head-wildhunt

The Wild Hunt
By Matt Gleeson

As you go north along the coast from San Francisco during the winter, you enter increasingly rain-soaked and fog-drenched territory, and the wetter it gets, the richer a destination it is for a mushroom hunter. North of Jenner on Highway 1, after some hairpin turns that test a passenger’s nausea threshold, Salt Point State Park spreads over six thousand acres on the Sonoma County coast. Named after the salt collected there by the indigenous Pomo Indians and known for its rugged coastal sandstone formations, Salt Point is also blessed with pine and tanoak forests that press quite close to the shore, soaking in the moisture of the zone where land meets sea. I’m visiting Salt Point with my friends Oron and Leo specifically for these woods. We left San Francisco at 4:45 a.m., driving in the dark and hitting the coast as a thin grey dawn started to leak across the landscape. Our hope is to get there early for the porcini, also known as the king bolete or cèpe, among other names. They’re iconic mushrooms, meaty and somewhat nutty-flavored, some of the most avidly prized for the table, and there’s very little that can make the heart lift like uncovering a stout, firm porcini hiding beneath a layer of pine needles. In the past two years I’ve started keeping detailed journals of rainfall, temperatures, and which mushroom species I’ve found in various habitats–another friend of mine, Chris, one-ups me with his Excel spreadsheets. Even so, hunting is a gamble, especially if you’re trying to be the first there. After several hours of carefully scouring the ground beneath the pines, looking for telltale humps in the duff, we’ve only found one single bolete.

We hike deeper into the woods off-trail and finally, after four hours, admit that we’ve been skunked–despite the recent rain, it’s still too early in the season. Just before we turn back we hear voices somewhere on the other side of a thicket; a family appears, with a young jacket-bundled child holding a basket at such a tilt that it can only be empty. At a stream crossing we meet a scruffy young man who hasn’t found many edibles but excitedly shows us his haul of Amanita pantherina, a lovely brown-and-yellow spotted mushroom that’s known to have effects somewhere between intoxication and extremely unpleasant toxicity.1 When we drive away, south along Highway 1, every single turnout in the state park now has a car parked in it, and men and women toting baskets are setting off into the woods. Even when it’s too early for the porcini, the sense of competition at Salt Point can be intense.

Salt Point is a sort of mecca for Bay Area mushroom hunters. It’s illegal to forage in many parks near the Bay Area’s population centers (e.g., those in the East Bay Regional Park District, the San Mateo County parks in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or the Golden Gate National Recreation Area). A few others, including Point Reyes National Seashore, allow mushroom and berry picking within strict limits. Formed in 1968, Salt Point offers a particularly special combination of the chance to legally pick along with a booming richness of fungi. For the Pomo who were once the dominant culture here, hunting and gathering wild foods were the norm until the early 1800s. But in California we have a rupture with our indigenous foraging traditions–our current practices actually owe a much larger debt to transplantation, first of Old World practices by immigrant European communities, particularly Italians and Russians, who discovered many of the same mushroom species here that they craved at home, and more recently, of Asian traditions. Italian immigrants began picking the porcini they found sprouting around the Sonoma coast at least as far back as the 1920s, for use on their own tables or to sell casually. In 1990, all of California’s state parks moved to ban mushroom foraging within their limits, despite the protests of mycological societies.2 Legendary mycologist David Arora, in a fascinating academic article,3 suggests that the deciding factor in public outcry over Salt Point may have been lobbying by the Italian-American cultural group Club Italia of Marin, who poignantly protested the ending of a time-honored hobby–pitching it as an appeal to “cultural values” rather than as the demands of a “special interest” group. In 1991 it was finally decided that Salt Point State Park would allow mushroom picking within a five-pound limit, with commercial picking banned entirely.

Recently there seems to be a new surge of interest in foraging. It’s particularly notable in the Bay Area–often among an urban, Caucasian crowd–and it seems to carry a sense of discovery, so that this ancient practice sometimes gets referred to as a new trend. It’s a bit confusing to sort out exactly why foraging is suddenly becoming popular, or why it has taken on a distinct aura of hipness. Perhaps multiple strands of interest are converging: one comes from gourmet culture, as wild foods from stinging nettles to mushrooms have become something of a cutting-edge trend in restaurants right now.4 Another strand seems to come from a post-Michael Pollan desire to get closer to the sources of our food. It also seems partly connected to the rise of homesteading, that reacquaintance with the skills that allow people to become self-sufficient. I’ve been learning to hunt wild mushrooms for five years now–a very short time relative to the experts in the field–which places me squarely within this resurgence. I find something addictive in the arcane joys of learning the characteristics and habits of new mushroom species, and it provides a satisfying sense of agency to find something in the woods and then go right home and cook it. But as more of us in California are drawn to this activity that entails a hands-on use of nature, the current state of foraging reopens long-standing questions about how we use the land.

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Beyond my own recreational foraging, there exists a commercial wild food trade–a legitimate part of the food industry in which the workers don’t grow the crops themselves but instead go out and find them. Wild mushrooms such as porcini are by far the most important part of this industry.

You have to go hunting for porcini because modern agriculture doesn’t know how to cultivate them. They’re a wild food. A basic dichotomy is that wild plants and fungi are those that grow without human agency or interference, in contrast to cultivated plants and fungi. It’s a distinction that grows blurrier as you delve further into it, but is still a useful working definition. The allure and mystery of mushrooms partly stem from the fact that they’re simply the temporary fruiting bodies–comparable in a way to a pear or an apple–of an underlying fungal organism that remains largely invisible. The mushrooms are fleshy structures that pop up to spread spores for reproduction and then rot away (or get eaten) once they’ve finished their task. But the main part of the organism that remains year after year, eating and breathing and actually making these reproductive structures pop up, is something we generally don’t see and don’t use for food: a subterranean network of fine threadlike cells called the mycelium.

With mushrooms classified as saprophytic, these threads feed by breaking down dead matter such as wood, and these are the fungi we know how to cultivate because it’s relatively simple to give them food. Oyster mushrooms, shiitakes, common button mushrooms, and portobellos–all can be grown on logs or blocks of sawdust, and in fact if someone calls your store-bought oyster mushrooms “wild,” chances are they’ve been duped by some misleading advertising. Then there’s the class of fungi known as mycorrhizal, which forms symbiotic relationships with the roots of certain trees, with both organisms aiding each other to obtain vital nutrients. These are the mushrooms we haven’t yet figured out how to cultivate; the right conditions have so far proven too delicate and complex to fully understand. Porcini, chanterelles, black trumpets, morels, matsutake–if you’ve ever eaten them in a restaurant or bought them at Whole Foods, they were surely foraged from the wild. The commercial industry is largely based on these species, and a few others selected out of the several hundred edible mushrooms known to us. With patient coaxing, by spreading lots of spore-bearing chanterelle debris around an oak tree year after year for example, you might eventually encourage wild mushrooms to grow–but the investment of time and the pitiful lack of control over yield would make it far from a reliably cultivated food.

Northern California’s commercial mushroom trade is still rather young. Seeking out some of its pioneers, I end up driving into Jackson State Forest with Eric Schramm, the owner of Mendocino Mushroom Company in Fort Bragg. Beginning in the 1980s, Schramm was Fort Bragg’s first wholesale mushroom broker; typically he buys from individuals who bring their day’s haul out of the dripping Mendocino forests, and then he ships to various wholesalers around the country. But today he’s low on mushrooms, and he wants to check on one of his black trumpet patches, which he hopes will be fruiting. Schramm, strongly built and wearing a trim white beard, is a garrulous fountain of talk who seems happy and comfortable here in the forest. He grew up in Sunol, a wild and rural part of the Bay Area at the time, and never adapted well to the strictures of student life, preferring instead to ramble the woods in the company of dogs. And in fact there’s something good-naturedly doglike to his spirit–he seems to brim with boundless energy and a hope for unconditional affection. He flirts enthusiastically with the ladies at the local inn, and shows a genuine, unguarded concern for everyone around–on the way in, an elderly couple walking slowly along the roadside prompted him to pull a U-turn to check if they were in any trouble. I’ve also chanced to visit him while he was still devastated from the loss of his best friend, a German shepherd named Loner, who hunted mushrooms with him for over a decade.

Schramm came to mushrooms through the U.S. Forest Service, where he worked as a patrolman, first in Shasta-Trinity National Forest and then in Jackson State Forest. For a while it was his job to bust people who poached forest products without a permit. But various friends and mentors began to turn him on to mushrooms–he discovered the late spring porcini scene around Mount Shasta, another place where Italian immigrants had been casually picking for decades. In Mendocino County he began selling to restaurants, and he helped to locally popularize the candy cap, a delicious and highly novel little orange mushroom that smells of butterscotch or maple syrup when dried. Eventually Schramm dropped his paperwork-laden job to become a full-time mushroom broker. During the rainy winter, he buys in Mendocino, the southerly tip of the full-on commercial trade. In late spring, when Mount Shasta thaws, he takes a trailer to the town of McCloud and sets up a buy station for porcini near the woods.

The commercial setup next to Schramm’s house includes a mushroom-weighing shed and a walk-in refrigerator; when we entered the walk-in on this late February morning, a sparse few crates of black trumpets and hedgehog mushrooms (a variety with teeth or spines on its underside instead of gills) sat on the floor. “Normally it’s full at this time of year,” he told me. A month of unusually dry weather, followed by an equally aberrant freeze this past weekend–neither of which mushrooms enjoy–had decimated his supply. It’s a telling indication of the unpredictable fluctuations of the wild mushroom trade and the extreme flexibility required. Your business depends on the whims of the seasons, the weather, and undomesticated organisms that grow according to their own schedule and their own agenda, without the control over yield that agriculture provides.

It also depends on the whims of strongly independent people; none of the area’s pickers sold anything to Schramm the previous day. A broker can never quite know who will bring him what on a given day–evidence of the loose, unpredictable networks out of which the wild food industry is cobbled together. On a local level an informal, opportunistic trade exists, and it’s not unusual for urban hobbyists to march straight back from a trip to the woods and into the kitchens of restaurants to sell directly. Some foragers, such as a young farmer I spoke to from Calaveras County who picks and sells porcini and morels from the Sierra Nevada, find a nice seasonal supplement to their income when the mushrooms are there. To truly hunt mushrooms full-time, though, you have to become what’s called a circuit picker, committing to a nomadic lifestyle.

Because wild mushrooms are so seasonal, no one state in the American West produces large quantities year-round. In general they spring up during the rainy season, but individual species have more specific habits–in the Bay Area, the porcini might come in flushes for about a month after the first fall rains and then be done, while the chanterelle waits until winter. A circuit picker follows the trail of mushrooms through the changing seasons, in a loop from Northern California up through Oregon and Washington, and then perhaps on to British Columbia or Montana. The big-time commercial trade here depends on the labor of the circuit pickers and of seasonal workers such as large groups of Cambodian, Laotian, and Mexican immigrants. It’s cold, wet work that can involve trekking for miles up steep slopes, often from dawn until past dusk–and if you’re lucky enough to pick fifty pounds, it’s you who will tote them all those miles back. Brokers who set up buy stations are essentially the only way for a full-time picker to get this perishable cargo out of the woods to the often distant cities where the appetites of diners demand them, so their profit ends up being divided along with various middlemen. Some wild mushrooms are famed for being valuable, such as the matsutake, a species with a spicy and undeniably funky odor that fetches extremely high prices in Japan. But everyone I talk to in the mushroom business stresses that between the investment of time and the unpredictability, no one’s making a fortune at it–one estimate I hear is that a commercial picker averages thirty dollars a day.

An example of the bitter side of the trade comes when Schramm spontaneously pulls into the driveway of a tall, barrel-chested, laconic acquaintance. The two have a chat through the window of the idling truck about how the black trumpets are doing–their tone is civil, but with an undercurrent of slight tension. Afterwards I hear that the man, a local logger who hunts mushrooms to supplement his income during the rainy winter, was insulted a little while back when Schramm turned down his haul of mushrooms, saying their condition was too poor to meet his quality standards. Now the man more often sells to one of Schramm’s rivals. “I taught him to pick mushrooms!” Schramm laments as we drive away, though he doesn’t seem too bent out of shape–more rueful than angry.

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The forest road twists and curves tightly through lush, dank stands of redwood and tanoak; we pass pink ribbons tied to trees near the roadside, indicating zones marked for logging. Eventually the dirt road becomes impassable, mired in wide lakes of rainwater and mud. Schramm and I leave the truck, hoisting our buckets and bags and walking along in a light drizzle. At a seemingly arbitrary spot we leave the path and walk directly up a steep slope so choked with thickets of wet trees that we have to push our way through. After a while of slogging, the foliage thins, exposing soil and duff, and Schramm says it’s time to start looking more closely for his patch of “blacks.” And sure enough, there they are: fresh clusters running all the way up the hillside that look like bouquets of dark frilly flowers with a silky grey sheen to their underside, craning up from the leaf litter or the earthen banks under tree roots. Schramm located this patch at some point during his years of scouting, but now we’ve gone to it with a directness that reminds me of an errand to the grocery store. What remains is more like agricultural work, as we spend the next forty-five minutes on our knees in the damp leaves and soil, repetitively plucking, trimming dirt from the base of each cluster with a knife, while talking about our love lives. Back at the house we shake the dirt from them and weigh them: twelve pounds. Quite a lot for me, but laughably modest for a wholesaler. The bouquets now sit in two heaps in plastic bins, a product ready for sale. Foraging may seem like an antiquated activity existing largely in our past, but it still has its niche in our present economy.

Connie Green, the owner of Wine Forest Wild Foods in Napa County, has also been an active force in creating California’s current wild food industry. Crediting her initial education in foraging to her late Estonian husband, Green began by selling chanterelles–a golden mushroom with a fragrance almost of apricots that’s one of the Bay Area’s most common edible fungi–to restaurants in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In her recent cookbook The Wild Table, she recounts that at first chefs either scoffed at her mushrooms or had no idea what they were. Not long after that, the rise of California cuisine, with its focus on local and seasonal ingredients, changed the culinary landscape; thirty years later Connie Green is now a rather illustrious forager in the restaurant world and a favorite of Thomas Keller at Yountville’s famed French Laundry.

In person Green is hospitable, gracious, and thoughtful, often pausing to ponder a question before answering, though she can be witheringly scornful about those she considers ignorant. Her setup in the hills above the vineyards and restaurants of Yountville is rustic and comfortable, with a house and office that smell pleasantly musky with dried mushrooms and a small open barn outside equipped with refrigerators for the truckloads of foraged edibles that are delivered by her widespread network and then go immediately to fill orders at restaurants and markets.

Over the course of a year, some of Green’s mushrooms come from quite far afield. During Northern California’s dry season, morels might be flown in from Oregon. Black truffles arrive from France–she shows me a small cooler full of the knobby, pungent fungi. She also purveys other wild plant foods, such as huckleberries (despite growing thickly across coastal Northern California, the huckleberry is so slowly maturing and idiosyncratic that it defies domestication, and so it too is foraged). Green seems to foster strong, lasting relationships with the foragers who supply for her–she even says she keeps bail money on hand in case of need–and she calls her relationship with them “symbiotic.” When I ask if any of them exist in the capacity of hired staff, she says, “God no, that would be creepy.” She invokes the freedom of living with no paycheck and no boss, on your own wiles–some of the very unrestrained, untamed qualities we tend to associate with the word “wild.”

The pickers she knows are people accustomed to making their living by using the resources of the natural world, many of them coming from backgrounds in fishing, logging, or fruit picking. Indeed, diners’ growing love for wild mushrooms is creating a demand for a classically renewable forest resource. While timber harvesting involves killing and taking the whole body of an organism, plucking a mushroom is like taking one body part, as it leaves the underlying mycelium intact. Overharvesting doesn’t seem to be an issue as far as the health of the fungus itself is concerned–long-term studies in the Pacific Northwest and Switzerland found no evidence that picking impairs the fruiting at all. Connie Green tells me that she has been picking chanterelles under the same oaks in Napa for thirty years now. “I hate putting it this way,” she says, “but it’s a way for our forests to have value standing up.”

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Traditionally mushroom hunters–enthusiasts and professionals alike–have felt themselves unrecognized and marginalized in America. That’s the sense I get when I speak to David Campbell, one of the Bay Area’s foremost experts in edible and toxic mushrooms and a former president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF). The MSSF unites professional scientists and amateur enthusiasts whose obsessions with mushrooms range from taxonomical cataloging to cultivation to the use of mushrooms as dye for wool and cloth. Campbell’s focus through forty years of experience has been mycophagy, which he defines as “the art, science, and practice of safely eating wild mushrooms.” In 1969, when he was a young man “getting into trouble” in San Francisco’s hippie scene, he had his curiosity triggered by the sight of a strikingly-shaped mushroom called an elfin saddle in Golden Gate Park; now he leads classes and forays in California, the Rockies, and Italy. With no scientific credentials, he attests to a different and complementary type of expertise, the depth of knowledge gained by spending years in the woods; he calls in-the-field experts like himself the “foot soldiers collecting data out in the world.” When California Poison Control needs information on toxic mushrooms, Campbell is listed as one of their references.

With grey hair, a canny grin, and a mercilessly sharp tongue, Campbell casts himself as a lifelong nonconformist, one whose métier makes him a second-class citizen. It’s a sentiment that I hear often among foragers–they’re not just a subculture given scant respect by the American mainstream, they’re also at odds with a great deal of its rules and regulations. Campbell particularly complains about “the land control realities that go on in our culture.”

Most national forests do allow the collecting of plants and mushrooms, usually distinguishing between recreational and commercial picking. A commercial mushroom hunter generally pays for a permit–in Jackson State Forest it costs $50 for a six-month period–allowing some revenue to go back to forest management. But Campbell, who has roamed far and wide, says that individual ranger stations operate as “independent fiefdoms” with wildly varying and arbitrary rules about foraging, and the only way to tell what the rules are is to call or visit. Connie Green echoes him, saying, “Some of these rules are really sensible, and others are really bizarre and nonsensical. And they can all be created by the Forest Service.” Campbell cites examples of permits stipulating that all mushrooms must be cut in half to prove they’re not being picked with commercial intent5 and imposing limits of two gallons per “family.” Of land administrators, Campbell says bluntly, “They’re not there to serve the public.” Green says, “They don’t trust us with our public lands. The flavor of the administration is that it’s their land, and they have to think long and hard about letting us use it.”

These opinions, I think, crystallize a populist concern–to whom does the land actually belong? Green complains that what we lack here in California is the institution of the commons, a term for lands traditionally held and used jointly by an entire tribe or village or community. She points to Sweden and Finland, which abide by “everyman’s law” or “the right to roam,” a long-standing customary law that has been written into the constitution of both countries. The right to roam grants all citizens the right to walk freely through farmers’ lands; camp anywhere as long a certain distance is kept from houses; and pick any amount of berries, flowers, or mushrooms.6 In the United States, we lend far greater authority to private property, something that Campbell describes as chafing against a forager’s sense of liberty. Perhaps the closest thing we have to the commons is our public domain lands, the vast tracts administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. But while these lands are technically owned by the people of the United States, it is government agencies that set the rules for use.

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Public lands in the Bay Area are typically not productive enough for true commercial hunters, but amateur interest in the region is surging. The amount of private property and development here sends foragers into parks, which become highly contested spaces. The absolute ban on picking plants and mushrooms in the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD)–founded in 1934 and comprising more than 108,000 acres, including Berkeley’s Tilden Park–has become a favorite target for complaint among mushroom hunters. Penalties for disobeying can be severe, with reports of fines as high as $675. Lieutenant John King of the park police says that individual rangers are given a great deal of discretion in enforcement and that fines depend on the courts. A friend of mine was once caught with a paper grocery bag full of chanterelles she’d picked in the Oakland hills. She wasn’t fined, but the ranger made her pour the mushrooms onto the ground and then stomped them to pieces. Though some rangers are reputedly more lenient, the fact remains that policy here is to treat foraging as a harmfully extractive activity.

When I call the EBRPD offices, steeled to talk to a hostile administration about a touchy subject, I end up chatting with Neal Fujita, the Stewardship Manager for the EBRPD. He’s quite friendly–and resolutely cautious. “We are charged with protecting the resources in these parks,” he says in a reasonable tone. He doesn’t know of any studies that show damage to park resources as a result of foraging, and is reluctant to state concrete fears other than habitat damage that might be caused by people wandering off-trail. “We are trying to protect ecosystems that are functioning in a good way,” he says. “Anything that has the potential to throw that off, we are really going to scrutinize.” It seems to be a matter of caution in the face of the unknown.

I hear this as an appeal to the parks’ function to protect and to preserve. It’s a noble impulse, and understandable in the face of the great amount of environmental damage we humans tend to cause. It’s the impulse that gave birth to the National Park Service and kept the Grand Canyon from being dammed, and here it’s being applied to particularly high-access parklands. Indeed, some foraging has in the past led to devastation of species and depletion of resources. A particularly dark scenario occurred with American ginseng, a slow-growing root that was overharvested to the point of endangerment due to high demand from the global herb market. But Campbell and Green say that the conservationist impulse ends up being applied as an irrational blanket ideology. “I think,” says Green with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice, “that the East Bay park people look at chanterelles as ginseng. Or like we’re making omelets out of bald eagle eggs.”

David Campbell calls it the “Sierra Club mentality of ‘look, don’t touch’”–an attitude in which the natural landscape is viewed as something “pristine,” untouched, outside the human sphere. Here, though, it’s being applied to lands that have been undeniably touched. As part of the park district’s stated core mission to “balance public usage and education programs with protection and preservation,” recreational facilities from archery ranges to swimming holes exist, and five thousand head of cattle and two thousand of sheep and goats are grazed in the parks. When I ask why park administration allows grazing in these protected lands, Mr. Fujita answers that it is a carefully monitored program that cuts down the risk of forest fires and has in fact been shown to increase biodiversity. He admits that erosion is a problem with cattle, but repeats that the careful monitoring minimizes the damage.

When hiking in certain EBRPD parks, such as Briones, I’ve seen whole hillsides rutted and churned up by cattle–it’s hard for me to imagine foragers wreaking worse damage. But if effort can be applied to properly manage a high-impact activity like cattle grazing, I wonder, couldn’t foraging be made a healthy element of our public land use as well? Mr. Fujita doesn’t see a parallel: the grazing program is limited, while the public is too large and uncontrollable. “Before you know it, you have a whole lot of people having a negative impact on the resources,” he tells me. “Having a black and white policy is a lot easier for us.”

Campbell and Green also express a desire to preserve natural open spaces–the crux of their belief is that foraging is an activity we should preserving land for, while some parks see it as an activity to preserve our land from. “Foraging is one of those ways,” Green says, “that humans can interact with nature, fall in love, badly need it incorporated into their lives, and be profoundly invested in its preservation.” Most foragers tell me that the greatest threat to whatever they hunt is loss of habitat, often simply due to choices our culture has made to prioritize certain uses of the land, such as logging, cattle grazing, and agriculture. In Mendocino, tanoak, a useless tree from a logging perspective, is poisoned to clear room for more valuable lumber, which kills black trumpet mycelium symbiotically entwined with its roots. Oak lands in Napa get cleared for vineyards. Says David Campbell, “The mushroom hunters’ lobby is the weakest one in the universe.”

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Jenny Donovan, the Safety Superintendent of the Russian River district of the California State Parks system, tells me that Salt Point State Park is in something of a crisis. With what she calls an explosion of interest in mushroom hunting in the past two or three years, the park has been heavily impacted by usage. The issue here isn’t overharvesting, but rather the impacts of far too much human traffic. Donovan describes increased amounts of erosion, “volunteer trails” created by people forging their way off-trail, delicate plants trampled, and a profusion of “white flowers”–park ranger slang for discarded tissues and toilet paper. Donovan also describes poachers who’ve been caught collecting far more than their five-pound limit–sometimes upwards of a hundred pounds–who go so far as to wear camouflage and arrange to be picked up by cars late at night.

There’s no way for rangers to know how much illegal activity is actually going on unnoticed. Nor is there a good way for them to measure the increase in mushroom hunting, except by noting the number of cars parked by the side of the road. When I ask how close the park is to banning picking entirely, she says, “Very close.” When I ask who might be causing the damage, she says, “I think with the explosion of cooking shows, people have started to appreciate wild mushrooms, and restaurants are willing to pay for them because they want to highlight them on their menus. There’s a lot more opportunity for just anybody to go out there–and if you think about it, it’s kind of free money. People are making money off the state parks. They walk in, take all of our resources, and go sell them to restaurants.”

Salt Point is not territory trodden by Schramm’s and Green’s nomadic pickers–what Donovan is describing sounds more like the opportunistic local trade, to which there are many faces. One side is represented for me by my friend Oron Frenkel. A medical student, he’s also a fanatical mushroom hunter who has taught me a great deal, someone I consider sensitive and knowledgeable. Sometimes, when he happens to find more porcini or chanterelles than he can use, he sells them directly to restaurants, calling it “a way to pay for my addiction.” This is exactly how Green and Schramm got their start.

On the other hand, I think of a sale I witnessed while I was visiting Todd Spanier, a mushroom wholesaler and chef in Daly City who calls himself “the King of Mushrooms.” A tall and affable man, Spanier spent his childhood in the Bay Area with grandparents from Italy and Northern Europe who taught him to forage; to him, the wild food trend is California’s way of catching up with the Old World’s appreciation for the local and seasonal. When I saw Spanier greet a sandy-haired, weathered-looking man who’d arrived in a pickup truck, I expected to meet one of his trusted suppliers. It turned out that Spanier didn’t know this man. And on closer inspection, things began to seem out of place. The man radiated nervousness; a styrofoam cooler in the bed of the truck held a pile of filthy chanterelles,7 some of them darkened around the edges with dead tissue, a few of them enclosed in plastic bags as if to imitate the vacuum sealing of a grocery display. I realized that he had never done this before. Spanier looked at the chanterelles, commented that they needed washing, and began to show him how to clean them, beginning to slice off the edges with a knife. The tutorial made the man shift even more anxiously, and he mumbled something about this treatment making for less weight. “This is food,” Spanier chided him. “People are going to eat these. They won’t eat dirt and they won’t eat dead tissue. Do you like chanterelles?” The man nodded, but couldn’t come up with an example of how he ate them. It was an uncomfortable scene to witness. Later Spanier used the man as an example of someone unfamiliar with mushrooms, who had probably been excited purely by their price at the market. I found it hard to disagree, though I felt uneasy being too critical. I recalled the man’s somewhat ragged demeanor: he looked like someone who was trying to make ends meet.

The profit motive doesn’t necessarily lead to disregard for the environment. Green points out that commercial pickers who depend on their wild foods have incentive to leave the forest floor undisturbed, walk lightly in the same channels, and attend to the health of their patches. “It isn’t a casual relationship,” she says of her own mushroom spots. “I’m not having one-night stands with these places. They’re my full-time spouse.” Nevertheless Salt Point is getting trashed, a reality that I find upsetting, and in which I can’t help feeling implicated. In the absence of concrete villains caught red-handed, the damage seems to be caused by a larger, more diffuse “us” that comprises the world of amateurs and new converts to foraging.

And to Campbell, criminalizing all picking in Salt Point is a misguided response and a waste of funds for enforcement. “What this means,” he says, “is that the people who are going to be scofflaws will have a lot of mushrooms to pick.” Not long after this he adds, “And most mushroom hunters are willing to be scofflaws.” It’s indeed hard to believe that a ban will deter people who are already willing to engage in ninja-like covert operations to circumvent a five-pound limit. Campbell also insists that widespread bans are part of the reason for Salt Point’s woes, for they funnel impacts into smaller and smaller zones. As Connie Green puts it, “Salt Point gets hit hard because it’s the only game in town.”

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Howe Homestead Park is a small finger of parkland that projects nearly into downtown Walnut Creek and borders open spaces running all the way to Mount Diablo. I’m sitting up on a grassy ridge on an unusually balmy early February day with Kevin Feinstein, a forager who sometimes calls himself “Feral Kevin.” Though he did make the hike up the trail barefoot, he doesn’t strike me as terribly feral, as he arrives clean-shaven, with short hair and an animated, expressive face. We have a bird’s-eye view of a section of the heavily populated Bay Area: urban and suburban development spreads like water filling a basin in the low spots between the hills. A significant chunk of the open space we can see is either private property, or EBRPD land, or else it belongs to the East Bay Municipal Utilities District–in any case, you’re not allowed to forage on it.

Feinstein, who is thirty-three, represents a younger generation on the rise, and he occupies a somewhat different realm of foraging from that of the mushroom hunters and brokers. He specifically defines a new foraging movement that exists in contrast to the phenomenon of people “trampling native plants to get precious mushrooms.” Feinstein does hunt mushrooms, but he’s equally passionate about edible “weeds”–plants that grow wild all around the Bay Area, tenaciously, in places where they’re often unwanted. Unlike mycorrhizal mushrooms, there’s no reason that we can’t cultivate many of these plants, but for various reasons they didn’t make our agricultural cut. There’s miner’s lettuce, a wild green that grows into a lily-pad-like shape and tastes like mild baby lettuce–we waded through a whole field of it a moment ago. There’s also the artichoke thistle, a formidably spiny relative of the wild artichoke, which happens to be invasive here. If wild mushrooms are the prize that many foragers hunt down, these are the orphans clamoring all around us.

Feinstein converses enthusiastically, but calls himself a recluse for whom “going against the herd is normal.” He grew up in suburban Nashville and attended film school in Florida. “I never ate a fruit off a tree until I was in my twenties,” he tells me. His eventual passion for foraging came about due to what he calls a spiritual crisis, a growing sense during his college years that “everything was wrong. Life was wrong, the world was wrong, we were on the brink of destruction.” Among other problems, he believed we were poisoning ourselves with our current pesticide-ridden, resource-intensive, highly processed food system, and he began researching food sustainability. One day, his story goes, he was driving across the Florida Panhandle and he stopped to look at the thick profusion of plants growing wild all around him at the roadside. “I was just drawn to them,” he says. “I thought, ‘What about those? They don’t need any inputs’”–that is, no resources were spent in growing them. This was when he began poring over guidebooks to wild plants, and soon he began studying for a degree in permaculture, a discipline created in the 1970s for the purpose of designing sustainable systems, including food systems, that imitate nature.

If some of the burgeoning interest in wild foods has arrived from the gourmet culinary world, Feinstein represents what seems to be another significant vector of interest: the realm of sustainability and ecology. He isn’t interested in making a living from the labor of commercial picking; he defines himself instead as a “foraging educator.” I’ve met quite a few young city-dwellers who have taken one of his classes. “In the past three years,” Feinstein says about foraging, “it’s gone from fringe to mainstream.” This doesn’t stop him from feeling like an outsider. When a couple of joggers in form-fitting sports clothing pass by, it’s a cue for him to point out that park officials “don’t really want you in the parks. They want you on the trail mountain biking or running, and that’s where you’re supposed to stay.”

Although Feinstein hopes for an ultimate alliance between parks and foragers, he also turns away from the parks and points to the city of Walnut Creek below us, saying, “There’s more wild food down there in the streets and neighborhoods than there is in the woods.” Only two hundred years ago, the plentiful acorns of the region’s oak trees were leached of their bitter tannins and ground into flour that was the staple food of the Ohlone tribes; nowadays the cities spend funds to sweep up the piles of unused acorns and send them to the landfill. The same goes for fruit trees, planted at some point and left untended–olives and plums end up rotting on the streets. Jess Watson, an Oakland grad student who participates in a group that picks from feral urban food sources, told me that homeowners tend to thank her when she takes fruit from trees growing over yards and sidewalks.

To urbanites, Feinstein proposes foraging not as an escape to the woods but as a way of activating the spaces around you. Edible plants like chickweed, radish greens, and mustard flower grow in urban parks and untended land; blackberry bushes bear fruit in San Francisco; I’ve even foraged mushrooms in a cemetery. One of Feinstein’s visions is of “foraging parks”–systems of planted wild edibles that take care of themselves, an equal mixture of garden and wilderness. He says that he once proposed the notion to a Walnut Creek ranger, and the response was “beyond no. It was like, ‘We didn’t even fully hear your request because that was absurd to ask.’”

The ranger’s response may have been partly informed by a preservationist philosophy that recoils from the idea of a park created for harvest. However, pointing to the spread of parklands around our sunny perch, Feinstein states that “doing nothing is a management decision that has drastic ecological repercussions.” He is explicitly conscious of tapping into the values he sees in California’s indigenous tradition, which blurs the distinction between the wild and the cultivated and complicates the notion of an independent, preexisting wilderness purely outside the human world. Up until the creation of the Spanish missions in the 1790s, Northern California’s native populations were actively tending the “wild” foods they subsisted on and regularly burning grassland and forests for numerous reasons including the health and diversity of food-bearing grasses and trees. Much of California wasn’t untrammeled wilderness to be preserved, but an extensively gardened and managed landscape. It’s startling how much knowledge has been lost in just two hundred years–in that time, we seem to have lost the sense of ourselves as playing a role in the healthy functioning of the land.

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It’s undeniable that California’s geography has changed as much as our attitudes. The 1860 census for the nine counties of the Bay Area counted 114,000 people. By 2010 the population was more than seven million. During that time we’ve divided our land up into spaces for this and that use, pure protected spaces and profane damaged spaces, private property and government-owned land and Indian reservations. Foraging hasn’t been a priority as we compartmentalize.

Sometimes I visualize the new surge of interest in foraging as something like a balloon being inflated inside a glass bottle–I’m not sure if the bottle will break or if the balloon will end up molded to its contours. Connie Green hunts her own chanterelles on private land in Napa owned by friends. Eric Schramm holds a lease on a prime porcini-producing territory near the Mendocino coast, a benefit of being an early adopter of the trade. Kevin Feinstein tells me that the next crucial step for the foraging movement is acquiring land: “We’ve already hit the ceiling of growth. By this time next year if we haven’t figured out the land location thing, it’s going to fail.”

When Connie Green or Todd Spanier tells me that we should look to Europe for a more enlightened attitude towards land and foraging, I see an impediment to this–I think of California as the ultimate land of transplantation, from the agricultural engineering of the Central Valley to cultures that have installed themselves like nonnative flora. In Europe, institutions of the commons tend to survive from timeworn custom. But in California our discontinuity with the ousted indigenous cultures makes it hard for us to appeal to anything that far back.

This disconnect may also be why foraging seems so fresh to many in California today. But making an eager dash for profit and novelty will only lead us into territorial conflict with landowners, land stewards, and the societal outsiders who already depend on wild foods for their living. It’s true that in a land of transplantation like this one, questions of precedence aren’t easy. I imagine I’m not the only one to find it difficult to disentangle just where I stand in terms of rights to the land. Do the indigenous tribes have more right to the land? Do the Italians, who lived and foraged here long before I did, yet are themselves transplants? As a California native–at least in the sense that I was born here–what place might I have a right to? Do those who acquired the land as property before I was born, including the governments of the United States and California, have more right to it than I do?

In the meantime, as foraging rises in popularity, I find myself thinking about the mushroom hunter’s infamous secrecy and territoriality. That territoriality derives from the fact that a mushroom hunter’s spots are hard-won knowledge, earned through days of scouting terrain and coming up empty-handed. When I see all those cars by the roadside in Salt Point, a weird, possessive clutching sensation sometimes gets triggered in me. I can’t help the momentary, irrational feeling that there just isn’t enough land for us all.

We excitable new foragers would do well to foster a sense of continuity by recognizing the generations before us as the sources of our knowledge and interest, yet hopefully there’s room for newcomers. Longtime foragers are understandably protective of what they have, and, like those charged with administering our public lands, are wary as foraging grows increasingly popular among the uninitiated. But this doesn’t mean that those of us who have come to the practice more recently, or those yet to come, have to cede all claims to the land. In my experience, foraging proposes that we come to belong to the land not by owning it as property, not by controlling it, not by appreciating soul-stirring Ansel Adams views in a purely aesthetic way–but through active, intimate use of it. And this belonging is available to any of us if we take the time to sensitively acquaint ourselves with the idiosyncrasies of the seasons, the terrain, and the unruly organisms all around, native and invasive alike. It’s a way of making our landscape less foreign to us–and I wonder if opening up land to this learning process rather than restricting it might be a key to doing it less harm.

Notes:

  1. To each his own. The author does not wish to be construed as recommending the consumption of Amanita pantherina.
  2. Mycology is the study of fungi, and mycological societies are clubs devoted to this study.
  3. Titled “California Porcini: Three New Taxa, Observations on Their Harvest, and the Tragedy of No Commons,” this article is available on Arora’s website, and anyone who allows the taxonomically technical first section to scare them off is missing some subsequent juiciness. This article is indebted to it.
  4. I saw one local chef give a talk in which he claimed that it all trickles down from Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen; apparently, this restaurant is to the culinary world-at-large what Hannah Montana is to my eight-year-old niece.
  5. This is something he calls “a desecration of what’s precious.” Also, some species like porcini are actually cut in half by commercial pickers to prove there aren’t any worms inside.
  6. As set forth in an almost painfully charming pamphlet posted online by the Finnish government that makes Scandinavia seem a pastel haven of benevolence and whimsicality.
  7. The most common species in the Bay Area is in fact dubbed the “mud chanterelle” for its piggish habit of growing slathered in dirt. These infamous mud puppies actually require hosing.