Issue #16: Emerging from the winter forest

Comfort for the Apocalypse, January 2021

Uncontrolled and wild; mushrooming in a pandemic

In late August our neighbour Chris showed up in the driveway as I was coming down the outside stairs from my second-floor studio. 

“Hey!” he yelled up at me, “Do you want some of these?” 

He was holding open a plastic grocery bag, full to the handles with golden chanterelle mushrooms. Fresh from picking, fir needles and other forest debris still clung to their fluted shapes. They were perfect in form, without a bruise or soft spot on them, and none smaller than 2 inches across the cap. 

“Where did you get these?” I asked, knowing that chanterelles sell for fifteen or more dollars a pound. Though they grow on Gabriola Island (and all over the west coast), it seemed far too early in the season for successful picking. 

Chris gestured up towards the hill behind us, “Oh, you know where the trail meets the road on the other side of the government land—up there. It rained last week so I knew they’d be coming up about now.” 

As we talked, he followed me into the kitchen where he set the bag down and transferred several handfuls of the mushrooms onto my cutting board. I protested his generosity which he waved away. “I can’t use all of these and I know you guys love to cook and feed people. Consider it payback for the parties.” I realized I hadn’t seen Chris since our last party on New Years’ Eve, two and a half months before the start of quarantine. “Oh, I miss the parties,” I said as we walked back outside and I thanked him again for thinking of us. 

*

I’ve always associated chanterelle mushrooms with the rains of September and October on the west coast. But I recently learned that Cantharellus formosus actually like warmer weather, so depending on conditions, they can emerge after heavy rainfall as soon as late July. They are symbiotic with pine, Douglas fir and hemlock and are prevalent in mixed second-growth forests from BC to Oregon. 

Although I grew up on the edge of 45 acres of forest that is very likely home to these and other edible mushrooms, I wasn’t introduced to them until my late-twenties by a friend in Washington State. Growing up, Joe’s family made regular trips down logging roads to harvest mushrooms, and one afternoon he offered to share his knowledge with me. It was from him I learned to tell the difference between the real thing and the “false chanterelle”, to look in the rotting stump hollows, and the practice of cutting the mushrooms at soil level with a sharp knife. 

That was nearly twenty years ago, and although I’ve tried hunting fungus on my own, I’ve never been very persistent or successful. Instead I resort to purchasing chanterelles through the wild mushroom-picking networks on Vancouver Island or at the farmer’s market where they sometimes show up on the edge of a vendor’s table. As with most mycorrhizal mushrooms, chanterelles cannot be domesticated, which means they are only briefly available in the early fall: a rare gift. They do not dry particularly well, and while they can be sautéed and frozen for storage, they are best enjoyed in-season for the spicy woodland flavour they bring to pasta, risotto, soup, and creamed mushrooms on toast. 

After Chris showed up on my doorstep, I started noticing others on the hunt in the woods around our place. As summer sidled into fall, I ran into folks popping onto the trail from a bushwhack, a bag held low or a bit behind the back as though trying to keep it from being noticed. There is nothing illegal about harvesting wild mushrooms on public non-park land, but people like to keep their spots a secret. In late September my Facebook feed started to populate with photos of mushrooms from all over as friends in rural and city lands alike seemed to flock to the woods for mycological forays. Suddenly it seemed as though everyone I knew was searching out chanterelles, lobster, and matsutake mushrooms. 

My friend Jenn is one of those people. A new convert to the cult of mushrooming, over the course of the fall and winter she has become an expert at finding and identifying many local species of edible mushrooms, and lichens used in fibre-dyeing. Her strong naturalist tendencies stand her well in search of fungi for she enjoys leaving the trail to slash through soaking wet salal and tightly-packed alder, and she has a keen eye for even the smallest orchid tucked along the trail. Over the course of only a few months she has become so adept at identifying likely mushroom habitat, that she now experiences it as a kind of sixth sense, a “call” from the forest that results in finds of chanterelles and hedgehogs a significant percentage of the time. She tells me the discovery of mushrooming during this time of pandemic has been transformative in the joy and clarity it has brought to her days. I can see this when we collect together: her focus on mushrooms so total that when I drop behind her to stuff my pockets with late-season huckleberries, she doesn’t even notice. It reminds me of folk tales in which mushrooms bewitch and draw one ever further into the forest. 

*   

If casting a fishing line is like pulling the arm of a slot machine (the chance of success making it impossible to stop), then successful mushroom hunting is like finding a one-of-a-kind, perfectly-fitted garment for fifty cents at the church rummage sale. The hunter-gatherer lottery produces a real dopamine hit, which explains the strong drive humans have for exploration and discovery. Right now, these elements are hard to come by; we are restricted in our movements, cut off from in-person interactions. Foraging is not simply a way to pass the time close to home, but a novel way to tap into connection with our environment and felt senses. The sight of a chanterelle trove snaking from underneath a rotting log is enough to bring me down on my knees despite the rain-soaked ground, and a red lobster mushroom poking up through the loam quickens my breath as I dig to unearth it.  

Even before the pandemic, North American foodie and homesteader cultures were heralding a rise in sourdough baking, gardening, fermentation, beekeeping and other localist pastimes. Mushroomers are similarly motivated. Their discoveries add flavour and variety to the supper table, help re-establish the link between food and place, and make a wider range of nutrition available. Leafing through a study on the connection between foragers and the environment, I come across statements from survey participants which express all of these motivations. Individuals talk about how foraging creates an overall sense of well-being, taps into a primal well of knowledge, and reduces feelings of food insecurity. One person suggests that “eating wild foods helps our bodies ‘remember’ (an earlier time)”, others refer to the awakening of instinct and a return to place-based knowledge.

Though food supplies in Canada have only been lightly threatened during the pandemic, the sign of empty grocery store shelves last spring left many of us feeling deeply insecure. Compounded by the uncertain trajectory of a deadly virus, we are seeking interactions and environments that comfort. In The Mushroom at the End of the World Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing tells us that, “...when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, thousands of Siberians, suddenly deprived of state guarantees, ran to the woods to collect mushrooms…. The uncontrolled lives of mushrooms are a gift - and a guide - when the controlled world we thought we had fails.” Like other wildcrafting activity, mushrooms offer us abundance during a time when we feel a kind of lack, but they also offer us a walk in the woods, a mission with a friend, and a way to focus on something untroubled by the current crisis of modernity. Once you know what to look for, every hike becomes a treasure-hunt with both the clues and rewards changing throughout the seasons. 

Mushrooming is not without its risks, though the specter of poisonous mushrooms pales in comparison to the threat of getting lost in the woods. To succeed at finding, one must go off trail to where others haven’t recently been. With eyes cast towards the ground it is difficult to get bearings or notice landmarks, and in the mid-to-late fall dusk comes earlier than expected. Some describe the hunt as hypnotizing, finding themselves many kilometres off-course when they finally do pull out a compass to orient their way home. But for those who don’t know how to re-find the trail, the results can be deadly.

On Gabriola and other small islands, it is difficult to get truly lost as you are never far away from a road or house. This is prime territory for stepping off the trail, and it seems everyone I know wants to share these days. My brother shows off a shopping bag full of hedgehog mushrooms and gives me a quart jar of soup made from the same. Some island friends display jars of dried mushrooms and describe grinding them into flour for making pasta. And sometimes people like Chris just show up at our door with gifts from the forest. Like the mycelial network, we connect through sharing this food source with one another. We connect to the place we live through consuming the food it provides us. We might otherwise forget these deep-rooted relationships during an alienating time, but we must tuck them into our hearts as we forge onward into an uncertain future.

Sockeye salmon, chanterelle mushrooms, a sauce made of evergreen huckleberries, and venison stock all from on, or around, Gabriola Island.


January recipe: Latvian stew

If you’ve read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles you likely remember a scene in which a Latvian stew is described thus: “the onions thoroughly caramelized, the pork slowly braised, and the apricots briefly stewed, the three ingredients came together in a sweet and smoky medley that simultaneously suggested the comfort of a snowed-in tavern and the jangle of a Gypsy tambourine.”

After reading this last year, I tracked down the recipe which turned out to be remarkably easy since Towles published his version in Saveur. It’s a dish best eaten during these winter months; the meat is hearty and the fruits a reminder of summer to come.

Prep Time: 25 minutes
Cook Time:
 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

  • 6 carrots, peeled, trimmed, and sliced crosswise

  • 4 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 5 cups water

  • 1 cup dried apricots

  • 1 pound white boiling onions, peeled, each cut into 6 wedges

  • 1 cup pitted prunes

Instructions

  1. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until meat releases its juices and is no longer pink all over, about 5 minutes. Add carrots and cook until slightly tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and water, then add apricots. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and gently simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes.

  2. Meanwhile, heat remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes.

  3. Add onions and prunes to stew and continue to simmer over medium-low heat until pork is tender and sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes more. Adjust seasonings.

  4. Serve this stew accompanied by boiled potatoes, or buttered homemade bread. Garnish with chopped parsley, if you like.


In the workshop

There has been more music than making this month as I’ve been setting time aside for violin practice. (I even bought myself two new bows to play with).

Even so, I am making headway on warping my big loom, and the photo above shows the lamm tie-up I am working with underneath. This is an entirely new-to-me way of tying up the treadles (foot pedals) and I have some adjusting to do, but I believe I will have it figured out this weekend so I can start weaving some fabric again!

Three things

  1. Entangled Life: If you are going to read one book about mushrooms and fungus, it should be Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 work Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change our Minds & Shape the Future. Full of fascinating facts about all things mycelial, Sheldrake explores the biology, pharmacology, and perspective/prospective of fungal life. Well-written and so interesting. For more mushroom weirdness, check out the collaboration between Merlin and his brother Cosmos which resulted in this recording/video of Oyster Mushrooms devouring his book and features the actual sounds mushrooms make while growing, set to lyrics and music.

  2. Foraging for Meaning: While researching this month’s essay I came across Kristen Giesting’s 2016 dissertation. In it she explores foraging as a connective force for bringing people into greater relationship with the biosphere and thus acting as a catalyst for conservation and repair. Worth a read if you are into an academic analysis of the failures of modern environmentalism and want to learn more about the motivations of foragers.

  3. Wild Life: I have recently been charmed by this newsletter by Amy Jean Porter which delivers a weekly illustration of a wild animal and a true story about that animal. In the overly-cluttered inbox, this arrives as a gem of insight into the lives of animals who are being crowded out by human activities. It’s time we notice them, for as Porter tells us, “The drama of life lived in fur and feathers, of night vision and scent trails, metamorphosis and hibernation, gives shape to our existence.”

And finally

I am finding my voice again after being very quiet for a lot of 2020, and I appreciate you all being here for that.

Comfort for the Apocalypse now appears twice a month - this longer edition on the last Friday, and a “Small Comforts” edition on the second Sunday. I encourage you to comment on them by replying to the email (it will only go to me) or using the Substack platform by going to web edition. Hearing from you really helps to motivate!

Back in May 2020 I was running a subscribers contest which I am going to reinstate now - so share this mailing (button below) with someone you think might like it. Once I reach 200 subscribers (we are so close right now) I will draw for a handwoven tea towel and a copy of Paul Kingsnorth's book Savage Gods mailed to wherever the winner lives.

Gratitude this month goes to my husband Brian who supports all my projects with wholehearted love, and to Jill Margo at The Creative Good with whom I am doing online “follow-through” sessions again. These folks are helping me get my creative self back on the road.

See you in couple of weeks. For more of me in the interim, my blog is at http://red-cedar.ca and I post photos of my projects at http://instagram.com/birdsongworkshop.