After a rainy day at the office, I head straight for the woods to catch the last rays of daylight. It is already too dark to hunt, unless you know exactly where to look. Maitake is on my mind, and I am jumping from oak to oak in search of a hefty hen of the woods (Grifola frondosa).
I dodge a hailstorm of acorns, wishing I had worn a helmet as I zero in on a grandfather oak tree. It appears empty, but I crawl around the base, cobwebs in my curls, convinced that this tree will not let me down.
As I pull back the freshly fallen leaves, a thriving microcosm of the forest ecosystem reveals itself. A juicy earthworm and a confused newt wiggle away from me, and as I taste a speck of loamy black soil, I am reminded of the quiet wonder of little things.
The old oak was a giver, and soon it had revealed a tiny maitake, one that could not have been more than a day old. I admired the little hen’s tight, graceful form, before tucking it in beneath a blanket of leaves and walking softly out of the woods. My first maitake of the season would stay in the ground, as I know it meant more mature specimens would turn up in the light of day.
Sure enough, 2015 already has proven to be my best maitake year since my formative foraging days in Ithaca. Southern Vermont, it seems, is loaded with older oak trees, and the late September deluge coincided perfectly with the prime window for maitake fruitings. The nutritious and medicinal maitake epitomizes the umami flavor that makes mushrooms unique.
We even have a family of maitake-loving insects that have taken residence in our home, after an enormous hen gifted to me by my father turned out to be laced with a labyrinth of boring beetles. I threw the maitake in our uncovered compost bowl on a dark evening, and within minutes the beetles had been summoned out of their food source and had swarmed our ceiling lamp. That night I feel asleep to a soundtrack of humming maitake beetles, reminding me of the abundance of autumn.