Night Crawler

Mushroom Crowd

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.

The Russians call it razh, or mushroom passion, and Dr. Bill Freedman has it.
Paul Trapani
The Russians call it razh, or mushroom passion, and Dr. Bill Freedman has it.
They're tasty, and good for what ails you.
They're tasty, and good for what ails you.

"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.

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