A walk in the woods this time of year can be an amazing experience. As most of the natural landscape is winding down, draining its color, losing its foliage and working into a long resting period, the carpet of autumn rises in a kaleidoscope of brilliance. The magic of mushrooms, with so many shapes, hues and secrets. In one simple package, mushrooms represent the quintessential connection between food and the environment. They feed us and clean up after us, like very generous parents.
As a food, the mushroom’s earthy contribution of flavor stirs the senses and creates an immediate connection between the ingredient and the land. Of course, not all mushrooms are edible; a number of varieties can be lethal. Great care must be exercised when collecting them. However, in the company of highly experienced veteran foragers, it is one of Fall’s most gratifying activities. Even if you don’t find any edibles, the show is spectacular. Soft ivory, brilliant red, spooky purple, lustrous gold, every tone of brown to help them hide amongst their woodsy neighbors, big & puffy, ruffled & glamorous, humble & demure, teensy, fragile & somehow electric – the diversity is inspiring.
After focusing so much attention on the garden and the efforts required to get a good yield, mushrooms become an even more treasured gift. No composting, seed starting, transplanting, watering, feeding, pruning, etc. Nature does it all. The forest nurtures and cultivates itself, and there the mushrooms are, ready for harvest. The scavenger hunt part of successful foraging might repel some; for others, that’s the most exciting part of the search. Whether it’s indicator flowers, trees the shrooms tend to prosper around, particular ground cover where they thrive, the forest provides clues. No guarantees, but natural clues that also lend to the beauty of the hunting landscape.
The flavor and the beauty of mushrooms enchants, but the other role they play in the natural world, and increasing the man-made world, might trump all. Mushrooms heal. They have properties that act medicinally, building intrinsic strength in humans and the ability to transform poison into harmless materials in more industrial applications, like oil spills and nuclear clean-ups.
Perhaps they are the real inspiration for Alice’s Wonderland. Whether for food, medicine or psychotropic adventure, it’s almost spooky how mushrooms offer so much and require so little. A bit like the Earth in general. While not recommended as a Halloween offering to trick-r-treaters, make time before the snow flies to either hike among them, purchase some chanterelles to include in a warm risotto, or merely be thankful for the quiet work they do on our behalf.