Mycophilia

The first storm of Winter has passed. Already the forests of Mendocino are greening up after the dry heat of the late Summer. The rich smell of the woodland floor's humus is everywhere now. The topsoils of the pine woods, oak hills, and the coastal mountains curtained with redwoods and firs are sponging up the precipitation. Mycelial networks dormant or lazy during the parched August and September heat are quickly coming to life, hungrily feeding on the detritus of leaves, wood, and animal excrement that has accumulated on the ground over the dry months. Rhizomatic networks leap across organic matter, devouring and transforming death into life.

Soon the mushrooms will pin beneath the duff of leaves, grass and moss. Their growth is exponential. They begin in microscopic primordia that form on seemingly random knots of mycelium. Each pin thirstily sucks up water, which can account for ninety percent of a mushroom fruit's weight. Taking a familiar form, the mushrooms rise like mutant yeast dough, horns, fingers, or cups, breaking the surface of live soil that is humming with bacterial and insect life. The mushrooms reach upward into the dim grey light that barely peeks through the canopy in the wet season. At the peak of their growth cycle, for most mushroom species it's during the heavy storms of January and February, carpets of mycelium raise parasol caps filled with billions of spores above the forest floor where the wind and water grabs them and transports them far away to spawn and establish patches of fungi elsewhere.

Mendocino, as many mycophiles well know, is one of the most prolific mushroom habitats on earth, especially the county's western half, drenched with moisture from the pacific, blanketed with fog in June and July. The redwoods, douglas firs, tan oaks, Quercus oaks, laurels, madrones, and other woodland giants evolved over millions of years in symbiotic connection to countless species of fungi that manufacture food for the plant kingdom. Scientists nor shamans fully understand the complex interdependency of fungi and plants, meeting at the nexus of roots and rhizomes, crafting and sharing nutrients, delivering minerals, creating matted organic circuitry of communication, tending to one another. Fungi also create food for lesser creatures of the forest like bears, skunks, turkeys, and even lowly humans.

Wild mushrooms have become very popular in recent years. This is partly a result of California's narcissistic infatuation with food. The “Foodie” Movement, personified by Berkeley's pseudo-celebrities of “pure” this, and “slow” that, has popularized once rare mushroom fruits like the chanterelle and the porcini. The foodies, these holier and hipper than thou consumers, worry about what percentage of their constipation is local and organic vs. shipped and processed. Most foodies are privileged urbanites with significant disposable incomes allowing them to obsess over their diets and culinary experiences. They simply purchase their gourmet wild mushrooms. Perhaps a few hunt for them, much like some “bicyclists” strap on spandex and ride down rural highways on the weekends, only to commute to work on Monday in their cars. As a result of this luxury market typified by lavish consumer experiences, wild fungi have become common sights in upscale groceries like Whole Foods (AKA Whole Paycheck). All kinds of wild varieties can be obtained at farmer's markets in San Francisco and Berkeley, if you have fifteen or twenty dollars to sacrifice for a mere pound. You also have to be foolish or lazy to do so on a consistent basis. Mushrooms are a gift of the forest. They grow from the commons, free for the taking.

Lots of people have become hip to foraging for mushrooms since the early 1990s. It's a very healthy and positive trend. Drawn by the thrill of stumbling across magical toadstools, ferry rings, and other monster arrays of fungal fruit, people are getting out into the wild and learning about forest ecosystems and cycles. To find mushrooms, varieties blazing in bright color and exhibiting all sorts of shapes, or to spot tasty edibles, is a rewarding experience. The better one becomes at it, the more one wants to do it. Us mycophiles suffer through the dry months of Summer desperately awaiting the first rains. Time and experience spent foraging for mushrooms builds knowledge about the forests. You begin to think hard about soil and the composting materials of the forest floor, how they might interact with mineral deposits, which tree species in combination with shrubs provide good habitat for fungi.

Local mycological societies have grown in membership, and now on any given weekend following a deluge, in the Jackson State Forest, or on the coast at places like Salt Point, you're bound see troops of mushroom hunters poking about the grass and groves. The Sonoma Mycological Association (SOMA) is a bustling club that hosts lectures and events weekly at the Farm Bureau in Santa Rosa. Oftentimes the speakers are expert mycologists or ethnobotanists. Mycological in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are big attractions. San Francisco's Mycological Society has been convening since 1950. November's speaker for San Francisco's mushroom club is William Rubel, an historian of traditional foodways who has been researching the Amanita muscaria, the famous toadstool of Siberian shamans. Amanita muscaria is probably the most recognizable mushroom thanks to its bright red cap dotted with pyramidal white warts, remnants of its veil. It's image has been illustrated into countless fairy tales, myths, cartoons, and films. Down in Oakland and San Francisco urbanites make day trips into the nearby East Bay hills or western Marin County to roam about the pockets of timber that still exist in regional parks. Even urban parks are rich habitats for some varieties of shrooms.

Nothing, however, beats the dark gulches and northern sloped mountains and hills of western Mendocino's forests. Now that the first rains of Winter have come and gone it will only be a matter of days until flushes of mushrooms emerge from the ground and climb off the stumps and trunks of dying timber. With one or two more storms the mushrooms season will be in full effect by mid-November.

Boletes are some of the first to appear, popping up from the earth and growing like flexing muscles with a fattened cap and spongy underside filled with millions of microscopic pores. Some Italian mycophiles who have hunted for these prized mushrooms along the north coast since the 1920s, from Marin through Mendocino, refer to the boletes as “gambones,” or “big legs” because of their giant stems. The most famous of this family of mushrooms is Boletus edulis, renowned as the porcini, or cep. They grow in all sorts of places where it rains and they seem to love pine trees. They grow at ten thousands feet in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of New Mexico. I have a friend who hikes up there in the late summer during the high desert monsoon season to pick them after cool showers. In Mendoland boletes grow in open forests and grass fields near pine and other big trees. David Aurora, the famous mycologist who lives along the Mendonoma coast, has identified seven species of California porcini mushrooms, and notes that several have been harvested for generations by Italian immigrants, and now increasingly by southeast Asians.

Before long the chanterelles will begin emerging from under thick duff deposited by fir, tan oaks, redwoods, and other trees. Golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius) are most common, but if you know where to look, the white chanterelles (Cantharellus subalbidus) are just as prolific. The first chanterelles of the season, the immature flushes, are usually the best. They taste fresh, flavorful, and have a firm texture. Later in the season it's easy to find chanterelles broader that your hand with thick stems twice the width of your thumb. They don't taste bad either. Cook them fresh, or dry them and store in jars stashed away in a dark corner of your pantry. In the summer months when fresh mushrooms cannot be found simply rehydrate your dried stash by soaking in warm water for a few hours.

A little later in the season, after considerably more rain, will come dense flushes of hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum). More than a few friends of mine swear this is the best mushroom they have ever eaten. It cooks down rather dry, a good thing for those who don't like the squishiness of some sauteed fungi. The flesh is firm, and the taste is nutty and somewhat like meat if cooked right.

Around the same time the hedgehogs are fruiting, if you're in the right band of forest you'll be stumbling over bouquets of black trumpets (Craterellus cornucopioides) emerging from moss and dirt near the bases of tall trees. The black trumpet looks like it sounds, and tastes wonderful. A friend in Navarro makes a deductible soup base with ground black trumpets. I have found them in forests of tan oak, live oak, fir, madrone, and other tree species, most often within twenty miles of the ocean, but sometimes in more distant inland valleys. The black trumpets are one of the longest fruiting mushrooms and therefore are easy to gather throughout the Winter and into the Spring.

Candy caps can be found across northern California, but can be hard to spot because of their diminutive size and light brown color. They're almost easier to find by their smell than sight. Candy caps emit a pungent maple-cinnamon odor. They taste rather like this too, and I know of a vegan bakery in Oakland that makes a wonderful donut with them. There are recipes for candy cap ice cream, candy cap breads, and candy cap pancakes, among many other sweet dishes these unique mushrooms can be the centerpiece of. Make sure you know absolutely how to identify candy caps for there are more than a few LBMs, little brown mushrooms, that are very poisonous.

For those foragers who can remember to look up while hiking through the woods, you'll likely spot oyster mushrooms sprouting from trunks of oak, madrone, and fir. Fresh oyster mushrooms are a treat. Unfortunately, like boletes these delights are quickly consumed by bugs if found too late in the season.

Last Winter my brother and I were lucky enough to wander down a shady ravine strewn with fallen fir trees toppled on one another like match sticks. A trickle of water ran beneath us, a source of moisture that probably only disappears for four months out of the year, keeping this fold in the hills slightly more humid year round. Growing from the bark of a horizontal decaying conifer still rich with sugary sap was lion's mane (Hericium erinaceus), a rounded white cloud cluster of long soft stalagmites. Sliced thin and pan-fried the lion's mane is uniquely flavorful.

The matsutake (Tricholoma magnivelare) grow in Mendocino's forests also. From what I have heard (I have never foraged matsutake) they associate mostly with pine trees, but can be found elsewhere. Their name means “pine mushroom” in Japanese. Like other edible fungi described here, the mycelium of the matsutake thrives in a symbiotic relationship with trees and shrubs, interweaving among the roots. Those who have researched these mycorrhizal bonds between plants and fungi estimate that most plants actually require mycelial networks in the soil to obtain nutrients and water, and that this dependency goes both ways. It's kind of the same as the bacteria that live in our intestines, without which we would starve, and vise versa. To feed the bacteria in your intestines some matsutake, if you don't forage them yourself, is a pricey proposition. They're possibly the most expensive mushroom (save for a few truffle varieties), going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars a pound in Japan where wild stocks have been exhausted from over-harvesting. Some of California's bounty is shipped across the Pacific each year, and it is said that Japanese mushroom tourists fly to Mendocino specifically to hunt the matsutake.

I have a pet theory about the abundance of edible mushrooms in the Mendocino forestlands, but I would love to be disillusioned of it by anyone with the historical, scientific, or mystical facts at hand. I suspect that the proliferation of chanterelles, black trumpets, and other species is partly due to the destruction of the first forests, the mature thousand year-old stands of conifers that once dominated the landscape of the Coastal Range. Foraging for edibles species has taught me that the really big redwoods and fir trees are not the best places to look for most types of edible gourmet fungi. The best places to poke around are immature forests of the second and third growths, especially thick stands of tan oaks, live oaks, madrones, and in thickets of berries and shrubs, all which are more common now that the big trees have been chopped down. I wouldn't go so far as to thank the timber barons for the prime edible mushroom habitat though.

In Bayou Farewell Mike Tidwell observed that the humble shrimp has in fact prospered and can be easily harvested from the Gulf of Mexico's waters partly because of the vast decimation of healthy wetland ecosystems. According to Tidwell the dying marsh grasses become food for baby shrimp — the more dead grass, the more shrimp food, a perverse feedback loop leading in the long-term toward ecosystemic collapse. In the short term it produces huge population booms among some species, some of which happen to be quite tasty.

In other contexts my nature-loving friends have pointed out to me how poison oak, ceanothus, milk thistle, and other vines, shrubs, and flowers quickly cover hillsides where logging has scarred the soil. These species arrive to heal damaged humus and dirt, to create the conditions for the growth of the big trees. Tan oaks populate the hills where logging has extracted big conifers in recent memory. It takes a couple generations of tan oak growth, twenty, forty, sixty years, before redwood seedlings and fir saplings take root and begin their climb.

Along the same lines I wonder if some of the gourmet mushrooms aren't just like poison oak, crawling across wounded earth to stop erosion and transform dead matter into living terrain. The mycelium arrives to break down the leaves and twigs and trunks of the tan oak to build deep topsoils and condition the dirt for the germination and growth of sensitive plant species like the redwood. Perhaps some varieties like the chanterelles do especially well in damaged habitats, while other fungi have disappeared. Biologists say that mature forest ecosystems contain many times the species diversity of immature, damaged habitats. Given the near eradication of old growth, and the total annihilation of really big continuous stands of fir and redwood, one can only wonder what mycotopias of mushroom diversity existed in the shadows of the giants.

Now there's the herbicides to worry about. For those who forage on the timberlands of MRC and other industrial rentiers of the forests, look out for those stands of dead and dying tan oaks poisoned by Imazapyr. As Will Parrish has written for the AVA, the tan oaks are seen as weeds by the timber corporations, and eradicated in vast numbers via the “hack and squirt” method. Chemical deforestation in Mendocino brings to mind the herbicide warfare of Operation Ranch Hand during the Vietnam war in which 20 million gallons of toxins were sprayed onto forest canopies. Speaking of symbiotic relationships, modern agriculture, including forestry, has always had a close working relationship with the US military's obsession with technologically improving weaponry. The “management” methods of today's agribusiness, reliant as they are on chemical inputs to stimulate life (fertilizers) and terminate life (herbicides) were, as Irene Diamond tells us, “the commercial outgrowths of World War II chemical warfare research.” In Fertile Ground: Women, Earth, and the Limits of Control, Diamond explains, “the macabre connections between war and the methods of the new agripower are not simple. Fertilizers after World War II were so productive that they also encouraged weeds, which under the prevailing logic required herbicides....”

Parrish observes the same twisted logic at play in our forests: “Though tan oaks play a valuable long-term ecological role, they compete for water and space in the near-term with these more desirable (read: marketable) trees. Hack-and-squirt is the cheapest method of eliminating them on the scale companies such as MRC (or Hawthorne Timber, or Sierra Pacific Industries, or Weyerhaeuser) operate on: an immensely large scale.”

Thus even if the timber companies' attacks of decades and centuries past on the forest can be credited with creating larger stands of tan oaks in place of sawn redwoods and firs, thereby creating perfect habitat for edible wild mushrooms, these same timber companies are now hard at work poisoning the tan oaks and other trees favored by the delectable fungi. But timber harvesting isn't the only dangerous and destructive capitalist logic at play in the woods.

As wild mushrooms have become more popular on the tables of the Bay Area's liberal class, it's increasingly possible to spot teams of harvesters tromping about the woods of Mendocino, filling bag after bag for the markets and five star restaurants. Brokers pay heavily discounted prices from these commercial mushroom gatherers and sell high in the cities. Many pickers are migrant farm workers who probably just finished harvesting wine grapes or pears or marijuana. Hopefully the profit drive does not destroy the mushroom commons of Mendocino. Too much picking can be a bad thing, as the matsutake of Japan shows us. Another common mushroom in Mendoland is the Gomphus clavatus, or pig's ear. It looks rather like a boar's ear and has a purple-to-pink-to-brown hue. Pig's ears were once prolific in parts of Europe but have since disappeared due to over-picking, which is interesting because they're not all that sought after. Many mushroom foragers pass over even the best flushes of young pig's ear. I myself enjoy them and always take a few.

The tension between the common gatherers and the profit driven forces has already played out in our state parks, especially on the coast. As Dave Aurora has observed with the California procini, “the increased visibility of the mushroom picking an the changing demographics of the pickers incurred the wrath of the Sierra Club and recreational mushroom clubs, who complained that the state parks on California's northern coast (particularly in Mendocino and Sonoma counties) were being exploited and 'raped' by commercial interests.” The unfortunate result, observes Aurora, is that the California Parks Department has closed all state parks in the region to mushroom hunting, regardless of who's doing it, and for what purposes. The Parks Department relented only in 1991 to allow foraging in Salt Point.

The East Bay's regional parks have banned foraging too, as has the East Bay's water utility EBMUD, which owns huge tracts of rolling oak hills in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Aurora calls this the “tragedy of no commons,” pointing out the absurd ethics of nature conservationists who have banned the collection of mushrooms. Meanwhile corporations like MRC continue their hack and squirt and chop practices. “A whole generation has grown up foraging furtively in the shadows, skulkers and creepers playing hide and seek with the authorities,” wrote Arora in a 2008 paper published in journal of Economic Botany. I can relate, having snuck around private and public domains to pick mushrooms on many an occasion.

Speaking of destructive agricultural practices, large illegal fields of Marijuana can be a nuisance too for mushroom foragers who hike far into the woodland commons of timber land, and state forests in October or November. I've stumbled across a few outdoor guerilla grows. Thankfully the climatic requirements of the mushroom season and pot growing seasons are inversely related. Any buds left in the ground after the first rains are sure to be ruined with mold. The illegal grows, many of them characterized as they are with stoned, armed, and stupid campers greedily guarding their ganga fields, should be long gone when the fungi starts to fruit.

The mushroom pickers of today would do well to think of themselves as salmon fishers, for they have common needs, and common enemies. Both harvests rely on a fickle wild phenomena impossible to tame and make into a commodity or form of property that fits neatly into the capitalist economy. Both the mushroom flushes and salmon runs can be ruined in just a season by the boardroom decisions of the timber barons or the wine alcohol planters. A health salmon fishery needs big tall stands of trees to shade and cradle the upper reaches of the watershed where mature fish spawn and fry live the first phase of life. So too the mushrooms need forests, big, dark, healthy forestlands not subject to the needs of extractive industry.

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