Sex, Death and Mushrooms

Sex, Death and Mushrooms

NOV. 6, 2015

Highlights of a day’s fungus hunt in Tallman Mountain State Park in New York. Clockwise from top left: honey mushrooms; blewit; chicken mushroom; hen of the woods. Credit Victor Schrager for The New York Times

On Nature



The forest air is sweet and winy with decay. It’s raining hard. I wipe drops of cold water from the tip of my nose, open an umbrella and ready myself for a walk with my old friend Nick, emeritus professor of the history of science and amateur mycologist. For the last 15 years I’ve accompanied him on autumn mushroom hunts; today we’re visiting Thetford Forest, in Suffolk. Both of us carry trugs, traditional English wooden baskets of willow and sweet chestnut, to hold what we will find. Perhaps tiny fungi with hairlike stalks, or lumpy shelves on the trunks of rotting trees, or pale masses like discarded round pillows, or splayed red starfish arms emerging from the ground.

Hunting for mushrooms can feel surprisingly like hunting animals, particularly if you’re searching for edible species. Looking for chanterelles, I’ve found myself walking on tiptoe across mossy stumps as if they might hear me coming. It’s a bad idea to walk around and try to spot them directly. They have an uncanny ability to hide from the searching eye. Instead, you must alter the way you regard the ground around you, concern yourself with the strange phenomenology of leaf litter and try to give equal attention to all the colors, shapes and angles on the messy forest floor. Once you’ve achieved this relaxed and faintly predatory gaze, brilliant wax-yellow chanterelles often appear from behind leaves and twigs and moss, and now they look quite unlike the false chanterelles growing beside them. Nick says that with enough experience, ‘‘you can reliably tell, at least for the commoner species, what the thing is, even if they are enormously variable, and you could not begin to explain how.’’ He has been an enthusiastic mycologist since his teens and has the names of at least several hundred species committed to memory. Read more.