Life, Death and the Mushrooms In BetweenPosted: November 13, 2014
“Death is a mirror in which the entire meaning of life is reflected.”
Dark brown, orange-brown cap with striations on its edge. Thick cottony patch (skullcap) without warts on cap. Stem color not white and either hollow or filled with a cotton or gel. Partial veil forming an annulus ring, fragile, on the stalk. And the shape of the volva, sac like or thick cup. Running through the checklist of characteristics in my head, over and over again, I was sure that what I had in my hand was the coccora, a prized-edible, especially by Italian-Americans. I put them in my bag and then take them out to look at them in the truck. Yep, coccora. I check them again at home. Yep Amanita calyptrata. And later I find myself standing in the kitchen with the fridge open, staring into its depths like a stoned college kid. What was I doing here? Checking yet again. You do not want to make a mistake with mushrooms, you do not want to make a mistake with amanitas.
(Disclaimer: do not use this brief, incomplete, and probably erroneous description of the coccora. Please use a comprehensive identification guide such as “Mushrooms Demystified” and a knowledgeable person such as someone from the local mycological society.)
Mushrooms in general, and Amanita in particular, are a study in antithesis, in opposites. Mushrooms are both the destroyers and deliverers of life. It is precisely the role of fungi to break things down in order to give things back. One of the basic tenets of nature is that in order for new life to flourish, existing life must die. Without fungi, along with bacteria, we would all be buried under a blanket of inert matter. In fact, we simply wouldn’t be here. They are nature’s recyclers and her soil replenishers by breaking down complex compounds into simpler building blocks. This makes them available to plants to re-use. And then we, as omnivores, eat the plants and the plant eaters (as well as the mushrooms themselves). In a very real, and profound sense, mushrooms turn death back into life. David Aurora said it well, “To associate them only with death and decay – as so many people do – is to do them, as well as our own ability to perceive, an injustice.”
Within the genus of mushrooms Amanita, you have a study in death, decay, replenishment and life. Therein lie the most poisonous of all – the death cap and destroying angels (Amanita phalloides, A. ocreata, A. virosa, etc), and some of the most “exquisitely flavored of the fleshy fungi” (as David Aurora put it) – Ceasar’s amanita (A. caesarea), coccora (A. calyptrate), and the springtime amanita (A. velosa). The rest of the amanitas fall somewhere in between these two extremes. This is a group of mushrooms that have caused visions, nourished, enticed, inspired, and destroyed.
What if I was wrong? Do I try them myself and then if I am wrong at least Kristin and the girls would be alive? Or would it be better just to off us all with one fungal swoop? Or do I take the prudent course and just toss them out and be done with the whole matter?
“Easy choice, don’t be stupid dude”, you may be thinking to yourself (or saying out loud if you are like me). But I was damned sure that I had collected coccoras and not a deadly amanita, but you can’t be a hundred percent sure about anything in life, right (at least not if you are me)? So why didn’t I trust myself? What was the risk and how much risk was I willing to take?
What mushrooms can do – they can mystify, mesmerize and make you go upside down! These are king boletes (Boletus edulis), a prized and delicious edible.
Each and every day we measure the relative risks versus the rewards in pretty everything we do. Whether consciously or not. We do it quickly with most things, particularly those things that we do every day (such as driving a car or riding a bike in car-filled streets like I do), and we rationalize away the statistics and probabilities of things that we do often and are relatively risky behaviors (e.g., driving cars, or living in carcinogenic-laden houses). If it is a behavior that we engage in every day, we fool ourselves into thinking that it isn’t risky when in fact it is. In addition, when we minimize risk too well (i.e., by being overly safety-focused; yes I just said it we can become too obsessed over making everything perfectly safe) we lose our ability to calculate risk carefully and quickly and to extrapolate to novel situations. This can make us complacent or even paralyze us with fear.
Collecting wild mushrooms is not something that most of us do anymore so we have lost our ability to identify risk and perhaps have blown the risks way out of proportion. Of course with mushrooms you could kill yourself and your dinner guests with one poorly identified meal. It seems odd to say but these mushrooms were giving me a mirror into which I could see my life and all of life reflected. I thought only shiny objects could reflect, but the beautifully dull and earth-toned luster of these fungi were teaching me great lessons in interconnectedness, life, and death.
So back to the mushrooms themselves: What would you do in my shoes….er I mean sandals? Would you toss them out or sauté them in butter with garlic and shallots and serve them over pasta?
To find out what I did and whether or not I live, stay tuned to this blog. If I write next week, apparently I am still alive (that’s debatable), which either means they were coccoras or that I tossed them out. And if not….well that’s life for ya and I rest assured that fungi, including the amanitas would turn my body back into a simpler form to be recycled yet again in the never ending cycle of organization and entropy, bloom and decay, life and death.
(and if it’s just…pardon the pun…killing you to find out, you could email, call or write and find out whether I am still alive.)