Jarvis Coffin: Off the Highway – Meandering for mushrooms

  • Jarvis Coffin

Published: 9/22/2022 11:46:46 AM
Modified: 9/22/2022 11:46:08 AM

I went mushroom meandering recently with a dozen others who had signed up for the field trip organized by the Harris Center for Conservation Education in Hancock. Eventually, I would like to learn how to forage for edible mushrooms that I may collect and cook them. I am overwhelmed by the quantity and variety of mushrooms underfoot and sprouting from trees.

Our meander was scheduled for an hour. I dressed appropriately in sturdy shoes and a hat, with water reserves for the return. After introductions and headlines from our group leaders, John Benjamin and George Caughey, we set off from the Harris Center gardens toward the woods. An hour later, our meander ended 100 feet from where we started. There were that many mushrooms of different shapes and sizes to stop and discuss.

Here are a few key takeaways from my first mushroom meander:

1. Mushrooms hide in plain sight, under a bit of leaf, beneath a tree, beside a rock, along the path. They are in abundance, but you need to look for them.

2. Please do not eat them unless you know what you are doing.

3. John Benjamin and George Caughey know what they are doing. Most of the time, though, they speak Latin.

I can conjugate the verb “to love” in Latin, but that is it. What I remember most from eighth-grade Latin class is the little blue textbook, “First Steps in Latin.” With a few strokes of a blue ballpoint, each had been transcribed to read “First Steps in Eating” and carried a small poem inside the front cover. The poem went like this:

“Latin is a dead language

As dead as it can be

It killed the Romans

Now it is killing me.”

But I am impressed by the scholarship of other people who can recite the Latin names of things such as flowers and mushrooms. It is an important organizational tool for cataloging the spectrum of life. I checked; relying on the Latin ensures that plant identification is not confused by local names for things, which vary. The common name for a mushroom in one part of the world can be different elsewhere, and regarding something like a mushroom, confusion can be very bad for the health.

Our meandering group spread out, examining the ground below us, retrieving mushrooms and bringing them back to our guides for identification. We passed them around, looking under their caps for gills, pores or teeth and squeezing them for staining. We found turkey tails and puff balls, talked about saprotrophs versus saprophytes and the deadly destroying angel (genus Amanita; keyword, destroying).

Of course, most of us were keen to know which mushrooms were edible. It was a refrain. Someone would present John or George with a mushroom, which they would turn over in their hands, talk about its features and share with the group.

“Can we eat it?” any of us would ask, to which our hosts would patiently answer “No!” Or “Well, yes, but I wouldn’t.”

We have all run the question through our minds: who ate the first mushroom? My father’s favorite was to ask who ate the first lobster. The answer is ancient and unknowable. But someone did, some early Homo sapiens, probably after observing other animals. I like the connection to this question that results from foraging adventures such as a mushroom meander.

Once upon a time, foraging for food was a necessary and dangerous game. Which brings to mind the flock of turkeys that waded through our newly planted field, a dozen of them. They are regulars around the property. Marcia and I were sitting on a bench after piling rocks when the turkeys emerged from the woods. We watched as they pecked their way toward us. I was interested to see what parts of the grasses and flowers they ate.

Unperturbed by us, they munched forward. I was satisfied to see they were leaving the wildflowers, favoring the tall grasses and whatever else. The young poults are practiced now, but they followed the adults close behind and left the wildflowers alone.

“Can we eat this?” we imagined them asking. “Well, yes, dear, but I wouldn’t.”

Jarvis Coffin and his wife Marcia owned New Hampshire’s oldest inn, The Hancock Inn, during which time he wrote a popular newsletter for the inn’s mailing list. Retired from innkeeping, he now writes full-time, mostly essays on rural life and fiction. You can reach him at huntspond@icloud.com, and keep up with his other musings on the Monadnock Region at postcard-from-monadnock.ghost.io.


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