October 14, 2015

MALPASS | Mycophilia

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I don’t have too many hobbies, well, at least not hobby hobbies. I don’t bake or knit or play an instrument. Oh, I’ve tried, but few things stick. I don’t know what it is, I get started on something and then I swiftly lose interest, usually after investing more money than I probably should have. Live and learn, I guess.

But when I do find a hobby that stays with me, I will totally immerse myself in it. That hobby becomes an integral part of my person. I’ll research every little detail, and if you bring it up to me you’d better be ready to nod politely for a good half hour while I talk your ear off. I suppose it’s more accurate to say I have “obsessions” rather than hobbies.

One of these preoccupations tends to cause some raised eyebrows: mycophilia, or the love of fungi. I just love mushrooms, they fascinate me. If you know me personally, you’re likely painfully aware of this. I’ve been asked why I like mushrooms so much, and I don’t think I’ve ever given anyone a satisfactory answer, so I’ll try to set the record straight now.

First, the world of fungi is so strange that I can’t imagine there’d be anyone out there who wouldn’t be drawn in. You might be surprised about what fungi can do. Oyster mushrooms can absorb and neutralize oil in contaminated soil, Turkey Tail fungus can be used to help treat cancer, and psilocybe mushrooms could be used to treat a myriad of mental illnesses. And those are relatively common mushrooms; imagine the potential in yet to be studied fungi.

World-saving applications aside, much of what I like about mushrooms comes from association. They remind me of rain, earth and summer. Fly agaric (the red, white spotted Mario mushroom) brings to mind old fairy tales. Giant puffballs remind me of the time I spent playing in horse pastures as a kid. Growing up in a rural town, mushrooms are the sort of thing you know are always there, but never really notice.

But ultimately, I like mushrooms because of their transitory, ephemeral nature. To me, they are fairy tale magic brought to life. They spring up suddenly after the rain, swiftly grow into their weird and fantastic forms, then disappear back into the earth as fast as they came. And they have so many different qualities. Some are highly prized for their culinary values, like the morel that inspires highly competitive hunts out west every year. Others are able to bring on vivid hallucinations, such as those in the psilocybe genus. Still others are to be carefully avoided, like the ghostly Destroying Angel, which will cause liver and kidney failure within 48 hours of consumption.

It astounds and humbles me that something so small, so often overlooked, could have so much power. I get a thrill coming across a potently deadly mushroom just as I do finding an edible one.

For instance, last fall I came across a flush of deadly galerina. They’re unassuming little things that grow on dead trees, no bigger than three or four inches across and dull brown in color. I didn’t even register what I had picked until they were pointed out to me by Professor of Mycology Kathie Hodge. Granted, I would have never made the mistake of eating these, but it was still a strange experience to hold such a small thing that could do so much harm. Eating even one could potentially be fatal.

So it may sound strange when I say that I am thoroughly enamored with mushroom hunting. Reactions are always varied when I say this. I’ve even been told that I’m courting death, but the thing is, I never, never eat anything that looks remotely like a deadly species or whose identification I’m not 100 percent certain of. Ever pick wild berries? You’re taking the same risk. Sure, deadly ones are out there, but with experience it’s easy to tell the difference. And I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be stumbling through the forest and come across a patch of edible mushrooms. It’s a bona fide treasure hunt.

I know it’s not for everyone, but give mushrooms a chance, even if it’s just buying shiitake at Wegman’s instead of white button mushrooms. Now, I hope it goes without saying that you should never eat anything wild if you haven’t had a professional double check for you. I don’t advocate for amateur mushrooming, and I’m not responsible for any stupid decisions you make. However, I highly recommend that you take the time the time to learn more. I suggest taking one of Professor Hodge’s classes here at Cornell, or you can join Cornell’s Fantastic Fungi Fanatics Club. There’s an exciting world underfoot, all you have to do to discover it is pay attention.

Soren Malpass is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Sorenity Now appears alternate Thursdays this semester.