. However, Mitchell explained, "after having a second cohort about 2 years later, they (the FDA) then relented and have now allowed us to keep the drug here. We have a clinical trial now underway, which has now been underway for about a year where anytime there is an amatoxin mushroom poisoning anywhere in the United States, we can be contacted and we can get this drug into the hands of the treating physicians within 24 hours of contact. And so we've now been involved in a total of about 20 cases, and we've learned quite a bit about amatoxin mushroom poisoning and how best to manage it. We've learned from each and every case and cohort that comes up." Although Mitchell acknowledges that the standards of care and practices that have helped amatoxin poisoning victims in the past are invaluable, he believes that silibinin is a potentially powerful tool in caring for those who are poisoned by amatoxins.

Ultimately, it's clear that time and trials are needed in order to fully evaluate silibinin. However, given Mitchell's tenacity and no-nonsense approach to the regulatory authorities who govern medical science in this country, I have little doubt that good data will result from his efforts.
Before I begin, I wish to bring the reader's attention to the second half of this post's title: although the facts of this story are true, I did put my own spin on it. 

 I know a very glamorous and classy broad who's into mushrooms. She must remain anonymous for all the right reasons, but I assure you that whatever she's up to, it's usually good. She's Italian-American, of course, and has a heart-shaped face, almond eyes, rapier wit, ready smile, and a well deserved swagger. She knows her boletes (and suillus and leccinum too) inside and out, and makes her own grappa. She field IDs coccora like it's her job, and has an excellent selection of hats. She also is given to sharing home-distilled spirits around campfires, and she tells bawdy jokes, both of which make her even more popular. She's also a heavy hitting professional in the medical community, hence her anonymity.

At this point I am going to adopt the pseudonym Delilah for our intrepid heroine. When I met her at mushroom camp, Delilah told me about an experience she had with the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, the red one with white spots that everyone likes to discuss.

Most people who eat the fly agaric are trying to get high, but there are exceptions. Some folks report that you can parboil Amanita muscaria in salted water in order to remove the psychoactive chemicals in them. Once you pour the water off, the fruiting bodies can then be cooked safely. Some folks say it's best to double parboil the mushrooms; others swear by a single round with a hefty dose of salt to get rid of the psychoactive.

As a small side note, let's quickly review the psychoactive properties of A. muscaria. Primarily, ibotenic acid is the trip juice that makes the fly agaric a legendary entheogen, with muscimol playing second fiddle. The neurochemical consequences of eating fly agarics (and a host of allied species, like the panther amanita) seem to vary in great measure: some people report a profound sense of wellbeing, strength and boundless energy, others shake their heads and recount prolonged episodes of confusion, racing thoughts, physical discomfort and mouth full of the tongue-itus.

So let us return to Delilah. Like many Italian-Americans, Delilah loves amanitas. She lived in the Santa Cruz mountains as a girl, and grew up hunting the verdant woods of that southerly bit of the coastal range that hugs the Pacific. As a self-taught American mushroom hunter, I started out with a very deep respect for, and fear of, poisoning myself with my new hobby. Delilah, however, told me that until she was in high school, the very idea of mushroom poisoning was never addressed in her house. It was just assumed that people knew what the fuck they were doing, and that they would find the right amanitas, fry them in a light batter, and finish the day without organ failure.

About a decade ago, Delilah was faced with a challenge. The fly agaric is one of the most plentiful amanitas in Northern California, and since it's both easy to spot and almost impossible to misidentify, Delilah decided to try denaturing some of them, in hopes of enjoying a nice tasty mushroom snack without the attendant trip. She sliced her mushrooms and boiled them vigorously for about 5 minutes, strained off the red-stained water and rinsed the mushrooms in cool tap water, patted them down, battered them and fried them in butter and salt.

They were delicious with a glass of chardonnay.

For 6 years, Delilah picked A. muscaria and ate it just like that. Not a single hallucination or strange body-effect, just nice fried mushroom and some weird red parboil water to pour onto the compost pile.

She even made it into a tradition: once a year, Delilah threw a pre-holiday dinner party for her lady friends, where they would all get very merry, eat and drink too much, and tell stories into the wee hours before donning their woman-in-holiday-mode skins and part ways until the coming January. Before the party each year, Deliah cooked up a few slices of fly agaric, sipped a glass of good white, then set about making her house ready for guests.

The 7th year into this wholesome routine, Delilah hit a snag. She munched her muscaria morsels without a second thought, set down her wine glass and went about some chores. Somewhere between putting out the cheese plate and restocking the TP in the downstairs bathroom, Something Happened. The first thing she noticed were her hands, which of a sudden seemed too powerful to be handling fragile Scotts Tissue rolls. She could crush them so easily, if she wanted to…it felt great, but also made her quite aware that she needed some fresh air. She stepped outside, and the late November night didn't deliver the slightest chill to her. She stood on the porch, a slight quiver in her knees and eyeballs, trying to focus. After about 5 minutes of trying to forcibly re-enter the world of Average, Delilah realized that she'd grown to a rather unusual height. It wasn't that she was really taller, but more longer, a stretched version of herself that could tower over those wee concerns and considerations that took up so much of her time. Wow, she thought, those mushrooms just punched my card.

She managed to call her BFF and tangentially explain the situation.

"I simply can't imagine throwing a party in this state," she remembers saying. "I might accidentally step on the table. Or on someone's Cheshire tail. Don't want that for me, or for anybody."

BFF was resourceful, and redirected the party to a local Olive Garden, where many bread sticks were sacrificed at the altar of the Altered Party, but no real harm was done, and Delilah was spared the impossible task of hosting people in her accidentally profound condition.

Apparently, that night was straight paradise. Not enough to eat the mushrooms for fun, but enough not to fear them.

A year later, Delilah found herself collecting some fly agarics. She had done some thinking and research since her last encounter with muscaria, and decided that the potency of her last batch was a statistical abnormality, an outlier, and that it should not dissuade her from using the tried and true boil-pour-fry method. Also, should it go wrong again, she wasn't averse to the trip induced by muscaria.

So she boiled, fried and sampled sparingly. This time around, she did not just get tall and feel like she was blessed with Shaolin guts and wisdom. No, this time was disassociation and confusion, darkness, questions without answers, answers without questions, thought without language, sensation without meaning. It was bloody awful. BFF intervened again and saved the day, but extracted a promise: no more fly agarics before the annual Gal Gala, no matter how hard you boil them. Some things are more important than experimentation.

Delilah agreed, and hasn't eaten the fly agaric since.
23 May 2011 @ 03:07 am
For me, it's the mushrooms. For some people it's the river, or ATVs, or Jesus, or Cohen Bros films, or Blind Justice, or blues music, or any other conduit to the soul you might pick out of the proverbial Sorting Hat. Not to dog on any of these pursuits in favor of my fine fungal friends. Just sayin'…for me it's the damn mushrooms. I guess that makes me a Ravenclaw.

Mushrooms are my passion.

They are so lovely, so impermanent, so demanding of discussion, that I often lose myself in the simple act of considering their very presence in my life. I get a shot of adrenaline every time I find myself in a patch of mushrooms, because it's a living reminder that life doesn't operate on Monkey Time, or in Simian Space. They just punch me in schnoz with Other, leaving me reeling and giggling.

Mushrooms are a reminder of how the universe really works, and help me grasp perspective.

Yesterday, I was on a very hard slope by myself looking for morels. It was perfect rattler territory, and I am deathly afraid of snakes. I know the spring hatchlings have big enough fangs to inject by this point in the year, but not enough sense to unlatch after a strike. In years past, this fact would have kept me off such a hillside, but 5/21 found me overturning every piece of fallen holly and oak, aware of fear but also unwilling to leave.

For me, mushrooms make fear tolerable.

I love picking them, but that's just a meddlesome gnome impulse. When I first spot a mushroom, it takes my breath away, most often because I know in my bones that our meeting, this fungus and Anna McHugh, is so unlikely.

"What is the soil temperature, what elevation is this, what way is this slope facing, what trees are here, when was the last rain? How can I use this data set to see you again?" Anna the Gnome asks. "HAHA, wouldn't YOU like to know?" they reply, and sache off.

Mushrooms humble me, but with a loving sense of humor. They flirt with me relentlessly.

Good fortune is worth studying, in my experience. Not in order to replicate it, but to understand how it feels to be in one's element. To feel ego dissolve under the force of circumstance, to know that these moments are significant enough to overthrow routine, doubt, worry, and most importantly Self….these are the seconds that are worth remembering.

The yoke comes off when there are mushrooms to find.

I am not a good, Rapture-fearing Christian, nor a Beltane butt-baring pagan. I am not into politics anymore, thank god, but I used to spend all sorts of time wondering about this or that candidate's advisor, thermite in the Towers, and waited on bated breath for the BBC and Amy Goodman to take over from the Nipper so I could hear some real headlines to worry about.

I don't particularly believe in my star chart, despite the fact that it's sort of enjoyable to tell astrologers that I was born in West Virginia under a Cancerian sun. I love history, old battles, stories about augurs who saw revolutions in pigeon guts. I love fiddle music. I even think Ken Burns borders on brilliant, his obsession with baseball notwithstanding.

Point is, I love the Big Picture, the Grand Narrative, the Meaning Superimposed on Chaos.

And really, it's just the mushrooms.
20 May 2011 @ 01:47 pm
Candy caps are lovely little critters. They're small mushrooms, a rusty orange color with white milk that oozes from the gills when they're cut. When you dry them out, they smell like maple syrup. The first candy cap I found was just north of the Oregon-California state line, all by itself. I've been told that's outside their normal range: candy caps are primarily found in Northern California, especially in the Bay Area. Anyway, I was delighted and took it back to Texas with me in December. It was a really fragrant specimen, and I loved the expressions on people's faces when I gave them a chance to smell my mushroom. Flash forward to today, and I find an email in my inbox from my mother. The subject line is "The Power of the Candy Cap!!!!!

I opened the message and read one of my mom's classically cute emails:

Hey there sweetie,  here's a little bit that you may want to save in the "stories of shrooms"..........for days, if not weeks, when ever I opened a particular cabinet I can smell a sweet aroma, that I was having difficulty identifying.   finally it dawned on me that it was, perhaps,  a candy cap smell, although I thought the little sweetie was long gone......not so!  As I searched the cabinet, low and behold, in the bottom of the mortar and pistil was ONE,  just 1 tiny,  VERY TINY,  dried cap emanating its glorious flavor!  Has it been there over 6 months???? or possibly longer

The scientific name of the candy cap is Lactarius rubidus-- it is part of a genus of mushrooms that secrete a milky substance called latex when they're torn or cut. Although the candy cap is very pungent, the smell doesn't really emerge until the mushroom dries out. And here's the rub: there's another mushroom that looks almost exactly like the candy cap: Lactarius rufulus. However, while the rubidus smells like maple, rufulus has the odor of burnt sugar in the best case. In the worst case, it carries a unpleasant chemical smell. Honestly, it can be quite revolting. This is how I discovered the distinction.

I went mushroom hunting with some friends in Oakland, CA. It was a good day and we found lots of different sorts of mushrooms by the day's end. The most exciting thing to me were the three large hillside patches of candy caps that we stumbled across. We collected a bunch of them and felt very pleased with ourselves. That night, I stayed at my friend Gwynn's home. Gwynn lives on a boat called Peloton, which is moored in Redwood City. We set out our pile of candy caps to dry and went to bed. They were all over the small cabin, in the oven, next to the space heater, and we even had to stow some outside to dry the next day. When we woke, the whole vessel smelled like a candy factory that had just experienced a very serious chemical spill. Distressed, we took the mushrooms onto the deck. Gwynn went to work, and I set about the task of figuring out what was wrong with these candy caps. Since they don't smell strongly when fresh, I had planned to go through each dried mushroom anyway and smell every one to make sure of my field identification-- lumping together a bunch of small mushrooms can be a very unwise thing to do, and I had every intention of inspecting each specimen before giving it the go ahead to be used in cookies or something. However, I now discovered a new definition for agony, because I really wanted to use the true candy caps in the pile of mushrooms on Peloton's deck, but they were all jumbled up with noxious, stinky ruffled milk caps. For 2 hours I sat there, sniffing and wincing, occasionally excusing myself in order to stick my sore nose into a coffee can to clear out the fumes.

The following week, I attended SOMA Camp in Occidental, CA. One of the hot topics during that foray was the distinction between L. rebids and L. rufulus. One way to tell them apart is that true candy caps almost always have a small dimple on the top of the cap. They also tend to have rough caps-- it sort of feels like lizard skin-- and ruffled milk caps are a bit smoother. Finally, the latex of true candy caps is white but watery, whereas their stinky cousins have a milk that is thicker. It's like the difference between the appearance of skim milk and half and half.

That day in Oakland, I am guessing we gathered from 1 patch of real candy caps and 2 patches of falsies, but I don't know, because we were so excited we just dumped all our mushrooms into the basket together.
So take this warning from me: try to keep mushrooms from different patches separate!
17 May 2011 @ 12:02 pm
Lots of projects have taken my attention away from this blog, but I suspect it doesn't mind too much.

In reflection, I am very proud of  "Crazy About Mushrooms," the radio documentary I just finished producing. All throughout the time I was working on the project, I enjoyed good fortune on many occasions and I cannot simply chalk it all up to chance. 

One of my favorite memories from the trip was driving up Highway 101 to Arcata, CA to visit Damian Pack. 101 is a mushroom lover's paradise, but I really had not planned on taking that route north back to Washington state after my California adventure. I had instead intended to take the shorter but far less scenic I-5, so I could get back to Olympia and my family's home in time for our annual Thanksgathering. However, a snow storm blew in off the Pacific and the passes around Mt. Shasta and Ashland became ice-bound. Determined to get home for the holiday, I decided to drive up 101, which winds through the Coastal Range and along the Pacific Coast, through the redwoods and up to the Willamette Valley. This route also afforded me the opportunity to visit Damian, the first mushroom nut I ever met.

Damian and I encountered each other for the first time in Olympia, WA, right before the National Rainbow Gathering in Idaho. A long time friend of my then-boyfriend Jason, Damian was organizing a whole crew of folks to drive from Olympia to the Gathering, which was being held outside Boise. Jason was driving out from Virginia, and I arrived in Olympia before he did. Although he didn't know me from Adam, Damian was extremely welcoming from the moment he met me at the airport with a sign with my name on it that was decorated with fly agarics and other colorful mushrooms. The sign was a really good idea, as it turns out. This was before the age of cell phones, and all Jason told me was that Damian was shorter than him (not all that helpful, considering Jason is 6'6"), had dred locks (again not helpful, since I flew into Seattle), and was really into mushrooms. Anyway, the following day Damian let me tag along to work with him. At the time, he was the Growing Room Manager at Fungi Perfecti, Paul Stamets's farm in Olympia. It was a lovely July morning when we set out for FP, and as we harvested and trimmed shiitake and maitake mushrooms for market, Damian popped in a cassette of a Terrence McKenna lecture. I had never even heard of McKenna before that day, and it was a rich new layer to my experience that day. We also feasted on maitake and rice that night, and it was one of the most flavorful meals I can recall.

So anyway, it seemed fitting and apropos to go see Damian right at the end of my journey. When I first met Damian, I was young and oblivious, and I must confess that I didn't really grasp a lot of what he told me about mushrooms. However, at the end of my recording project I had heard a lot, learned a ton, and appreciated the fungi much more. To go back to speak with the person who started it all, who planted a spore of mycological curiosity in my brain to begin with, seemed like the right thing to do. And besides, the weather had dictated my path right to Damian's doorstep.

The drive from Ukiah to Arcata was spectacular. I intentionally drank a ton of water and coffee, so I had an excuse to stop frequently and step into the woods. I found mushrooms everywhere: white chanterelles, golden chanterelles, a single candy cap, bellybutton hedgehogs, several kinds of suillus...and lots of other things besides. The only place I stopped where I did not find mushrooms was aptly named Mt. Humbug State Park. As Highway 101 heads north, it also veers west and joins the coast. As I descended into the coastal flat outside Eureka and Arcata, I switched on KMUD, Redwood Community Radio and Tom Waits filled the car with his scratchy, blue smoke voice. I love Tom Waits so obviously I was jazzed and kept the radio on. As the song ended and the pine and redwood gave way to grassy slopes along the road, I started to spot massive fruitings of red mushrooms. At first, I simply dismissed them assuming they were red russulas, a collection of species that are very common and usually too peppery-spicy to eat. However, as I zoomed by more patches of mushrooms I noticed a distinctive trait: the caps were coated in white patches of universal veil tissue, meaning these mushrooms emerged from egg-like protective sacs that burst open when the cap expands. It also meant that these mushrooms had to be fly agarics, one of the quintessential magic mushrooms. Some people believe that Soma, the divine plant in the Rg Veda, is the fly agaric. Some folks think that Santa Claus was inspired by the fly agaric, because reindeer love to eat it. One thing we know for sure is that Koryak tribesmen on the high steppes and windswept plains of Siberia used these entheogenic mushrooms in religious ceremonies. They're also a stunning, beautiful mushroom. I must confess, when I find them in the wild I collect them, even though I have no interest in the psychoactive experience that eating these mushrooms can trigger. And I was driving through a literal forest of them, groves of crimson standing in stark contrast to the green grass along the highway. 

At that moment, Tom Waits ended and the next track began with a very familiar phrase on the banjo that flooded my head with childhood memories of a slow pan in through a swamp, lighting on a very special frog named Kermit. The tune, The Rainbow Connection, is sweet, optimistic but a little melancholy. I have always loved the Muppets, and Kermit is my favorite male lead in American film. However, I had not listened to Rainbow Connection closely in many years. As I whizzed through the mushroom festooned landscape, the lyrics took on new life for me, leaving me deeply moved.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we've been told and some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

Who said that every wish would be heard and answered
when wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that
and someone believed it,
and look what it's done so far.
What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing?
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
the lovers, the dreamers and me.

All of us under its spell,
we know that it's probably magic....

Have you been half asleep
and have you heard voices?
I've heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I've heard it too many times to ignore it.
It's something that I'm supposed to be.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
the lovers, the dreamers and me.