Since I always do what I always do I must be doing it again.
I started hunting wild mushrooms when I was allowed to get up and move around after an operation to save my left eye. The retina detached in protest sometime during the Bow Wow Boogie when I was in my fifties, probably dehydrated, running around and crashing into people like I was twenty. That was the year after I shattered two bones in my hand. It was like I couldn’t take a hint. A week after the operation I was allowed up and could walk but was supposed to only look down. So I became a hunter of wild mushrooms.
When they were drawing up the medicines to keep me quiet for the operation, twelve years without a drink or a drug, I knew the little syringe was Fentanyl, a very pure highly addictive narcotic.
“How much do you weigh?”
“Three hundred twenty-seven pounds.”
“You carry it well.”
I was surprised that I didn’t enjoy the drug. It was sort of bright and giggly but it was like being made to stay inside and watch cartoons on a sunny day when I wanted to go out and play. It didn’t help being in a hospital and knowing they were poking and cutting my eye and I had just signed that piece of paper that said I might go blind.
When I needed operations on my knees the orthopedist offered me the option of doing it under local.
“You’re kidding, right? I’m looking forward to being unconscious for a bit.”
There’s a moment right after you swallow the first bite of a new mushroom that you are 99+% sure is OK when the less than 1% chance that it’s not, looms large. There’s a halo of attention around eating a new mushroom that can last for several days.
On a Spring walk with my dog I noticed a dozen or so Black Morel mushrooms under a tree in the yard of a house about a mile from ours. There was a car in the driveway and a light on. Before I know what I’m doing, I’m gathering up the mushrooms and stuffing them into my pockets and the dog poop bag I usually bring along. My dog is whining and looking around nervously. Like she doesn’t cause me plenty of embarrassment pooping wherever she likes, chasing after other dogs.
I could have come back at night. What if the person at home looked out and maybe even recognized me. Maybe I was even their pediatrician. Knowing the people or not, knocking on their door to ask if you can take mushrooms they probably didn’t know were there seems too strange. I grab the mushrooms, take off quickly but not so quickly as to attract attention and find several more morels on my way home. They are delicious.
Once you’ve risked death by eating something and it actually tastes good it’s a very rewarding stimulus and strongly reinforces all the steps that went before so that time place shape color weather all acquire richness and meaning.
“It is much more important to not eat a poisonous mushroom than it is to eat an edible one.”
I read the sentence over and over. I know it’s wrong but I can’t figure out exactly where the error lies.
“I think I’m getting the hang of it.” said my wife picking up another mushroom. This was prior to the unfortunate incident. I was gratified she was taking an interest in my hobby. You can spend a lifetime not seeing mushrooms but once you see them you will always see them. It’s not something you can just stop. Seeing mushrooms takes place somewhere between the brain stem and the cortex. My head will snap around sometimes when I’m driving and I’ll realize that I must have seen something that looked like a mushroom.
Once you notice mushrooms it’s hard to not want to do something about them, even if it’s only to know what their name is. But eventually the thing that knowing about them is leading to is eating them. I was surprised to read descriptions of the smell, texture and taste of some of the most thoroughly unappealing, unappetizing and even deadly poisonous mushrooms. There are some very dedicated people a good deal crazierthan I walking around the woods. If I was going to put my life and bodily organs at risk, it was only going to be for something that tasted really good.
The Porcini or Cep mushroom, Boletus Edulis, is at or very near the top of everyone’s list. They can be up to a foot across, weigh over 2 lbs and are virtually impossible to confuse with any poisonous mushrooms. Prior to the incident, I found cooked and ate many very good tasting mushrooms, some of them rated as almost as good as Boletus Edulis and I found a few that might have been the Porcini. I couldn’t be sure because they were well past their prime and most of the way back to being dust.
There’s a house in my neighborhood with surveillance cameras and warning signs and big black Lincolns that come and go. The house is set way back and the lawn is huge. What if there were Porcini mushrooms growing on that lawn. Would I black my face and come back in the wee hours? Could I train my dog to fetch mushrooms? Were those cameras real? Did the people in the house have a sense of humor? Did they like mushrooms? If it was a Mafia guy maybe he remembered Porcini mushrooms from his childhood and I’d be in the position of having to be damn sure of being right and cooking them just right, hoping against hope they weren’t the ‘bitter bolletes’. Bitter bolletesaren’t poisonous but they do taste horrible. The Mafia guy would be trying to spit this bitter taste out of his mouth. “Porcini, my ass.” And I’d be going for a ride somewhere.
Collecting mushrooms sounds so gentlemanly.
Wild mushrooms spring up over night and are fit for eating for a day or two, three at the most.
While they say there are no sure fire ways to tell poisonous mushrooms, avoiding the ones that glow in the dark and smell like death seems like a safe practice. There are mushrooms that smell like rotting fish that cook up nicely. The fact that some of the very poisonous Amanitas taste good goes against much of what I hoped to be true about life. I imagine some poor irrevocably fatally poisoned S.O.B talking to fellow mushroom collectors on his deathbed.
“At first I didn’t think it tasted like much but then…”
Ever since taking me to have my stomach pumped, Barb has had a negative attitude towards my fascination with mushrooms. I’ve explained to her that the mushroom I ingested only rarely caused fatalities and then it is usually in older debilitated people with liver failure. Debilitated older people with kidney or liver failure have no business eating wild mushrooms unless they are utterly and completely sure of their identification.
In the interest of being helpful I tried to give a neighbor some information about some edible mushrooms growing in his yard. “Sautéed in butter and a little garlic salt,” I offered. He was polite enough but didn’t seem likely to take personal advantage of his good luck. Nor did he offer to let me pick them.
The mushroom growing out of my neighbor’s stump was the Armillaria Mellea or honey mushroom, so called because of it’s honey color rather than a sweet honey taste. Armillaria is in many ways the most successful organism on the planet. While most mushrooms are recyclers that breakdown dead or dying plants and return the raw materials to the earth, the Honey Mushroom will take down perfectly healthy trees and sometimes an entire forest. Most of the organism consists of small black cords that travel miles and miles and miles. The mushrooms you see are the flower of a much much bigger organism. There’s a single Armillaria that covers most of Oregon, and some of Northern California. In Europe there’s an Armarilla that stretches from Tuscany to just outside of Barcelona.
When you walk through the woods, how much of the living matter there is animal including bugs and birds and all? 2-3%. Plants trees bushes moss grass flowers, most of what you see and think off when you think of a walk in the woods make up 15-20% depending. The rest is all a very quiet world of fungi. The mushrooms you see aren’t so much the tip of the iceberg as dew drops on top of the ocean.
I don’t want to make people worry and it seems on the face of it wrong to conceive of a mushroom having intent, but it makes basic good sense to be careful about being too sure what a thousand mile long, 3 billion ton, contiguous, ten thousand year old organism that eats forests and can cross mountains and rivers, is and isn’t up to.
Mushrooms have six genders, one that is sort of male two that are sort of female and three that are something else.
Straight out without a lot of qualifiers, I should admit that I am not a careful person. The reasons don’t matter. The fact that I have managed to achieve certain things doesn’t matter. That I am aware of my un-carefulness isn’t as helpful as you might think. My parents were told that I was a bright boy whose spelling was in the retarded range and whose handwriting was the worst they’d ever seen. I find it embarrassing that I spell so badly. I will do almost anything to avoid being embarrassed but no effort either on my part or the part of any teacher has ever dented my utter bafflement when it comes to choosing which, how many and in what order to put letters down.
Somewhere in high school I came across Mark Twain’s statement that it shouldn’t be held against someone if they knew more than one way to spell a word. Years later, at a conference on ADHD a colleague said that Huck Finn had ADHD and would be treated today and have a better life. I said that the best that treatment could achieve would be to make him into a second rate Becky Thatcher, and we should worry, at least a little, about that.
I had actually hoped that wild mushrooms might be helpful with my un-carefulness, that the stakes involved might have an alerting focusing effect.
First you have to be scanning for mushrooms as you walk along. If you’re not looking for anything maybe you won’t see anything. If you look for mushrooms maybe you’ll see other things but at least you’re looking… I think that’s what I thought… And then you find something mushroom like. And here’s where I thought the carefulness would come in: I would be picking and maybe eating something that would either taste incredibly good or would poison me.
When I was gnawing on this rubbery non-descript piece of crap that was supposed to be sweet and delicate it didn’t occur to me that I had made a mistaken identification. I was going to write the authors in question to tell them that the Sweetbread mushroom had an indifferent taste and a disagreeable rubbery texture,
Fifteen minutes or so after eating dinner during which I served the new mushroom dish to myself and not to my wife, my heart starts to race, there are painful muscle spasms in the back of my throat and sweat starts pouring off me. I remembered seeing a mushroom with a skull and crossbones under it that was called the Sweating Mushroom. Funny name, I had thought.
“I think I might have made a mistake with the mushrooms.” Said softly.
“What’s that, Dear”?
“I think I made a mistake with the mushrooms,” I said too loudly and clearly, an octave above where I usually speak. Had I been sure I had ingested a less than fatal dose I would have just gone quietly to bed, turned out the lights and hoped for the best.
It doesn’t help that I’m on the staff of the hospital where I went to get my stomach pumped. Had I been thinking more clearly I would have gone elsewhere and maybe used another name.
“Doctor,… what are you doing here?”
“I was hoping maybe you could start an IV, run some saline, and pump out my stomach.”
“Why are you dripping sweat?”
“Funny you should notice that.”
There are six separate ways mushrooms can be toxic. I would have thought one or two would have been plenty. The less toxic ones make you very sick right away. With the ones that kill you, you feel fine for several days and then your liver dies and you follow shortly thereafter. Feeling sick as a dog and with sweat pouring off me so soon after my mushroom snack was a good sign.
“At least it’s not an Amanita,” I comforted myself.
What I had was Muscarine poisoning that shuts down the sympathetic nervous system causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, painful constriction of the pharyngeal muscles, intense sweating, profuse tearing and salivation; a relative bargain.
“I have a piece of the mushroom I ate and the Audubon guide to mushrooms open to the Sweating mushroom right here.” The Sweetbread Mushroom was right under it. “They look a lot alike don’t you think?”
My mind is like a lynch mob. If you know that about yourself, why on earth would you collect cook and eat wild mushrooms?
I was so pleased with myself when I found what I thought were sweetbread mushrooms. They weren’t chewed up by insects the way so many of the edibles were. There were so many of them, maybe I’d be able to make wild mushrooms for a big group.
So now, a few days after the unfortunate incident, for the first time in many months I’m taking a walk without a basket or paper bag. I’ve promised my wife in a solemn manner that I will never ever collect or eat wild mushrooms again.
On my return from my walk, walking into my own driveway, I can’t believe it and don’t blame anyone who has trouble believing it and still can’t believe it myself, right behind the wall under the Ash tree is a small modest patch of what can only be the sweetbread mushroom. Really.
My wife isn’t home. I take one to make a spore print, hiding it behind some books in my study. It’s pink, confirming that it is indeed the sweetbread mushroom. I didn’t go back and pick them or eat the one I had picked but I plan to be back waiting at that spot next year when my wife will be in a better mood.
I like to think of it not so much as a lack of carefulness as a wish to move forward.