Zen of the Woods: A Foray into Art and Mushrooming

Lately I’ve found myself at art exhibitions in New York City, not looking at the art or engaging with the social ritual of the opening, but instead giving ad-hoc lectures about mushrooms using my phone’s photo gallery as a visual aid. This trumping of art by fungi has also infiltrated my studio practice, and the time I would normally dedicate to art making has been replaced with foraging in parks and forests. What began as humble pastime a little over a year ago has quickly ascended into obsession.1

The root of this development can be traced to the Adirondack mountains, where my partner, Jessica Langley (also an artist) and I spend time each summer. There, it is a tradition to collect an artist’s conk2 during a hike, and upon return etch a commemorative drawing into its porous white flesh. As the mushroom dries the etched lines will bruise dark and become permanent (our camp has a small collection, the oldest dating back to 1935). While looking for artist’s conks on our many hikes we became tuned in to the vast quantity of fungi in the woods but had little other knowledge of this mysterious world.

Three etched artist’s conks from our Adirondack camp, dated 1937, 2014, and 2010.

Three etched artist’s conks from our Adirondack camp, dated 1937, 2014, and 2010.

In June of 2014 we met our friend (and glass artist) Thaddeus Wolfe at an art opening in Brooklyn. He had just returned from a foray with the New York Mycological Society in one of the many New York City parks, and he was sharing his haul with us via pictures on his phone. We were enthralled. He explained the difference between russulas (a gilled mushroom) and boletes (mushrooms with a spongy, tubular surface under the cap). To explain things further he made diagrammatic drawings in the gallery’s guest book, describing some basic identifying characteristics (such as free vs. attached gills, veiled stalks, the bulbous base of amanitas, etc.). We must have spent an hour talking mushrooms in the entryway of the gallery (notably longer than either of us spent with the work), and when we departed we made plans to attend the next NYMS outing together.

left: Red-cracked boletes with bluing flesh. right: Brick tops.

left: Red-cracked boletes with bluing flesh. right: Brick tops.

My first foray with the group took place in Central Park in late-June. Led by the expertise of Gary Lincoff,3 we traversed the park in search for as many types of summer mushrooms the group could find.4 At first Jessica and I couldn’t see a thing, but after some time and with some assistance, we honed our pattern recognition skills, and the mushrooms were all around us! After a couple of hours the three of us had collected a few edible russulas, a variety of good edible boletes, and a handful of lambsquarters. We took the train back to Queens and made a delicious brunch. After a couple more outings with the society and major hauls of choice edibles including chanterelles, black trumpets, oyster mushrooms, the corrugated-cap milky, and hen-of-the-woods,5 Jessica and I were seriously hooked.

left: A day’s haul including black trumpets, chaga, chanterelles, milk-caps, and various boletes. right: Oyster mushrooms.

left: A day’s haul including black trumpets, chaga, chanterelles, milk-caps, and various boletes. right: Oyster mushrooms.

I grew up in a small town in central Ohio and spent the majority of my childhood playing in the woods, climbing trees, swimming in creeks and ponds, studying flora and fauna, and sharing my blood with mosquitoes, horse flies, chiggers, leeches, and ticks. Ironically, it wasn’t until I moved to New York City at the age of 33, that I got into mushroom foraging. Admittedly, I’ve only been doing this for a short time, but I am awestruck by the fact that more (North) Americans6 don’t take advantage of the plethora of free delectable, nutritional, and medicinal7 nourishment growing in and around their towns, cities, and woodlands. Instead, the sight of mushrooms tends to invoke caution and fear in most people. This is, generally speaking, a good thing, as there are many common mushrooms that are deadly poisonous. For example, the destroying angel (my favorite toxic species), if ingested and left untreated, will cause vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps, leading to kidney and liver disfunction, organ failure, coma, and death. And then, of course, there are a number of poisonous species that are “look-alikes” of coveted edible mushrooms, which are sometimes picked and ingested accidentally by the untrained forager.8 But, all one needs in order to not kill themselves is a bit of botanical, mycological, and/or local folk-cultural knowledge, and this is exactly the type of information mycological societies exist to make accessible.

left: Amanita bisporigera (commonly known as the Destroying Angel). right: Destroying Angel costume, Halloween 2014.

left: Amanita bisporigera (commonly known as the Destroying Angel). right: Destroying Angel costume, Halloween 2014.

The New York Mycological Society is a non-profit organization in NYC dedicated to mycology (the study of mushrooms and fungi) and mycophagy (the practice of eating wild mushrooms). It too has a deep connection to the art world, as the present NYMS was co-founded by composer John Cage some 50 years ago.9 Cage was an avid mushroomer and spent maybe equal energy thinking about the world of fungi as he did about music. In an essay about Erik Satie, published in his famous 1961 book Silence, Cage acknowledges his lust for foraging at the beginning of the text:

“A few days ago it rained. I should be out gathering mushrooms. But here I am, having to write about Satie. In an unguarded moment I said I would. Now I am pestered with a deadline. Why, in heaven’s name, don’t people read the books about him that are available, play the music that’s published? Then I for one could go back to the woods and spend my time profitably.”

I can relate, for I too have started paying close attention to rain patterns, and it seems that my creative life has taken a back seat to fungi. So what makes foraging such a seductive and fulfilling activity? The thrill (and delicious reward) of finding gourmet mushrooms in the wild is certainly a hook. Coming home from a short walk in the park with a perfect, 10 pound hen-of-the-woods (which might sell for $24/lb at the farmers market) comes with a great sense of joy and accomplishment. And then there’s the creative challenge of preparing it all while still fresh, which necessitates experimenting with increasingly varied recipes.

left: Ben with hen-of-the-woods. right: Chicken-of-the-woods.

left: Ben with hen-of-the-woods. right: Chicken-of-the-woods.

And perhaps there’s something to the real, if slight, possibility of danger – danger of misidentification leading to accidental poisoning. In A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman describes the Japanese tradition of preparing and eating Fugu, the deadly poisonous puffer fish. Fugu contains tetrodotoxin, one of the most poisonous chemicals in the world. As she puts it, “a shred small enough to fit under one’s fingernail could kill and entire family.” Apparently, the most highly regarded chefs are those who “manage to leave in the barest touch of the poison, just enough for the diner’s lips to tingle from his brush with mortality but not enough to actually kill him.” Despite the horrendous consequences eaters of fugu risk (including a death-like paralysis which has led to some people being buried alive!), “eating fugu is considered a highly aesthetic experience.”

Is mushrooming the ultimate aesthetic act? While the results can be delectable (some of the very best mushrooms, like porcini and morels, can’t be cultivated), and the preparations intellectually stimulating (I spend much of my time reading and researching, both in analyzing the daily collection and in anticipating the next hunt), the act of foraging engages four of our five senses.10 Mushrooming can also offer a connection to the metaphysical with the help of so called “magic mushrooms,” whose fruiting bodies contain psilocybin and/or psilocin, and can induce states of euphoria, hallucination, and spiritual experiences11 upon ingestion.

left: Jessica with chaga. right: Chaga pieces drying in the sun.

left: Jessica with chaga. right: Chaga pieces drying in the sun.

But there’s something else, something deeper, that has turned this would-be pastime into an obsession for me. Maybe it’s the connection to, and respite in, the natural world that’s so enticing in this era of the post-studio, professionalized artist. Most of my studio time is spent on a computer dealing with logistics (emailing, Skype meetings, budgets, proposals, grant writing, etc.). There is a refreshing immediacy to foraging, where planning is limited and the results are unknown (almost nothing seems hard to acquire these days, except maybe, for the elusive mushroom you wish to find).

In a 1979 interview,12 musician/producer Brian Eno was asked if he would ever consider doing something other than music. His response reflects my thoughts on foraging:

“I did have a very strong impulse, for quite a long time, to become a gardener. […] It’s as much to do with being interested in a living style that is very slow, and where one is conscious of the seasons, and of the time of day. Because I’m not at the moment; by virtue of the way I work, the seasons tend to merge. I mean, obviously I know if it’s hotter or colder; but the work is the same from season to season. I don’t have summer work and winter work. Similarly, I don’t have day work and night work, that much – it’s a continuum that the year and the seasons happen to change around.”

There is something quite wonderful about experiencing seasonal shifts through the lens of fungi. On the east-coast, summer yields baskets full of chanterelles and chicken-of-the-woods.13 Fall provides the very best mushrooming season, with the fruiting of the most species of good and choice edibles. Winter tests one’s patience, though may provide wild enoki14 and oyster mushrooms if one is persistent. The spring thaw brings with it the salivation of the morel hunters. Minute changes in weather patterns take on new and significant importance. The once dreaded rainy day suddenly becomes a celebrated occurrence, full of potential, a catalyst for exploration.

Filmmaker Jason Cortlund writes in the introductory essay of the Spring 2015 NYMS newsletter,

“There’s nothing more uncertain than a mushroom hunt- what and where you find fungi depends on multiple variables – including one’s own awareness. Past experiences can help prepare for what might be found, but only sensory data gained by being present in those precise woods at that exact moment can help one see what’s actually there. Expectation can limit one’s ability to observe the exceptional, the unusual, the sublime.”

I believe it is precisely this uncertainty that attracts me (and many other artists throughout history15) to the world of mycology. It is indeed an awareness exercise, a process of slowing down, paying attention, and being present. One must observe all things with equal importance, and curiosity. Searching for something in particular is the best way to miss everything else. It’s no wonder Cage was so taken by mushrooms, for a forage in the woods is very much akin to experiencing his seminal composition 4’33”. Both offer a formal opportunity to observe the often ignored but deeply meaningful happenings of the world around us. I believe this is what good art can do. It’s just that lately I’ve been finding it in the woods.



Images courtesy of the author.

  1.  Even as I write this, we are in the midst of a chaga decoction, the second step of an 8 week tincture process of a large mass of Inonotus obliquus; drying some turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) for future use in teas and soup stock; and making spore prints of mushrooms found this morning we are pretty certain are edible brick tops (Hypholoma sublateritium).
  2.  Ganoderma applanatum, a wood-decaying bracket fungus
  3.  author of “National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms”
  4.  the NYMS has been working on a ten-year mycological survey of New York City Parks
  5.  Cantharellus cibarius, Craterellus cornucopioides, Pleurotus ostreatus, Lactarius corrugis, Grifola frondosa
  6.  Mushroom hunting is a much more popular tradition in Europe and Asia. Author David Aurora claims this cultural “fungophobia” was inherited from the British.
  7.  not to mention the planet-healing potential of mycelium, the mass of branching, thread-like hyphae that form the vegetative part of fungi. See: https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_stamets_on_6_ways_mushrooms_can_save_the_world
  8.  this has unfortunately been happening with Syrian refugees in Germany, who are mistaking Amanita phalloides (the deadly poisonous death cap) with the Bearded Amanita which grows in the Mediterranean area. See: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/29/germany-attributes-mushroom-poisonings-foraging-refugees
  9.  In 1959 Cage was asked to teach a music class at the New School, and only agreed on the condition that they also allow him to teach a mushroom identification class. This class was the beginning of the current New York Mycological Society.
  10.  Proper identification often requires sight (color of cap, gills, and spore print), touch (texture of cap, firmness), smell (chanterelles, for instance, are known to have a fruity, apricot-like scent), and taste (sweet, tasteless, spicy, bitter, etc.)
  11. In “The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross” renowned archeologist and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John M. Allegro posits that the founding stories and principles of Christianity were actually derived from an ancient fertility cult that consumed and worshiped the Amanita muscaria (which contains the psychoactive compound muscimol), and that “Jesus” was not a human being at all, but in fact a code word for this hallucinogenic fungus. See: https://youtu.be/mOu9tV6uy2E
  12.  See: http://www.moredarkthanshark.org/feature_enovations-sum79.html
  13.  Laetiporus sulphureus, a golden-yellow bracket fungus that tastes kind of like chicken
  14.  Flammulina velutipes aka enokitake, velvet foot, winter mushroom
  15.  Beatrix Potter, for example, (despite being completely ignored by the male chauvinist botanical societies of her time) was a remarkable mycologist. Her exquisite watercolor renderings of mushrooms and research helped lead to the reclassification of lichens (a hybrid of fungi and algae, not plants as was assumed at the time). See: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/28/beatrix-potter-a-life-in-nature-botany-mycology-fungi/

There are 5 comments

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  1. Adele Browne

    Ben, you describe the thrill of the hunt so well. It has had us hooked since the eighties, when Ken first learned to recognize morels and found them on our property in Hocking.
    I will never forget the first time I spotted a morel growing in the woods. Suddenly, my eyes locked in like the focus on a camera lens, and I was spotting morels everywhere!
    We have since learned to enjoy other kinds–Hen of the Woods is a meaty favorite.
    It is one of those exciting life time skills that keeps on growing and keeps us going.
    To the woods!

  2. Ben Kinsley

    Thank you for your comments! I should make a point to say that this article IS IN NO WAY intended to be an identification guide. If it piques your interest in mushroom foraging (as I hope it does) you should find and join your local Mycological Society. You can find a list of clubs in USA, Canada, and Mexico on the North American Mycological Association website: http://www.namyco.org/

  3. Marty Klein

    I enjoyed your essay, Ben. I’ve been foraging for 30+ years, have eaten 75+ species. You hit on several of the elements that draw us and keep us in this wonderful pursuit. If I might add one more? Sometimes I tell people that by eating wild mushrooms, in a way, I’m ingesting the forest itself, by virtue of how and where mushrooms/fungi grow. Something very elemental about it that connects me even more deeply to the natural world.
    I also use mushrooms as subjects in my scanography. http://www.martykleinart.com/mushrooms/

  4. Miriam Dym

    Phil Ross, trained as a sculptor, has taken a design / architectural / research approach to fungi. His research has propelled him into this crazy space where, wildly, art + function completely overlap. You can see some of his work here: http://www.mycoworks.com … (His art website seems to be down at the moment.)

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