...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Life as a hunter-gatherer must be hard

After many years of thinking that I ought to gather mushrooms one day and learn to identify those sought-after chanterelles, I finally wound up doing it. It was an ordinary morning. Margareta thought she's take a walk, I tagged along. And she brought a basket — just in case.

I hadn't thought of bringing the camera, since it wasn't sure that we would find anything. Even though we would walk to the known mushroom spots around their neighborhood where there were good chances of spotting chanterelles, mushrooms are unpredictable that way: sometimes, there aren't many of them, and sometimes, they just sprout like, well — mushrooms. We were thinking of maybe finding one or two, but we came back with about a kilo of chanterelles.

As Micheal Pollan writes in the Omnivore's Dilemma (a very good, recommendable book), there is actually little humans know about why mushrooms grow, and why they grow when they do. In the case of chanterelles that grow year after year, they seem to grow under the same oaks, even though the oaks beside them might be bare from chanterelles. The mushrooms will remain a mystery that way, which is also why chanterelle gatherers are said to be protective about their gathering spots.

Another mystery is how to spot chanterelles at all, under all the leaf litter, among twigs and other inedible mushrooms. At first you see nothing but the forest floor. But as in a 3D puzzle, once you've seen one chanterelle in one spot, the others also "pop out" of their cover. Swedes refer to it as having your "mushroom specacles" on. Pollan describes it as having one's eyes on, which quite accurately describes how it felt like to me:

"But before the morning was out I'd begun to find a few chanterelles on my own. I began to understand what it meant to have my eyes on, and the chanterelles started to pop out of the landscape, one and then another, almost as though they were beckoning to me. So had I stumbled on a particularly good spot or had I learned at last how to see them? Nature or nurture? There was no way of telling, though I did have an eerie experience of resurveying the very same path of ground and finding a Siamese pair of chanterelles, bright as double egg yolks, in a spot where a moment before I could swear there had been nothing but the tan carpet of leaves."

True enough, after spotting some chanterelles during out walk, we found a load of mushrooms under the first tree which we thought we'd alraedy inspected!

Once you've spotted them, of course, there's also the nescessary step of identifying if they really are what you think they are, and not a chanterelle copycat. In Sweden, at least, chanterelles are the most common mushrooms to gather for the simple fact that it has very distinguishing characteristics, which make for a good beginner's mushroom. Nevertheless, I think it's best to start plucking them with someone with experience, who can guide you through the distinguishing features and point out look-alikes. I took pictures of our loot though, so I can review these features for myself and also show them here.

The big ones are funnel-shaped, although not the small ones, which are a bit button-like (second picture). But the distinguishing features are that (1) the grooves on the underside go down to the stem; in fact, there is no distinguishable mushroom "cap" (2) they are never slimy, but have a firm, leathery feel to them, and they are seldom damaged by insects. I also read a third tip on the internet: (3) That the grooves "fork" at the top.

That is all well, but you seldom see a mushroom on the ground from it's side, which is why I made a point to take pictures from the top view. The picture below shows how they could look like in their different sizes, from the button-like small ones, to the big funnel-shaped ones. From the top view, the distinguishing features are: (1) they don't have a dark halo on top and (2) they are not cone-shaped when viewed from above. To this I add to my own mental note when I was comparing it to a look-alike: (3) They are not "furry" on the edges when you look at from an angle.

If they grow under oaks, chanterelles will be an eggy shade of yellow — but apparently, there are paler variants that grow in mixed forests with pine (at bottom left). They can grow in clusters, but also as "littered" on the forest floor, as this picture taken by Mats on his mushroom-gathering excursion. Since I don't have my own pictures from mushroom gathering, I will post his:

I commented on the title of the blog that life must be hard for a hunter-gatherer. Imagine all the species of plants and mushrooms you have to remember (and find!), not to mention tracking and combating animals for food. We certainly have made life easier for us, and we neither need to do these things or even remember half of the edible species our ancestors used to know. Yet, I think it's interesting how people still pursue these activities — gathering, as well as hunting — as worthwhile hobbies, instead of activities of pure need. Maybe there's something very rewarding about going to our basic human activities. Maybe, for all our civilization, the human body needs to be in contact with his natural, vulnerable self (I can imagine that hunting makes you vulnerable in as much as it appears to be brutal). Or maybe hunting and gathering is somewhat exotified in our technological world, so we turn to them just to do "something different". Anyhow, to me, it's a bit like what they say about medieval cosplaying: what people used to do as real hard work, we now do for fun and liesure. Now, isn't that an interesting thing to think about?

P.S. Added 19 September. Liz was asking me about weather poking the leaf litter with a stick in the search for chantarelles (as she's seen done in Germany), damages the mushroom growth in some way. I don't have a definite answer to this question, but in The Omnivore's Dilemma, at least, the mushroom gatherer did this for the opposite reason: to hopefully spread the mushroom spores from tree to tree. I guess each mushroom gatherer has his or her bag of tricks. As to weather they work or not is something else altogether. As said, there is actually little man knows about the mushroom.


Blogger arlini said...

very nice post.

7:50 AM

Blogger Tim Findlay said...

I have been wondering which of these mushrooms you can pick! I am not really game yet because there are also lost of poisonous ones! I have seen plenty of people doing though!

2:52 PM


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