I remember the day I discovered red chanterelles and black trumpets growing in the woods near my home. It was an unassuming afternoon in September of 2020, months into pandemic isolation and following a particularly shitty week/month in an already remarkably shitty year. The west coast fires were out of control and one was a mile away from my home town of family and friends in California. I, meanwhile, was across the country in Massachusetts, feeling lonely and helpless. I had just learned an old restaurant co-worker had died of a drug overdose. My vertigo had returned. I was anxious about a new job and new living situation. I was processing a friend break up. I was processing a breakup. The bigger picture atrocities and heartbreaks of 2020 worldwide were ever looming still, and, on top of every other dumpster fire, I had just returned from a supposed cathartic adventure road trip which proved to be far more painful than healing. Two days in, I decided to brave southern airports in the thick of covid and take the blow of travel costs to my bank account rather than continue on. In my travels home, I lost my debit card and missed my bus by a hair such that I was stuck in a train station for three extra hours. I hadn’t eaten all day because I was terrified of removing my mask while traveling. I felt tired and utterly defeated.
All of these unfortunate happenings lay the backdrop for why my discovery of chanterelles and black trumpets (and my excitement for mushroom hunting more generally) was all the more revelatory.
Though my road trip was largely one of acute absurdity and incompatible travel personalities, a silver lining of it was the morning I spent in the woods of Tennessee before returning home. I had recently been moved by a friends knowledge and passion for mushroom foraging, and as I walked through trees and leaves and brush, I saw one mushroom, then two, and then mushrooms everywhere. I was beside myself with the diversity, and the diversity along such a short walk. It was the first time I truly understood the excitement my friend (and my grandmother who first introduced me to wild mushrooms years ago) had for this sort of adventure.
When I returned to Massachusetts, mushrooms were on my mind because they felt like the only positive encounter I had had in a while. I didn’t know much about mushroom identification at all, but my obsession with cooking gave me a confident eye for popular edible mushrooms (chicken of the woods, oyster mushrooms, hen of the woods, chanterelles, black trumpets, and morels). I had no idea that all of the above very realistically were a hop skip and a jump out my front door.
With no real goals in mind, I started tromping around the woods where I was living, and was surprised to find, once again, that an abundance of mushrooms became visible to my eyes when I simply began to look for them. It had just rained, and mushies were freaking everywhere. One marvel of feeling so emotionally empty was my absence/ indifference to fear. A me once terrified of woodsy, tick-y, muddy, sweaty ventures out into the unknown was now treading deeper and deeper into trail-less forest territory, in the land of creepy crawlies. But I felt nothing. Except for a deep desire to find the coolest goddamn mushrooms. And I did. (Lets all take a moment to appreciate the beginners luck I had in finding CHANTERELLES AND BLACK TRUMPETS).
After feeling so crappy, so gloomy, so empty, I found myself looking down at colors and shapes and life. Glimmers of hope that maybe not everything is so bad. I felt connected to nature. I was shocked at how easily I came across some of the beautiful mushrooms I knew I could eat. It was the purest joy I’d felt in a long long time. It gave me something to get excited about and look forward to. Adventures. Mysteries. A curiosity that felt childlike, and which I’d lost for quite a moment. I felt like I had uncovered some secret of the universe, and also a secret of this corner of the world I thought I had known so well. I now felt connected to it in a whole new way. I felt love. In spite of all the chaos, all the hurt, all the noise, here I was in the middle of the quiet woods, at peace. This moment, so unexpectedly, was everything.
A month after this beautiful day, my grandmother died, and my memories took me back to the summer she introduced me to chicken of the woods. I can hear her talking to my dad, insisting he take a chefs knife down the road to cut the pretty orange sulphur shelf from a dying stump that I am pretty sure was in a neighbor’s front yard (In retrospect, I find this fact horrifying, but that was my grandmother). When he brought it home, she cleaned it, cut it into pieces, and sautéd it it a pan with shallots. My vegetarian (at the time) self was shook. This mushroom I had been so skeptical about did in fact taste positively chicken like. And it was delicious! This memory, so old and so vivid, was the true first revelatory wild mushroom experience I had, yet it had fallen so unfortunately to the back of my brain where it stayed until I realized its power. When my grandmother sat me down and tried to teach me about mushrooms and flowers and trees in the years that followed, I rarely gave her the attention she and her lessons deserved. I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate we were to live in a fairy wonderland. I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate I was to have a grandmother with an encyclopedia for a brain, a knack for teaching and storytelling, and a desire to share her knowledge and experiences with her family. I am grateful for those days between September and October when I had the chance to FaceTime her repeatedly before she died, informing her exuberantly of every mushroom I found, and of everything she already knew and had tried to show me herself for so long– the deeply wondrous and fulfilling nature of our natural world.