Summer is finally in full swing on my mountaintop, and we’re squeezing every ray of sunshine from every beautiful day. Fishing and hiking, golfing and gardening fill the calendar as my literary agent shops the first book in my latest mystery series.
I went mushroom hunting.
Before you yawn and think of a checkout line, I’m not talking about walking supermarket aisles looking for shrink-wrapped boxes of Baby Bellas. I’m talking about driving to the top of the pass—roughly 11,000 feet in altitude—wearing a sun hat, raingear and sturdy, waterproof boots to search for morels, boletus (porcini), hawk wing, and a mysterious little pink mushroom that smells like shrimp. (I looked for other fungi, too, but the names never stick. Maybe next year.)
I have a healthy respect for anything that can hurt me—the bears and cougars living in the valley snaking beneath my office window come to mind—even though I’ve waded out of nearly waist-deep African rivers swollen by the Big Rains and caught piranhas from the Amazon. And I live in the Rockies, where “magic mushrooms” are hallucinogenic, so have observed the “fungi-weird.” So choosing life and lucidity, I harnessed my risk-averse personality and ‘shroomed with a mycologist. That’s your first lesson in mushrooming: Always go with someone who can tell you which fungi are deadly—because several mushrooms will kill you, or make you so sick that you might wish you were dead.
Searching for these gems, some just barely erupting through a pine-and-spruce-needle carpet, was a giant Easter egg hunt for chefs. I had a blast scrambling through the forest, grasping my (sheathed) knife in my gloved hand, looking for disturbances or discrepancies in the dark organic matter covering an earth that thirty feet of snow will blanket in six months.
As the mycologist explained the relationship between spruce trees and porcinis, and all about mycelium—a white webbing that is earth’s biggest living organism and a fungi superhighway—I thought of the tightly entwined and ever-expanding network of relationships in nature, and about the diversity of wildflowers, mushrooms, and birds.
Then I stumbled (yes, literally almost fell on it) across the most beautiful mushroom of the day. The Aminita is a red marvel with white dots—and also deadly. As my late mother would say, “Beauty is only skin deep.”
I guess that her words of Southern wisdom apply to fungi as well as humans, although I do hope that you’re having a beautiful summer and enjoying the great outdoors.