Every October as the wild mushroom season nears its inevitable end, a feeling of desperation sets in as I scramble to get out and collect the last of the harvest. My approach to foraging, usually patient and calculated, becomes decidedly more frantic as I find myself sprinting from oak to oak, fueled by visions of a well-stocked larder. As I check each and every oak for a roosting hen, I envision Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with maitake and lion’s mane – the grandeur of the harvest illuminating the darkest days.
We have grown spoiled, numbed, by the fossil-fueled supermarket and its endless supply of mediocre and chemically-laden produce. Perhaps it is just a primitive reflex, a relic of my hunter-gatherer heritage, but as we enter October I am beset by an instinct to hunt, harvest and preserve before I hunker down aside the woodstove and sip on chaga tea.
Sometimes my late season hunts have been wildly productive – a matsutake revelation, a maitake on Main Street, a beech graveyard and a lion’s mane lair. Back in Ithaca, New York – hen and lion country – the sheer volume of the fall harvest could be staggering. We lived like mushroom kings, savoring cream of maitake soup and hosting tasting parties to share the panoply of fall flavors – earthy, nutty, buttery, fishy, fruity, floral, herbal, umami.
This fall I have been busy training a fledgling forager, one who has not yet graduated to solid foods but already gazes out at the forest with the whimsy of a woodland sprite. As I stroll down a sandy riverbank, past honeys, late-fall oysters and turkey tails, I am quiet and contemplative as I reflect on a year marked by the loss of one family member and the birth of another. The mycelium beneath my feet, a vast and enigmatic web connecting life and death, silently readies itself for winter.