Becoming Friends With Mushrooms – An Interview With Ryane Snow

Editor’s Note:

Dr. Ryane Snow was one of the coolest mycophiles I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. He was a radiant soul whose presence was made up of equal parts warmth and intuitive intellect. I want to share a recording of a cool story that he told me at SOMA Camp (the queen-mother of all mushroom camps) in 2011, because it sums up my experience with learning about mushrooms: once you get to know your fungi, they become good friends.

Dr. Ryane Snow
Dr. Ryane Snow on a Chinese myco-excursion. Photo by Dan Long.

Albert Einstein was once asked “What is the BIG question?” in his later years, and he simply replied, “Is the universe friendly?” Over the course of time that I have been pursuing mushrooms, I have come to the conclusion that yes, this is indeed the most important question to contemplate, and in my personal opinion it’s pretty obvious that the universe is a friendly place. Dr. Ryane Snow was one of the people who helped me come to that conclusion, even though our paths crossed but a few times.

My passion for mushrooms and mycology really kicked off in 2008 while living in the Pacific Northwest. My first golden chanterelle hunt was one of the most exciting things I had done in years, and it kindled a spark of curiosity and adventure that’s sustained me ever since.  However, I did not truly understand the breadth and depth of the mushroom-loving community until 2010-2011, when I received a grant to produce a radio documentary called Crazy About Mushrooms, which is an hour-long radio special about mushrooms and the people who love them. If you want to listen to the documentary, you can stream it here.

The hardest part of this project was editing all the material I that collected. I gathered interviews much like I gather mushrooms – with a fever that borders on greed, and so it was challenging to create a single hour-long piece out of the hundreds of hours of interviews and field recordings I made.

However, now that I am dedicating more and more time to this blog, I feel like it’s appropriate to dust off some of the cooler interviews that I sadly did not fit within the short confines of a single hour of public radio. I figure it’s best to begin with one of the most dynamic and interesting people I met during my travels to “meet the mushroom folk,” Dr. Ryane Snow.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Dr. Ryane Snow: Organic Chemist, Chinese Herbalist, Surfer, Mycophilosopher

Amanita gemmata
One of Dr. Ryane Snow’s photographs of the beautiful Amanita gemmata, the gemmed Amanita. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Dr. Ryane Snow was a much beloved organic chemist, practitioner of Chinese medicine, and extremely good mushroom identifier and foray leader who passed away in 2012. Ryane’s love affair with mushrooms and botany came about during a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford in 1970. At the time, Ryane was researching the chemistry of various natural products, particularly those with medicinal properties. As a part of this, Ryane began taking excursions into California’s wild places to collect plants and mushrooms, and this kicked off a love affair with fungi that would sustain Ryane’s interest for many years.

Dr. Ryane Snow served the mycophile community in countless ways; he was a member of the Taxonomy and Toxicology Committees for the Mycological Society of San Francisco, which is the largest and one of the most active citizen mycologist groups in the nation. In addition, he wrote articles for Mycena magazine, outlining the chemistry of different mushroom species, and in later years he started to lead mushroom walks for community groups, alternative high school students, and many others. In addition, Ryane was a close friend and colleague of many of mycology’s brightest stars, from Paul Stamets to David Arora and Dr. Andrew Weil.

In later years, Ryane moved to Mendocino, which is pretty much a mushroomer’s Valhalla. He practiced Chinese medicine and taught Qi Gong, surfing, and wild mushroom identification while living on the north coast of California and was an active and lively member of the mycophile community, and his cheerful visage was a common sight at California’s fungus fairs, mushroom camps, and mycological society meetings for many years.

Coprinus comatus
Coprinus comatus, the shaggy mane or lawyer’s wig mushroom, was beloved by Ryane Snow. Public Domain image.

As for my interaction with Dr. Ryane Snow, I met him at SOMA Camp in 2011, and at once I knew he was something special. I sat in on a lecture that he did about the history of medicinal mushrooms in human society, and I was struck by his humble charisma and warmth right off the bat. When it came time to mingle, I introduced myself to Ryane and asked if I could conduct an interview with him, to which he graciously agreed.

Later in the evening, we sat on a bench in the cool California night (SOMA Camp is in January each year), and he regaled me with all kinds of stories about his background, including his work as the executive director of the PharmChem Foundation, which is a nonprofit group that studies and educates the public about street drugs. Once we’d delved into his story and he’d sketched the broad details of his life, the conversation turned philosophical. You see, one thing I always asked people during my interviews was whether or not they dreamed about mushrooms, because it’s a common experience for those who are smitten with fungi. He nodded enthusiastically and told me bluntly, “It’s not just that. The mushrooms speak to me.”

Intrigued, I pressed him to tell me what he meant by that. Here is the story he told me.


The Balance Between Rationality and Enchantment

A photo by Sarcoscypha coccinea by Dr. Ryane Snow. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
A photo by Sarcoscypha coccinea by Dr. Ryane Snow. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Dr. Ryane Snow was an important interviewee for me, because he reinforced what I had started to suspect about the impact of studying fungi: it’s an excellent way to blend rational thinking with genuine childlike delight and enchantment. That he was a doctor of organic chemistry, a scholar from UC Berkeley and Stanford and a surfing, mushroom-obsessed lover of life all at the same time reminded me that the world is simply too complex and beautiful to be bifurcated into “rational actors” and “intuitive hippies.” Instead, through mushrooms, I felt like Ryane had discovered an important truth; you can in fact have your cake and eat it too.

This is one of the most important lessons that I think mushrooms can teach us. The human intellect and capacity for systematic organization of the world into discrete parts is profound and has shaped us as a species, but in our quest for knowledge we often neglect the power of the mysterious, the curious, and the unknown to inspire us and spark our mythic imaginings.

To live a full life, I think, is to enjoy both the rational and the mysterious, drawing on each in equal measure in order to form an impression of a friendly, loving universe. For Dr. Ryane Snow and me, mushrooms held the door wide and ushered us into a place where neither magic nor science prevailed over the other, but rather served complementary roles in evolving our understanding of the great mysteries and wonders of life itself.


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