I wonder when this white fir was cut. The 1950s? Anyway, it seemed like a good place for offerings.
This time last year M. and I were picking mushrooms at higher elevations — and almost were trapped in a fairy portal. At least, that is what it seemed like. I might have provoked That Crowd by feeling a little too arrogant about my woodsmanship, but at least I saw the trap in time.
Admittedly, we were right up against the red zone, “extreme drought” in southern Colorado.
That event was August 6th. This year we returned to the same spot on July 29th, just to see if any mushrooms were coming up — there had been a few good rains up high — but there was nothing, edible or otherwise. It’s been a bad bad drought year, even in the high country (above 10,000 feet / 3,050 m).
But I had another purpose. Drought or not, I wanted to leave something for The Locals. The Other Crowd. Them. I did not know what protocol would work in “the mushroom grounds,” so I just brought some whiskey and a tobacco bundle, made from Nicotiana rustica that I had grown last year and dried, tied up in a scrap of old bandana.
Whiskey in a stump.
I poured some bourbon into a natural “cup” formed by the stump, and I tied the tobacco bundle to a protruding spike of wood inside the hollow stump.
We went back up there on August 6th, a year after the “portal” event. Still not a mushroom in sight. But I strolled past that stump and the tobacco bundle was gone. Flat gone. This is not an area that gets many human visitors.
The lore is that if an offering disappears, it has been accepted. Now if we could have more rain. But that is a different ritual and a different story.
There are at least five stages to mushroom-hunting.
You walk in the woods but do not see the mushrooms.
You begin to see mushrooms here and there.
Your unconscious is seeing mushrooms. For example, every reddish-tan thing on the forest floor that approximates the cap of a bolete will jump out and grab your attention.
Even before you see the mushroom, you know it is right around that clump of trees — and it is. (This happens to me rarely, but it has happened)
You have full bags of mushrooms in your pack or in your hands. Then you look around, and it’s “Holy Pan, how did we get to be here? And just where are we?”
That was yesterday, up in the Wet Mountains, a thick fir forest at about 11,000 feet elevation. “Let’s swing around and work back to the Jeep,” I said to M., and she was ready, so we started moving slowly up the broad ridge.
Then I looked around, and there to the north (on our left), was a steep-sided ravine that I had never seen before — any steeper and no trees could have grown on it. Where did that come from? Just where were we?
Oh, we could make it down into it, I figured, but climbing back out would be a struggle. Something was Very Wrong. I decided to move uphill and try to get above it.
“Nice job, pixies!” I said aloud.
I could see daylight ahead, so I hustled to the gentle crest of the ridge. Walking fast at that altitude mixed with just a little anxiety had my heart going thumpety-thump.
“Are we lost?” asked M.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Maybe we are a little south of where we should be.”1)Later, at home, she said, “I can read you like a book. You were lost.”
Far in the distance were were Sheep and Little Sheep mountains. Yes, we were too far south. We just needed to go east to cut the little dirt Forest Service road we had come up on. I got my compass, and saw that East was not precisely where I thought it was.
A few minutes on, we came to a small clearing, and looking downslope to the south, I could see a gravel road — not our road, but one that I knew intersected it. Since I had a clear view of the sky and was high up, I checked the iPhone. Sure enough, three bars.
I turned on the GPS, clicked the Avenza Maps app, and discovered that I did not have the necessary topopgraphic map loaded. Nor had I brought a paper map. Why should I? Hadn’t we been mushroom-hunting that area since the 2000s without getting lost?
This old hollow fir trunk looked like the mask of a forest god.
But there was a good county road map loaded in the phone, the one that EMS and volunteer firefighters use for navigating mountain subdivisions. Sure enough, the blue dot was close to the road that I was looking for. We would have crossed it anyway, but the high-tech confirmation was comforting, I will admit.
We kept walking, and about half a mile later, there was the Jeep parked in the overgrown old skid road where we had left it.
I think the forest spirits have a message: “Don’t get cocky, kid. The world is a sharp as the edge of a knife.”
But wait, there is more. That night we were busy processing mushrooms, but the next evening I went to Google Earth and looked over the area. That steep ravine? I could not find it.
Google Earth is not perfect though. It used to exaggerate slopes; now it seems to flatten them. So I opened the paper USGS topographic map for that area. (Those are usually based on aerial photos.) I looked carefully. No steep-sided ravine appeared in the area where we were.
That gave me chills. That seemingly bottomless ravine did not officially exist.
The scythe of the gods — multiply by several thousands
A friend in Poland has a small farm, and he has been teaching himself to mow the meadows with a scythe. We have email conversations sprinkled with words like “snath” and “peening,” which I know only from reading.1)He is an American expatriate, but I suppose that he has learned the equivalent Polish terms as well. He says that his elderly neighbors think his scything technique is amateurish, whereas the younger ones wonder why he does not use a machine.
Then we came home to destruction. The first clue was the piles of leaves on the road when we left the state highway. Then M. looked at her gardens and went into shock.
Sunflowers—decapitated. Beans and tomatoes—blasted. Squash and gourd plants—nothing left but stems.
The corn looked as though though it had been machine-gunned. Many herbs were shredded. The nettle patch was reduced by half, while the woods were carpeted with fresh needles of pine and juniper, pruned from the trees.
I found a broken panel in the greenhouse roof, and the crank-up roof vent on the camping trailer was shattered. The plants in the greenhouse, mostly tomatoes, were unharmed.
All this just nine months since the last big forest fire and a week since some minor flooding on our road.
In the car the next day, she said, “Do you think we angered the gods?”
Who are “we”? The people on our road, under the narrow path of the hailstorm, which was less than a mile wide?
When you do anything agrarian — even vegetable gardening — that makes you vulnerable to weather, it is so easy to think that you are punished by some god when drought or insects or wind or hail wreck your crops. It is easy to think that someone is trying to teach you a lesson.
So what is the lesson?
Slippery jacks. A little annoying because leaves and needles stick to them, but they *are* edible.
This morning while walking the dog I found “slippery jacks” (Suillus granulatus) appearing up behind the house under the pines — we see them only in wet Augusts, and this is one of those.
So it’s time to change and adapt — and look for mushrooms, while we hope that some parts of the garden will recover.
After Lammas, it’s hunting-and-gathering time. So that’s the lesson — move on.
He is an American expatriate, but I suppose that he has learned the equivalent Polish terms as well. He says that his elderly neighbors think his scything technique is amateurish, whereas the younger ones wonder why he does not use a machine.
A hefty loaf made from organic Turkey Red winter wheat costs $8, which makes it an occasional treat, but it is very good.
M. and I have been hitting the deep woods one day a week as part of the annual Mushroom Hunt. Yesterday was an odd one.
Actually, the previous hunt, six days earlier, was even stranger. First, I had a full-blown hallucination of a nice Boletus edulis (king bolete, steinpilz, etc.) I walked over to the spot — and there was no mushroom. Then I looked above five or six feet away, and there it was. The spirits were playful.
But maybe there is another sense wherein you are just in their force field. Every mushroom hunter knows the perceptual shift of not seeing any — and then you enter the “field” and you are seeing them everywhere.
Only maybe you lose track of other things, such as where you are.
Usually, M. is trance-ier in the woods than I am. I — having gotten lost in these densely forested mountains before — am always reality-checking: “OK, the boggy meadow is north — that’s to the right. I am walking downhill, so west; therefore, the road is about a quarter-mile behind me. But what’s that little knob? — I don’t recognize it.”
So having mushrooms moving around in my perceptual field was — different.
Then, after two hours or so, we are back at the Jeep, and she is looking stricken and slapping at her pants pockets. Her Opinel mushroom knife, a Christmas present, is gone! We retrace part of our steps but don’t spot it. She remembers cutting some Albatrellus confluens — not super-tasty, but they bulk up a soup.
Yesterday we returned to that area. I thought I remembered — to within an acre or so — where that patch of confluens might be, marked off by three weathered white-fir trunks that had fallen like three sides of a square.
So we set off in that general direction, and I more or less walked right to the spot. There was the knife. (Thanks, mushroom spirits!) After six days in the weather, the wooden handle had swollen, making it hard to open and close, but some time in the sunshine has fixed that.
But in the six days that had passed, the woods had changed again. Three hours of looking produced only one shopping bag of mushrooms. Our two favorite species had just vanished (or were too rotten to pick). But we were out there, in the “mushroom field.”
It is said that gathering wild mushrooms is dangerous. If you ask me, dealing with log trucks on narrow Forest Service roads is the real danger.
There was Asshole Log Truck Driver, who wanted the Jeep as a hood ornament. I “felt” him coming and pulled over until my right wheels were in the ditch before he blasted around the bend (Thanks, mushroom spirits).
But then there was Considerate Log Truck Driver who not only was driving conservatively downhill with his load, but who pulled over to let us pass.
Why couldn’t they have been reversed — meet CLTD head-on and go down the grade behind ALTD? Well, you take what you can get.
But there is “the notch.” In 1986, when I moved to this part of Colorado, a friend told me, “Something changes around the first of August. It’s still hot, but there is a change.”
This year I really felt it. On July 30th I was standing out in front of our volunteer fire department at sunset — there was a little rain squall to the west and a partial rainbow to the east, and the air just felt . . . different.
Liatrisis blooming too, the flower that marks the turn into High Summer.
After one quick trip on July 10th, M. and I geared up yesterday for our harvest. Never mind the garden, it’s mushroom time in the Southern Rockies. Off we went to the boreal (OK, subalpine) forest — up, up, up, about a 4,000-foot elevation gain.
A shock. Someone was parked in “our” spot on a certain dirt logging road. And a bulldozer had been working the road too — there is some salvage logging going on. We parked the Jeep a few yards further on. Shock again! Someone was camped up there—a vehicle and a blue tent.
On the warpath now, we communicated by signs and whispers. This way . . . circle right, check the little patch of woods we call “the mushroom store.” There’s a good bolete, grab it.
Then we come to the Forest Service drift fence, follow it to “the little gate” (there is also a “big gate”), walking quietly.
A man is calling a dog — “Sheena, come!” — on the other side of stand of firs. Into a further maze of old logging roads, now snowmobile trails in the winter, we plunge, walking quickly.
I stand in a clearing, waiting for the GPS receiver to access its satellites so that I can re-locate some good spots saved as waypoints a year ago. M. circles me, looking down. After years of mushroom-hunting in this area, I know the lay of the land, but how far up the edge of “the boggy meadow” was that good stand of Boletus edulis? Technology has its place.
Once we are a quarter mile from the Forest Service road, we start to relax. As so often happens, the farther from the road, the fewer people you meet.
In Westcliffe, the Wet Mountain Tribune, a weekly, headlines, “Shroomers are Coming.” The Search & Rescue volunteers will be ready.
But there was Frida. She was one of the “old German ladies,” an acquaintance of Dad’s, and a member of the mycological group in Colorado Springs, as was he. Military town that it is, Colorado Springs has a population of German GI brides like her. Years ago, M. and I encountered some of them walking through the woods with their shopping bags on the back side of Pike’s Peak. They taught us some mushrooms (Dad was away in Washington state then.) They became iconic to us.
A decade or so ago, Frida was lost overnight in these mountains. She was found the next day, in good shape. But somehow Search & Rescue locked onto her as a type specimen of the absent-minded mushroom hunter.
For Christmas 2001, Dad bought us a memberhip in the mycological society. Colorado Springs was too far to go for membership meetings, but we hoped to rendezvous for their “forays,” as the serious mycophiles call them. We signed up for one — it was cancelled due to drought.
That was a dry year, big forest fires popping up, including the Hayman Fire that threatened suburban Denver. (“All of Colorado is burning today.”) And then Dad was gone.
This is not a “foray,” this is a meat hunt. M.’s Opinel mushroom knife is flashing. Boletes. Hawk’s wing. Velvet foot. Even a puffball, just for bulk.
“We need to leave by 2:30,” she says. Other responsibilites. We make a wide circle back to the Jeep; then she steps behind a big fir with the bags while I, wearing just my day pack, stroll to it, start the engine, and drive down the road to pick her up.
We plan to go back on Thursday. That is almost solar Lammas — the Sun hits 15° Leo on Friday. It is really “Lammastide,” not “Lammas Day” — a short season. And we will be harvesting.
I come from a hereditary tradition — of mushroom hunters.
A few dried mushrooms and my favorite book.
I remember my father the forest ranger taking me out when I was ten or eleven to look for them. It was usually raining, and I did not understand what he was seeing, but the activity was somehow important. And we ate them.
Then nothing until I was in my mid-twenties, when M. and I went hiking on the west side of Pike’s Peak (Horsethief Park, if you know the area) one late-summer day.
There we met a number of middle-aged and older German ladies wandering the forest with shopping bags.
(Demographic note: Colorado Springs is a major military garrison town, and troops at Fort Carson frequently go back and forth to Germany, which they have been doing since 1945. Sometimes they get married.)
For a time we got by with what the German ladies taught us. Then we wanted to learn more. But we had moved to a much smaller town, and there were no mycological groups there.
Then we moved again, into an area known for bears and mushrooms. In fact, the Pikes’s Peak Mycological Society frequently organized “forays” (an in-group term, kind of like “sabbat”) into this area.
Dad, a member, bought us a membership too. But that was a drought year, and all forays were canceled. Then he died, and my stepmother died, which pretty much ended our regular trips to Colorado Springs.
We started buying books. Yep, we’re book-taught mushroomers. Every time we go out (we don’t say “foray”), we try to learn a new one—and meanwhile we stick to the half-dozen that we know are good.
Like the Sarcodon imbricatus (hawk’s wing) in the jar. I figured those out from a book.
Two days ago we hit one of our favorite spots, and right off spotted where someone had sliced some Boletus edulis at the base. Everyone goes for king boletes! But they had left pounds and pounds of hawk’s wing mushrooms while they focused on boletes. (We still found some boletes ourselves anyway.)
It’s OK being solitary mushroom-hunters with a few good books and an inquiring (but careful) attitude.
Three cheers for Vera Stucky Evenson, author of The Mushrooms of Colorado. Those white mushrooms were indeed Agaricus campestris. M. and I ate them on last night’s pizza, and we’re still here 24 hours later. (Yes, I made spore prints too.)
The cat ate some too–he must have liked the oiliness of sauteed mushrooms–but he later left his on the bathroom floor. Cats and fungi: not a good combination.
Local knowledge can be hard to come by. When I taught an environmental-issues section of freshman composition, my student typically knew (or thought that they knew) more about the Brazilian rain forest than about the Wet Mountains, which they could see from the classroom windows, not 30 miles away.
Th Pueblo Mountain Park Environmental Center has taken a good step with the publication of Plants of Pueblo Mountain Park, which fits our ecological niche over here too.
This evening after supper I strapped on my authentic Lithuanian mushroom basket, and M. and I walked the ridge behind the house, picking boletes. “Probably the surest mushrooms to recognize beyond the Foolproof Four [morels, puffballs, shaggy mane, sulfur polymore] are the boletes,” writes Lorentz Pearson in The Mushroom Manual.
My eccentric sister in Kaunas provided the basket. She bought it from a street vendor–it looks like an angler’s creel, but it lacks the slot in the lid into which to deposit the spotted trout. Maybe it was supposed to be a creel anyway, but since the few Lithuanians I have met were mycophiles, it’s a mushroom basket.
It was Germans who started us gathering boletes. Years ago, we were hiking the Horsethief Park trail on the west side of Pike’s Peak when we encountered a group of elderly German women with shopping bags–typical Army brides from Colorado Springs–and they were doing some serious mushroom-picking.
They taught us those mushrooms, and then they pointed us one way while they went another way.
One member of that particular demographic established an unfortunate reputation with the local Search and Rescue group. She was so busy one summer afternoon a couple of years ago looking down for edible fungi that she got lost and spent a chilly night in the Wets. And now the S&R people are convinced that all mushroom-hunters are distracted and easily lost.
What was the “moment” of Lammas this year? Not a formal ritual, but walking down an overgrown logging road in the Wet Mountains, looking for mushrooms in the grey-green firs. A soft, misty rain started to fall, enough that I had to dig my GI poncho out of my pack and put it on. The poncho always makes me feel a little sacerdotal–after all, the Christian priest’s chasuble originated as a traveler’s poncho or mantle, whatever you want to call it. I could break the mushroom and hold out a fragment: “Take and and eat this in remembrance . . .”
(The old liturgy. I’m dating myself. A past life, so to speak.)
School of the Seasons is a web site with information on “on spiritual practices and creative pursuits that match the energy of each season” and an email newsletter. (Thanks to Gaian Tarot Artist for the link.)
If you want to know the peak of the energy of each cross-quarter day, check this archaeoastronomy site. Many people, including Waverly Fitzgerald at the site linked above, seem to prefer the calendrical day–the 1st of August, whereas the actual midpoint is usually about six days later. The solution is to simply make it a “season” rather than a day!
By the time that the day itself came, M. and I had loaded the Jeep and driven down to Taos for a long weekend with friends. If you’re in Taos and need a wireless connection that comes with a view of a blooming xeriscape flower garden, try the Wired cafe, tucked in behind Raley’s supermarket on Paseo del Pueblo Sur.
And at home the wild Liatris is blooming, the signal of summer’s end.