mushrooms and moss


It’s been a very wet summer in Maine, and consequently mushrooms have been popping up everywhere.  This has resulted in an outbreak of poisonings (174 cases so far) as foragers mistakenly pick non-edible mushrooms, bring them home, and then get sick off of them.  In a recent news story, a woman from the poison control center talked about a case in which a man went out into his back yard, picked a handful of mushrooms, and put them on the pizza that his wife was making for dinner.  Luckily the mushrooms weren’t of the type that contains neurotoxins, or the type that cause liver damage, so other than a lot of vomiting he was mostly off the hook.

It’s easy to understand why there are so many poisonings, since mushrooms are so wonderful looking that they generate an immediate kind of synæsthesia; the look of the thing speaks immediately of some kind of incredible and mysterious flavor that surely must reside just under the cap.  Some friends visited the island recently and on a hike we took around the Blue Rock Trail we encountered some 18 different varieties of mushrooms, each variety gloriously particular and colorful, like Jelly Bellies in physical form.  I myself have had a chance to eat some incredibly delicious wild chanterelle and porcini mushrooms since I’ve been on the island, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable picking anything myself except for chanterelles, which are truly easy to identify .   If I were a girl group from the early 60s I think I would have to insist on calling myself “The Chanterelles.”

The mushrooms are especially beautiful standing in contrast to the incredible green moss carpets that cover the forest floor.  As Thoreau writes in “Natural History of Massachusetts,” “The beauty there is in mosses must be considered from the holiest, quietest nook.”  Walking through these forest mosses with the brightly-colored mushrooms springing up all around is like wandering through some crazy Hansel and Gretel forest where the witch, instead of building a candy house, has left her eye-catching temptations all around, within easy reach of the overly casual hand.

One particularly memorable foraging experience involved picking a ring of sow’s ears out of a damp basement carpet that I was busy removing for some friends of mine.  The carpet, one of those horridly bright green and blue numbers from the early 70s, had been repeatedly flooded during subsequent winters and had developed a fine colony of mildew and mushrooms.  In an attempt to find some redemption in the situation, I pulled a few of the sow’s ears out of the carpet — identified as “edible,” but not “delicious” — and brought them upstairs to fry up.  They were indeed edible, but definitely not delicious.  I suppose the exceedingly unorganic nature of the environment they were raised in should have tipped me off early, but if there was ever a flavor that would be called “the flavor of grey water” it was the flavor contained in those carpet-grown fungi.


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