Hunting in Vermont
My eyes scan the forest floor, scan the leaves for anomalies in the lights and darks. I scan the fallen trees, asking myself, is it white pine, maple, oak? And I scan up the living trees for broken branches, dead spots. I know just enough to know they can be found in these places, but not enough to know always when I should be looking up, sideways or down. It’s August, and I’m looking for mushrooms, bun topped mushrooms specifically, the bolete family, pushing up in droves in deciduous and mixed forests.
And in September, when I pass an entire standing dead tree covered from top to bottom in white mushrooms, while hiking Ascutney Mountain in Vermont, Erik asks, “Did you really miss these?!!” I blink, stare, trying to comprehend what I’m looking at. Is it albino Chicken-of-the-Woods? Blink Blink. They look edible, soft, white wings flaring skywards, the gills running down the short belly of the stem. “Oyster mushrooms,” I say finally. Hours of flipping through field guides steep me in unconciously gathered information, that sifts to the upper layers of consciousness now.
Oyster mushrooms. I just wasn’t expecting them in such quantity. Their flesh is pure white, and they look like wings stacked one on top of the next, 3, 4 mushrooms deep, in clusters. The flesh is heavy, and there are beetles living between the pressed layers. My friend Mary Beth and I have to shake them off their meal so that we can plop dozens of fat ones into a few empty sandwich bags.
Back home, I melt an entire stick of butter and saute 2.5 pounds of oyster mushrooms, then add water, tomatoes, and simmer. A cup of fresh parsley and egg yolks stirred in at the end create a thick and creamy yellow and red soup filled with white winged mushrooms. A pot full of hot soup arrives at the wedding reception of a friend and is slurped and licked up by dozens of guests, myself included.
The kitchen table has mushrooms on it, all the time now, mushroom caps laid face down. Olive brown, salmon pink, black, white and lilac grey spores drop onto bits of scrap paper. Mushrooms can look like each other, and spore identification can help mushroom enthusiasts correctly identify a mushroom. Honey mushrooms have white spores, and a look-alike, the Onion Bagel Pholiota have brown spores.
In my hunger to know, I easily learn terms like ‘adnate’ and ‘decurrent’ from the guide books. I can’t go for a walk or a bicycle ride without scanning the trees for mushrooms. I try not to look. I stare at the horizon, but then, I notice a small creek rolling down the hillside on the left, and their moss, and I must look and see what’s growing there. Maybe it will be a King Bolete, or known by the Italians as Porcini.
I pass 3 giant oaks and I slam on the bicycle brakes, lay the bicycle down and crash through tall goldenrods and jewelweed on the edge of the road to reach the airier interior of the forest where I can take a closer look around the oaks. I find Old Man of the Woods, a hairy grey and white mushroom that stains pink, then slowly ink black when handled or cut.
2 days ago, I noticed a spit of forest along the river, lush and fertile, and I wondered who I might find there. Old Ash-Tree Boletes, a fawn colored mushroom that looks like curled oak leaves. The underside has the texture of crisscrossing capillaries and goes from white, to yellow, and finally yellow green as it ages. These were all yellow green, not take home specimens. Instead I found, squeezing from small birch branches like melting, bubbly cheese, Birch Polypores. Soft, with a give to it, I cut the larger specimens. It must be good for something, I reasoned.
Back home, with some book and internet research, I discovered it is in the ranks of the other great medicinal mushrooms such as Reishi and Chaga. Birch polypore is antibacterial, antiviral, antitumor and antiinflammatory. Just make a long cooked tea, a decoction, and enjoy its fruity but deeply bitter flavors. A tumor like fruiting body, curing tumors of the human body. How apt.
It’s October now, and I’m looking for Hen of the Woods, or Maitake, that 5-40 lb brain-like mushroom that grows at the base of old, damaged oaks. I have never found one, but I’ve watched mushroom hunters on youtube discover them, gluttony shining in their eyes.
I’m living and working at Singing River Farm in Chester, Vermont, with farmers Laurel Green and Steve Crofter. I am helping Laurel organize the upstairs section of the barn. Old furniture with broken legs or wicker chairs with blown out seats are moved from one dusty corner to another. Quart and pint jars with glass tops and wire closures are sorted and stacked. Laurel shows me the wrapping paper of the jars, newspapers dated 1949, crisp and yellow.
She brings over 3 gallon jars, their glass misted with cobwebs and dirt. 2 gallons are filled with colorful, large beans, grown by the farmers so long ago right here, in Chester, Vermont. The last gallon held dried wild mushrooms—chantarelles, lion’s mane, boletes, all mixed together, gathered by hands that knew the forest, knew their mushrooms.
Aha! This is proof enough for me that Americans once knew wild mushrooms, and collected them as avidly as their ancestors, and as avidly as Europeans still collect mushrooms.
And here I am, remembering, reviving, an almost lost American tradition.
( A year ago now, I wrote a blog post on mushrooming in Lativa and Lithuania, where the mushroom madness all started: http://www.storiesofliving.com/mushroom-hunting/)