Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Adventures with Provocative, Dangerous and Edible Woodland Creatures
or... my weekend with fungus at the Yachats Mushroom Festival

Here I am in the wilds of Oregon's damp and mysterious forest. I'm holding a mushroom that's looks like it might be edible, but isn't... so much.

"Where did you find those mushrooms?" I asked the mushroom hunting couple. "Over there in those hills," answered the gentleman.

Last weekend in Yachats, Oregon, folks gathered for the 8th Annual Yachats Mushroom festival. The town "mushroomed" with the fungi curious, expert mushroom hunters, mycologists and mushroom mongers.

DISCLAIMER: Contact the Cascade Mycological Society if you want to learn more about mushroom identification, don't take my word for it, I'm a mushroom hunting rookie and some of the facts in here might be skewed by my rookie ways. DON'T EAT THE MUSHROOMS unless you know the mushrooms.

I met up with some friends from Utah who were in town for the weekend and we headed to downtown Yachats to check out the mushroom fest.

The downtown Village Market sold boxes of several varieties of mushrooms in front of the market. We started downtown where the mushroom festival organizers had converted a section of a building into mushroom exhibits.

Here's one of the most dangerous dudes of the bunch.

My friends stand beside a line-up of mushrooms being taught by a mushroom hunting veteran Joe Spivack

Here's an exhibit that shows you how mushrooms change appearance with age, just like people.

I opted to do the mushroom walk beginning at the Cape Perpetua Visitor's Center with Joe Spivak as our guide.

Joe was a very likeable and knowledgable guy who encouraged us to touch and handle the mushrooms. It's a MYTH he says that you can get sick just from touching a mushroom. (Side note, I picked up one tiny fungi with a tall stem that turned red where I touched it.) It left a slight tingling feeling on my fingers.

Joe chewed a portion of "certain" mushrooms and waiting for the taste to come. "This one is peppery," he said and offered it around. You never want to ingest until you know what you're eating.

We walked up the trail and every 20 yards or so, stopped to identify new mushrooms we found covering tree trunks, branches and the forest floor- among a million other places. I even found a cute mushroom growing out of a pine cone.

A very old mushroom. Not good to eat.

Joe made us all feel special for finding such lovely mushrooms along the route, he especially charmed the young mushroom hunters in the group-- making them feel as if they had found mycological wonders undiscovered until that moment.

I took this photo because this is a mushroom I found that Joe said has a very unusual quality. It looks a little like the morel mushroom, but this mushroom, when cooked, gives off a vapor that's much like rocket fuel- so that those rare people who cook it should be advised not to breath the fumes.

DISCLAIMER: Please don't go edible mushroom hunting by yourself or with a novice... this is not a sport for the faint-hearted. Mushrooms are tricky to identify. I met one guy along the route that told me he'd made it his goal to identify ONE mushroom a year.

The most recognizable edible mushrooms- in my humble opinion

chantrells: Orange with a signature stem and pattern on the back...the underside of the cap tapers to the stem and has deep gills.

oysters: pulls off the tree in clusters.

lobster mushrooms: Are the color of Lobsters

chicken of the forest: Big ugly burgeouning orange things that look something like characters from the Muppet Show.

Most valuable mushroom?
Besides the truffle of course- it's the Matsutake, which are hard to find, you have to really hunt for them.

Here's a photo of a Matsutake on top of some lobster mushrooms:

Jason, the mushroom hunter

At the end of the guided walk, a handful of us thought we'd try our skill at identifying mushrooms- a new-found skill for me (excluding the years spent plucking morel mushrooms from the forest by my home in the Rocky Mountains.) Morels don't really count- they are so easy to identify. Well, I wound up walking around with Jason, this colorful guy who had been subsisting in Yachats by working on an organic farm. He'd been traveling for 6 months- sort of Lost-in-the-Wild style- from Michigan to Missoula to El Waco, Washington and now to Yachats, experiencing life by trying to live off of nothing because he believed the state of affairs in our world will soon require it. At first I thought he had a point, but then again, he told me he dumpster dives sometime and it doesn't seem like the best route to self-reliance. I admired his desire to learn about how he could feed himself on farming and foraging, which most people don't seem to have "time" to do. I mean, shouldn't this be one of the first places we START when considering how to be more self reliant? Gardening and foraging... I love that concept.

But there was something a little too doomsday-ish about his ideas that I admit made me wary. He was convinced our society was on its way out and the financial collapse was due to some convoluted conspiracy that would prove our eventual demise. Before we parted ways, he mentioned something about Yachats being a great place to settle because it has bridges on both sides and if the community of Yachats wanted to keep people from coming in and begging for food, they could just dynamite the bridges. What?? Sound like a sci-fi novel. Yeah, there was something not quite right about that. But in case any of you agree with his assessment, Yachats IS a beautiful coastal town full of ample mushrooms with easy access to sea life to eat in case the world is INDEED coming to an end.

But I shouldn't give him such a bad wrap, Jason did help me identify the beautiful white oyster mushrooms growing on the trunk of a tree (they looked like fairy food or something- so white and dewey.) I can see why people love finding these beauties; it was magical plucking them from the tree trunk and stuffing them into my pockets. And Jason found some great chantrells and a chicken of the forest mushroom too.

When I first met Jason, I had asked him what he was doing traveling and this is what he had to say:

"I'm trying to see how far I can go on my WORD.."

"Your what?" I asked him, unsure of what he has said, I repeated what I thought I heard: "How far you can go on your WIERD?" ....I asked. It was a pretty funny exchange, in retrospect.

Here's Jason posing by an Alice in Wonderland type mushroom (Fly Agaric) that is poisonous.. Jason was considering "trying" this shrume to see how it made him feel.

So our group walked around the damp, quiet woods of mushroomville, Oregon. There's something foolhearted, I must admit, about going wild mushroom hunting with someone who would eat just about anything "just for the experience," someone who talked about making a stew out of nothing but the thick flesh of a bright orange Chicken of the Forest mushroom; someone who looked hungry and what was more believed the world may be about to end.

Jason was on the look-out for the elusive psychedelic mushrooms and anything that might be edible, or slightly edible. He found something like a death cap and carefully plucked it from the ground and as if we were pilgrim naturalists finding new species and capturing them for historic identification. I now chalk up his enthusiasm for the Death Cap as curiosity, but at the time I wondered slightly if collecting this mushroom was his secret stash, his "Romeo's vile of deadly elixir" in case the world DID happen to end.

By the end of my trip, I felt comfy identifying chantrells. And though I had a bag full of chantrells and oysters, I actually didn't eat them because. . . well, hey, I picked them. Was I ready to put the comfort of my intestines into my own hands? NO!

I recognize now that I was pretty paranoid about eating the oyster shrumes even though 3 people (a ranger and mycologist) verified that they were indeed edible mushrooms. Why the fear? I think it was something about being lost in the Oregon backwoods with a goofy, novice mushroom hunter and being overwhelmed by such fascinating and possibly toxic creatures growing out of dying trees. There's something so fecund about mushroom hunting- fecund and potentially dangerous. I loved it!

On the trip, my friends and I cooked up a stash of mushrooms we bought at the store.

Here's Jen eating buttery fried mushrooms with fresh pasta noodles in our beach house south of Yachats.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Confessions of a Spud Harvest Drama Queen

Since my new home in Oregon is farm-ville USA, its been fun to drive home beside tractors and farmers motoring through fields and watch sweet dust rising from the ground, lit-up by the early morning light. I love the smell of hay fields freshly cut and I love how a field of winter squash looks after the rain. I have an affection for farming and farmers- there's something about this time of year that brings back memories of growing up in Idaho surrounded by farm fields.

Every year Idaho school kids get out of class for two weeks to help in the potato harvest. It was and is a messy, dirty job that had me up to my elbows in soil all day. I wore ski goggles to keep dirt out of my eyes and often came home looking like an earthworm, blowing black snot out of my nose and feeling machine-lag after riding on the the digger out in the fields all day (a digger is a machine that pulls the potatoes from the soil and typically they put the high-schoolers on the digger.) That thing jiggled me around all day till I couldn't hear myself from the buzz of the machinery that still buzzed in my ears when I jumped off the digger and headed home in my dirty-as-hell clothes, my damp, soil-black work gloves from the farm supply store and with my goggles off and I looking raccoon-like with my face dirty except where the goggles had been. Sometimes friends and I would prop a potato onto a hot part of the machinery during the day and in a few hours, take off our gloves and dig into the white steamy flesh of the thing and each take a bite. Yum!

When dusk came, we were exhausted and couldn't tell which was a potato or a dirt clod that rolled along in front of us on the conveyor belt. How can I possibly romanticize that experience? It was miserable, truly. But we were young, so we tried to make it fun. My friends and I sang vigorously, substituting in the word potatoes for love in the cheesiest love songs. Try it, it's fun.

One year I was the only girl on the potato digging crew and believe you me, that was a tough year. Try working beside all your little brother's friends- in all their junior-high-school glory. These boys had two subjects of conversation: sex and farts. The first they knew very little about the later they were well-versed in, but they spoke about both as though they had written THE definitive guides on each subject. I remember one ill-fated day sorting potatoes from clods while massive amounts of soil flung itself upon my innocent body and I was a complete failure at deflecting the dirty jokes of my zitty, adolescent coworkers. Well, I became FED-up with my brother's little "perverted" friends and decided I was going to walk home early from work. I jumped off the digger and trudged across the trenched, soily field with a view of my house a few miles away. (Before I continue on, I need to insert a note that I was a DRAMA queen in high school... I was actually "Actress of the Year" and used to flit around the halls at Sugar-Salem belting Broadway songs with my friend Suzette and mortifying my big sister the "jock" (who was a STAR discus-thrower in track and who had bigger biceps than her boyfriend, the state champion wrestler). . . anyways, back to the story: I made it halfway across the field and decided spontaneously to throw myself at the mercy of the nematodes and other critters in the soil food web and did the most perfect Nestea plunge right in the middle of the field. I was crying hysterically, the tears making perfect miniature Ganges rivers down my cheeks. I just lay there and looked up at the clouds and breathed a little, then got back up a few minutes later and walked the rest of the way home where my mother guided me into the laundry room helping me unpeel the soil-blackened clothes from my weary body while she tried to remind me that all boys are perverts at THAT age and I just needed to take a shower and relax a bit.

But even amidst all that drama, I still recall potato harvest with fondness.

I don't really get it, but I said it, it's the truth that there's something sweet about it. What was it? Was it just working so hard and clean. How often do you get to exhaust yourself in a physical job like that? Office jobs sometimes seem to suck the life out of me. There's always either the deadline push, which makes me anxious or the downtime which makes me bored and feeling guilty about not being MORE productive. Working outside all day, we learned to tell the time on where the sun was in the sky overhead (I got pretty good at it.) We were gardeners- actually more more like peons paid to do a dirty job that not a lot of people liked to do.

But it's something I'll never regret- in fact, I hope when I have kids of my own, I can send them to work in the potato harvest too.