Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Of Fall and Fungi

Cabbages are so patient. They sit placidly, watching you grab up the sensational summer veggies, the tomatoes and the summer squash…they are silent as you devour the last of the cantaloupe and the watermelon, juice dribbling down your chin.

Occasionally they are called upon to partake in an impromptu stir-fry…but resilient as they are to the elements and to the insects, they are often the last garden vegetable to be celebrated in the kitchen. When their time finally arrives, and they are plucked from their watching places beneath umbrellas of Winterbor Kale, the farm is a quieter place. The broilers have been harvested, thanks to one day of non-stop clucking and plucking. The horses have put the gardens to bed. The last tuber has been unearthed, and it’s cousins have already graced the soup pot for potato-leek soup suppers with hot biscuits and butter. It is the plump and humble cabbage we find ourselves most admiring before the wood stove fires of Fall and Winter…as we comfort ourselves with sausages and homemade sauerkraut. It takes 6 weeks for cabbage to ferment and become proper kraut…well worth the wait. Condiment becomes King then…when we find our farm-raised pork a good excuse to eat copious amounts of kraut.

Our wee dairy herd of goats are becoming cabbage –shaped themselves, as their bellies bulge with babies, thanks to the late, not-so-great, obnoxious French Alpine goat we were given last Fall. He had been found as an orphan in the woods, and like so many other literary orphans, was possessed of singular character and brash boldness.
I am continually amazed at genetics, on the farm, as I watch his daughter, Mandy Mae, sprint and spring about, the spitting image of her pops. Mandy Mae is 8 weeks old and she can leap up onto our round bales as if they are mere stepping stones… sprint the whole row of them, leaping over the little chasms between them and scampering downs their sides to skid to a halt at the gate. Her mother was a Nubian and being a cross-bred creature, her ears flop straight out like side pony-tails whenever she is careening about on one of her sprees. Her spunk has already served her well, as we had to put her mother down before Mandy Mae was properly weaned. Shooting a dairy goat in the head is like putting down your own dog. It’s the toughest of all farm culls to bring about. But it is your affection for the doe that pulls you through it. We found our Lupe with a broken leg on evening, as they were coming up from their bottom pastures. Her leg dangled from the hock, and you could bend it sideways. It was stomach lurching to see. Because the goats and cows graze at different lengths, and often different plants, we graze them together during the summer…I suspect that somehow, Honey may have injured her, as she plodded on oblivious to all except the routine of barn and comfort at day’s end. It is bittersweet to see her image on the cover of this month’s issue of the Voice of the River Valley.

During the summer the continuous work of planting, weeding, and harvesting in the heat tends to desensitize us to the miracle that is soil…and the unseen biological forces at work beneath our fingertips. Fall’s arrival, and the fruiting of many kinds of fungi as we take our leaf collecting walks along the Southern fence line of the farm, and down into our “hidden valley” reminds us of how very much we depend upon these organisms which we cannot see and do not begin to understand working within our dirt. I have read of a fungus that was discovered in Washington and covered 1,500 acres, connected by an underground web of hyphae, and and observed above ground by many mushrooming fruits.
But numbers of mushrooms found in European forests are down, and their weights are decreasing. Some speculation is that this is due to pesticides and to air pollution. The average Joe of us, pulling on our shoes in the morning, and getting on with our coffee and bagels and commute to work may not feel prodded to pay attention to mushrooms, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. If the idea of terroir appeals to our sensibilities, as it does to many now, trending as it is, we should very much pay attention to our fungi, as they are responsible for the different regional varieties of cheeses and sourdoughs and wines that we enjoy. The “Cheese Nun” from Regina Laudis Abbey, has pointed this out, finding during her research of regional mycelliums in France, that we are in danger of losing many different bacterias that used to thrive in family cheese caves on farms in the countrysides of France…but are not seen as much anymore because state laws have made it more financially difficult to pursue the licensing required to sell the cheese legally-cheese many of these farm wives have been making for generations. I admit my own dalliance with mushrooms has not been the stuff of inspiration in the past. One particularly uncomfortable memory brings me back to my parents’ kitchen table during a weeknight dinner. My Dad and Mom were enjoying one of my Mom’s latest attempts at something more gourmet than tuna-fish hot dish, Sloppy Joes and French fries, or Chili. She had stuffed Portabella Mushrooms with some mixture of spicy sausage and sweet peppers… Never having ventured beyond the button mushrooms one usually finds in blue Styrofoam pints at the grocery store…and having hidden a great many of even those mild fungi under the (oh happy design!) corner eves of our table, I was much dismayed at Dad’s mandate that we may not leave the table until the shrooms had disappeared from our plates.
My siblings valiantly swallowed theirs down with little difficulty, and in solidarity had suggested many helpful hints at accomplishing the task: “Don’t bite down, just take a small piece and swallow it like a pill.!” Or my favorite: “If you plug your nose as you eat it, its not half bad!” After a feeble attempt at asserting myself as a teenager too old to be cajoled into the “clean plate club”, and an equally unsuccessful recourse to my medical state, a weak stomach which reacted adversely to mushrooms, I popped the round and squishy fungus into my mouth and held it there in resolute defiance for a good half hour much to the chagrin of my parents. To this day I do believe my Father would have held firm, had it not been for the rescuing wings of nausea that swept over me, and tossed back not only the undigested mushroom upon my plate, but also the remnants of the rest of my dinner as well. Needless to say it was a dish that my dear Mother chose, mercifully, not to repeat…nor had she any need. For it left an impression of edible mushrooms upon all of us that is still quite vivid to this very day. And that was a good 15 years ago.

My other early impression of mushrooms furnished me with something of a folklorian superstition about them, and occurred during an outing while attending college in Santa Paula, CA. My then boyfriend, now husband, and I had been invited to the tennis club in Ojai, and eager to shed the furrowed brow and mental overloading an afternoon of Euclidean Geometry has wrought in us, we suited up and jumped in the car, to navigate the switchbacks along the narrow road to Ojai. On the courts, we met Bill, “legal council to the stars” who peppered his conversation with so very much name dropping I found it very hard to stifle fits of giggling, so farcical was our discourse. 
 He spoke so casually of Brad and Jen (this was back when Brad and Jen were still Brad and Jen) and most enthusiastically of all of a Native American medicine man, who he had gone to see, and who had given him this very special mushroom, which gave him visions and flushed his whole being of emotional toxins which he had been laboring under for years. Soon we found ourselves in his backyard, gazing at the works of art that he had painted while under the kaleidoscopian influence of the magical mushroom. “Different shrooms do different things” he said to us, with a knowing, nodding glance. Just as I found myself wondering how on earth we had gotten there he offered us two pieces of apple pie, and we were off…pausing only once on our journey back to campus, to dump our desserts into a trash bin…lest they contain some kind of hallucinogenic shroom.
When we began farming my acquaintance with mushrooms was not much furthered, and certainly not positive…as the observation of them in the garden or in the flower pots indicated too much moisture. Lately the field mushrooms, puff-balls, and psalliota have brought our “homeschooling” into full swing again. The girls have been snatching up the golden and fiery leaves that the oaks and aspens and maples are now shedding,as well as the last of the queen anne’s lace, and are pressing them between parchment paper in our heavy coffee table collection of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Invariably, during these rambling we find mushrooms…and not being versed enough to distinguish the edible ones from the poisonous, and thus put them to use in the kitchen and Winter store cupboard, we are taking advantage of them for the purpose of study . We make spore prints of them on paper to determine whether they have simple or forked gills, and slice them in half to make diagrams of the structure of their gills. We illustrate their veils, and volvas, and caps. We note where we found them...and last of all we sniff them. To be sure, we are beginners, uncertain as to whether our olfactories are up for discerning the difference between the “radish” smell of the amanitas from the “almond-like” scent of the psalliota. The reward of my own perusal of the better part of the fungi section of the local library has been the discovery of a particularly poisonous amanita mushroom called “amanita virosa” also known as “Destroying Angel”.

Imagine our goose-pimpled delight, when after walking some distance along a woodland trail at the county park near our farm, and discovering various mushrooms of all shapes and sizes, I regaled them with the details about this extremely poisonous mushroom, one nibble of which will kill an adult. “It is called the Destroying Angel because it is all white,” I told them “White gills, white cap, white stalk…there are other all white mushrooms, but this one is particularly beautiful.” As I spoke I pictured the illustrations of the amanita virosa that I had seen in multiple Mushroom and Toadstool guides. I could see the cup shaped volva at the base, frayed ring above it. The illustrations had shown the fruit in various stages of growth, the young mushroom with a egg-shaped cap, and eventually maturing into a bell shape before flattening out. I could not have scripted the drama better had I been the author of this particular family nature walk, for not ten minutes after I had told them of this mushroom, Una discovered a patch of three or 4 of them right on our path, had plucked the largest to bring to me, and we gazed at one of the most deadly mushrooms known to man. Its flesh was cool and clammy…and it was quite beautiful. Our revelry was broken by Grandma’s practical voice calling out “okay everybody go to the lake and wash your hands!”

Spending these bits of time paying attention to these fungi has been eye opening. When you realize that the mushroom is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, that it is the well nourished fruiting body of an underground network of cells that form a web scientists call mycelium…you cannot look at that innocent hayfield or unassuming woodland path the same way again. In tough times, when I find the work of the farm and family life overwhelming, invariably I find myself spread out in a field, with back or belly pressed to the earth…an uncharacteristic pose for someone usually found at the kitchen sink, or stove, or on the milk crate grasping goat teats…but if you are quite, and close your eyes in such a position you are conscious of the little buzz and hum of insects as they go about their work, and of blades of grass parting around the ants and beetles…such a strength of being and activity rises up from the earth, it is tangible, though I blush to say so, fearing to be branded an earth-hugging hippie. It is impossible not to to be drawn into thought of the underground inner workings of the soil…of the spreading hyphae, the earthworm, the microscopic creatures who with their tiny limbless bodies hold up the entire bulwark of our civilization.

Our world is changing. An unprecedented number of people now dwell in urban areas, rather than the countryside. There are many advantages to city living, chief among them close proximity to Art in all of its forms. But there are many disadvantages to the city as well…and ironically, one of the biggest is the raising of our modern families amidst art-appreciation which is fundamentally uncomfortable with dirt. It is the great temptation of educated families to surround their children with aesthetic beauty which is itself divorced from the means of artistic creation: nature herself. We live in a society in which people are reminded of lipstick when the bold rouge of a beet is cut upon the kitchen counter, when it should be the other way around. Imagine the fairy tale of Snow White re-written for our modern sensibilities: “Hair as black as asphalt, skin as white as marshmallows, and lips as red as cherry ices.
Fungi reminds us to renew our attention to dirt. But paradoxically it also reminds us not to underestimate that which we cannot see. And that far from being simply an intellectual exercise, it is an acknowledgement that we in fact depend most upon that which is least visible and least intelligible to us. It’s a clarion call in our Industrial age: “Be comfortable-no, be delighted- with MYSTERY!”



  1. Chiara, the writing and photographs in this post are sublime! I hope winter gives you more time to share your thoughts and observations-- I am looking forward to hearing what you have to say. You are a gifted writer. Thanks!

  2. so sorry to hear you lost Lupe! I just heard from someone that bought her daughter that she had before you bought her and was pleased to hear how well she is doing, I hope having some of Lupe's babies helps to ease the loss.

  3. Pam,
    Shane and I think of you often and miss you. Your goats were so well-cared for...and continue to make our gene pool fabulous. You should see Lupe's baby! I never saw a goat thrive so well! She also happens to carry on her mother's tradition of being the loudest goat in the herd......:)