by Brady Raymond
This article is intended as a preseason metaphysical mushrooming warm up. As our summer edges closer to the inevitable rains of fall, I think it is important that we get our heads right. What follows is my attempt at explaining to myself something about mushrooms. What that is and if it is of any value to the reader is for them to decide.
You don’t have to put a name on a mushroom to understand a mushroom. Putting a name on it only identifies it, understanding a mushroom is a whole different thing. Names help when communicating with other people about a given mushroom, but if you’re trying to understand it from a name alone good luck.
Experience only comes with time, the more time you spend with mushrooms the more you will start to understand them. To fully grasp mushrooms takes time, and as your experience grows so too will your perception of the patterns which associate with fungi. However, many patterns as soon as they start to form become disrupted, but if you broaden the scope of your perception, you may see the same or similar patterns start to reemerge.
When you can instinctively calculate the patterns around you and benefit from understanding them to find more mushrooms, you know you have moved from a novice to a novice+1. It’s a long way to go to get to expert and there is a kind of scientific inflation if you want to get to pro. Though, for many of us being a novice+1 is sufficient enough for what we hope to achieve.
If you’re new to mushrooming it takes a few seasons to develop your eyes. Mushroom eyes are adept at not only spotting the mushrooms but spotting the environments in which they grow. This can be done with a certain degree of accuracy if you can understand the broader picture with mushrooms and see the complexity of patterns that correlate with them.
I’ve identified so far this summer a number of possible sites which will warrant further investigation this fall. Certain things just kind of clicked in my mind, I saw recognizable patterns and instinctively I started projecting similar locations, just over this new geography. In fact, there are patterns to the geography too. For the PNW the two main things to know are probably your elevation and what side of the Cascades you are on.
Obviously, every spot is different from the next, but with experience that broader picture of mushrooms I mentioned earlier, it will start to come into focus. As the way of the forest becomes more clear your appreciation for life is intensified as you will start to realize how all the world is interconnected.
And in times of dry when no mushrooms burst forth, their true selves carry on. Beneath our feet, filaments thread their ways through the duff that be. Biding time ’til the next flush.
Typically when folks are out in the woods they hope to see something spectacular in terms of wildlife, like a bear or Mountain goat but often times interesting critters scurry right around our feet and just overhead. This spring I noticed again that the emergence of frogs at altitude seemed to correspond with the fruiting of Morels. No doubt a relationship both have in common to temperature, in regards to their reproduction. After witnessing this over a few seasons I now figure this data into the variables section in my set of “PNW Mushroom Patterns.” These patterns are just my personal memories, the data I’ve filed away that manifests itself many times as a hunch when in new locations.
It is still possible throughout our dry summers to see some interesting other forms of life, especially in the form of flowering plants. Allotropa virgata is one such plant, these plants are non-photosynthetic and thus obtain their nutrients via other means. What these means are, seem to be described differently from the two online resources and one book I referenced. The Botanical Society of America describes them as “parasitic on fungi that occur in leaf litter beneath conifers.” The Forest Service describes it as “plants that obtain nutrients and carbohydrate from fungi that are associated with their roots and with the roots of various species of conifer or hardwood trees.” Finally, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest (Timber Press) says nothing about how it consumes energy. It does, however, describe Monotropa uniflora as being a saprophyte. That leaves you with three assumptions, 1) suggests it’s a parasite, 2) seems to suggest they are mycorrhizal with fungi and trees? 3) they may just be saprotrophs. Of course, it could be a combination of any of the three as well.
From my perception, the natural history of plants and especially their taxonomy, are ripe with the same types of problems seen in mycology. It seems though, that these problems are really just the scientific inflation of knowledge in action. This isn’t a dig at mycology or botany so much as it is a personal revelation. While some folks are trying to figure mushrooms out in the lab, other folks are in the woods figuring them out in a wholly different way. For me, finding mushrooms is what I enjoy most. Getting outside surrounded by mountains and in the company of family and friends, that is the main attraction of mushrooming to me as a hobby.
Sometimes I wonder if we focus too much on how mushrooms are related to one another on their branch of the tree of life. I think that is singularly dimensional. Mushrooms exist very much different in the herbarium than they do where they grow. Yes, a detailed mycologist or serious amateur with fastidious notes will record as much detail as possible but only in the direct association of the mushroom. Yet the whole of life threads its way around, and if one is keen with first-hand observation, larger sets of patterns will start to emerge. Much like the emergence of frogs in spring, migrating birds both in the spring and fall have their own association with mushrooms although in its own unique and probably unquantifiable way.
One of my goals this fall season is to focus on patterns more. I’m not willing to stretch it out to the stars but I am looking for cues as to what my five senses can experience first hand and in that regard, it is a subjective pursuit. Being that it is subjective means ultimately your learned patterns are your own. That’s one of the things I like about mushrooming, even if you’re with other people it is still a very individual experience.
Don’t let the lack of rain dissuade you from exploring the woods as summer draws to a close. You may not find heaps of mushrooms but what you do find may surprise you, a deeper understanding of the world around you and your place in it.