Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Mushrooms

One morning not too long ago, I woke up early and, unable to go back to sleep, decided to head out for a hike in the pre-dawn chill. As I walked uphill towards one of my favorite dells, I savored the crisp morning air and basked in the light of the recently-full moon setting in the west. I felt myself slipping into that state of mind which only a rhythmic entrainment with nature induces in me: energized yet calm, introspective but wide open, happy and fully alive.

Call it a hunch, call it the effect of a few stray spores floating in the moist air and alerting the olfactory centers of my brain, call it what you will - but for whatever reason I veered off the path and followed a deer trail into a damp area of tan oak, bay, and poison oak. There, as the first rays of the sun hit the leaves on the forest floor, I found my first chanterelles of the season. With the combination of the recent rains and dropping nighttime temperatures, the forest had produced a beautiful little crop of golden-orange manna for me to gather. After picking enough for breakfast (I left the babies for another day, or perhaps for another mushroom-lover), I headed home and made a delicious buttery mushroom omelet for me and my family. What a way to start the day!

Here in Santa Cruz, many people share my passion for mushrooms. But in much of this country, indeed in much of the Western world, mushrooms are looked upon with great suspicion if not revulsion. The great mycologist G. Gordon Wasson divides the peoples of the world into two classes: the “mycophiles” and the “mycophobes.” Fortunately for me, my parents both come from strongly mycophilic cultures. Growing up in Japan, I grew to love the plentiful shiitake, the long and skinny enokidake, the rare and fragrant matsutake which evoked for us the joys within the sad beauty of autumn. My father, who is Swiss, is an avid mushroom-hunter who goes foraging in the hills of Binningen, where he lives outside the city of Basel. His father, a civil servant in the town of Thalwil on the shores of Lake Zurich, served as the mushroom inspector for the community. If people were unsure about the edibility of the mushrooms they had collected, they would bring their harvest to my grandfather to have it checked out.

Aside from a genetic propensity to dwell on mushrooms, to long for them when they aren’t around and to cook and eat them with great gusto when they are, I have maintained a longtime professional interest in fungi. As an herbalist, I prescribe them daily in my practice, usually in the form of the mildly tonifying fuling, sometimes as the more strongly diuretic zhuling, often as part of a formula containing the immune-strengthening, spirit-calming polypore known as reishi or lingzhi. From the Chinese point of view, mushrooms are a yin phenomenon, growing as they do in dark, moist places. The biggest part of the mushroom’s body is the mycelium, a fine network of thready matter that grows through the soil of the forest floor. But the above-ground sexual organ bursts out into the yang of daylight to spread its spores into the greater world. Thus the mushroom when eaten nurtures the dark wet places within us, but also animates our creative and libidinous energies – what Chinese medicine calls “tonifying yin and yang.”

Mushrooms are the great alchemists of the forest, transforming tons of dead and decaying matter into beautiful, edible, perhaps even spiritual morsels. From the delectable morel to the medicinal lingzhi to the psychedelic ‘shrooms that have spread like spores on the wind from the huts of obscure Mazatec medicine women to living rooms and raves around the world, mushrooms have shared with humans a symbiotic intimacy since the dawn of time. When we forage for fungi in the wild, cook them with a few simple ingredients and eat them, we get a taste of Eden. Something in us remembers a time before supermarkets, a time before we left the safety and abundance of the forest for the open plains, a time when a field was just a field and not a place where we planted stuff. When we eat mushrooms, we embrace the long lineage of hunter-gatherers from which we are descended. And, embracing what we truly are, we feel good, and we are healthy.

Note to mushroom lovers: PSYCH!  No, I did not find my first chanterelles this early!  I wrote this piece one October many years ago for my ACUPUNK column in the Good Times.  May the rains begin soon.

1 comment:

Siew-Keng said...

Kaz, this article helps me understand more about your passion for mushrooms because it goes back to your grandfather! Good work!