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Night Crawler 

Mushroom Crowd

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
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Mushroom Crowd
Even on the blacktop, away from the trees, the verdant light around the Crystal Springs Watershed is dappled and shimmering, given soft focus by the warmth of our breath and morning condensation. A low, forbidding rumble drifts through the trees from the nearby Pulgas Water Temple, where torrents of H2O from the Sierras merge under a circle of Greco-Roman columns before pouring into the Crystal Springs Reservoir. In years past, it was considered a rite of passage for rambunctious youth and training warlocks to sit under the water temple dome, gazing out over the attending looking pool until they had summoned enough courage to jump into the hole at the center of the temple, dropping 15 feet into a submerged water chute that would expel them into a broad canal leading to the water basin. Now, a protective screen covers the opening of the 62-year-old shrine, and dirt bikers tear around the dais trying to read the biblical inscription Isaiah XLIII:XX without dismounting. But the Mycology Society of San Francisco is not troubled by such things today: Once a year, avid "mushroomers" are allowed to pass through the secondary fences that surround the watershed land for a serious five-hour fungus foray. The collected specimens are meant for scientific display at the annual MSSF Fungus Fair, but even as the first mushroom hunters assemble, with their broad knives, wax-paper bags, and high-sided baskets, the murmured incantation begins: "Chanterelles, there must be chanterelles." While different people favor different mushrooms, a freshly discovered patch of the golden delicacy known properly as Cantharellus cibarius can make the most amiable North American mycologist appear sly and custodial.

"That is part of the fun," says a seasoned mushroomer wearing gardening gloves and a checked hat with ear flaps. "This land is rarely hunted, so a lot of people will strike gold today, and, if they remember the spot and no one else gets to it, next year they may get lucky again."

The mushroom lovers spread out from the well-packed maintenance road, occasionally re-emerging from the trees like dryads to drop little bundles filled with delicate specimens for later pickup. The chanterelles are, of course, conspicuously absent, but they are not the only edible to be found in Californian soil.

"I have an interest in living off the land," says Doug Minkler, a ruggedly handsome activist and poster-maker who takes trips to the High Sierras every summer to hone his survival skills and reconnect with the wilderness. "Getting away from the city is something that is important to all of us; some of us just don't heed the call." Minkler offers me a piece of wild fennel, then continues shifting through the fallen leaves under a small redwood with his lovely wife, Lisa, and their 1-month-old daughter, Desiree (already a foray veteran).

"There are a great many edible mushrooms right here," says Minkler, indicating an area just off the road, "but you should really talk to Bill."

Dr. Bill Freedman -- a retired physician whose snowy beard, round spectacles, bright green shirt, and very large, sheathed knife make him look a bit like a friendly, man-sized gnome -- skitters between some trees in the distance, with his nose only a few feet from the ground. I give chase and find my intrusion most welcome since, in the excitement, Freedman has lost his car keys in the high grass.

"Don't think it's the first time," chortles Freedman, "and don't think it'll be the last." Freedman adjusts his hat, a dark blue seaman's stocking cap that has been shredded almost beyond identification.

With the car keys miraculously recovered, Freedman is off, charging into the forest with a white bucket banging against his shins. Completely impervious to impassable thickets, mud, and whipping tree boughs, he scours the ground for signs while introducing me to mushroom lore: "There are mushrooms that look like potatoes growing in your vegetable garden. Mushrooms that appear in the middle of the desert after a rain; some people believe this was the 'manna from heaven' discovered by Moses. Some people believe the image of an angel is the cross-section of a certain kind of mushroom with the stem as skirt, the cap as wings, the gills as feathers, the cap's umbo as head."

Though Freedman's religion is certainly biologically oriented, this is not his primary attraction to mushrooms. Initially, Freedman's interest was the toxicology of fungi -- he has been pivotal in the medical profession's understanding of mushroom-related ailments and in the poster campaign to help people distinguish between dangerous and delicious -- but their ecological importance soon had him captivated.

"Mushrooms are pretty unique in that they eat their own habitat," says Freedman crawling under a bush to reach a perfect, slimy-topped "Slippery Jack," "but they are both destroyers and creators. Mushrooms break down complex organic matter into simpler compounds which plants need to live. Then the animals eat the plants, and so it goes. And they're beautiful." Freedman has what the Russians call razh, or mushroom passion.

Though wild mushrooms are considered a delicacy in most five-star restaurants, "mushroom passion" is fairly rare in the United States. Perhaps, as Mushrooms Demystified author David Arora suggests, this can be traced to our historical ties to England, where great poets have written long and eloquently of their disdain for the "sickening toadstool." Whatever the reason, we are cut off from most of the mushrooming world, where children go on forays before they can talk, hunts include wine-and-cheese picnics, and backpacks and knives are made specially for fungi-gathering.

"Do you see that glint of gold?" asks Freedman as a branch skewers his hat, plucking it off his head. "That's a chanterelle. I'll take it out for my best friend Louise."

Freedman delicately brushes the leaves off of a large mushroom with a wavy cap the color of saffron, and puts it in the bucket for his wife of 50 years, who is hunting closer to the trails. The forest, though, has more to offer than chanterelles: There are small purple mushrooms, feathery white mushrooms, pink blushing mushrooms, and ruby-red mushrooms with yellow spongy underbellies; there are mushrooms that bruise dark blue when handled roughly, mushrooms that bleed red when cut, mushrooms that lactate when broken; mushrooms that smell like sarsaparilla, lilac, and orange peel, and mushrooms that smell like bleach, soggy cigarette butts, and sewer gas; there are mushrooms with gills, mushrooms with veils, mushrooms with pores, and mushrooms with vulvas.

By lunchtime, I have learned to look for displaced mounds of dirt and leaves, and I can quickly identify the Amanita phalloides, or "Death Cap," as it is aptly called. Mushroomers slowly emerge from the trees with overflowing baskets and distracted eyes, talking about their finds. My appetite is voracious, and I am more tickled than I could have ever imagined listening to a fervent conversation between Leon Ilnicki, a government chemist dedicated to scientific method, and Camilla Kolchinsky, a Russian gribnik (mushroom lover) who has depended on folkloric knowledge since she was 5.

As the damp and cold slow the frenzy of the hunt, folks begin to wander back to their cars. Freedman says farewell and reluctantly climbs back into his white VW bus to begin picking up other people's finds along the road.

"It's like a treasure hunt," says Freedman, noticing some other dawdlers. "You don't really want to stop."

I understand completely, but my seduction is not complete.

At the 35th annual Fungus Fair, chef John Pisto cooks up a titanic pan of aromatic wild mushrooms under the eaves of the Hall of Flowers at Golden Gate Park. Inside, I watch in delight as former MSSF President Bob Meckler good-naturedly cuffs a friend on the ear as part of an argument over the professed merits of the "Oak-Loving Bolete."

"Don't listen to him," says Meckler, watching out for my best interests. "It may be the favorite mushroom in Italy, but it's a complete waste of time. Flavorless. I have a ton of them growing on my property, and people are welcome to just take them away. Of course, if they were to pick a Boletus edulis, I'd have to shoot them in the head."

There are over 240 species of mushroom collected from the Bay Area in the Hall of Flowers. There is also mushroom art, mushroom jewelry, mushroom tea, mushroom medicine, mushroom farms, and mushroom hats; there are lectures for the spiritual seeker, the science fanatic, and the history buff; there are hundreds of people of every age, ethnicity, and vocation, all in love with the mushroom. I'm surprised.

"We have the largest mycological society in the country," says current President Mark Thomsen. "There were forays all over the Bay Area yesterday to collect specimens. Funny how not a single chanterelle made it back."

Again with the chanterelle. During a slide presentation by mushroom photographer Taylor F. Lockwood I am witness to fungi as vivid and resplendent as anything found in the sea or sky -- mushrooms that resemble milky-white icicles, bright orange coral, green trumpets of blown glass, tiny bluebells, and smoky umbrellas made of lace. I am not surprised that Lockwood, a former industrial contractor, only travels now to other countries during their mushroom seasons. He has an eye. More important, he has the razh.

"Night crawlers like mushrooms, don't they?" asks an impish woman who is holding a list of coming mushroom forays.

They do now.

The MSSF leads Sunday morning forays from the Legion of Honor, beginning in January; go to www.mssf.org for details.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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