Pearls before Swine: Of Rabid Secrecy & Mycophiles

At the most recent mushroom class, the topic of chanterelles came up. Specifically, the question of where to find them.

When one of his fellow instructors asked, with the sort of tone that implies a long-standing joke, where he’d found the chanterelles that he brought to class, the lead instructor replied, wryly, that he’d found them where he was looking for them.

The secrecy of mushroom hunters is of course nothing new.

Even the most generous of people will clam up when the topic of favorite mushroom spots comes up, and some go to absurd lengths to protect the integrity of their secret patches. A friend in California, who hunts boletes with his Italian father, has been known to take an especially circuitous route on the way to the woods. I don’t think blindfolds were involved, but then I’ve never been mushroom hunting with them.

If you ask me where I find my mushrooms, I’ll give you specifics about habitat and generalities about location: oh, you know, on the south side of Mt. Baker.

Partly it’s a perception of scarcity and the recognition that we’re dealing with a relatively rare commodity. Even if you’re not a commercial picker, there is economic value in mushrooms and other wild foods.

When it comes down to it, I don’t always want to share.

Although I may be greedy about my spots, mushroom hunting for me, as for most recreational pickers, is not existential. My livelihood doesn’t depend on finding enough to sell, nor will my family go hungry this winter if a patch is played out.

Gardening, beekeeping, foraging, all of this for me is supplemental, a source of joy rather than income. (Beekeeping, in particular, is often quite the opposite.) This tempers any frustration I might feel with a day of slow picking–or any garden failures, for that matter.

And yet, in a world of Amazon Prime and Costco, there is a deep pleasure that comes with developing the skills to find food in the forest or to plant a seed so that it bears fruit. There’s something a bit mystical about the whole process, even when we understand the science behind it. What nature returns to us is properly understood as a gift, but this sounds fanciful and antiquated, and so we keep it at arm’s length with talk of yields and returns on commodities.

To hunt for wild mushrooms is to play by the rules of a vast, unseen world of which our quarry is but an ephemeral part. Finding wild mushrooms requires an awareness of how geography, habitat, and climate come together in a given season. It’s art and it’s science, dragged along by dogged persistence.

I suspect that part of the pleasure of mushroom hunting comes from the secrecy itself, which offers a feeling of kinship with something bigger and older and just plain weirder than most of us encounter on a daily basis.

That isn’t something to share with just anyone.






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