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A Note to Readers: Autumn arrived precisely at 4:44 P.M last Sunday, but well before the Equinox, I could tell that fall was nigh. The hay-scented ferns had already started to turn the color of straw, there was yellow in the bittersweet and red in the poison ivy, and on a few evenings, after thunderstorms had broken the heat and humidity, the sky took on a sharpness in keeping with the nearly-here season. Normally, in honor of autumn, I would devote a column to the signs of the timesâ€”an entry of the Journal that would be about the passage to time. But during the past week, Iâ€™ve been engaged in marking another species of passageâ€”my wife Pamâ€™s 50th high school reunion in Terre Haute, Indianaâ€”so the Naturalist did not have the leisure time to sit down and write. What follows then, is an edited and updated column that first appeared on September 3, 2010. Itâ€™s on mushrooms, which are one of fallâ€™s finest harvests, and one of my favorite pursuits.
One afternoon three years ago, I was in my office, where, instead of doing anything particularly useful, I was watching the angry looking clouds avoid dropping any rain. We were then in a pretty serious drought, and as yet another prospect of relief disappeared, I was getting mad enough to spit. Fortunately for my office decor, I restrained that impulse.
As I wrestled with low precipitation anxiety, which comes from being dependent on a well, I noticed that a new e-mail had made its way through the ether.
The subject line read, â€śDeathly?â€ť
Too much of my e-mail then and now consists of increasingly dreary and shrill appeals from fundamentalist politicians to a) buy my book, b) buy my version of the impending apocalypse, or c) die in agony because you failed to purchase either. Perhaps this new missive was one of the end-of-days appeals, but I recognized the sender as a friend. What confronted me as I opened the Deathly e-mail was no nefarious ruse. Instead, on the electronic page were three images of mushrooms. My friend included no text, but he knew that I would know what he wanted to know, which was this: If he ate theseâ€”and he is nothing if not an adventurous gourmandâ€”would he experience ecstasy or agony?
In short order, as I knew it would, the phone rang.
Now, as is true of the contents of most e-mails, so it is with all too many incoming phone calls. We still rely on a landlineâ€”cell service here is spottyâ€”and since the vast majority of our calls are identified by our talking phone as â€śCall from Toll-Free Call,â€ť we let lots of attempts to contact us go unanswered.
But unless my e-mail scammers had joined forces with the Toll-Free cartel, this call supposedly came from the e-mail writer I knew. He was definitely someone I wanted to talk toâ€”and someone I wanted to school on mycology. Fast.
â€śDonâ€™t do it,â€ť I said. â€śDonâ€™t eat those!â€ť
â€śThat bad?â€ť he replied.
â€śWell, actually, without a lot more work, I really donâ€™t know,â€ť I said. â€śBut Iâ€™ll tell you what Iâ€™ve told all the students Iâ€™ve worked with on mushroom identification over the yearsâ€”and all my readers: Just Do It may be a good motto for sneaker makers, but for budding wild mushroom eaters, a better motto would be, Donâ€™t Do Itâ€”unless youâ€™re absolutely certain about what youâ€™re doing. And even then, donâ€™t ingest until youâ€™ve signed this waiver releasing, me, my heirs, and the heirs of my heirs from legal responsibility in perpetuity, or at least until the advent of the Toll-Free Apocalypse.â€ť
September ushers in the start of what for us is the major mushroom season, and since weâ€™ve now received a lot of rain, there are numerous species of fungi sprouting almost everywhere you look. Some of these, such as meadow mushrooms, chanterelles, black trumpets, puffballs, and hens of the woods, are delectable, while others, the aptly named destroying angel, and the death cap, among them, will either kill you outright or cause permanent organ damage. (The poisoning that results from ingesting other species, while not fatal, may make you wish youâ€™d died.)
Fortunately, the delicious mushrooms are relatively easy to tell apart from the bad actors, and while there are plenty of reliable books and websitesâ€”a list followsâ€”on fungus identification, Iâ€™ve always recommended that you learn the ropes from an actual human expert, preferably an older human expert whoâ€™s been at this a long time. Practice makes more than perfect. It makes for teachers with discretion who will counter the natural enthusiasm of the acolyteâ€”teachers whose sober appraisal of the mycological world may have even prevented people I knew from swallowing a batch of mushrooms they identified as edible based on little more than the fact that these hippies thought the fungi emitted â€śgood vibes.â€ť (I wasnâ€™t present for the ingestion, but, when I heard about this, I was the person who begged them to visit, immediately, the nearest hospital emergency room. There, they were relieved of their stomach contents and, Iâ€™m pretty sure, granted a kind of salvation.)
I didnâ€™t have to worry about my friend, who was dutifully cautious. It took me a while to determine, using the mushroom pictures he sent in the hopes of harvesting dinner, the species, but after some study, I was pretty sure that heâ€™d found Climacodon septentrionale, the northern tooth fungus. According to mushroom expert Tom Volk (see his very informative site, tomvolkfungi.net/; while it hasnâ€™t been updated in several years, it remains a reliable source of information), this species is â€śan interesting parasite of trees, predominantly maple trees, and especially sugar maple, Acer saccharum. The fungus causes a heartrot of the tree (growing in the central heartwood) often weakening the tree enough so that strong winds can snap the trunk and blow it over.â€ť
To be sure, C. septentrionale grows in large clusters, and, at first glance, these resemble a lush congregation of oyster mushrooms, which are true delicacies. Alas, says Volk, these tooth mushroomsâ€”the common name describes their underside, which bears tiny teeth-like flesh rather than gillsâ€”are â€śbitter and too tough to eat.â€ť This is a pity, I concurred with my friend. â€śThereâ€™ll be others, though,â€ť I said. â€śJust donâ€™t expect me to identify them over the phone and guarantee theyâ€™re fine to eatâ€”even if you sign the waiver.â€ť
A Note to Readers: Iâ€™m offering the following information with no guarantees, either; youâ€™re on your own, so please be careful. But I can tell you that these sitesâ€”all of them currentâ€”are useful. Be sure to check out David Fischerâ€™s americanmushrooms.com, which includes a link to his masterful book Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America; and the Boston Mycological Club, www.bostonmycologicalclub.org/, a great group that sponsors field trips and authoritative instruction sessions. Among my favorite books are the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, by Gary H. Lincoff; the Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America, by Kent and Vera McKnight; and The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide, by Alexander H. Smith and Nancy Smith Weber. And if youâ€™re interested in sampling fungal delights, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, CT, is sponsoring its 12th Annual Wild Mushroom Festival on September 29; hereâ€™s a link to the Nature Center site: www.dpnc.org/index.html