It was the perfect fall morning- bitingly cold and dry. Whispy fog lay low in the sky, pure white and sure to burn off. As we glided by the ponds and streams alongside Highway 6, a light mist hovered on the edge of liquid and gas on the surface. It danced in slow, rising whisps, reaching upwards towards the the warm sun as it rose, welcoming, over the horizon. At first it was painful, making us squint as it rose in the east and reflected on the rearview mirror. But as it made its ascent, slowly but surely, it began to bathe the golden fields with an illuminating light, glowing with life. It was the ultimate fall scene- deciduous trees glowing with warm color, lighter yellow fields muted by a frosty white cover. Beyond Portland’s urban growth boundary, the landscape opened up wide and expansive, easy on the eyes so used to being constrained by buildings.
The highway twisted and turned among dense Maple and Douglas Fir forests, and the glorious golden and red colors of leaves greeted us as cheerfully as slowly dying leaves can at the height of fall. We made our way through Tillamook State Forest, progressing West, and after a quick detour at the Visitors’ Center, we pulled off the highway and into a neighborhood, more like a small development of houses and property spread out along a nondescript gravel road.
You see, we were on specific mission. My friend Sophie is an amateur mushroom forager, and I was lucky enough to accompany her on an excursion for chanterelles. She had come to this specific spot along Highway 6 recently and had had some luck looking in between two specific Douglas Fir nurse logs. So we pulled the car over and hopped the neighboring ditch, landing in soft, decomposing soil thick with pine needles and decomposing maple leaves. We tromped for awhile through tall bracken and sword fern before stepping onto a downed Douglas Fir that rose vertically up a gradual slope. We balanced carefully on the soft, thick moss, ascending the hill by means of our natural ramp. As we walked, Sophie enlightened me on the wonders of mushrooms and their symbiotic relationship with the decomposing beings of the forest. The majority of the fungi organism lies hidden under the soil or lodged deep into the trunk of the tree, spreading out its nutrients to feed the tree, while at the same time feeding on the nutrients from the soil or tree as well. The telltale mushroom caps and umbrellas that we see poking out of the soil during this soggy fall season are only a small portion of the actual organism. Fungi fall into their own wondrous kingdom of organisms, which would explain why it looks like a plant without photosynthesizing and why it reproduces by enigmatic spores, not seeds. Chanterelles in particular are very particular fungi. They are specific about their habitable locations, rarely straying from an age-old love affair with Douglas Fir trees, relying on their thick bark and large sphere of influence for nutrients.
As we continued to forage, looking under downed logs and under layers of fallen leaves whose color quite resembled the mushrooms we sought, I became enraptured by the process of foraging. It dawned on me, carrying my tote bag on one arm, that foraging is the most primal of human activities, except perhaps sex. As a forager, you are entirely at the mercy of what the woods offers up to you. You may go looking for one particular plant but stumble across something else altogether in the process. We had a vague idea of where to look for chanterelles but were for the most part, we relied on luck and happenstance. Luckily, Sophie and I were not relying on this mushrooming excursion as our only food source, and the completely stripped down process of vigilance in our gathering was humbling.
At times, Sophie and I separated in our search, always within ear shot of each other, but going off on our own quiet search. I enjoyed the meditative quality of my solitary walk, ducking under sprawling vine maples, climbing around gigantic downed Douglas Firs, at times close enough to the ground to smell its rich and loamy, almost spicy decomposing aroma. And during one of these meditative excursions, I stumbled across a clearing filled with chanterelles. By “filled with” I mean 7 or 8 but this was a wealth compared to what we had found thusfar. I got down on my hands and knees, peeling up layers of dead leaves that hid the trumpet-like, orange fungi, delighted by my sudden find. The spot was between two downed Douglas Fir trees, exactly the habitat we’d been looking for, and overlooked a steep drop-off to the road. This small clearing filled with mushrooms was quite magical. Hidden, slowly growing, hiding away behind two nutrient-rich stumps, beyond the beaten path, far away from living eyes.
Most mushroomers adopt the philosophy that “mushrooms find you,” not the other way around. I am inclined to believe this is true, for as hard as you look for them, you will inevitably stumble across encampments of the most valuable mushrooms when you are least expecting it. We definitely found at least 15 other varieties of fungi on our excursion, but only two locations where chanterelles thrived. After a couple hours of searching, we decided to turn back to the city, satisfied for the day but now carrying the knowledge of two more chanterelle hiding spots. Two of surely hundreds of others scattered across the area, living out their peaceful lives regardless of human foragers. A few days later, I dry sautéed my chanterelles with a little garlic and tossed them over egg noodles for the tastiest of fall meals. And as is always true, food procured by one’s own hands always tastes just that much better.
Nikki McClure, a genius artist from Olympia, WA, represents the process of mushroom hunting quite accurately in her new calendar for 2012. She portrays the enchantment that foragers feel at stumbling across a hidden encampment of their favorite plant or fungi. Yes, ours for the taking if we do please, but a taking characterized by respect, and wonder for the symbiotic exchange of nutrients in the forest- from decomposing leaf to tree to mushroom to human belly and then back again.