On the hunt, with mycelium on the mind

David Briggs
David Rust searches for fungi during an annual mycoblitz—an effort to document every species of mushroom growing in the Point Reyes National Seashore. He and his wife, Debbie Viess, founded the Bay Area Mycological Society 2006; every year they lead excursions with budding mycophiles, such as the Light’s own Christopher Peak.
01/09/2014

Debbie Viess’s hair fell across her face as she crouched over a trio of fat mushrooms. She put down her cup of coffee and uprooted the fungi with her buck knife. “Guys, come look at this one! It’s a beauty!” she yelled.

With each step in her direction, my boots seemed to sink into the earth. I was unsure of my footing, and even less sure I wanted to spend my weekend with a group of mycophiles. Beneath the trees along the Kule Loklo trail, rotting leaves released a dank odor that reminded me of catacombs. The mushrooms didn’t look like much—mutated buttons, or standard supermarket fare. To me, Ms. Viess’s coffee was more attractive that morning than the fungus dirtying her hands. 

We were collecting mushrooms for the ninth annual Fungus Fair in the Point Reyes National Seashore, an outgrowth of a years-long attempt to document every species of mushroom in the park. (Around 480 have been recorded so far, plus another that might be added after this year’s fair.) Nearly 60 people came out to help last
Saturday.

Ms. Viess and her husband, David Rust, co-founded the Bay Area Mycological Society in 2006. Amidst a growing foodie movement that sought out only rare edibles like chanterelles, matsutakes and porcinis, the couple felt a need for a science-centric alternative, making “citizen scientists” through field trips, lectures and classes across the region.

“If you’re only searching for edibles, for a bit of yellow in the leaf litter, you can go out into the woods and not find what you’re looking for. You’re going to miss the whole spectrum of other things,” Ms. Viess said. With a broader approach, “you’re never disappointed going in the woods. Every time we go out, we see and learn something new.”

Like me, Ms. Viess wasn’t always interested in mushrooms. She earned a degree in biology and zoology from Humboldt State University in 1978. She studied cranes in Wisconsin for the Crane Institute and then seals at Cal State Hayward. One day, as she was walking through the Huckleberry Botanical Preserve, she spotted a small mushroom on the path. Its white flesh “seduced” her, she said. Ms. Viess pulled out the only paper she had—a bank deposit slip—and sketched a picture on the spot.

“Throughout my life, I almost never saw a mushroom. We filter out the things we don’t care about,” she said. “All of a sudden, I was aware of this whole other kingdom hidden in plain sight.” 

As newlyweds—they met at a workshop on shamanism in Napa County—Ms. Viess and Mr. Rust were soon taking weekly foraging expeditions. The binoculars they brought to watch birds went unused, as they spent hours scouring the ground for the colorful varieties of fungi at their feet. 

They were intrigued as much with what they found as with the mystery of what else they could learn. They pored over field guides to learn more about this life form that lies between plants and
animals.

Fungi, unlike plants, cannot create their own food with water and light, so they sustain themselves by digesting nutrients from outside sources. Mycelium, an intricate web of branching threads, secretes enzymes and digests the decomposed material around it. (The world’s largest living organism is a subterranean mycelium in an Oregon forest: estimated to be up to 8,650 years old, it spans 3.7 square miles, leading the United States Forest Service to deem it the “Humongous Fungus.”) Mushrooms are the only part of the fungi we can see. They are its reproductive structure, dispersing spores for the wind or animals to carry elsewhere and expand the mycelium below.

Thumbing through guidebooks, I am both dazzled and repelled by the pictures, these alien knobs protruding from dead logs, dirt and dung. It is no leap to see how, in the human imagination, fungi could become dance floors for fairies or chaise lounges for gnomes. There are exotic ones like the Devil’s tooth, which drips thick, red juice like blood when cut; the Jack o’ Lantern, which glows in the dark; and the puffball, a white blob without a stem that matures to the size of a basketball.

Sitting at Ms. Viess and Mr. Rust’s dining room table on a recent afternoon, I notice jars of dried candy caps and morels stacked atop one bookshelf. Samples stored in plastic containers cover another. Leading upstairs, hiking packs hang from the railing; below, a hallway leads to Ms. Viess’s microscopes downstairs. On the table, beside toadstool-inspired saltshakers, is a copy of David Arora’s 1,056-page classic Mushrooms Demystified, which Ms. Viess occasionally refers to for a taxonomic nomenclature.

Agaricus subrutilescens. Ms. Viess shows me the same three mushrooms from Saturday morning, pulled from a container somewhere in the house. I don’t understand the name, but her voice communicates a fluttering enthusiasm, almost like a child’s excitement. Looking a second time, I note the long stalks, wine-dark caps and chocolate-brown
undersides.

Early on in their obsession, friends thought Ms. Viess and Mr. Rust had gone a bit loopy; others winked mischievously and hinted that their newfound hobby was a thin cover for hallucinogen consumption. When Ms. Viess casually mentions, “Working with mushrooms is the most fulfilling thing in my life,” I wonder if the naysayers were right.

To find a prime spot, a mushroom devotee must trek through a moist and muddy landscape, often after a heavy rain or through a light drizzle. Each year yields reports of foragers lost in the woods for days. 

Those planning to eat their finds must be keenly aware of each species: a distinction in where the cap connects to the stalk or a difference in smell can mean life or death. The most recent annual data collected by the National Poison Data System show 6,818 reports of dangerous mushroom consumption; two people died and another 38 experienced life-threatening symptoms. 

Amanitas, Ms. Viess’s favorite group of mushrooms and the one she first stumbled upon, are among the most highly prized and the most toxic. You could either have Caesar’s amanita, so delectable the eponymous Roman emperor forbid anyone to pick it except himself, or Amanita ocreata, better known as the Destroying Angel, a mushroom that will quietly crystallize your liver without presenting symptoms for up to 24 hours.

Nor are mushrooms easily spotted. Mycophiles speak of turning on their “mushroom eyes” as a hunt begins. For amateurs, insights about the climate, terrain and pairings with other plant life are not apparent.

These difficulties cannot be separated from the act of collecting; in fact, they define the experience. I asked Ms. Viess to tell me about her favorite fungi, and she blandly pronounced its name in Latin and described its features. Then the story began, of a quest to Alaska, trekking high and low to find this one variety of mushroom. That mushroom compelled Ms. Viess in a way only she can understand, but like the ancient myths of Jason or Odysseus, her wish represents something quintessentially human. 

She has a photograph and maybe a sketch of her rare find—it was growing beneath Sitka spruce—but the real prize was how difficult it was to arrive there. Still, to make a mushroom tale, you need to have something to sauté. 

Midway through our Saturday expedition, I had not spotted a single fungus. It doesn’t help that I have poor vision or that I am impossibly tall, six feet and five inches from the ground. I noticed sea slugs and deer bones, but I could not distinguish mushrooms from the leaves and needles. I squinted my eyes and crouched as I trudged along, a bent Quasimodo in search of Esmeralda’s bones. 

Everyone else seemed to be having no trouble. A 10-year-old from Alameda who fills his days searching for shrooms in the suburbs came running back with a heavy polypore—a hard, shelf-like fungi that grows horizontally as it decays a tree—and minutes later dug up a perfect cluster of sulfur tufts from a covering of wood chips. Yellow, domed and poisonous.

The temperature was rising as the sun crossed above the eucalyptus and firs. I started sweating through my button-down and into my wool jacket. Who cares about those stinking mushrooms, anyway? I wandered off from the rest of the group and stumbled into some blackberry brambles. Great. 

But what was that glow, dramatically white against the brown of rotting leaves? I was face-to-face with a ring of tiny, translucent mushrooms. The edges of the caps were turned upward into perfect circular cups, exposing evenly spaced and black-lined gills. I reached for one, pricked myself on thorns and recoiled. It was wet to the touch and delicate, as if it were made entirely of water barely held together by its see-through skin. I held back the brambles with my pen and plucked it. Dumbfounded, I stared for a moment in silence. Then, I called out to Ms. Viess to come take a look at this beauty.