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by Justin Teerlinck
“Eat it,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“Eat it,” he demanded.
“I can’t,” I said. “It’s disgusting.”
I was 14 and my dad and I had done this dance many times already, the mushroom dance. In our totalitarian household, it was rare for me to outright refuse anything. Indeed, though he had badgered me many times, I had always managed to refuse. The very thought of mushrooms sickened me to the point of gagging. But one day I acquiesced to my father’s demands, hoping to finally put an end to an end to his domineering and bombastic comments—mostly concerning my cowardice, lack of strength of character, snobbery, and other deficits resulting from refusal to eat mushrooms.
Almost as soon as the diminutive can was opened, the odor hit me, sending a wave of nausea through me. He made smacking sounds as he gleefully gulped and slobbered over the unheated, limp, slimy morsels floating in murky brown liquid like turds in a sewer pipe. Observing his gustatory gusto gave me hope that he would quickly polish off the entire mess before foisting it on me. But soon, a spoon containing the can’s putrid contents was thrust at my face. What began as mild harassment and shaming, quickly devolved into bullying. After some further condescension, insults, character attacks and a few hard slaps, the spoon was in my mouth. Seconds later, I was running for the toilet. After my return, there was laughter and mock clapping. “Great show,” said Dad. “You win an Oscar.” After that, the insults and pressure continued every time mushrooms appeared on the menu, but physical force was absent. It was a small concession, but I had earned it.
They say that dogs only have three different tastes: good, bad, and “don’t care.” My parents only had one: good. It was all good. Dad even ate rotten cheese straight from the garbage. Their indifference to the quality of food meant that they would eat anything. Their standards influenced their cooking—or, to use a more accurate term, “meal preparation.” My brother and I could (and did) eat almost every bit of horse-trough worthy excreta we were served, and did it with a smile, but I drew a line in the sand when it came to mushrooms and liver. “God, your children are so PICKY!” wailed my stepmother, her eternal lamentation over the only two things in the world I would not eat.
Of course, the irony was that, after all this water under the bridge, as a late teen I was eating platefuls of mushrooms that looked like butt crust, tasted like unwashed feet, and also caused queasiness and vomiting. The difference was that the canned mushrooms were force fed to me by a dictator, and caused nightmares. The second type of mushrooms came in a baggie provided by a benevolent hippie-ish guy in my scout troop, and caused visions. If I had to say which was more disgusting, I honestly couldn’t decide. Either way, I had nothing more to do with fungi for twenty years.
If willing, one can unlearn what they have learned, but how does one unlive what they have lived? The answer lies in serendipity and new experience.
After fleeing the home I grew up in, I did not give mushrooms much thought until early middle age. I didn’t bother them, and they didn’t bother me. Then I moved to a lush, temperate rainforest where wild mushroom collecting is practically stamped into peoples’ DNA. Some new friends from grad school invited me to go on a field trip, hunting for something I’d never heard of: chanterelles. Well, I thought, why not? I loved learning new things about the natural world. I loved identifying living things and understanding all the dimensions of their significance. Unlike my dad or a dog, I did not need to put something in my mouth to appreciate it. If I found any chanterelles, it would just be that much more fungal booty for my buddies. We got skunked that day, finding not a single mushroom, but I remembered the experience and went out with my girlfriend several years later.
Before going out into the waterlogged woods of the Pacific Northwest, I did a little research. I discovered that serious mushroom hunting is not just a benign pastime for amateur naturalists with creaky knees and sloth-like patience. It’s a high-stakes, high-risk activity with serious consequences (like death) for the unwary, the inept, the stupid, and even for otherwise-knowledgeable people who make one mistake. Not only that, but mushroom hunters tend to be clannish, zealously guarding the secret locations of perennial patches, and reluctant to share information of any kind with beginner hunters, thus requiring most beginners to be self-taught. The market for rare mushrooms has seasonal prices similar to precious metals, but unlike precious metals, mushrooms’ qualities are ephemeral and short-lived. While a few choice edibles can be farmed, most of the year-round mushrooms found in grocery stores are bland or canned. The competition and desire for this limited resource is so intense, I had even read about people intentionally setting forest fires in order to create ideal habitat for their preferred quarry.
I spent months studying the mushrooms that grow near me, before setting out to look for them. I studied their ideal habitat, temperature, weather conditions, and for every hour I put in studying a mushroom I hoped to someday find, I spent two studying its poisonous look-alikes: scholarship being key to survival. And with no one to take me in hand and show me the tricks of the trade, I had long conversations with my girlfriend about this or that feature, examining specimens we brought home, taking spore prints, and usually throwing them all away after being only 90% certain of what we had.
The more time I spent in the woods, the more I learned to think like a hunter. I walked for hours in silence with heightened senses, careful of every step, following every contour, bump and ridge with my eyes, scanning for anything that looked out of place. In the process, I traversed beds of neon green moss, saw dew-drops delicately cupped in the chalice of flowers, felt the breath of silence press down upon me, stilling all the anxious, depressing thoughts sunk in the deep recesses of my mind.
To understand fungi is to understand the cycle of death to life. It’s a search for wispy specters of the forest deep, there and gone and there again like inter-dimensional travelers. My childhood, its exterior surfaces immolated in the flames familial tragedy and abuse, is reborn on each sojourn into the woods. Its fruiting bodies are short-lived, but its roots are eternal. It resides in the qualities from which it springs: curiosity, awe and wonder, joy. If my father were beside me today, I would ask him to put down his can of mushrooms and join me in the forest. “It’s good for you,” I would tell him. “It’s alive.”