The Mycoflora of Alaska - Interview with Kate Mohatt

imageForest floor near Cooper Landing © Kate Mohatt

So… I’m going to Alaska next month and I am dangerously excited about it. I can’t stop thinking about it. Hordes of Leccinums. Dall Sheep. MOUNTAIN GOATS. Oh yeah bears too. And BIRDS.

But my primary purpose for being there is to give a lecture on Citizen Science and to collect fungi for the first foray of the North American Mycoflora Project. For more on that, see this.

Noah Siegel (my coauthor on Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast) has been working closely with Kate Mohatt to make this foray a reality. Kate seems like a singular kind of person and a bit of a dynamo, so I decided to interview her. Read on! And consider visiting us in Girdwood…

imageKate Mohatt showing off mushrooms © National Forest Public Affairs

C: Hi Kate! Who are you? What do you?!

K: I’m the Prince William Sounds Zone and Copper River Delta Ecologist for the Chugach National Forest. I have been on the Forest since 2006 doing plant work mostly on the Kenai side, but switched zones to the PWS in 2010. I primarily deal with botanical or vegetation ecology work, including invasive plant management, rare plant conservation, reviewing vegetation maps, some change detection using remote sensing, and vegetation change monitoring.

I also coordinate with several partners (Copper River Watershed project, Alaska Association of Conservation Districts) to develop and update invasive plant treatment plans and Cooperative Weed management Area strategic plans. We’ve been slowly but surely getting fungi on the Forest radar, which has resulted in several on-going projects on the forest including: Girdwood Fungus Fair, which attracts around 500-800 folks throughout the weekend, the Cordova Fungus Festival, and the last few years we have been doing mushroom surveys to voucher and record as many species as possible on the Chugach (with Steve Trudell), with an emphasis on determining if any species considered rare in Regions 5 and 6 may be rare up here as well.. We also published the Mushrooms of the National Forests of Alaska brochure last year.

C: Mushrooms have until recently been an obscure and unloved group of organisms (by most United States people). How did you get into fungi?  

K: I bought my first mushroom book when I was 14 (Gary Lincoff’s Audubon guide) and have been hooked ever since, even though I couldn’t identify anything (I think I started with Cortinarius). I spent one year of undergrad at Montana State, where I met Cathy Cripps and she hired me to work on the fungal herbarium and assist her graduate student in collecting alpine fungi (Todd Osmundson). I later completed an MSc. Program under Cathy, identifying ectomycorrhizal species associated with whitebark pine (http://fedgycc.org/documents/Mohatt-Cripps-fungi-WBP-CJB-2008.pdf) and I’ve been collecting and leading forays for the public up here since 2006.

C: So… this is the first ‘official foray’ for the North American Mycoflora Project. Although they sort of all are… Anyway, how did that happen? 

K: This foray was originally supposed to be a NAMA regional Foray, which I was approached by David Rust to do, with the idea of later doing the annual foray in AK. Due to a variety of issues (ask Noah for all the details), we decided to scale back to make it more doable and affordable and lost NAMA interest in the process.

C: Ugh. Seriously? I guess I should interview Noah for the grisly story. But it’s happening anyway! You triumphed!

K: So, we started discussing a more serious collecting outing, and Noah had the stroke of genius to morph it into the first collecting foray for the North American Mycoflora Project. This aligns really nicely with Forest Service goals for the ongoing mushroom surveys, which are to catalog all the species we have up here while maximizing partner support and participation.

C: That’s so, so, so good. Big ups. But wait… I’ve never been to Alaska before! What can I expect? What sort of habitats will we be seeing in Girdwood and later on the Kenai Peninsula?    

K: Cooper Landing is in a perfect spot for accessing nearly all major representative habitats found in Alaska. Within one hour of driving, we’ll collect in the Northern-most coastal temperate rainforests on the planet (Girdwood, Seward), boreal white/black spruce forests (Sterling), hardwood forests (also boreal) with aspen and birch (just outside Cooper Landing), an intermediate zone between the two (Cooper Landing) characterized by Lutz spruce (Picea glauca x sitchensis), and alpine habitats dominated by dwarf birch and willow.

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Habitat at Cooper Landing © Daniel Winkler

Last year we had a very late snowy spring followed by a warm sunny summer which delayed fruiting by about two weeks, but produced the most epic Boletus edulis fruitings I have ever seen. This year we had a very warm and dry spring, with a warm summer and many violent bursts of rain in wind, so I can’t really say what we will have in store for the fall, but it will rain, it always does.

The decomposers are out in force right on schedule, and I found one very fresh Leccinum in early July, which is about a month early. There have also been a few B. edulis coming up already, but that’s all I’ve seen for ectomycorrhizal species. In the 12 mushroom seasons I have witnessed, I have never seen a dry year. The edibles folks might be disappointed, but I don’t think the diversity will disappoint, that is, if you are into Cortinarius and Russula.

C: My understanding is that the mushrooms collected during this foray will be sent off for sequencing! That’s great news. Can you tell me more about that? 

K: 
Else (Vellinga) and Noah will know more about this, but in a nutshell, the goal is to get nice collections, photographs and sequences of every species we can find. For this project I’ve ordered 100 Whatman cards for DNA extraction and preservation, which should be good for up to 400 species, so I hope we fill them all! Noah has been making contacts with folks in labs who are willing to do the sequence work and I can’t wait to see what shakes out.

C: I am pants-shittingly excited to be in Alaska. Thanks for doing so much work to set this up! Your name will be inscribed in the Halls of Valor once the North American Mycoflora Project is finished and has its own museum near Capitol Hill.

K: …

See you there!

A Common Problem with Mushroom Books

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You wouldn’t think of buying a bird field guide that didn’t tell you what area of the world it covered, would you?

Unfortunately, books like the one above often don’t mention anywhere that they are covering European mushrooms, or Eastern United States mushrooms, etc.*

Which is pretty ridiculous, and perpetuates the really bad habit of using “borrowed” European names for species that don’t occur in our area. If you don’t tell people explicitly that they shouldn’t apply the names in your book to the names in their area, they’ll do just that.

I guess the publishers are trying to scrounge profit by not tying the book to a specific region, but they’re doing mushroomers a huge disservice…

Thomas Laessoe and Gary Lincoff, you should try to fix this!
Further evidence of a kind of sloppy book was found by opening randomly to this page, which includes a misspelling of Gomphidius, as well as an inadvisable usage of Agaricus xanthoderm -a instead of -us.

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A good point by sasscrotch in the comments below: yes, the authors did seem to have chosen species that are likely to be found outside of Europe as well (and did a pretty good job). But this is an increasingly difficult position to defend, since the majority of our investigations of ‘shared species’ have shown that there is a lot of geographical difference between places like California (endemic hotspot that it is), and between the Eastern US and Europe.

Many of the truly shared species are associated with the northern boreal forests (where conifers are more or less similar across wide swaths of the Arctic zone).



Citizen Science: Amateur Ain’t a Dirty Word

Or:
Progress Is Hard (and Messy)
And:
Everything You Wanted to Know About Mycoflora Projects but Never Cared Enough to Ask (EYWKAMPNCEA).

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A very far eastern Dendrocollybia… Read on for details.

*With a title containing the terms “Amateur” and “hard and messy”, this post better get some traffic…*

So! There’s been a lot of trollish, flamey, someone-is-wrong-on-the-internet-style discussions over at Mushroom Observer recently, and despite the entertainment value, I thought a blog post might help quell the animosity and clear up some of the common outstanding questions and misconceptions under discussion.

The discussions revolve around Citizen Science and the associated questions: How does it work? Is it really science? Am I a citizen scientist? If so, is there a cure?

Basically, I came to realize that many folks aren’t sure what citizen science is, how it works, or how it should be done. So to begin with, I’ll just say that I use the definition below.

Citizen scientists = anyone who doesn’t have a degree related to their natural history interests and/or doesn’t work in that field as an academic (professor, researcher, or field worker) or in the private sector (whether as researcher, technician or field biologist).

(wikipedia definition of Citizen Science here).

Given these definitions, here’s the context in which these discussions are situated, and a summary of what’s at stake:

The North American Mycoflora Project got its act together (ie. gave itself a name) in the past handful of years. The goal of the NAMP (as I’ll call it) are:
1) Compile a list of each and every macrofungal species in North America.
2) Get a good general sense of where those species grow and when they fruit.
3) Photograph them and get voucher specimens (dried mushrooms stored in a museum).

This is (if it’s not immediately apparent) a huge, Herculean, Sisyphean, Just-give-up-now-ean undertaking. We have no real estimate of how many mushrooms grow in North America, but the order of magnitude is likely in the high tens/low hundreds -of-thousands. Their taxonomy is unsettled, their identification often extremely difficult, and many are not easy or predictable to find.

But! It’s something folks think is worth doing, and lots of people have an interest in seeing it through. Suffice to say it’s happening.

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These are some of the nerds responsible for making it happen.

My first contention is that professional scientists (mostly researchers at universities) stand no chance of doing this by themselves. Too many mushrooms, too enormous an area, and too many other responsibilities spreading their time thin. It is a mostly uncontested fact that the large majority of the work will be done by people who search for, identify, document and preserve mushrooms simply because they love them. They could be called “hobbyists”, but for our purposes, we’ll call them citizen scientists.

But it turns out that when you solicit data from such a demographic, you get back data of widely varying quality. At one end of the spectrum you have knowledgeable folks like Ron Pastorino who are just the bee’s knees in terms of data quality, and at the other end you have the waynegrompskys of the world. In short, you end up dealing with what scientists call a “noisy” data set. Much of the data is incorrect, much of it is partially incorrect, much of it is correct but incomplete, much of it is correct given current understanding but not verifiable, etc.

What folks need to understand is that THIS IS NORMAL.

The study of every group of organisms from birds to insects to mammals has experienced these growing pains. The most important first step in generating a mycoflora is to gather as much data as possible, and secondly, to have a good system of filters in place to sort through it.

I spent a few days with Carol and C.J. Ralph this past fall while I was in Humboldt giving a mushroom lecture - they’re heroes of the bird observatory scene in the Pacific Northwest, and C.J. is heavily involved in eBird (the most successful citizen-science project ever). While we were discussing the difficulties that mycofloristic projects face, C.J. used a metaphor that stuck with me; something to the effect of “Set the gates wide, but make the doorway narrow”.

In a concrete sense this means: Accept as much data as you can get, but be discriminating about what data you end up using to do higher-level work!

One of the main complaints folks are voicing in this regard is the high proportion of observations on Mushroom Observer that are not accompanied by a photograph or voucher specimen (or neither).

While it is clear to ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE that an observation with an accompanying photo and herbarium specimen is ideal, it is simply not realistic to expect that this will be the case.

Some reasons that we can’t or shouldn’t take photos of every record - a good photograph often takes a minute to set up, a few 10-second exposures to take, and a minute to place collections in the tackle box; assuming 90 seconds for the entire process for each species, an average day of mushrooming on the California coast (75 species) would take just under two hours.

That excludes the time spent walking, searching for, inspecting, etc. Basically, this is under the assumption that multiple good-condition fruitbodies of every species encountered were all fruiting right next to one another right next to the parking lot. Now consider that a 250 species day is not out of the question in the northwestern part of the state in November.

Now add in the labor cost involved in preserving, labeling, organizing, and curating specimens, and we quickly see that this is a gargantuan task. And we haven’t even mentioned the time and cost involved in responding to requests for specimens (locating, dividing, and mailing). This would be no problem if there were 10 to 15 paid positions across the state for folks to do these things full time. The actual number is close to 0.

So, while specimens are certainly the ‘gold standard’ for proving the occurrence of a species at a given time and place, it is simply not feasible to expect or require them in every case.

People often respond by asking “Well then, what if I report rare mushroom species X from California that has never been seen there before, but don’t have a photo or specimen?”

Well, the answer is that the data would be discounted by most everyone.

However, if you report a common mushroom species Y that is well known to occur in California without a photo or specimen, then yes, your data would likely be used for research.

Isn’t this a differing standard for acceptable data? Yes! It is! The acceptable use of double standards is mediated by an understanding of the relative probabilities of finding x and y mushroom species in the place and at the time you are reporting. Exceptional cases require a higher burden of proof. This is absolutely typical of citizen science data gathered for other taxa.

Well what about gray areas? What if I report a somewhat rare mushroom fruiting in a place it’s never been seen before, but in appropriate habitat?

The answer is that the person using the data will have to make a judgement call on whether or not to include your data point. And different folks using the same data for different applications may make different judgement calls! This is true of all sorts of scientific data and research.

What about observations of mushrooms that are well-photographed but aren’t accompanied by a voucher specimen? Well, that will obviously limit the kinds of investigation we can do (no genetic testing, microscopic investigation, etc.), but we CAN add a +1 to the species total for the area, we can gain insight into the distribution of higher level classifications (genera for example), and most importantly, we can establish a search image for future collecting work in the region.

For example, I ‘accidentally’ found an extremely rare collection of Dendrocollybia while collecting in New Hampshire in 2011 (this currently monotypic genus is functionally never encountered in the East). I photographed it (sufficient to rule out all other genera), but somehow lost the specimen in the labyrinth of Noah’s car on the way home (I had no idea at the time how rare it was).

So my observation here is not as useful as it might have been (we can’t establish whether it is conspecific with the west coast species in this genus), but we at least now know that a Dendrocollybia grows in this part of the country (see map below). Importantly, we can use this observation to narrow our search area when we decide to go our and search for specimens in order to answer questions that require them!
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Another common source of frustration and hand-wringing regarding noisy citizen science data comes from a truth that we are all familiar with: mushrooms can be very hard to identify. There are many species that look very much like one another, and telling them apart is perhaps not possible for non-professionals.

This is true groups of taxa in every group of organisms, and its something that can be dealt with relatively easily. The mycoflora community should constantly be working on establishing criteria for identification, and in cases where those criteria are not met, a higher-level classification is used instead.

Below are two screenshots showing eBird’s functionality that allows users to enter observations of recording aggregates of two flavors: evolutionary sister species that are often difficult to tell apart, as well as non-phyletic but functionally useful groupings. This latter feature is really useful - it allows us to avoid throwing away data without forcing us to claim that our data is of a greater accuracy than is true.
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Phyletic recording aggregate (sister species of Haemorhous)

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Non-phyletic, descriptive recording aggregate (black & white shearwater)

For a long time, before a lot of photos were made and countless hours of field observations undertaken, much of what ornithologists knew about birds was based on specimens that had been collected with shotguns. This period of specimen collection is a normal, desirable part of the process. However, mycology has the mixed blessing of being a late-blooming field of taxonomy, and we can accelerate or skip over some of the early steps. Most of us have some sort of good digital camera - so, while specimens are still the ‘gold standard’, they need not be as constraining as they once were.

Keep in mind that the researchers making decisions about what data to accept are staking the integrity of their research and personal reputation on the quality of that data. It will be in their interest to look for supporting details, perhaps even going so far as to contact the observer directly and asking them more questions.

… Which happens every day on eBird: regional editors look into the rare and noteworthy bird sightings and engage users directly to make sure that the data is acceptably solid for inclusion in their research or the general database.

Unfortunately, Mushroom Observer doesn’t have such a system set up yet. This is understandable, given the lack of good mushroom taxonomists in much of the country, and the time and commitment it takes to do such data curation (although still vastly less time than photographing and vouchering every record ever). But it worked for birders, and it can work for us. It’ll take many meetings to hash out exactly how it should happen, but it definitely should happen.

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Nathan Wilson, founder of Mushroom Observer, observing mushrooms. So meta.

Noah Siegel and I will be taking a break from writing our upcoming field guide “Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast” by visiting Telluride, Colorado and then Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula at the end of August to participate in one of the first forays specifically tailored for the North American Mycoflora Project. Most of our collecting will be in the Chugach National Forest, thanks to the coordinating efforts of Kate Mohatt. Look for an upcoming interview with her on this blog next week.

Have fun out there!

For some more reading on the NAMP, see these articles:
Matheny and Vellinga
Bruns and Beug

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is finally official! Noah Siegel and I signed our contract with Ten Speed Press yesterday, and it’ll be on shelves in 2016. Fully illustrated guide to 750 species of mushrooms found along the coast from Central California to Oregon (but many species occur further south and north into the Pacific Northwest).Please visit the page here to follow our updates on the project!Thanks!

Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is finally official! 

Noah Siegel and I signed our contract with Ten Speed Press yesterday, and it’ll be on shelves in 2016. Fully illustrated guide to 750 species of mushrooms found along the coast from Central California to Oregon (but many species occur further south and north into the Pacific Northwest).

Please visit the page here to follow our updates on the project!
Thanks!

TELLURIDE MUSHROOM FESTIVAL! August 16-19th, 2014.
I’ll be speaking this summer at the Telluride Mushroom Festival (I’ve been told a place of great beauty). (In)famous for its psychedelic overtones and bacchanalian costumed street-march, but also increasingly focused on taxonomy and the mycofloristic richness of the area, this is a one-of-a-kind festival. The abundance of red-capped porcini in the conifer woods is also the stuff of legend. Want to join us this mid-August? Early-bird tickets are available here.

TELLURIDE MUSHROOM FESTIVAL! August 16-19th, 2014.

I’ll be speaking this summer at the Telluride Mushroom Festival (I’ve been told a place of great beauty). (In)famous for its psychedelic overtones and bacchanalian costumed street-march, but also increasingly focused on taxonomy and the mycofloristic richness of the area, this is a one-of-a-kind festival.

The abundance of red-capped porcini in the conifer woods is also the stuff of legend. Want to join us this mid-August? Early-bird tickets are available here.

Spring Amanita Diversity in Santa Cruz

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Amanita vernicoccora - Hatching. Spring iconic. Hella symbolic.

Although spring is known to be the best season for diversity of Amanita fruiting in much of California, this year has proven to be record-setting. The reason for the exceptionally varied assortment we are seeing is (seemingly paradoxically) the extreme lack of precipitation most of California experienced during the preceding fall and winter.

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Amanita magniverrucata, an expected spring species.

Due to last year’s extreme drought, the soil-moisture levels stayed very low, and the fall and winter-fruiting Amanita species (A. calyptrodermaA. muscariaA. phalloides) were never triggered to fruit. This meant that the mycelia were still ‘lying in wait’ when a series of spring rainstorms fell, starting in late February and continuing into March and April.

In most years, these species have already been triggered to expend their fruiting resources well before the spring precipitation arrives. Although overall biomass of fruitbodies remains low due to the drought, the Amanita assemblage includes both fall, winter, and spring species, bringing the species count for the 30-day period between March 10 and April 10th. This is nearly 2/3 of our regularly-occurring taxa! Wild times.

A. ocreata
A. phalloides - rare for the season

A. calyptroderma - very rare for the season
A. calyptratoides - generally uncommon to rare, one fruiting at a known location in Aptos
A. vernicoccora
A. velosa
A. constricta
A. augusta - somewhat uncommon in spring
A. novinupta - a profuse fruiting this spring
A. protecta - sparse fruiting this spring, but one new mycelium found at Natural Bridges

A. aprica (generally uncommon to rare)
A. muscaria (somewhat rare for the season)
A. magniverrucata
A. gemmata group
Amanita “ohlone” nom prov. - generally uncommon species, undescribed

I also made charts (below) of a couple Amanita fruiting patterns using the Mushroom Observer database. Note the year-round occurrence pattern for Amanita phalloides (the deadly toxic Death Cap). This invasive species is known to be aggressive and flexible in forming mycorrhzial symbioses with a wide range of woody plants, and is equally phenologically adaptable, it seems.

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Contrast that pattern with the much more pronounced fall/winter fruiting of the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

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Bolbitius titubans today at Humboldt Bay.Yellow. Slimy. Gregarious. What more can one ask for.

Bolbitius titubans today at Humboldt Bay.
Yellow. Slimy. Gregarious. What more can one ask for.

Can the tree set fruit so fast?

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Marasmiellus candidus - woobly gills

Probably not.

And neither can a fungal mycelium. Heavy drought for the better part of a year can’t be made up for by a single storm, no matter how impressive. 

It’s not just the water to swell the fruitbodies that’s been lacking, but the preceding months of water - softening the soil, ripening the humus, allowing the mycelia in normal years to scavenge, grow, prosper, and eventually, set fruit.

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These little, half-marcescent (look it up) Xeromphalina managed to set fruit, alright.

Like a tea flower, the first pour of water is just to loosen and prepare the leaves. The second, and third, and fourth pour of hot water each reveal new nuances of flavor.

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Dare we ask what nuances of flavor can be found in these saw-toothed Lentinellus? No.

And so it is with each pouring of the rains - there are early season mushrooms, midwinter mushrooms (that require more time to unfurl their fruitbodies), and finally the spring fungi that require a really well-seasoned forest floor and a bit of the sun’s kiss before they reveal themselves.

So the pattern we are seeing under this year’s dramatically punctuated conditions  is that the tiniest saprobic species respond first - they need less water to fill their fruitbodies, and they are not tied directly to the seasonal physiology of a host tree (as in the mycorrhizal mushrooms).

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These Mycena that are not only tiny, but also wood-rotting.

We are also seeing the wood-rotting fungi fruit well, since they can generate water by breaking down lignin, and since wood itself is often a good reservoir of moisture in dry times.

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Happy Valentine’s Day from this pinkish li’l sorrel leaf. Found by Faun.

Undaunted Fruits

dessication be damned

The news is old: this is California’s driest year on record.
But February and March hold promise yet, and unfortunately we will undoubtedly weather worse in the future. For now, the woods and my curiosity are left high and dry, with mushrooms few and far between and my field of vision filled with the feathered ones (not the gilled).

What can be found?
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Hygrocybe singeri. Indomitable.


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Xerocomellus zelleri, bearing punctules

I am at a conference where someone actually suggested that we all bleed our wrists in the lawn to call down the rain. I was supportive of the idea but no one seconded her motion.

Modern Mycophobia - Shoegazing Lunatics vs Seasonal Succulence

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My cousin engaging her totally innocuous affinity for mushrooms.

Online writing about mushrooms and mushroomers abounds these days – most of it in orbit around buzzy topics like bioluminescent species, myco-ethnography, bioremediation, and citizen science. The majority of this writing is superficial and poorly researched, some is middlingly decent as an introduction to the world of mushrooms, and a small minority is actually quite good. But a friend pointed me to an article recently that, beyond being poorly researched, is actually misleading and weirdly offensive.

In mid-December of last year, Aeon Magazine published an article by Cal Flyn, entitled “The Deadly Sport of Mushroom Foraging”, a piece which managed to make me wince more than once as I read it. The topic: people who gather mushrooms for food. The message: it is a wildly risky hobby undertaken by lunatics and reckless “shoegazing nature lovers”.

————-The rest of this piece references Flyn’s article heavily, so it’s worth having a look at it here before reading on.—————————                         

I’d love to say that Flyn’s article was a partial success, but it wasn’t. There is a pervasive cultural bias issue with the article that I’ll address, and on top of that, a number of statements littered throughout the article are either hyperbolic or factually unsound, and deserve only a basic pointing-out-of-wrongheadedness.

For example:

"Mushrooms are bloodthirsty." 

This is such an exaggerated statement that I have a hard time imagining that Flyn herself didn’t chuckle while typing it. So: Mushrooms don’t move. They don’t chase people and forcibly intoxicate them. The vast majority aren’t poisonous. Enough said.

But the fearmongering doesn’t end there:

"Every time mycologists bring home a fresh batch [of mushrooms], they risk an upset stomach at the very least, and at worst a slow and painful death."

This isn’t even close to true. The word mycologist might as well be replaced here with ‘risk reducer’. The reason people study things is to understand them better - one advantage of greater understanding is an ability to minimize the risks involved in engaging that thing. Mushrooms are no exception.

Then there’s the problem of made-up species (what exactly is Amanita regalla?), and a very suspicious quote from her reference book - “Poison acts like A. phalloides but is stronger” (I have no idea what she might have been reading about, since A. phalloides is just about the most toxic species in the world).

But argumentatively speaking, this is the low-hanging fruit, and relatively trivial. The main problem with Flyn’s article is that it is written within the bounds of knowledge of someone coming from a mushroom-fearing (and thus mushroom-ignorant) culture. 

Flyn laments the ambiguity of using a field guide as a tool for distinguishing edible and poisonous species. This is not at all surprising - I sympathize with her! Most mushroom field guides are difficult to use, incomplete, outdated, and poorly illustrated.

But here’s the thing - only a tiny minority of the mushrooms that people gather to eat are identified using a field guide. If I had to make a conservative estimate, I’d guess that less than 0.001% of the total volume of mushrooms collected globally for food on any given day are identified with a field guide. It’s probably less than that. Flyn (obviously out of touch with the people she’s putatively writing about) apparently doesn’t realize this.

Only folks from decidedly fungophobic cultures (and thus lacking any sort of familial or cultural heritage-based knowledge) would have to resort to using a book to identify mushrooms. In American and British mainstream cultures, for example, we inherit a fear of mushrooms, and year after year we are passed on admonishments to keep our distance from them. Meanwhile, in mushroom-loving cultures, grandmas are teaching grandsons what morels are, which milk caps are good to eat and which aren’t, and how to string up slices of boletes to dry over the fire. 

What else can be expected? People who come from cultures where mushrooms are treasured parts of daily life (at least seasonally) know how to recognize them, how to find and gather them, and how to enjoy them. And people who come from backgrounds in which mushrooms are feared and vilified grow in only one aspect: ignorance.

The most complex response I had to this article came after reading this statement: 

"When we hunt for mushrooms, we encounter a species with which we have no natural affinity." 

At first I thought this was probably meaningless. What is a ‘natural’ affinity for an organism? Do I have a natural affinity for manioc roots (full of cyanide)? For undomesticated bananas (knobby-seeded green starchy monstrosities)? How about for scallops (the adductor muscles of seafloor-dwelling bivalves)? What about a Twinkie?

 But all of this misses the point. I can’t pretend I don’t know what Flyn is talking about. The problem is that’s she’s wrong! Regardless of the exact definition, it’s clear that humans have a very deep affinity (whether natural or cultural, or more likely, naturecultural) for mushrooms.

Much evidence points to our long and intimate history together. Giant Termitomyces are sold to passing motorists in southern Africa, centuries of Chinese herbalists have prized yartsa gunbu (Ophiocordyceps sinensis) for its medicinal properties, and divinatory and shamanic usage of Amanita muscaria has gone on for at least as long among the people of the Kamchatka Peninsula. The markets of the central Mexican highlands are filled with scores of different wild mushrooms, matsutake fetch hundreds of dollars for a single fruitbody in Japanese markets, and even Otzi the iceman was carrying two species of fungus on him when he died (one for medicine, one to carry fire). 

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Wild mushrooms for sale in Munich’s Viktualienmarkt

In contemporary times, maybe the best cultural illustration of profound human affinity for mushrooms is found in eastern Europe and Russia (count for yourselves the number of mushroom references in Nabokov’s works!). In these cultures, folks of all ages express the same zealous reverence, excitement, and protectiveness for food and medicinal mushrooms that American hunters and fisherman afford to walleye and trout and deer and ducks. In such fungus-friendly cultures, mushroom gathering doesn’t end in “meager returns from enormous risk” (Flyn’s words), but rather in an abundance of tasty delicacies at functionally no risk - these people are as familiar with chanterelles as you are with carrots (and have about the same risk of misidentifying one).

But Flyn (quoting Melissa Waddingham) presents us an entirely different narrative:

'Ultimately, I use a microscope. It gets that geeky when you want to eat different species but you don’t want to die.’

This was the moment of realization for me - Flyn really didn’t write an article about the large global body of people who gather mushrooms for food. She wrote about a very particular, unconventional, and actually rather rare brand of mushroom-eating. I guess we could call it ‘list-oriented gastronomy’ or ‘daredevil mycophagy*’. Although I hate that word (myco-phagy just means fungus-eating), I have no problem using it to describe the approach to mushrooms that Flyn describes and engages in. In this context, ‘mycophagy’ is appropriate - the word is obscure, dry, scribbled from the pens of academics (not bubbled up from the mouths of foragers). 

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Carl Atilano - a man (not) living dangerously.

Mushroom eating (which is what most of the rest of the world is up to while Flyn and Waddingham are peering down microscopes and fretting over field guides) has nothing to do with elitism, and nothing to do with frustrating technical identification manuals or fearful adrenaline rushes. People who grew up with mushrooms wallow in their seasonal cycles of succulence, pass on their family’s secret foraging grounds to their children, and relish in the familiarity of finding their food.

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A Sicilian couple enjoying mushrooms and each other.

I don’t think mushrooms need much advocacy - even in the United States there seems to be a relaxing of old fears, and a wave of cultural reconnection with these organisms (in affairs both culinary and taxonomic). I write this rather to dispel myths, to encourage fence-straddlers, and hopefully to let Flyn know that she doesn’t have to fear the outcome of every one of her wild mushroom meals. Go foraging with someone who knows mushrooms like a gardener knows his plants. The dinner you cook with what you’ve gathered will be much more comfortable. Then again, if the discomfort, adrenalin, and elitism were actually what you were looking for, perhaps you should take your own advice and look into a fugu dinner. And invite me! 

*. Which is not to say that I am against these approaches per se. They simply are rare, globally speaking. For an extreme example of list-based gastronomy in which I was involved, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jxhxYDronq4