Creative Nonfiction

Fruiting Bodies

21 February 2016

Listen to Amie read “Fruiting Bodies”.

My sister advises me that nobody should go picking without a guide. At first you need somebody who knows the specific musty smell, bruising spongy texture, dark ruffled veils and small conical caps of the mushrooms. The most experienced foragers know their local seasons. As the autumn rains arrive, they return to the same patches that have been faithfully fruitful.

The peak of the picking season is usually in June, providing that the previous May has soaked the ground and temperatures have been consistently below 20 degrees. The sun barely breaches through the winter fog, puddling lazily at the horizon. It is early morning and 10 degrees out when my sister and I pack my little old car.

The usual winter attire is appropriate – a parka with decent pockets, scarves and runners with a good sole and grip. Although a dark monochrome clothing scheme is preferable, at this time all but the elusive 5am Monday jogger are surely burrowed in their beds, as my bleary eyed sister usually would be. We don’t need maps as we take the narrow, winding (mostly dirt) roads south­west and trace the curve of the peninsula.

Long since removed from the town we grew up by, nestled between unkempt dry bush and eucalypt woodlands, mushroom gathering for me is a return. A homecoming to that smell that you only get after a big rain, to substrate that squelches underfoot and cakes at the bottom of your shoe, to that childlike freedom of being a new explorer, invigorated with a confident curiosity.

I’m captured by the mandala patterns imprinted beneath mushrooms – their spiralling gills, scalloped edges and frilly veils. However, my sister’s motivation is nobler. She partakes in a cyclic tradition shared with her years ago through a friend and her mother, who took her on her first trip.

We find the area fenced off and access restricted to two small locked gates. But as we track the large roads circling the bushland we see several holes ripped into the wire. The signage is clear: loitering and suspicious behaviour is reportable.

These days, as my sister has discovered, with her fair share of daytime run­ins with other enthusiasts, mushroom picking has become incredibly competitive. Trusted circles have grown into communities as word of mouth shifts into popular public forums and social networking pages. Co­ordinates posted on these sites attract slews of newcomers, who disrupt previously respected local habitats. Some locations are fully raided by early winter, the loam disturbed, the red bark dug up and the complex root system of the fungi, the mycelium, exposed and damaged.

Bodies are pulled when still small, damaging the structures underneath, allowing the underground stalks to rot and preventing bigger and healthier caps from reaching maturity. It’s important to be gentle by harvesting mature mushrooms with tall stalks and descended veils with a pair of scissors. Being careful when adventuring off footpaths and into beds is also a stressed factor of ethical picking and preserving the bushland we pass through.

However, once spring arrives, the only concern for many is to harvest as much as possible, as mushroom picking gains popularity for both culinary and recreational purposes. As the availability decreases, the demand and prices for dried mushrooms are driven up.

A long road divides the land. On one side a difficult walking trail has been cut through the dense foliage, and on the other is a round grassy clearing with a dilapidated wooden playground at the front. Behind the area an old wire­bottomed bridge tops a stagnant algae­carpeted creek, which runs parallel to the thicket.

Beyond that is more bushland. In the clearing I search for the old tree stump where years ago we found a small plastic container jammed within a knothole. Inside there were assorted miniatures and trinkets and a signed notebook from other visitors. We added our names, and I added a small green­handled crosshead screwdriver and a ridged yellow game token that I had pocketed while on the walking track.

For a landscape that once seemed empty, there sure is a lot of litter and various bits of crap – I unearth an entire soggy sock and a bucket handle from inside a rotting log. On the surface there are touches of the people that were here before us – a set of boot imprints smudged across the mud, threatening graffiti and strips of hazard tape strewn about. Now in the tree stump’s place I find chunky fragments of obliterated wood.

Australia’s fungi populations are incredibly diverse. As well as their culinary benefits they also are utilised as dyes, medicinal ingredients and in paper manufacturing. Observation is the key skill in mushroom foraging as many edible mushrooms have poisonous doppelgangers. Psilocybin mushrooms can at first look similar to Galerina mushrooms, the former being hallucinogenic fungi and the latter deadly poisonous.

Upon closer inspection, minor differences such as gill shapes, bruising and the colour of the spore print can confirm the identity of a mushroom species. Spore prints, the powder ring left behind when a mushroom cap is left on top of a piece of white or black paper, can show distinct gill patterns and the colours of the spores. For instance, death caps have white or pale yellow prints, most magic mushrooms have blue prints and common field mushrooms have brown prints.

Once, I unintentionally sowed spores in the room under my house while feeding my fascination for fungi through growing mushrooms in straw­stuffed boxes and washing baskets. Some species spawn a cloud of spores when they reach maturity, spores that, I discovered, can discolour surfaces. Now I line the brick walls beneath my house in newspaper and reserve my spore prints to a collection of folios.

One of my Nan’s stories – something she recounts at family gatherings – is about how closed off an inaccessible public space has become. When she was a child, her family travelled parallel to the Nepean Highway, picking buckets of massive brown field mushrooms from the paddocks. However, that was private property.

When it’s public land, what stops the community from transgressing these spaces and abusing the landscape?

Prosecuting foragers of magic and culinary fungi seems nearly impossible, especially in small­scale recreational pickings. So each year as mushroom season transpires, news programs are flooded with stories and warnings of mushroom poisonings to discourage foraging in public and private gardens.

In April 2015, Julia Medew penned an article for the Sydney Morning Herald titled ‘Poison Mushroom Warning For Victoria’, which featured a long and graphic list of the dangers of picking and eating wild mushrooms, including death within hours of consumption. Effects of mushroom poisoning also include gastrointestinal distress, liver failure and hallucinations. However, according to the Victorian Government’s own Better Health Channel, statistically speaking, mushroom poisonings are extremely rare and occur mostly in children who eat mushrooms from their home gardens.

On our trip, my sister and I see many different species of fungi. Death caps are ever­present with their pale yellow pinnacles, as are as tons of unidentifiable little brown mushrooms. I snap pictures of some corky orange Pycnoporus, the wood­digesting shelf fungi, and some spectacular shaggy mane mushrooms, whose fish- tasting, flaky flesh is stained with blue ink.

The rule of thumb is to not pick anything, especially if you are not with somebody experienced. Even though some people do eat poisonous mushrooms by parboiling them to specific temperatures, mushroom foraging is definitely not something that should be taken lightly.

Public space, with the flora and established habitats therein, is a landscape where different activities, ideas and traditions are negotiated. Despite authorities’ official health warnings against foraging and repeating its dangers, people are still coming back to their favourite spots and continuing to use public parkland as a source of rebellion and adventure, whimsical sustenance, harvest and bounty.

As we prepare to leave the park, we spot, in the bed across from us, a group of three figures on their knees sifting through the red bark. Both parties stand up. It is two younger men, accompanied by an older balding man. We wave and continue on our separate paths.

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