By Harry Matthews
After a long cold winter the first signs of Spring are a huge and welcome relief. Everywhere you look forsythia and lilac can be seen throwing great splashes of color across the otherwise bleak land, while the croci push their delicate heads up through the newly soft earth. But wait, there are other things, strange things starting to poke up through the ground as well. From Boletes to Chanterelles, Chicken of the Woods to the prized Morels, our woods and fields will soon be overflowing with wonderful wild mushrooms there for the picking.
Before we go any further be forewarned: wild mushroom foraging can be deadly if you don’t know what you’re doing. Conversely, if you are prudently careful and learn to properly identify our local fungi it in turn can be a deliciously rewarding activity.
I’ve been interested in wild mushrooms for years, ever since first reading Carlos Castaneda in my teens, but never knew enough about them to trust my judgment. That changed when I began learning to identify them from spending time in the woods with my friends Matt Bua and Jared Handelsman, two local artists who also happen to be avid mushroomers. They can both name most of the mushrooms we find on any given day, and for the rare one they can’t immediately identify, they will at least know the family it comes from. I’ve watched Matt fearlessly bend over what to me looks like an absolutely deadly variety, break off a little piece and pop it in his mouth.
“This one is called The Destroying Angel,” he will casually say, “and it will kill you, but you have to eat a lot of it. I just love a small taste of its unique flavor.”
I tell him that I’m more interested in finding mushrooms that won’t kill me no matter how much or how little I eat of it. Without missing a beat he points to a big honking brownish-white mushroom growing under a forsythia bush in the shadow of a great Hemlock.
“Now that is your King Bolete and they are delicious!” he says enthusiastically, plucking it from the ground. “Fry it up with some garlic and olive oil and you have yourself dinner.”
Typically the first mushroom to appear in Spring are the Morels, if you are lucky enough to find some. Possibly because they are harder to find than many of the other local varieties, they are also highly prized and sought after. I’ve heard that those who know of a good spot for Morels guard that secret with their life.
I recently sat down with Matt and Jared to ask them about the hunting and gathering of our wild fungi, where to find them, and when to go.
“The day after a good rain, when the sun is out is always good,” Jared states. “But mushrooms are quirky, rarely following any strict rules. What I’ve found more often is that if I don’t go looking for any one particular mushroom, but instead just allow my perception to shift into a wider and lower periphery, then I’m rarely disappointed with what I find.”
Matt picks it up: “Yeah, when I’m out on a mushroom walk I can feel my body and senses becoming differently tuned, quieter but more hyper-aware of the sounds and smells around me. And sometimes I will be thinking about a certain variety and the next day I’ll find one without even looking for it, as if I willed it to me.”
“Do you have any favorites?” I ask them.
“I’ve been really digging on some of the medicinal varieties like the Reishi and the Chaga,” Jared tells me. “And as for the edibles, I love Black Trumpets, Chanterelles, and Oysters.”
“I’m particular to the Old Man of the Woods,” Matt says, a sly grin creeping onto his lips, “which sort of looks like a punk rock Oreo cookie.”
Jared gets up to make us a pot of Reishi tea, which we sip looking out over the then-snowy landscape. Its taste is earthy and light and reminds me of a delicate Japanese soup. This is a great immunity booster, he tells us, and that, I believe, is the crux of this whole thing: to live more closely to the land we’ve chosen to live on, using what comes wild from the woods, and in the end to learn how to better feed ourselves, our bodies, our minds, and our spirit.