This winter I have seen plenty of mushrooms, but they never seem to make it to the frying pan. Trouble is, I’ve been doing most of my hunting in the realm of dreams. The same thing happens every time – as I float through the bizarre and befuddling dreamscape, out of nowhere I find myself in a hemlock forest heavy with honeys, or a beech grove laden with lion’s mane. I have hit the motherload, and I gleefully reach for my forager’s knife. But before I can even slice into the first fungus, I am overwhelmed with doubt, and my treasure trove begins to feel tenuous.
Suddenly I have switched from undoubting dreamer to skeptical dream analyst. “Wasn’t I just skiing yesterday?” I ask myself. And then, in that fleeting moment of lucidness, I am jolted awake, as the icy air in my barely heated bedroom reminds me why the mushrooms are nowhere to be found.
Even in a dream, when we find an epic patch of mushrooms, our first instinct is to reach for our knife. This is not about greed – it is about gleefulness. Finding a pair of porcini or a clump of chicken of the woods is exciting, but have you ever found (as I have) acres of black trumpets, so densely packed that it is hard not to crush twenty trumpets with your every step? If you forage for long enough, one day you will find yourself in the holy grail of mushrooms, a patch so endless and glorious that it surpasses what even your most tantalizing dreams can conjure.
When you find a patch like this, you will be tickled with delight and disbelief. There is nothing more life affirming and awe inspiring than finding, among the leaf litter and squirrel-strewn acorns, a carpet of pristine, gourmet mushrooms. In this rare state of reverie, you may well forget all rules you have learned about sustainable harvest, as you bend down and begin plucking by the handful. As you delight in the Earth’s cornucopian abundance, your basket will quickly fill itself.
If you are a commercial picker, in a moment like this money really does grow on (or, more accurately, out of) trees, and there is an incentive to harvest with abandon. But even if you are a recreational picker and steadfast tree hugger, you may find yourself picking more than your rightful share and contributing to what ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons.”
Even though some patches may feel inexhaustible when they are fruiting in all their glory, last summer was a reminder that mushrooms are not always so plentiful. As climate change, habitat loss, and overharvesting alter the fabric of the region’s mushroom populations, it behooves us as foragers to harvest responsibly. For most species this means never harvesting more than half of a patch, and favoring more mature specimens that have already released their spores. Keep in mind that the visible mushroom is only a fruiting body; the mycelium that threads its way through leaves, soil, roots, and downed trunks is the organism itself. We are not killing the mycelium when we carefully harvest a mushroom, but we are removing a spore-bearing fruit.
I use even stricter harvesting guidelines for mycorrhizal species such as porcini, chanterelles, and matsutake. These elusive and expensive species are very challenging to cultivate, as they depend on a delicate ecological balance and play an integral role in the health of the forest ecosystem. Japanese buyers pay obscene rates for grade A matsutake buttons, putting immense pressure on Northwestern populations and incentivizing efficient but destructive harvesting methods such as raking vast swaths of ground.
Of course, every now and then even the most prudent forager enjoys a hearty harvest. Fall is the time – lion’s mane, chicken of the woods, and maitake are often so abundant that we can harvest only a third of a patch and still have plenty to share with friends or preserve. If you want a supply to last your family through the winter, try the parasitic honey mushroom, nemesis of forester’s throughout the country. This prolific tree pathogen may be slightly slimy, but once you learn to safely ID it your pantry will never be empty again!