Fledging foragers beware: once you begin learning how to recognize edible mushrooms, you will never see the forest in the same way again. Just as growing your own vegetables for the first time changes the way you look at supermarket shelves and industrial corn fields, finding your meals in the forest alters the way you look at the landscape. This paradigm shift is empowering, even revelatory, but it can also be dangerous. Indeed, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan warns the aspiring forager that nature can start to feel like one vast grocery store, where everything is free for the taking (though potentially poisonous). “It was almost as if I had donned a new pair of glasses that divided the natural world into the possibly good to eat and the probably not,” he explains. And all this was before he even went out in the woods and tried his luck at foraging for the first time, when he was merely an “incipient forager, a forager-in-waiting,” eagerly awaiting his hunting license and a foray with a mycophilic friend (285). It seems our evolutionarily acquired forager mentality is so deeply rooted in our minds that even the mere expectation of foraging can rouse it. Though he concedes that the nature-as-delicatessen mentality “might not have been the most exalted way of experiencing nature,” it did grip his attention “in a way it hadn’t been engaged in years.”
This is exactly what I find so magical about foraging – it engages your attention in new, often surprising, but always rewarding ways. The human perceptual field is intrinsically selective, so when your eyes are constantly peeled for mushrooms, you will start to notice more of certain things (like unusual types of insects, newts, and moss) at the expense of others (like the clouds in the sky above). In fact, many mushroom hunters make the mistake of exclusively looking down, which has caused me to get lost in the woods on more than one occasion. In August, looking down (combined with greed, carelessness, and a desire to access remote, private foraging spots) took the lives of 18 Italian mushroom hunters in ten days.
Another danger of only looking down is that it can cause the forager to lose sight of the bigger picture in terms of tree species composition and ecology. While the random, haphazard foraging approach can work at times, I am much more likely to be successful if I have a particular mushroom in mind. Say, for example, I were to go foraging tomorrow morning. Instead of driving to a random patch of woods and scanning the ground while hiking without any particular target, I would first assess the “forage-cast,” as I like to call it. In particular, I would consider the temperature and soil moisture, and from this I would determine which mushrooms might be popping up in the Ithaca area. Then, if I already had a tried and true spot for one of these species I might go directly there, knowing exactly what to look for and where to look for it. Otherwise, I might go to a type of forest known to support a mushroom that could be fruiting at this time of year. If it was particularly dry (as it is right now), I would be sure to stay to lowlands and other wet sites regardless of forest ecology.
Not only does this approach ensure that I go to spots where mushrooms are likely to be popping up, but it also means I know how to focus my perceptual field to increase my chances of coming home with a full basket. For example, my approach to finding chanterelles, with their brilliant egg yolk color, is very different from my approach to finding their highly camouflaged relatives the black trumpet. I can run through the forest with a broad visual field and still spot chanterelles, whereas I often wind up on my hands and knees when pursuing black trumpets. Similarly, biking through suburbs can be a good method for spotting hen of the woods, which grows in large brown clumps at the base of hardwood (usually oak) trees or stumps, but only if your attention is directed and tuned into your target.
On Michael Pollan’s first foraging adventure, his friend and teacher Angelo made chanterelles the target species based on the time of year and rainfall pattern. Though Pollan was at first “blind” even as Angelo spotted chanterelle after chanterelle, suddenly he had a perceptual epiphany. “I began to understand what it meant to have my eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me,” he explains in The Omnivore’s Dilemma (368). Without the tangible (and seasonally timed) target of chanterelles, he likely would never have found any worthwhile mushrooms, though even with this target he was still “blind” until he experienced the perceptual paradigm shift.
This is why many consider mushroom hunting to be an art; it requires a delicate balance between planning and improvisation. You increase your chances of success by doing your homework beforehand and knowing what to look for, yet mushrooms like to defy expectations and logic. You never know when you’ll find the unexpected mushroom fruiting outside of its normal parameters, and sometimes the mushroom you are so fastidiously searching for might be right beneath your feet, only indicating its presence by a slight bulge in the leaf cover on the forest floor.
Thus, while my pre-foraging preparations may be more intellectual, when I step outside and actually begin the hunt, I enter a state that is akin to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.” I sometimes become so thoroughly absorbed in the activity that I stop thinking or processing. Instead, I am acutely aware of my direct sensory experience, particularly sight and scent, and have the image of the mushroom I am looking for almost superimposed over the landscape in my mind’s eye.
This is the state of rapture that I imagine our dog Judah enjoys as he tromps through the forest. Without any preconceived route, he is possessed by sensory intuition, following any sign of an animal (be it bear, butterfly, or shadow) to hunt without stopping once to think. This quality of open-minded awareness and spontaneous movement is a meditation on alertness and instinct, and often results in unique finds or experiences for the human and canine forager alike. While I envy the ease and reliability with which Judah enters this often ecstatic state of flow, his lack of premeditation does occasionally get him into trouble (think skunks and porcupines). Luckily, being human, I have enough foresight to think twice before taking a bite of that pretty white destroying angel on the side of the trail.
While our instincts facilitate our enjoyment of mushroom foraging and can lead us to good finds, they are a worthless, even deceiving, guide when it comes to distinguishing edible from poisonous species. The destroying angel, one of the deadliest and most common mushrooms in North America, looks as innocuous as the white button mushrooms you find at the grocery store. Conversely, many of the safest and most delicious wild mushroom species look alien or poisonous to the neophyte going on intuition alone, such as chicken of the woods, lion’s mane, cinnabar red chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, hedgehog mushrooms, morels and black trumpets. Despite being divinely edible, the black trumpet looks like it should be in a flower vase on the Addams Family’s table instead of on your focaccia, earning it the name trompette de la mort, or “trumpet of death” in France.
A couple years back, before I knew the difference between a black trumpet and a black lab, I was chanterelle hunting with Jenna when she spotted a patch of bizarre looking, wrinkled black fungi growing out of a clump of moss. They were fragrant and distinctive enough to warrant identification, so we took one home along with our chanterelle harvest. We were delighted (though shocked) to discover it was a choice edible, and the next day we returned to the spot and took home a basketful. As much as I love chanterelles, they paled in comparison to their trumpet-shaped relatives, their exquisite and heady flavor seeming to embody the essence of the forest itself. Jenna’s find was not a fluke – she has since proven to have a highly developed eye for black trumpets, making her an invaluable member of any foraging brigade!