by Heidi Czerwiec
Issue One: June 1, 2018
Lord, allow me to eat what feeds on death to strum my psalm and not myself be plucked.
—“Lamb’s Canyon,” Heidi Czerwiec
I’m a mushroom hunter. In order to find mushrooms, I need familiarity with what they feed on. To be blunt, mushrooms feed on death. Many species are saprobes, mushrooms that get nutrients from decaying or dead organic matter. Other mushrooms grow from the soil in association with certain trees, in a symbiotic relationship called mycorrhizal, where their lives depend on a mutual tangle of roots. In order to find the large gray ruffs of Hens of the Woods (Grifola), or the similarly-named but unrelated orange shelves of Chickens of the Woods (Laetiporus), you must look for living oaks. For morels, seek the circumference of peeling – and therefore dying, but not-yet-dead – elms.
Know your mushrooms well ahead of time. Know the lookalikes, know how they will try to confuse you, know how to not be confused, how to distinguish the two. Know the worst that will happen if you fail: a stomach ache? vomiting? death? Post pictures of your finds to your favorite foraging site. That way, you can preserve the moment. That way, you may preserve yourself, should an expert see a mistake, a menace you missed.
When you bring home your haul, you must first do two things. Stay outside: you want to clean your mushrooms of rival creatures who also hope to feed on them, who may already have begun to do so. Check for tunnels running through fungal folds where earwigs and millipedes may burrow. Or maggots, thin as a pin, translucent with black pinheads, hundreds dancing on, in, the head of your mushroom. Keep what you can salvage, can stomach. Then, go inside: change clothes carefully, checking the fabric, and then your own body – it’s folds and furred places – for ticks, who wish to feed off you in turn. Apply calamine to your many mosquito bites, already swelling.
When done, it’s time to feast on your finds. Chanterelle Fricassee, how the heavy cream extends and amplifies their delicate scent. Maitake Ramen, the crisp chewiness a contrast atop noodles. Wild Mushroom Risotto, decadent, and yet flavored by only a humble handful of mixed mushrooms. In doing so, you are closer to the fungus and its feeders than you might imagine: like you, mushrooms use enzymes to break down what they consume.
What does it mean to feast on that which feeds on death? To be an aficionado of the various flavors of decay? To fight off other creatures for the privilege to be the one to consume it?
You nearly discover the answer more explicitly than you imagine when, in 2005, a friend invites you to look for chanterelles in Lamb’s Canyon, just northeast of Salt Lake City. The fall before, Garrett Bardsley, Boy Scout, goes missing from his camping group. Little lamb lost, gone astray. Though the searches persist for weeks until the heavy snows start, he goes unfound. The following spring, a flyer posted at the trailhead asks hikers’ help in case his remains are located. Experts expect he will be found
fungal, inside a tree trunk, curled fetal beneath a blanket of aspen leaves,
insensate to the heat of his own decay, too late to warm him.
In the forest, fungi break down dead or dying matter, render it into soil, make it usable for new growth. In their role as decomposers, fungi are essential: without them, the world would be buried in its own debris.
You don’t want to be the one to find the boy. But your mushrooming mission requires peering into the same kinds of spaces, places mushrooms tend to favor. You hunt all afternoon but find no boy – only a few handfuls of chanterelles glowing goldenly through the leaf litter, firm and smelling faintly of apricot, fine gills forking along their stems. In other words, you find a more pleasingly aesthetic form of death: decay spun into gold. You place them in a fine mesh bag so that as you hike back down the canyon, they may release their last gasp in the form of spores, spreading their death across the forest floor so that next year there might be more. You feel both pride and relief, for the little deaths you found, for the big one you did not.
When you return to your friend’s apartment, you double-check your mushrooms against your book to rule out the imposters – false chanterelles and jack o’ lanterns – because always, this form of feasting on death could carelessly result in your own.
You choose to prepare them in the old, traditional way: wild mushrooms sautéed with garlic and herbs, a recipe used in Spain and France, and which in Italy is called a la loro morte, meaning mushrooms cooked “to their death.” Delicious over toast: the bread, crisp-broiled with olive oil, a complement to the soft bites of fragrant fungus, a way to sop all released juices. You toast each other with wine. You toast to your finds. You become slightly toasted, drunk with having defied death, defeating it temporarily, consuming it to contain, usurp its power.
Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Poetry City, USA and for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and mentors with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com