If I die during one of these wet weeks we’ve been having lately, it will be from driving off the road while looking for mushrooms. Yesterday I was motoring home to Nelson County from Hopewell along Route 60 West, in despair because I couldn’t pull safely off the road to collect all the chanterelles that dotted the forest edge.
Most of my spare time these past weeks has been spent out of doors in pursuit of mushrooms. I’m not reading, I’m not writing, I’m not canning. I’ve abandoned all scruples concerning private property rights. If I don’t know the landowner, I sneak. As a forester, I’ve worked in or around the woods all of my adult life, so I’ll have a believable story ready in the unlikely event that I’m caught. “Sorry, but I had to go to the bathroom.” Or, “My dog ran into these woods – have you seen him?” But hardly anyone spends much time outside these days— especially this time of year— in the heat and humidity, with the spiders, mosquitoes, tics, biting flies and chiggers. I’ve yet to encounter anyone.
The record rainfall along with the warm temperatures this time of year have created a bumper crop of fungi. Step just inside the forest and you will be transported to a wonderland of shape and color. Whimsical red toadstools worthy of Tinkerbelle, white fungi that branch for all the world like underwater coral, brilliant orange and yellow shelf fungi on the trunks of rotted stumps, purple, green and red caps. Mushrooms with gills, mushrooms with pores, mushrooms with spines on their undersides—even a mushroom with a yellow surface that turns inky blue when injured; you can actually write notes on this bottom of this mushroom.
Although it’s fun to identify them all, I am searching in particular for those I can eat. I’m not worried about stealing food from someone else’s property because I find that most people hold mushrooms in the same regard they hold snakes: all of them are suspicious and some of them will kill you. They tend to avoid them at all costs. When you ask if you can collect their mushrooms, they tell you to help yourself. When you offer to share your edible finds with them, they say “No thank you!”
Mushrooms can kill you. That’s for sure. Some are so deadly that even if you make it to the hospital, all the doctor can do is monitor your demise. Many others will make you wish you were dead. But I’m not worried about that for two reasons.
1. There are worse ways to die. For that knowledge, I have my father to thank.
Watching him struggle with Alzheimer’s in his last few years was difficult for me, but it was excruciating for him. My determination not to go that way has given me the freedom to embark on riskier endeavors here in my fifties. If the river’s up and I want to be on it, I don’t wait until someone can go with me. There are worse deaths than drowning. If I make a mistake in mushroom identification, so be it. At least I was sauntering through peaceful woods, dog at my side.
2. I have a guidebook. For that, I have my friend Ann’s father to thank.
Dr. Easterling was a surgeon in my hometown of Hopewell. His daughter is one of my best friends. When I was a kid, I felt intimidated by him. Once we went sailing with him and when he went to trim the sails, he began to bark out orders. I didn’t know the name of all the lines and couldn’t respond as quickly as he would have liked. We could see his frustration mounting like an ocean wave. Not knowing where it might break made me nervous. It was easy to imagine him in the operating room, snapping out commands, “Scalpel!” And woe be unto the nurse that wasn’t Johnny-on-the-spot.
But as Ann and I became competent adults, it was easy to be around him, to converse with him. When I married Kevin, Dr. Easterling gave us a knife as a wedding gift. “I always thought every kitchen should have a good carving knife,” he wrote. This is the best I’ve ever found. Ever the surgeon.
He and I shared a love of the outdoors. When he retired, he took classes with Tom Brown, the tracker, and though I didn’t realize it until after he died, he’d taken a mushroom class as well.
Ann phoned me one day when she was going through his things. “Daddy had quite a collection of guidebooks,” she said. “Would you like them?” Trees, ferns, wildflowers, snakes, insects. I filed them all on a shelf for future reference. A couple of years ago, when strange fungi popped up in our wooded yard, I wondered. Did he have a mushroom book? He did. And he took notes in it.
Ann was not surprised when I told her this. He took notes on everything, according to her. He would sit on the side of a patient’s bed prior to surgery and sketch the organ that was to be removed, or the bone to be reset, drawing a literal picture for the person, all in ink, right there on the white bed sheet.
The book contains a key that allows me to determine the exact mushroom that I have based on a number of characteristics such as shape, texture, color, and whether the underside of the cap has gills or pores. Once I think I’ve identified my mushroom, the authors tell me the type of habitat in which the fungus typically grows, what time of year I’m likely to find it, and whether or not it is considered edible. That’s where Dr. Easterling’s notes come in handy.
He must have been a wonderful student in class. He was certainly a copious note taker. His careful printing further instructs me: Choice, a note will read. Sometime the word choice will be underlined once or twice, and sometimes followed by one to three exclamation points. “Edible, but few like it,” he writes under the picture of a dark warty mushroom aptly named Old Man of the Woods. “Disagreeable,” he advises me about another. “Poisonous,” he writes under a mushroom that looks like bleached coral. “Good, choice, cook it!” he scribbles under the honey mushroom. “Caution,” he warns me in red, beneath the early morel. It resembles another mushroom which is poisonous. “Deadly poisonous!!” he shouts about the mushroom known as the destroying angel.
The time I’ve spent in the woods with his guidebook, his handwriting, his instructions, makes me feel as if I’ve had the pleasure of his company for the afternoon— a decade after his passing.
As the saying goes, there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters. But there are no old bold mushroom hunters. I haven’t taken a class, and Dr. Easterling’s not here, so my rule is to collect only those mushrooms under which he has written, “Safe for beginners.” This leaves me with more choices than one might expect.
The black morel is safe for beginners, as are the sponge mushroom and the thick-footed morel. The brightly colored sulphur shelf and the subdued hen-of-the woods, along with the black horn-of-plenty and the yellow-orange chanterelles are all safe for amateurs like me.
This week, that is all I need to know. The chanterelles have risen from the ground as quickly as the water has risen in the Tye River after all this rain, and I come home daily with baskets of yellow-orange trumpets and black horns-of-plenty. Kevin is as excited as I am as we chop them up with our carving knife, then sauté them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Delicious!