Thursday, August 23, 2007

red hots & smelly socks

Matsutake, a variety of mushroom favored by the Japanese & whose odor has been described as a combination of the items in the title of this post, is the subject of Burkhard Bilger's piece in the August 20 issue of the New Yorker. To read it is to enter the secretive world of self-described misfits who make their living sussing out edible fungi. It's no easy job: they spend hours traipsing around mountainous terrain, endure harsh weather, & live in campsites with balky electricity for months at a time. And forget about flavoring the steaming soup served at the camp with shavings from the day's haul--sometimes the mushrooms can sell for a hundred & sixty dollars a pound and are therefore too precious for the hunters to eat.

Finding matsutake takes skill & intuition, for they grow at the tree-root level and are usually concealed beneath the duff. One expert, John Getz, describes his particular method of scanning the forest floor: "You get so you can see the tension in the ground. Just that pressure. And when it's raining you can see these little light-colored rings. It's really trippy. Your eyes tune in, your brain is keeping inventory, and you just get a feeling. Something taps you on the shoulder and tells you to pick." The ability to visually detect pressure in the ground--the adaptive genius of people is mind boggling. Given that "fully half of a forest's biomass lies belowground, and half of that is fungal," it's clear a lot of activity goes on beneath the placid-appearing surface.

More fun facts abound in the article. The air around us is laden with fungal spores. The largest known organism is a mycelium that spans two thousand acres in Oregon & is many thousands of years old. Nobody knows precisely what conditions foster ideal edible mushroom growth, & most of the prized species have resisted persistent efforts at cultivation. Happily, the failure to domesticate is what keeps the determined hunters, with their cache of esoteric knowledge, in business.


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