We ransack the woods for the holy places of chanterelles; clearcuts for shaggy-manes; manure piles for inky caps; graveyards for fairy rings and puffballs; rotting stumps for chicken-of-the-woods, oyster, coral or cauliflower mushrooms.
(image: Psilocybe cubensis )
My father would allow himself to be blind-folded and led on horseback every year by old, drunken Italian men through the Ponderosas of the Teanaway Ridge to the piney hiding places of the firm-fleshed King Bolete.
Under the scrubbed blue skies of early spring-- after the just-right combination of rainy days and sunny, we’d return to our secret groves of morels, the tastiest wild mushroom of them all (known by rural Washingtonians as “dog-pecker mushrooms”).
In our family, we ate the mushrooms we knew and we knew the mushrooms we ate. We never had the debate between the Questionable Stropharia and the amanita junquillea because we’d never eat anything that looked remotely like either one of them.
We ate wild mushrooms because they were tasty and fun to hunt down. In the 1950’s, there was no gourmandizing of wild mushrooms or notion that eating them held any prestige other than their obvious deliciousness and the serendipity-do which got them to our table.
A new Northwest mushroom tradition began in the 1970’s and is still practiced today in the fall and spring. In fields on the road to Concrete; on lawns of government buildings in Olympia; in the cow pastures of the Skagit. Oblivious to wet knees and cow manure, little clutches of humans can be seen crawling around these places gathering the local psilocybin, the magic mushroom.
Gotta admit, I picked up on this tradition as soon as I found out about it. Psilocybin (or “silly-cybin” as we used to say) mushrooms are vividly hallucinogenic.
If you eat them, they add colors to your regular spectrum and make you laugh to a different drummer. Some say they catch sight of God when they eat them.
(Nobody ever sautés-up these wispy little ‘shrooms in butter --eat as you pick -- and don’t stop until your knees get wobbly. You tell the deputy sheriff when he sneaks up that you’re just looking for your contact lens).
Magic mushrooms have been immune to the “dangerous drug” warnings among a certain crowd because they’re, er ...natural. This is based on an old hippy myth that persists in America: if a chemical occurs in nature, it’s benign and not really a chemical. You’ve heard it: honey is good, sugar is bad; ketchup, bad; marijuana, good.
(Historical note: the lyric "The greenest sky you've ever seen was in Seattle." was inspired by 'shrooms)..
My romance with wild mushrooms ended rather abruptly.
One Friday evening, alone in the little office of my LaConner restaurant, I ate a mouthful of psilocybin and washed it down with a swig of San Pellegrino. I didn’t think much about it -- it was kind of an impulse.
But minutes later I knew something was very, very wrong. Hallucinations started coming in fast like sepia death threats; sick visuals had my consciousness speeding laterally towards a dread oblivion. There was nothing silly or magic about it.
My diaphragm seized up. I stopped breathing. I turned blue. I lay down on the floor. I shit my pants and I died.
Miraculously, someone happened in and called the volunteer fire department. The thump-thump boys got me breathing again, and rushed me to the ICU, pumping my stomach along the way.
It’s been over 20 years and the horridness is still vivid -- the dreadful banality of a death surrounded by pulsating office supplies, the shame of having my butt wiped by a fellow member of the Chamber of Commerce.
To this day, there’s something deeply creepy about the spongy meat of these fleshy growths, something sinister about vegetables with gills. I can eat a cooked mushroom slice, if I look away. I can open a can of mushroom soup, now and then. I don’t look for God in things I eat anymore and I know plenty of other places to find magic.