The Life-Changing Magic of Mushroom Hunting in Central Park
Long Litt Woon on Finding a Little Bit of What She Was Looking For
All beginners know that same frustration: in order to find mushrooms, first you have to know where to look. But, as one might expect, the best mushroom sites are secret. Information on mushroom sites is in short supply and most people guard theirs as closely as they would their most precious jewels. One person I know has stored details of her best mushroom sites on her handheld GPS tracker for her daughter to inherit. What chance did I have of finding the finest mushrooms when I didn’t have anyone who would share their treasures with me?
In such a situation the best place to start is your local mycological association. You don’t learn where to look for mushrooms from reading a book at home with your feet up. On forays with the association’s expert guides, you will be able to see fungi in their natural habitat and gradually learn to read the terrain. Experienced mushroom foragers have an uncanny knack for spotting mushrooms. Even in an unfamiliar forest, they always seem to know where to look. There is no mystery to it. Over the years they have simply built up layer upon layer of knowledge—hands-on experience that can then be systematically applied.
I have gone foraging with older mushroom enthusiasts who wear glasses with very thick lenses but have a better eye for mushrooms than I do and will often spot mushrooms alongside the path after I have walked past them. They usually have a good chuckle about that. It’s no good having youth on your side if you don’t possess this sixth mushroom sense, this instinct for where best to look. The more experience you have, the more highly developed this sense becomes. Some people even believe they can sniff out mushrooms in the forest the way dogs and pigs can sniff out truffles, another greatly prized fungus.
During the introductory course, I started going along on the open mushroom-hunting expeditions organized by my own local association. These were always led by two certified mushroom experts, which was both reassuring and instructive. There were guided expeditions every weekend during the season. And sometimes even on weekdays too. It was usually possible to get to the meeting point by public transport. Not only that, but these trips were free: a nice little gift from the association to the people of Oslo. One additional advantage of going on the association’s organized expeditions is that you don’t have to pay a visit to the mushroom inspectors’ checkpoints afterward. In Norway, mushroom inspectors voluntarily man checkpoints during the mushroom season and check mushrooms brought to them by the public, free of charge. Such a visit can entail having to throw away all your mushrooms because you’ve managed to slip one tiny but deadly mushroom in with the rest of the day’s haul. On the association’s trips all the mushrooms picked are checked and discussed as they are found.
These trips took me to many places in Oslo that I, a longtime resident of the city, had never heard of. Little by little I began to draw up my own mental map of likely mushroom sites in Oslo. None of these places were secret, it’s true, but they were all areas where I knew there was a good chance of finding mushrooms. You have to start somewhere.
Mushroom Picking in New York’s Central Park
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to see, early in my mushroom career, how the real experts go about it. While on a visit to America, I was invited on a private mushroom hunt in New York by no less a person than the late, great Gary Lincoff, former president of the North American Mycology Association and author of the American field bible, The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms.
Lincoff, referred to by some as the Pied Piper of mushrooms, was a small man with a great sense of humor and a huge fund of knowledge. In his broad-brimmed hat and signature safari vest, he was a well-known figure at mycology conferences all over the world. We met as arranged in Central Park, said our hellos, and then, without any more ado, he began to march briskly and purposefully from one tree to another. I had to walk fast to keep up and not lose sight of my guide in one of New York City’s best hunting grounds.And if he needed some mushrooms for dinner, all he had to do was run across the street and pick up a tasty morsel or two.
To the uninitiated, Lincoff’s hunting strategy might have seemed pretty random, yet it was anything but. He had his regular trails around Central Park’s 843 acres. We were walking along one of these trails when he suddenly stopped and combed carefully through a patch of grass that didn’t look as if it contained anything interesting at all. The grass was long. It had obviously been some time since the park-keepers had run the lawn-mower over this spot. Then, voilà, Lincoff found what he was looking for: the edible Ringless Honey Mushroom, Armillaria tabescens, a species not found in Norway.
Lincoff lived right across the street from Central Park, and every morning during the season he would do a little reconnaissance of the park before work, noting how fresh growths were coming along and whether he ought to return in one, two, or three days. Some mushrooms appear early in the season, others fruit later. Lincoff adjusted his purposeful rounds accordingly. In this way he could monitor his secret places in Central Park on a daily basis. And if he needed some mushrooms for dinner, all he had to do was run across the street and pick up a tasty morsel or two. As we walked on through the park, with Lincoff providing a running commentary on which mushrooms one could find by which trees and when in the season one might expect to find them, we found some other interesting edible plants, among them what Lincoff called Poor Man’s Pepper, Lepidium virginicum, a plant with an upright stem and white flowers growing out of it, rather like a bottle brush. The whole of this plant from the mustard family can be eaten: the seeds can be used in the same way as black pepper, and the flowers and leaves can be sprinkled over a salad to give it a slightly peppery flavor.
Then we came around a bend and there was one of the park rangers. He gave a little cough to attract our attention.
“Have you been picking mushrooms?” the elderly ranger asked.
In Norway everyone has the right to pick berries, mushrooms, or flowers anywhere—not just in the countryside, but on private land, too, if it’s uncultivated. The same rule does not apply, however, to a park in the United States. We had been caught redhanded.
“What sort is that?” he asked amiably, pointing into Lincoff’s basket.
Lincoff answered promptly, listing the species by their Latin names.
“It is my duty to inform you that it is forbidden to pick flowers or plants in Central Park. There, my job is done!” the ranger said, grinning as he sauntered off. A perfect example of sound bureaucratic common sense.
Hunter-gatherer tribes foraged in order to have enough to eat. For many people today, hunting and gathering are activities that satisfy a longing for the outdoor life and a desire to meet people. Although for them it is not primarily a way of putting food on the table, this does not mean that these mushroom enthusiasts take the hunt any less seriously than the hunter-gatherer tribes of the world did. An interest in mushrooms can awaken primeval foraging instincts you didn’t know you had.
Since 2006, the New York Mycological Society has been running a registration project in Central Park. So far they have found 400 species of mushrooms, including five species of chanterelles. This compares with the approximately 500 plant species registered as growing in the park. During my walk through the park with Gary Lincoff, I found the mushroom that the Chinese value above all others, due to its medicinal properties—the lingzhi mushroom, Ganoderma lucidum. In ancient times, the Chinese believed this mushroom could give a person immortality. In modern China it can be bought in the traditional medical halls and is used in the treatment of cancer, heart problems, and many other ailments. If sick people in Manhattan’s Chinatown only knew that all they had to do was take the subway to Central Park instead of having to pay the exorbitant prices charged by Chinese herbalists! I gently laid the lingzhis in my basket. They would make a lovely present for my old mum in Malaysia. No one there sees anything contradictory in combining Western and Eastern medicine. Using all the means at your disposal when necessary is regarded more as a sensible insurance policy. I could just picture her serving lingzhi tea from New York’s Central Park to her friends when it was her turn to play hostess.
Going mushroom hunting with someone who is equipped with a mental treasure map of likely sites is a very different matter from searching aimlessly for mushroom gold.
I’d gone mushroom hunting in Central Park with a man who enjoyed rock star status in American mycology circles. A new world had been revealed to me. I should have been over the moon, but I wasn’t. The truth was that I didn’t feel a thing. If it were anatomically possible, I would have said that my heart had been dislocated. Eiolf ’s sudden death had taken a physical, mental, and emotional toll on me. It felt like every cell in my body was frozen, knocked out. Can feelings be paralyzed by grief? Perhaps grief induces a sort of general anesthesia? Perhaps that was why I was completely numb? It was almost as if I had lost touch with my emotions. I could find no words to describe how I felt, no words I could hold on to. In the eye of grief ’s tornado, there are no words.
A wall had fallen away and I was alone and exposed, wide open to wind and weather. Grief sucked all the life out of me. Eiolf and I had lived on our own in Oslo without any family members close by. Despite the fact that my mother came to me immediately from Malaysia and stayed on for several months, and that I was in constant contact with family and friends, the loneliness was absolute. I felt as though I were shriveling up from the inside. All that was left was a paler, stupider, ashen version of myself.
My vision seemed blurred and I began to wonder whether I needed new glasses. I had difficulty hearing what was said. My sense of smell more or less disappeared and food tasted like cardboard. I forgot meal-times and ate next to nothing. It was almost as if my senses had been put out of action. I, who used to just close my eyes and go to sleep, now lay awake, counting the hours in the dark of night. At such times thoughts and images fought for space.
My concentration was dimmed, at a low ebb, and I missed the old me. The newspapers and magazines we subscribed to piled up, unread. More than once I found myself standing outside the front door not knowing which key to use. It took me ages to get any work done. Practical tasks became almost insurmountable.
I had no idea what I did with the time. It simply ran between my fingers. Was this what it was like to be a time optimist and never be able to meet a deadline? For once I found myself sympathizing with scatterbrains who were always slow and persistently late. I forgot appointments that I had noted in my diary. People gave me books about grief, but the words just danced about in front of my eyes, singly, not even in whole sentences. I, who had always been a bookworm, could remember nothing of whatever I tried to read. I, who loved music, found it impossible to play our favorite records. I would get a huge lump in my throat at the mere sound of the first familiar stanzas. Grief calls for muscles for which no fitness center has the right exercise machines.
On one occasion I plucked up my courage and went to a big party at a friend’s house but had to leave before the dancing began. It was all just too much. My friend was a tango fanatic and had booked a little introductory tango session for us. The old me would have loved to try that, but I was weary to the bone. Eiolf ’s death had plunged me into a deep well, and apathy settled over me like a thick blanket that I couldn’t kick off. TV talk shows about politics and social issues seemed banal and devoid of sense or purpose. The debating rituals in which commentators played their respective parts in a well-known drama were nothing but wooden acting and mechanical mouthings to me. The petty details of everyday life seemed even more pointless. Nothing could interest or upset me. Life had been watered down. I felt a vague, nagging unease, although I didn’t know how to describe it or stop it.
It was as if I were wearing an invisibility suit. The world went on without me.
–Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland
From the book The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon. Copyright © 2019 by Long Litt Woon. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.