10 Sep
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Death and Delight: Mushroom Hunting

Note: this is a story that originally ran in newspapers in 2012. For some reason, I never posted it. A recent mushroom discovery in my own yard inspired me to run it here.

“One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.”

         “One side of what? The other side of what?” thought Alice to herself.

         “Of the mushroom,” said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight. 

         Alice remained looking thoughtfully at the mushroom for a minute, trying to make out which were the two sides of it; and as it was perfectly round, she found this a very difficult question.  However, at last she stretched her arms around it as far as they would go, and broke off a bit of the edge with each hand.

         “And now which is which? She said to herself, and nibbled a little of the right-hand bit to try the effect…”   

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


         In a way, the caterpillar had it right: one mushroom will have one effect, and the other, well, very very different.  Slice a white puffball (a common local mushroom) in half, and if it’s white inside, it’s ready to cook.  Mistake a pigskin puffball for the white, though, and a visit to the hospital will put dinner on hold for a bit.  That’s why Dr. Bob Kenney’s first piece of advice for those interested in harvesting edible mushrooms is cautious, if facetious: “Go with an expert – not me.”

“Dr. Bob”, as his license plate reads, is a volunteer with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, along with being an Associate Marine Research Scientist for URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography.  Today’s walk at the Kimball Preserve in Charlestown will be an overview of the world of fungi, and definitely not a prelude to dinner preparations.  Aside from the risks involved in eating things picked in the wild, there is also the prohibition against harvesting any plant from Audubon preserves. Before the group ventures out, Dr. Bob offers an introduction.

Dr. Bob Kenney.

Mushrooms, he explains, are only the fruiting part of a fungus.  Fungi are not even actually plants, but an entirely different form of living creature with a complex existence.  They undergo several transformations in their life cycle, only one of which produces the strange, lumpy objects of our walk.  The majority of a fungus’ life is actually spent underground or in rotting logs, transforming into the mushroom as a way of reproducing itself. On the way to reproduction, fungi forms include slime mold.  Yes, it sounds pretty much the way it looks.  A photo Kenney shows is of dog vomit slime mold, and the shot makes it apparent that this will be an easy one to remember.  Another form is the mycelium (my-SEE-lee-um), the threadlike growth visible in rotting logs and on the forest floor, which looks quite like cotton candy.  “Mycelium work to consume forest litter,” Kenney explains.  “Without them, we would be walking through leaves and dead logs that were stacked up over our heads.”

Before the group heads for the outdoors, Kenney offers a last piece of advice: “There are old mushroom hunters, and there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters!”  This is a tricky world the group is entering.

Mushrooming is something of an all-or-nothing pursuit, with a good deal more risk than one might ordinarily imagine while wielding a wicker collecting basket. (Big bad wolves don’t count; no one has seen one around here for a century.) We have been briefed on the “Foolproof Four”, a basic group of easily identifiable edible mushrooms, and of course no one will be foolish enough to eat something without minute examination.

The common names of the Four, like many mushrooms, reflect the colorful vernacular of another time:  chicken mushrooms, which are reputed to taste like the bird; hen of the woods, a favorite among those of Italian descent, who nicknamed it “signorina”. No less impressive names are those whose taste may be the last that one encounters: destroying angel, a tall, ghostly white mushroom with a highly toxic effect; and jack ‘o’ lanterns, whose whimsical appellation comes from the fact that it is bioluminescent.  Its pleasant scent may fool collectors into thinking that it is edible, but the “bold” hunters would be headed for an intense bout of vomiting and diarrhea should they eat it.

And while the Latin names for these are normally rather staid (though a necessity to any serious collector), there are the occasionally mischievous sorts who seem to enjoying poking scientific tradition in the eye.  Take a recently discovered mushroom, characterized in part by its spongy appearance.  Scientists dubbed it spongiforma squarepantsii, or “sponge squarepants”. (If the name isn’t familiar, consult the nearest preadolescent.) Kenney says that the name was initially rejected by the scientific journal in which it was to appear.  However, the long established tradition of allowing the first scientists who discover a new species the honor of naming it held, and so squarepants it indeed remains.

Local mushrooms also have had a variety of practical uses.  In colonial times, well before the emitive qualities of ipecac were known, a child who had swallowed something they shouldn’t have might be given a small piece of a russula.  This common mushroom, with its distinctive red cap, would quickly “bring up” the stomach contents, and possibly save the child.  Another red, this one with white spots on the top, was used as “fly agaric”.  In different parts of the world, fly agaric was a form of pesticide that was blended with sugar water.  Flies and other insects drawn to the deadly mixture would annoy house inhabitants no longer.  Lingzhi mushrooms, with colors resembling pine and mahogany boards, are among the earliest recorded medicinal mushrooms.  Used in East Asia, lingzhi grows locally as well.

One thing all of these mushrooms need is moisture, which has been in short supply this season.  To make matters worse, Dr. Bob explains that the Kimball Refuge sits atop the Charlestown Moraine, the last great ice sheet from the Ice Age.  The glacial till, a gravelly mixture left when the ice melted, means the Refuge has rapid drainage.   This in turn accounts for the crunch of dry leaves beneath the group’s feet, along with the infrequent presence of mushrooms.  The rain that does fall often drains into the soil too quickly to generate mushrooms in a dry season.

Marbled salamander.

This matters little to the group, as Dr. Bob pauses regularly to identify calls from unseen birds, as well as salamanders uncovered by a young member of the hunters.  The first is a red-back salamander, which Kenney says is actually the most common animal in New England.  The young man’s next amphibian find is the much more unusual marbled salamander.  While the population of this woodland inhabitant is relatively stable in southern and western parts of Rhode Island, it is a threatened species in Massachusetts.  The discovery is an unscheduled treat in the adventure.

In the end, those on the walk likely have made several discoveries: first, that wandering in the woods is still great fun even without an abundance of mushrooms (though several varieties were found in spite of the conditions); second, a good field guide such as the one published by Audubon is an excellent source of information, even if one never intends to eat what they find; third, that eating wild mushrooms without complete certainty of their species may result in unpleasant adventures similar to those of Alice:

“…the next moment she felt a violent blow underneath her chin: it had struck her foot!  She was a good deal frightened by this very sudden change, but she felt that there was no time to be lost, as she was shrinking rapidly; so she set to work at once to eat some of the other bit… ‘Come, my head’s free at last!’ said Alice in a tone of delight, which changed into alarm in another moment, when she found that her shoulders were nowhere to be found: all she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck which seemed to rise like a stalk out of a sea of green leaves that lay far below her.”

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