A Quick Editorial Note From Your Fungally Obsessed Author
I decided to take a brief break from my ongoing series on morel mushrooms. Earlier this week and last week, I posted three entries about the unparalleled morel mushroom: one about morels in general, one about black morels, and one about yellow (or blond) morels, along with a few other morel mushrooms that you can readily find in the forests of North Carolina and other east coast hardwood habitats. Stay tuned for yet another morel-related post, this one to focus on morel mushroom cookery. I simply got slammed with a run of bad weather and have been spending my time shoveling snow and slogging around in the slush and haven’t properly sifted through my morel mushroom recipe records to find just the right ones to include!
However, hopefully all this bad weather will bring forth an amazing morel season in the months to come! If you need some tips and tricks on where and how to hunt for wild mushrooms, including some ideas on the sorts of land you are allowed to go mushroom picking, read this silly entry below!
Yours in fungal fancy,
Mushroom Hunting: Where and How to Find Great Mushrooms and Avoid Disdain!
Mushroom hunting sometimes requires diversion. Naturally, there are several semantic incarnations “diversion,” and I have learned that most permutations of the word apply in one way or another to mushroom hunting.
Of course, mushroom hunting is a diverting enterprise – what’s better than knocking off for a few hours or days for some foraging, camping, fires, mushrooms, and good wine/food/stories? But that’s not the sort of diversion I’m going to focus on; my intent is more cautionary. Some people are downright weird about mushroom hunters – they think you’re doing something harmful to the environment (largely false, as long as you’re being reasonably cautious), or that you’re somehow “misusing” nature (again, false: mushroom hunting actually can aid in the spread of fungal DNA when you carry mushrooms off and increase the range of mushroom spores, and some mycelium reacts to being disturbed by compensating with an explosion of healthy new growth). Anyway, sometimes it’s important, for one reason or another, to hide the fact that you’re mushroom hunting.
Hiding in Plain Sight While Mushroom Hunting
Whenever I feel that it’s critical to create a diversion in order to hide the fact that I’m mushroom hunting, it’s usually because I am in an area where there are a lot of forest users who don’t understand land-use regulations, and are fundamentally suspicious of anyone who is doing something other than hiking, jogging, or letting their dog poop in the woods.
For instance, some folks are convinced that you’re not allowed to go mushroom hunting in National Forests, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission land, and the like (false on both counts; in fact, these are probably the best places to go mushroom picking in North Carolina). Another reason I hide my mushroom hunting is completely selfish – I don’t want people knowing where my awesome patches are! Usually it’s the former rather than the latter, and this article is intended to give you a few ideas on how to be discreet while mushroom hunting, should you feel the need to do so.
Mushroom Hunting is A-OK in Some Communities
In some places, I don’t bother to conceal what I’m doing, because mushrooming is socially acceptable and common enough that folks are going to pin you for a mycophile no matter what you do, and are unlikely to make a fuss. For instance, one time I was mushroom hunting near Arcata, which is a California coastal community with boucoup mushrooms and lots of hippies who like hunting for them. I was trying to stay clear of paths and people, but spotted a cluster of queen boletes next to a one-lane road that wound through the forest. I simply could not resist these delightful queen porcini mushrooms (they were fabulous), and grabbed them just as a trio of middle-aged folks strolled by. I was not carrying a basket, having opted for a paper bag in order to buffer my odds of being “caught in the act.” I am almost certain they didn’t even see me snagging the mushrooms. However, when I nodded to them in silent, somewhat shamefaced greeting, one of the fellows sang out at me:
“You find any good mushrooms?”
“Uh yeah, some nice queen boletes,” I stammered, a little nervous about the prospect of getting the evil eye.
“Awesome!” chimed in one of the walkers, a lady with twin gray braids and a turquoise bracelet. “Did you go to the Humboldt Fungus Fair a few weeks ago? It was a blast!”
“No, I’m just passing through. I did attend the fungus fair in Eugene this year, it was exceptionally cool.”
I knew these people weren’t going to sniff derisively at me, much less try to summon law enforcement.
Mushroom Hunting in Sketchy Places
The simple fact is that life isn’t always easy for mushroom hunters. The best spots to hunt are typically not well-maintained bits of nature, but rather the strange, semi-autonomous and semi-capitalized vastness that is governed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Wildlife Resources Commission (or corresponding state agency, depending on where you live; basically the place where people are allowed to hunt and fish), and the Bureau of Land Management.
Many of my favorite places to go mushroom hunting are full of logging trucks, and since the truckers are paid by the load, they often fly down the decrepit forest road system at speeds in excess of 40 mph. There are also shooters who set human-shaped targets against grandfather cedar trees and oaks and let fly with modified assault rifles, the occasional hostile ranger, and, with the least frequency of all, hyper-vigilant nature lovers who think mushroom hunting is environmentally catastrophic. Typically, these people are easy enough to share the wilderness with; loggers are usually courteous as long as you pull over when they are on your tail, shooters self-contained and hopefully sober, and park rangers/nature nuts scarce enough not to be worth worrying about. However, there are times when a diversion is in order. Below I will enumerate a few time-tested strategies to avoid detection while mushroom hunting.
- Hide: The human brain is a powerful tool, but it also looks for certain sorts of information more than others. One reason political cartoons exaggerate facial features is because the human brain places exceptional stock in the face and head, making it disproportionally “large” in the memory. Same thing with hands; for whatever reason, Homo sapiens are prone to notice hands in the immediate environment (ironically, more easily than we notice threats like snakes, pits, and daytime television). The point of all this is that if you can hide your face and hands, you’re less likely to be noticed by someone who doesn’t know you’re there. It’s uncanny, as a matter of fact; standing still and hiding your most human features makes one virtually invisible, and if you get spotted, it’s not like it’s all that unusual to stand stock still with your hat pulled low and your sleeves pulled over your hands (I have seen far stranger human behavior in the forest before, trust me). Of course, it’s also important not to wear bright colors if you want to take advantage of this strategy, but if you’re willing to commit to earth-tones you might find it insanely simple to vanish just by concealing your paws in your sleeves and pulling up a hood. If that fails, you can always pretend you’re a deer. I know it sounds absurd, but standing stag-like with your fingers emulating antlers is (reportedly) a good way to evade detection…I am not sure I agree with this recommendation, given the number of big game hunters in the woods, but again it’s a matter of concealing your humanity so that no one asks you questions like the following:
- “Oh jeez, is this a great mushroom spot!? Cool! I can’t wait to come back and raid this patch you clearly spent no time at all finding!”
- Hide What You’re Doing: This is perhaps the easiest and most fun way to throw people off the scent of your fungal fancy; just pretend that you’re doing something other than mushroom hunting. In state parks that permit mushroom hunting (in North Carolina, that would be precisely none of them, but some states allow it) and in other high use areas, I strongly suggest bringing along binoculars. If you hear the rumble of an approaching vehicle or the panting of some approaching joggers, whip out the scopes and pretend you’re looking at the most wonderful, rare titmouse you’ve ever seen. Birdwatchers tend to enjoy a lot more leeway than mushroom hunters in the United States because they usually don’t eat their quarries, and frankly mushroom hunting just isn’t as popular as birdwatching (for reasons I cannot begin to fathom). Another way to hide your intent is to carry mountain bike racks on your vehicle, or tote along a sketchbook (and while you’re at it, try drawing some of the mushrooms you find!).
- Hide Your Edibles: If someone (for instance, a self-righteous nature-user who thinks that picking a mushroom is tantamount to cutting a tree) accosts you about mushroom hunting, it’s important to demonstrate that you are not just hunting species with culinary/market value, but that you’re actually interested in learning about nature and becoming more knowledgeable about the world around you. Anytime I’m in the woods I keep two collections: the harvest and the scientific inquiry bunch. This is a good idea for more than one reason, but primarily because some of the mushrooms I need to spend some time identifying are inedible or poisonous, and I do not want to mix those with the mushrooms I plan to put on my dinner table. If you do this anyway and someone rolls up on you and starts asking questions, show them the unidentified and/or inedible mushrooms first, rattle off a few Latin binomials, and they’ll snore long before they bother to ask you about the relative tonnage of your morel, porcini, matsutake, or chanterelle haul. In all seriousness, it does make sense to me that some people are concerned about mushroom hunting; commercial harvesting of mushrooms can be a destructive practice, and so it’s also a good idea to talk with people (if they will listen) about how fungal ecology works, and explain that taking a few mushrooms from the forest is not a harmful thing to do if you’re being responsible about it and make an effort to do minimal harm to the mycelium that produced the mushrooms you’ve picked.
- Bluff/Turn On the Charm: One of my mushroom buddies was on a foray that was anticipated by the Tahoe National Forest ranger crew, and managed to avoid capture (and possible exclusion from the forest) by virtue of his mellifluous tongue. One of the foray attendees left a confirmation email at the ranger station, and unfortunately the email contained the following statement (paraphrased): “Technically, we will all need to go to the USFS station and pick up a free mushroom gathering permit for the foray. If you don’t get to it, don’t worry; since it’s a free permit and we’re only going to be hunting mushrooms recreationally, the chances we’ll run into trouble are pretty slim.” This is normally true, except when it shows up on a USFS reception desk and is construed as a challenge or affront to Forest Service vigilance. Flash forward a couple days, and Steve found himself at a miniature road-block driving a Westie with a cooler full of great mushrooms he’d found over the course of the weekend. The rangers typically don’t do traffic stop style investigations; usually they just ask you to get out of the vehicle and come talk. Steve took advantage of this when he hit the shroom-perimeter, hopping out of the van and approaching the rangers with as much pluck and courage as possible. They asked him if he’d been out picking mushrooms.
“Of course not,” he replied. “I’m here for the fly fishing.”
“We heard there was an illegal mushroom hunting ring operating in this part of the Forest this weekend. Did you see any of them?”
“Yeah, I am not sure I’d even know what to look for. A big group? Like, hunting mushrooms commercially?”
“Yes. And yes.”
“Sorry, I can’t help you. I wish I could.” He struggled not to smile when the ranger asked him about illegal mushroom rings, and was a little startled that the rangers had concluded that his crew was there to clean out every commercially viable specimen in the forest. In all honesty, it’s best not to lie about mushroom hunting, but it is at times advisable not to volunteer that information, just in case someone takes it the wrong way. I find it quite sad that foraging sometimes has this negative reputation, but nonetheless I pursue my hobby with a clean conscience because I make every effort to do it right and treat the forest with the dignity and respect it deserves. Steve’s experience, unfortunately, perfectly demonstrates how some people assume that mushroom hunting is inherently a greed-oriented commercial enterprise, rather than a pleasant hobby for foodies, nature geeks, and citizen scientists.
- Take Your Licks, But Don’t Take Them Seriously: Sometimes, the sh!& just hits the fan and you have to fess up to the fees associated with wildcrafting and foraging mushrooms (not often, granted, I only know a small handful out of hundreds of mycophiles who have gotten a ticket for mushroom hunting). That said, one of my mentors received a triple misdemeanor charge when he strayed off parkland onto private property while in search of porcini. He was not being terribly conspicuous (because he thought he was still in the park and fully legit), but the landowner did notice his presence and alerted county authorities. He was caught and shortly thereafter charged him with three crimes for his porcini-lust, and the Sheriff’s office also threatened a couple months in jail for the offense. Outraged, my friend arrived at court and disputed the severity of the punishments requested by the prosecution. Apparently, the DA and judge were amused when David came past the bar and made his case for being a relatively harmless trespasser who was gleaning fruit from private land without intent to sell what he’d found and fully without malice. He was promptly convicted and offered a chance to participate in a diversion program. David, like most mushroom folk, highly values his clean wrap sheet and immediately agreed to any program that would keep him from carrying a conviction forward. The diversion program our discerning judicial system offered David was wildly inappropriate (and, in my estimation, fairly hilarious): they enrolled him in a cognitive restructuring support group for shoplifters. For 3 months David sat in a squeaky plastic chair once a week and was asked to disclose his deep-seated compulsions towards thievery. He was asked to clap when his classmates told everyone that they managed to walk into a convenience store without stealing some Hostess products, nail clippers, or a can of Spam. He told them all about how he was unable to stop himself from picking mushrooms; how he should keep his hands visible in the woods so he doesn’t “ethically slip,” how he felt terrible for the financial loss he incurred upon the mushroom-hating property owner who phoned the sheriff to pick him up when he spotted David in the woods. Of course, he didn’t take all this humiliation seriously, but it did scar him enough to tell me that all other sorts of diversion (hiding, hiding what you are doing, etc.) are better than being tangled up with the legal system’s version of diversion.
- Become Indispensable/Irritatingly Invested: Don’t try to steal attention from your mushrooming, but rather relish it and flaunt it. Divert negative attention from mushrooms by loving them, and wave your freak flag high. Divert suspicion by talking loudly about how amazing it is to find fungi. Divert stereotypes by focusing on edible and scientifically interesting species, rather than psychoactive or commercially coveted ones. Share knowledge, encourage anyone who’s interested, and make sure that people understand what you’re doing; it’s not logging, nor even fishing. Mushroom hunting often serves the biological agenda of the fungi who produce fruiting bodies, and collecting them ethically is engaging in a partnership with inscrutable organisms that benefit from our help and affection. Even if one must pretend to be deer in order to enjoy the encounter, the satisfaction of enjoying a good mushroom hunt is well worth it.