Misunderstanding Mycology: How to Explain Mushroom Hunting to Family and Friends

Editorial Note:

Well folks, it’s been one heck of a week at my day job, which means I have had little time to dedicate to writing blogs. I am working on a series about chanterelle mushrooms that you can look out for in the next week or two. Rest assured, it’s well on its way, so if you want to learn about the different sorts of chanterelles that grow in North Carolina, as well as chanterelle relatives like the delicious black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus fallax, stay tuned!

In the meantime, here is a silly little post about how to convince your friends and relatives that mushroom hunting is fun, safe, and worth trying out sometime! If you like what you read, you might wish to take a peek at a similarly silly post I wrote a few weeks ago about how to evade detection while mushroom hunting, as well as another bit on how to make the most of mushroom hunting forays!

Yours in Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Explaining Mushroom Hunting to the Uninitiated

To those who have never gone mushroom hunting, the prospect of gathering wild fungi for the table or scientific study can seem a little peculiar. To others, mushroom hunting sounds downright dangerous, and sometimes people pepper me with loaded questions (Have you ever poisoned yourself? Do you even know what you’re doing?) and lambasted me for doing something so “inherently dangerous” as mushroom hunting. In my experience, some people will simply never understand mushroom hunting, and that’s totally fine by me. After all, it decreases competition for morel mushrooms and other delicious but relatively hard-to-find edible mushrooms in the woods, and I am more than happy to acknowledge that mushroom hunting is not to everyone’s taste. However, there are some people I meet who are skeptical of mushroom hunting, and I feel inclined to explain it to them in such a way as to set their mind at ease, and perhaps even entice them to go mushroom hunting themselves.

Mycology meme large
A meme that adequately describes some people’s reactions to mushroom hunting. H/T Alan Rockefeller for this one.

 

If you are like me, you enjoy sharing your passions with others, and derive satisfaction from turning people onto interesting topics. So, if there’s a mycophobe in  your life who you think would actually love mushroom hunting if only they would give it a try, here are a few silly strategies to help them understand your hobby a little better!

Take Them Mushroom Hunting!

One of the best ways to help someone understand the joys of mushroom hunting is to simply take them out in the woods with you. The only thing I would say about this, however, is that mushroom hunting is not fun for everyone, so I try to remain outcome-independent and make the neophyte feel welcome to tell me that my hobby is lame!

However, in other circumstances, I have been quite successful in getting uninitiated people out mushroom hunting, and some of them have become avid mushroom foragers themselves. A few years ago, I took a good friend out mushroom hunting north of San Francisco. At the time, I was conducting interviews for a radio documentary I made about mushrooms and the people who love them (Crazy About Mushrooms, Conversations With Fungus Fanatics…if you want to listen to it, you can access it for free here). When we returned home from mushroom hunting, I hooked up my recording gear and interviewed her about the experience, because I was curious to hear a novice’s perspective on our activities. This is what she had to say:

Gwynn mushroom hunting
My friend Gwynn Tavares on her first mushroom hunt, holding an Agaricus. Photo by Anna McHugh.

 

“The last time I think I went out into the woods, I was a teenager. I’m nearing 30 now, and I just moved out of LA, and finally getting back to the California north coast has been very nice. I never trusted mushroom hunting, and now that I have done it, and I found my first chanterelle today, I see mushrooms differently. I always saw them as these organisms that I always passed by, and I always carefully washed my hands afterwards, you know, thinking I’d end up like one of those people who gets the bad ones… Now I feel like I have this little secret, that I can go out and I can sneak off and find these mushrooms, and people may look at me strange, but it will be my own funny little secret… It’s been a while since I have had something that’s kind of childlike, and I think this brings it back to, you know, running around in the woods, and nobody knows where you are, or what you’re up to, and getting poison oak and not caring…at least for the first day when you haven’t yet started breaking out…It’s a lot of fun getting dirty again, and having this quest. I think there are so many days that I’m just looking at the customer that’s in front of me, or thinking about where I need to be in the morning, and having this adventure again, rediscovering nature really, is a very nice thing to do. I haven’t eaten a chanterelle. I’ve never had an oyster mushroom, and it’s so exciting that even though we’ve left the woods, the journey isn’t over.”

Another experience I had was, in a way, even more rewarding; I convinced my dad to go mushroom hunting! When I first discovered my passion for mushrooms and mycology, my father was skeptical in the extreme. He is not a conservative person by any stretch of the imagination, but he has never been very outdoorsy (he’s much more of an Earl Gray and BBC kind of guy, and his ideal afternoon consists of playing the fiddle, flipping through the New Yorker while lounging on the couch, and eating several bowls of cereal). Several times before my victory, my father proclaimed that he had no idea why I liked mushroom hunting so much…his exact words were, “I simply could not be less interested in mushrooms. But hey, if it makes you happy, go for it…just be careful. Like REALLY careful.”

However, my dad suffers from chronic sniffles, and I suggested trying turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) tea, as he had run the gamut of herbal and medical options for dealing with it. He was open to the idea of using medicinal mushrooms, and asked me where to buy supplements. Considering that he lives in Washington state, where turkey tail is extremely common, I encouraged him to just go mushroom hunting and find some himself. A few days later, he called me in a tizzy, all kinds of excited by how easy and fun it was to go and gather his own medicine in the woods!

Give Helpful Points of Reference

 

Kitty and chicken of the woods mushroom
My kitty Goblin with a chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulfureus) mushroom. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Some people who are skeptical of mycology and mycophagy fixate on the likelihood that mushroom hunting will eventually lead to mushroom poisoning. In their minds, most mushrooms are poisonous, look alike, and they are under the impression that learning how to identify wild mushrooms is a daunting and impossible task that could go wrong at any moment. Also, it appears to me that many such people seem to believe that all toxic mushrooms are deadly.

When I encounter someone who is afraid of mushroom hunting because of the risk of being poisoned, I go out of my way to explain that although there are mushroom poisonings every year, it is extremely rare, and only a handful of people die from mushroom toxicity each year. Most cases of “mushroom poisoning” in America’s emergency rooms are not likely poisonings at all, but rather an incident where a parent discovers that their child has consumed wild mushrooms and go to the ER for the stomach pump and charcoal just to be on the safe side. Please note that I am in no way suggesting that taking your kid to the ER because they ate wild mushrooms is a bad idea, but I think it likely that the mushrooms in question are often harmless.

Another cause of so-called “mushroom poisoning” is when someone eats mushrooms that are past their prime, and get sick as a result. This, again, is exceedingly rare, but whenever I talk with folks about mushroom hunting, I encourage them to look at it like shopping: if you wouldn’t buy that mushroom in the store, don’t take it home from the woods! I have met people who’ve had problems with eating mushrooms, sure, but I know many more mycophiles who have been hunting for ages and have consumed literally hundreds of different species of mushrooms without any ill effect whatsoever.

Another tactic with people who fear mushroom hunting on account of concern about being poisoned is to explain that there are about a dozen deadly poisonous mushroom species in North America, which in the grand scheme of things, is a really low number. Also, I like to explain the different toxins that occur in mushrooms, so that just because a mushroom is listed as “suspect” or “poisonous” does not mean it’s deadly poisonous.

Tony Migas and Pleurotus tuber-regium
Mycologist Tony Migas with a relative of the oyster mushroom, Pleurotus tuber-regium. This weirdo mushroom is totally unlike what mycophobes think of when they imagine a mushroom. Photo by Anna McHugh.

When it comes to folks who fear mushroom poisoning, I also try to help them understand that mushrooms are not all alike. Many people who live in fear of fungi are under the impression that mushrooms are basically cap-and-stem affairs, slimy, and grow in the dark. Usually, shedding light on a few of the edible mushrooms that look nothing like their internal image of “mushroom” helps put the whole idea of mushroom hunting in perspective. For instance, I once found a huge chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulfureus) mushroom, and I brought a portion of it to my office to share with my colleagues. Up until that point, they were all sort of under the impression that “mushroom” meant cap, stem, and ring. When I presented them with this large, bright orange and yellow polypore they were mystified and intrigued. They all decided to try some, and to a one they enjoyed it and asked me to bring it again if I ever found myself flush with edible mushrooms in the future.

Explain That It’s About Food and Science, Not Drugs

Beyond the typical fears of mushroom poisoning, there are a significant number of people who hear that I am a mushroom hunter and immediately assume that I am some drug-crazed thrill-seeker who will eat anything to get high. In fact, I have run into this brand of prejudice against mushroom hunting more than any other, and it’s annoying on a couple of levels, not the least of which is the fact that magic mushrooms are fascinating in their own right, and they do not deserve such derisive treatment in the popular imagination. When I run into this sort of mycophobe, I simply try to clarify that I am interested in mushrooms because they’re interesting organisms that are occasionally very tasty, and that they enrich my life in immeasurable ways. If necessary, I throw out a few different widely recognized mushroom names to get them thinking about the culinary value of fungi; I skip over my love of certain species of Suillus and just go for the jugular:

Dictyophora indusiata
Dictyophora indusiata is alleged to cause women to climax. No, really. John Hill Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.
Have you ever eaten truffles? What about porcini? They’re totally awesome. Do you like good food? Yeah, I like good food too. That’s part of why I go mushroom hunting.

Share Some Amazing Fungus Facts!

Most people do not realize the tremendous impact of fungi on their daily lives, and so the idea of someone pursuing mycology (either professionally or as a hobby), seems arcane and rather silly. When I encounter people who are perplexed about the why of mushroom hunting, I can usually change their minds by pointing out a few fun facts about the amazing fungi.

For example, to those who don’t know much about mushrooms, the idea that fungi breathe oxygen and exhale CO2, as we do, is a pretty remarkable idea. The fact that every plant on earth has at least one fungal partner is similarly astonishing.

If they’re really receptive, you can launch into descriptions of bioluminescent fungi, mushrooms that grow underwater, and stinkhorns that may (or may not) cause women to have orgasms.

Explain That Mushroom People Are Awesome, and That Mushroom Hunting is Fun!

This one should be easy. The mushroom crowd is an amazingly helpful, friendly, and intellectually curious group of people with a well-formed sense of fun, and mushroom hunting is a really relaxing and enjoyable activity for those who like to spend time in natural spaces. I cannot tell you how helpful mushroom hunting has been for me personally. If I need to accomplish a health goal, I think of my strong desire to be able to hunt mushrooms until I am wrinkly and old.

Mushroom people are fun! Gary Lincoff and Larry Evans at the Telluride Mushroom Festival. They're obviously having a terrific time. Photo by Anna McHugh.
Mushroom people are fun! Gary Lincoff and Larry Evans at the Telluride Mushroom Festival. They’re obviously having a terrific time. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Most of the time, when people think of mushroom hunting, they think it’s all about the end goal, which is to gather edible wild mushrooms, and sometimes all it takes the suggestion that mushroom hunting is good in and of itself.

I have had amazing times mushroom hunting even when I found nothing at all, because it makes me slow down and savor the little, nearly imperceptible complexities of forest ecosystems, which gives me a deep sense of connection with nature, coupled with a satisfied sense of my own (very little) place in the cosmos. Mushroom hunting is simply a means through which I strengthen my relationship with the world I inhabit, and gives me an opportunity to shut off my internal, selfish narrative for a while. Like my study of classical history, mushroom hunting provides me with much-needed perspective, which in turn reinforces one of my core beliefs: life is a funny business, and stepping outside of your own head and into the world gives one a taste of the humorous and mysterious nature of existence.

So yeah, explain to your perplexed family and friends that mushroom hunting is fun, and that the mycological community is made up of interesting, gentle, and intelligent people. If you can’t convince them after all that, you could always do the Hail Mary and tell them that you actually aren’t mushroom hunting after all every time you go out in the woods, and suggest that you’re a Soviet spy instead. At least then they will stop giving you funny looks!


5 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Mycology: How to Explain Mushroom Hunting to Family and Friends”

  1. Great essay, Anna, and as usual, full of knowledge, humor, and insight. I travel…a lot. Many of my days are spent in environments 100% man made (airports/planes). I genuinely love technology, and am in awe of what goes into making things work. But after a long road trip, there is nothing that renews my connection with the natural world like stepping off into the woods and becoming mindful of the mystery of mycology. Thank you for this and all of your blog posts!

    1. Thanks so much Gregory, I love hearing from folks who get something out of this blog. I enjoy doing it, almost as much as I love getting out in the woods for a good mushroom hunt (OK that’s an exaggeration, but when I am stuck in man-made habitats I do daydream, which gives rise to pretty much all the content on this blog). Anyway, again I thank you for the encouraging words!

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