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The Fungus Among Us

In the field at the fourth annual Mushroom Symposium


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On any other day, coming back from any other place, this kind of thing would scare the hell out of me—riding in the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of objects—poles, sheet pans, spare tires—sure to fold, spindle and decapitate the soft human portion of the cargo in the event of a high-speed collision. Dang, I’d think, topper or no topper, if this beast hits anything it’s going to scramble us up and flip us across yon prairie like eggs off a giant spatula.

Today, though, I’m squashed into this truck with all the aforementioned sharp and/or heavy objects, but also mild-mannered field biologist Todd Osmundson and an assortment of homemade mushroom outfits. One of them is clearly supposed to be a morel; it’s a three or four foot-high framework of molding and chicken wire with pieces of spray-painted newspapers tucked in to approximate the real deal’s knurled surface.

We’re on our way back from the Western Montana Mycological Association’s fourth annual Mushroom Sym-posium, a three-day event that turns the sleepy town of Hot Springs into mecca for fungophiles like organizers Kris and Larry Evans, whose truck is now stuffed with Todd, myself, the leftovers from a five-course mushroom feast, and the dog-eared costumery of the Mushroom Parade.

It’s the air up there, I tell you. Trace amounts of gaseous lithium seeping out of the same geo-thermal features that supply Hot Springs with its magnificent, buttery mineral water. Hard to worry about anything. Feel drowsy but strangely elated. Beatific and conciliatory. About the pickup ride. Even about the mushrooms.

Because I’ve never liked the li’l bastards. One of the running jokes up at the Symposium is that I’ve been working at it for three years and I don’t even like mushrooms. Why should I? They’re not really plants, not really animals. They grow in cowflops, under cowflops, on rotting wood and corpses. They’ve got none of the wholesome leafiness or finely-ordered asymmetry of the vascular plants. They don’t need light to grow. One species, when cooked, produces a potentially lethal gas chemically akin to rocket fuel. Plants have names like goldenrod, pansy and foxglove; fungi have names like Poison Pie, Black Nipple Fiber Head, Many-Headed Slime and the Sickener (Hey! I think I used to have one of their albums!). They’re just other.

Of course, copping to fungal misgivings in this kind of company is kind of like admitting you don’t like air or fresh water. Try telling it to the 50 mushroom enthusiasts who have squeezed into the upstairs lounge of the Symes Hotel to watch a slide show presented by Taylor Lockwood, who travels around the world taking pictures of fungi exclusively. A new slide goes up—oohs and aahs eddy around the room. Hands shoot up to ask questions. At the back of the room, one man seems to be positively giddy with excitement. He’s wearing a red sport coat dotted with round white cutouts—meant to resemble, I believe, a specimen of Amanita muscaria. No point in arguing.

Saturday night’s slide show is just the capper on a long day of fungal events. Participants spent most of the morning traipsing over hill and dale, looking for specimens for the identification table. Once identified, the specimens we labeled accordingly and placed on the ID table for general perusal—shaggy manes, different species of Clitocybe, bracket fungi and dozens of others. (Shaggy manes? Clito-cybes? People have me pegged as an incorrigible mushroom-hater; they’ve failed to notice that three years of working up here have really piqued my interest in the things!)

There have also been a number of interesting workshops to check out. The paper-making one is always a big hit, especially with the kids, who love the tactile exercise of panning around in a thick pulp of mushroom fiber and recycled junk mail, squeezing, scraping and gently laying the thick sheets to dry between newspapers. And, for the fourth year, Glen Babcock from Garden City Fungi showed participants how to grow edible mushrooms on coffee grounds and in specially inoculated logs. I got to do this the first year I was up here: With a quarter-inch drill bit, we each drilled roughly two dozen holes in a lazy spiral around the circumference of our own small log. Then we took segments of dowel that were specially treated with mushroom goop and pounded them flush into the holes, sealing each one with beeswax. Keep your log moist, and in a few months it should turn into, like, a mushroom Chia Pet.

Another perennial feature of the Symposium is the mushroom parade—typically, anywhere between 10 and 20 mushroom enthusiasts marching around Hot Springs in homemade fungus costumes, cheering and beating on drums, pots and pans, anything that makes noise. The paraders usually outnumber the spectators two to one; a couple people come out of the two bars on the high road to gape in confusion, but for the most part it’s a parade unto itself. Anywhere else, this cortege would be kind of sad in a surreal kind of way, but in Hot Springs, in exactly the same way, it’s high comedy.

It’s the air up there, I tell you.


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