The Search for a Full Basket: Learning to Become a Mushroom

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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.

In late August, after finishing my anthropology coursework in Leuven, Belgium, I packed my bags and took a flight to catch part of the mushroom season in southern Finland. When the plane was hovering over Helsinki’s Vantta airport, I looked through the tiny porthole. It revealed a mass of different layers of green: olive, lime, jade, emerald.  During this very first encounter, I did not know that below the surface of these forest waves was another hidden world, an autonomous kingdom, and an assemblage of birches, pines, spruces, bushes, mosses, fungi, and species beyond my limited vocabulary and imagination.

I am interested in human/non-human relationships, and I became intrigued by how people could encounter, embrace, and communicate with nature beyond the domain of human language. Foraging was the starting point I chose for this multispecies adventure. Looking back, it was more than a journey of learning to forage and identify mushrooms; rather, it was also a process of learning about oneself and one’s own body. When gradually discovering how to balance myself on the uneven forest ground, when listening to the howling sound of wind in the dense forests, and when touching and feeling different textures of various fungal species, my senses were opened, sharpened, and connected to the world of forest fairies, where they gently revealed themselves and taught the innocent human apprentice what a mushroom knows.

I started my research with a local mushroom guide, Anna Nyman, and my friend Lau Kaker, who is an artist working with mushroom dyes. My foraging practices were mainly conducted in the forests near Luukki, Lakisto, Nuuksio in Espoo, and I also frequently explored the urban forests in my temporary neighborhood of Pihlajamäki during my four month stay in Finland. The following is a sensory journal of my experiences foraging mushrooms.

mushrooms that blend into the forest floor
Spot the mushrooms. Mushroom foraging is not simply a game of hide-and-seek. One needs to train their eyes to develop ‘mushroom eyes’ in order to trace the hidden trails of mushrooms among the moss, fallen leaves, grass, and small bushes. Besides a sharpened vision, one also needs to master the basic knowledge of symbiosis: certain mushrooms tend to grow together with specific trees, such as pines and silver birches.
dried mushroom samples
Observations. Mushrooms shrunk quicker than I expected. I collected a chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius​​)  and a trumpet chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis) as specimens from my first mushroom excursion. After only one day, they reduced a lot in size, only leaving a tenuous trace of their salty smell lingering in my home.
yellow stagshorn mushroom
Burning flowers of the earth. Emerging from nowhere, the yellow stagshorn (Calocera viscosa) is easy to spot in piled fallen branches. With a conspicuous flame-like body like a bunch of burning flowers of the earth, it has a threatening look and seems to be a “poisonous” mushroom. Though toxicity is a context-dependent dynamic concept, generally speaking, the yellow staghorn is not toxic. Touching it, you can feel the smooth jelly-like surface of its tiny body.
hedgehog mushrooms
The texture of a hedgehog. Before each mushroom workshop, Anna would give us a small tour of her mushroom exhibition, consisting of mushrooms collected earlier by herself. We would pass on to observe, smell and feel the mushroom samples. This is a hedgehog mushroom (Hydnum repandum), whose name is self-explanatory. (I haven’t touched a real hedgehog yet so cannot compare the texture between the mushroom hedgehog and the animal hedgehog.)
mushrooms inside a basket
Faking a full basket. A new forager is usually ambitious and aims for a full basket, however, this is not always the outcome. Nature gives what nature gives. The mushroom season for 2022 in the south of Finland was delayed due to the lack of rain. After a month of anxious waiting, I put everything I saw in my basket to fake a full one on my first excursion: edible, non-edible, poisonous, partially toxic, in good condition, in bad condition.
mushrooms with category tags o the forest floor
Categorizing the world. People get to know about the world through names and categories. By dividing things into groups that are differentiated from each other, by naming them and putting them into corresponding boxes, the world becomes a knowable and comprehensible reality. This is the power of taxonomy. Fungi were once classified as plants but are actually a distinct kingdom from plants and animals. In 1955, mycologist G. W. Martin asked: are fungi plants? So, standing at this moment, shall we ask: are fungi really fungi?
tree stump handwritten collage
forest with collaged text
handwritten quote about landscapes overlaid on image of a forest
broken stems of trumpet chanterelles
two people looking at mushrooms in their hands
a photo of a mushroom with collaged text

Final thoughts

When foraging for mushrooms, one needs to bend down and lower their body to gain a new perspective. This perspective is not a human one, but a mushroom perspective. By doing so, a forager tries to enter the world of fungi, observing the forests from their viewpoints, staying with them, and thinking with them. The change in perspective can be understood both physically and epistemologically. During my foraging excursions, I not only learned to adjust my view to match the mushroom’s perspective, but also to reposition myself in relation to nature – not as an exploiter, a tourist, or an invader, but as a companion, a collaborator and an apprentice with great appreciation and respect.

Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.

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Wenrui is a PhD Anthropology student at McGill University working on environmental anthropology/multispecies ethnography/sensory anthropology. She has done fieldwork on mushroom foraging in Finland and the materiality and story-telling of Chinese family albums. Besides foraging, she also loves to collect mushroom plushies!

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