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A mushrooming debate

2022 09 17 hawke foragingBy dictionary definition, a ‘foray’ is a raid for plunder, to lay waste and pillage. This is why I cringe whenever I hear about the annual proliferation of edible mushrooms forays, which are usually well-hidden within the context of being an educational experience.

Now, before y’all start flooding me with words of condemnation, perhaps a bit broader explanation of my disapproval is needed. Foraging for wild edibles is an interesting hobby, but the negative repercussions can be widespread and long lasting.

Foraging, in the context of food gathering, is an activity that dates back to the dawn of man-kind, as this activity was somewhat essential to making it through the day. Eat what you can when you can, and eat lots when you find it. This concept worked well when the population of humans was but a mere speck in the biodiversity of an area.

But things are different now… the wilderness is but a mere speck in the spread of human proliferation.

Utilizing naturally occurring resources, such as blueberries, mushrooms or game meat is a hard-wired condition of us, dating back to that misty moment in time referred to above. Nowadays, this activity has gone from being a survival essential to an entertaining hobby.

Yes, food prices are high and the notion of free food is attractive; and yes, the remaining postage stamp-sized parks and green spaces may indeed contain leeks, mushrooms and apples. However, these wee islands of green are now more show-and-tell than a place to fill the larder.

There is a reason that public parks beg of you to take nothing but pictures… if every visitor pulled up a leek, picked every morel, and shot every deer and duck they encountered the result of a soon barren place is evident. And so, as a visitor to a public place, we need to share the thrill of finding a bright orange mushroom or experiencing the thunderous roar of a grouse taking flight.

The Gatineau Hills around Hull and Ottawa were stripped clean of leeks (also called ramps), first by numerous ‘back to the land’ foragers and then commercial vendors who took as much as they could find to sustain their Saturday morning market stalls. Too many people taking too much for too long… the plants simply could not grow fast enough to replenish themselves.

This preamble is admittedly a broad-brush introduction to my personal peeve about mushroom forays. And I fully acknowledge that mushrooms grow differently than the herbs that are also relished by foragers.

Picking a mushroom is like picking an apple from a tree. The fruiting structure is temporary, dissolves quickly and releases numerous seeds or spores for the start of future generations. A mushroom is but a tiny part of a very large underground organism (called mycelia) that may be dozens of metres in length and several hundred years old. The new growing tips turn upwards to create a fruiting body (a mushroom) while the main structure remains alive and growing out of sight.

So, what’s my problem?

I have had the wonderful opportunity to have been invited to visit many properties to see what grows and lives there, and some of these visits have been totally awesome in the richness and glory of Nature found within, while other places are not quite worth the price of admission.

Whenever an abundance and diversity of fungi are encountered, the habitat is usually ‘old growth’ and fairly undisturbed by human interventions. The more kinds of mushrooms there are, the ‘better’ the health of that piece of land. So,  I have a bit of a protective attitude to such places.

Collectively, there seems to be a growing understanding amongst ourselves that fungi are rather important to the ecosystem… indeed, they are the base building blocks upon which a magnificent forest stands. So why strip away the reproductive fruits of the very thing that sustains life?

As a Boy Scout and a Junior Resource Ranger we learned of the conservation ethic, to take only what you immediately need and protect what remains. Find a patch of ripe wild strawberries? Eat only a third of what you see, leaving the rest for other wildlife (who don’t have the luxury of a squashed peanut butter sandwich in their pack) and for the reproduction of the plant.

But this is assumes that you would be the only one to encounter the berry patch. Now, family after family will wander down the trail, each wanting to sample the apparent free offering of a snack. A third of nine berries is three, a third of three berries is one, a third of one is barely enough to get stuck between your teeth. And the fourth family sees nothing.

I agree and promote that mushrooms are a fascinating part of any outdoor walk. Look and see the incredible array of shape, colour and texture that can be found. Take pictures, do a painting or just pause and marvel at the sight. To pick it seems akin to vandalism.

So, to really paint myself into a corner, let me put forth my last comment. Mushroom foraging is quite a cool thing to do… if you are by yourself. When I see pictures of a group of a dozen or more people, each holding their lovely wooden reproduction gathering basket that is full to overflowing with picked mushrooms, I cringe.

Even if every person had only picked a few for personal sampling I think I could accept that. But there is a very good chance that much of what was just picked will be thrown out in a day or so. “I didn’t have time to process them.” “I wasn’t sure of their identification so won’t eat them.” “Now that I’ve eaten one, I find I don’t like them.”

By way of this column, I am asking each of you if taking from the wild is really the most sustainable activity to do? Whether it’s a mushroom or a venison steak, could the menu item not have been replaced with a food market item that has been raised for consumption (and checked for food safety)?

Our natural heritage is shrinking to the point of disappearing. Forays were for long-ago peoples who had no other food source; we are now so much better off than that.

Dave’s Notebook: Hello on a decidedly damp Saturday morning. Lots of early fall signs: geese flying, leaves turning colour, mushrooms popping up. Even had a crisp 4C morning the other day!

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© 2022 David J. Hawke

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