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Thesis Time #2: Foragers

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Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 




They walk among us unnoticed, a band of modern men and women who forage in the woods for fungi. . . for fun. A common practice in many Slavic countries, so-called “Mushroom Hunting” is seeing a rise in popularity across the United States. Dressed warmly to fight the chill of an early fall morning, mushroom hunters gather with likeminded individuals or venture out alone into wooded hills and empty fields to practice their craft. Standard procedure requires a wicker basket tucked under the arm, but the modernist can replace this with a more sophisticated receptacle if he wishes.

The value of fungi as a renewable resource is anything but news. Five thousand years ago, Otzi the Ice Man had a Fomes formentarius and Piptoporus betulinus with him when perished in the Alps. The former, aptly named tinder fungus, was used for starting fires. He carried a birch polypore for its antimicrobial properties: A wound dressed with the mushroom atop it will heal faster, with less risk of infection. Even in Otzi’s day, man knew the value of mushroom hunting.

While the increase of agriculture and urbanization caused a decline in the practice, it became a culturally significant activity in the Soviet Union when many, even city dwellers, were starving to death under Stalin’s policies. Families began to venture into the woods to forage, and they quickly found that mushrooms were the most plentiful resource to be found. At that time, mushroom hunting became competitive because of how much the foraging could help a starving family: One did well to hide their biggest harvests, and physical brawls breaking out over a good haul weren’t uncommon. Today, a knowledge and love of fungi is an integral part of the culture of the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and what was once a desperate attempt to survive has evolved into a national past-time.

With the U.S. economy seeing hard times and our ecological health at a questionable low, more and more American citizens are seeking out ways to make their living more sustainable. Foraging is the very epitome of sustainable eating, and it stretches the mushroom hunter’s diet while also being kind to the earth. Mushrooms, as we know them, are only the fruiting body of massive fungal networks. The mushroom hunter need never worry that they might be destroying their food source by harvesting it, because the bit they pick to consume is comparable to the very tip of a gigantic iceberg. Mycellium, the cobweb-like tissue that builds all of a mushroom’s structures, remains underground, shooting out in all directions like an intricate network of nerve pathways. The largest known mushroom, which lives in a national forest in Oregon, covers at least 2,200 acres under the surface of the Earth. Fungi, which are actually more closely related to animals than plants (their cell walls are made of chitin, the same polymer that makes up exoskeletons in insects and crustaceans), can provide sustainable food, medicine, and countless other supplies to the dedicated forager.

Most Americans are most familiar with Agaricus biporus, the species that produces both the common button mushroom (when young) and the portobello mushroom. Clever marketing presents the latter as a fancier variety, but the truth is that originally they were impossible to sell. Once a button mushroom was full grown, it’s fruiting body having bloomed into a flatter capped, brown specimen with peeling skin, no one would have them. Now they’re usually marked up in price! Of course, the mushroom hunter isn’t limited to what their grocer is pushing in the sale flyer. Morchella mushrooms, known as morels and often found in backyards that border woods, can be prepared stuffed with sausage or walnuts for fancy finger food, or dipped in buttermilk and breading and fried. Pleurotus ostrestus, aptly named the oyster mushroom, grows like velvety versions of its namesake up the bark of an autumn tree. These are best in chowders and risottos, adding texture and a sweet taste. Genus Laetiporus is called Chicken of the Woods, and that’s no mistake. The hearty orange shelf fungus becomes juicy and tender when cooked, and is especially delicious when sauteed with lemon. The chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius, is said to look like a golden flower sprouting up in the middle of the woods. It can be prepared in a traditional Russian style, cooked in fresh bacon drippings with onion and sour cream. For most species of mushroom, the preparation is limited only to the chef’s imagination.

The table is an obvious destination for the mushroom, but one venture into the forest can yield everything from preservable snacks to art materials. The genus Ganoderma, for example, which grows like woody little shelves on the sides of trees, contains the Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum). Artist’s Conk is unique in that its underside, while still fresh, can be drawn on using a stick or blade. The images will be preserved when the mushroom dries. Also members of the same genus are G. lucidum and G. tsugae, commonly referred to as reishi mushrooms in Japan and lingzhi mushrooms in China. reishi are known for their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. While their tough texture makes them basically inedible, they’re easily brewed into tea. In many countries where mushroom hunting is culturally significant, cancer patients will drink a daily dose of this tea to support their health while they undergo conventional treatment. For winter treats, the mushroom hunter can dry or pickle any of their edible catches: While this sometimes changes the flavor, it can often be for the better. A good mushroom guide will indicate which species can be improved by drying. Even mushrooms that are poisonous, wormy, or otherwise undesirable can be used with a little creativity. Trametes versicolor, or Turkey Tails, grow on trees all over the Northern United States. Grinding them up into a watery pulp provides a base for making paper. Such paper, or any wool or other textile, can even be dyed with easy to find mushrooms. Tapinella atrotomentos, or Velvet-Footed Pax, produces a mossy, gray-green shade. Hypholoma fasciculare, known as Sulfur Tufts, dye wool a pale yellow reminiscent of sunshine. Cortinarius semisanguineus resembles a “little brown mushroom” or LBM, so called for the difficulty in distinguishing them from all of the other LBMs, but their red gills make an incredibly vibrant dye, with shades ranging from bright orange to blood red. All of these dyeing mushrooms happen to be inedible, but just as many delicious mushrooms can also have a place in the dye pot.

The best way to start learning about fungi and how to forage for them is to find a group of enthusiasts. Americans seem to have an almost universal distrust of mushrooms that don’t come sealed in plastic, so attending a meeting of Mushroom Hunters can be a bit of a culture shock. Far from fearing wild fungi, these hunters are confident in their ability to harvest the edible and discard the poisonous. They gather in groups, sharing knowledge and experience, until each individual has an arsenal of known species that they can pick and consume safely. At some meetings, members will lay their hauls out and identify them together, allowing for some added security before anything is consumed. Mushroom Hunters form a unique community, their meetings a place where one can find a history and ecology lesson, a great hike, and a delicious meal all in one day.


Thesis Time #1: The Golden River (Personal Essay)

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Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 

The Golden River

For this valley, the river must be the center. Certainly it is the physical center; perhaps, in a sense, the spiritual center. Perhaps from that very freeing of spirit will come other freedoms and inspirations and aspirations which may be steps toward the diffusion and diversification and enriching of culture throughout this land.-W.E.B. Du Bois, 1930

Watching the waters of the Housatonic rush by after a few days of rain is an unparalleled visual experience. The rapids peak and foam climbing up the banks in a picture so perfect it’s practically a caricature of itself. Even the color of the water, opaque cafe au lait, seems like a detail added deliberately to make the river seem more wild and rugged. I imagine Nature’s paintbrush, thick with green and brown and red pigment after styling the forests and mountains, being dipped into the water and washed clean.

This stretch of river on the outskirts of Great Barrington isn’t one that invites swimming, even on more peaceful days, but a few miles further down the water turns crystal clear and the current slows to a calm, winding pace. By the Du Bois river garden, one can stop and stare into the swirling, glimmering river and remember a time when W.E.B. was around to admonish the town for polluting his golden waterway. Du Bois and his compatriots would be thrilled to see it now, free of debris and refuse. On the surface, at least, the Housatonic is as clean as it was in the days before man. To see it on a hot day is to long for the water, to submerge yourself and drink. It’s funny that my knowledge of the river’s toxicity hasn’t done anything to displace that instinct.

The Housatonic, center of the Berkshires and home to thousands upon thousands of organisms, is full of deadly chemical compounds. We put them there, or at least let them be dumped in, and the damage to generations was done before the start of the 21st century. If we do nothing, humans and river-dwellers alike could lose their lives, but to get rid of the toxins as completely as technology allows we would have to sacrifice the stability of the river. I’ve heard personal, agonizingly passionate arguments on both side of the spectrum everywhere from Town Hall meetings in Lenox to dinner tables in Lee. One thing that most citizens of the area have in common is where they lay the blame: We are a people betrayed.

It’s easy to hate General Electric for what they did. Easy, but maybe rational as well. In the early 90’s, the giant company abandoned a Pittsfield, MA, factory and left it teeming with polychlorinated biphenyls. Usually referred to as PCBs, these compounds are carcinogenic, fat soluble, and almost impossible to get rid of. Standard clean up requires dumping contaminated materials into a ditch and covering the whole thing with asphalt. If that sounds crude, it’s because it is. Throughout Pittsfield one can find stretches of land surrounded by chain-link fences, useless lots dedicated to the “safe” disposal of PCBs. Some bio-engineering companies are working on processes that would decontaminate the soil, allowing it to be returned to the river, but even today those methods are experimental at best, and expensive to even attempt. When the worst areas of contamination, those surrounding the condemned factory in Pittsfield, were cleaned in 1999, the sediment was simply disposed of. Throw a tarp over it, forbid trespassing, and you’ve taken care of the problem. Sort of.

The rest of the river is harder to deal with. PCBs cling to the dirt on the river bed and banks, getting stirred up and carried along the river in bits of sediment. They accumulate in plants and small fish that in turn pass the contamination along to those higher in the food chain. The worst accumulation occurs in fatty organisms at the top of the food chain. Ducks, for example, carry shockingly high percentages of PCBs in their breast meat. Humans aren’t much better, and PCBs can do a lot of damage.

PCBs have been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and other mental development problems in children, all sorts of cancers in adults, and a wide range of health problems across the board. For every person who dies from overexposure to PCBs, hundreds or even thousands of individuals are experiencing a decline in quality of health and life. This slow, quiet poisoning is harder to track, but perhaps more detrimental overall.

The process of cleaning up PCBs from the river is one that will take years in even the most optimistic scenario. In Pittsfield, where the levels were highest, the river has been dredged, a process in which sediment is scooped from the banks and beds and either cleaned or replaced. As dredging destroys the natural banks, the river has been rebuilt with rocks. These also keep any remaining PCBs from seeping into groundwater. Meanwhile, the contaminated sediment was packed up and buried in lots around the city, then covered with asphalt and tucked away behind chain-link fences. The clean-up is, by its nature, destructive of the contaminated area.

From south of Pittsfield, running all the way down to the Connecticut border, the river and ponds are still contaminated. No option seems ideal. If residents want the area to be virtually free of PCBs, they must consent to the destruction of the wildlife along the banks of the Housatonic. The ecological stability could be restored in time, but it would take a century or more to regrow anything that resembled the picturesque surroundings of today’s river. For every measure taken to preserve the landscape, the effectiveness of the clean-up goes down a bit, and the cost tends to go up. Many argue that there is no ideal balance, and that Monitored Natural Recovery (called MNR) is the only viable option. With an MNR plan, the EPA and General Electric would simply measure and monitor the natural degradation of PCBs. It would take almost a hundred years, but eventually the river would clean itself. In the mean time, residents would simply have to steer clear of dangerous activities.

Others consider MNR to be General Electric’s idea of an easy way out. It’s certainly the cheapest option, and the corporation wouldn’t have to deal with placating residents once the river banks had been torn up. As surely as GE is biased against expensive solutions, the residents of the Berkshires are tainted by a desire to make GE hurt. One with a more balanced approach to the situation might conclude that the best solution is neither the most nor the least expensive, but one of the moderate plans, one that preserves as much river bank as possible while dredging the areas that truly need to be remediated.

It may well take another five years or more for a legal decision to be reached. Depending on which solution is chosen, the clean-up of the river might not be implemented for decades. While we argue, the river waits with an ancient patience. Du Bois called his river golden, the “life stream of the town,” and it is indeed the golden life stream of the Berkshires as a whole. It remains scenic and inviting, a place for residents of The Berkshires to enjoy the natural beauty of their world. We must accept, however, that preserving its golden serenity comes with a price.