The Trees Were Listening
I have had a unique relationship with wood ear mushrooms, also known as Auricularia auricula-judae, over the past few years of my life. It all started with a chilled black fungus (yet another of its many names) salad at a Taiwanese-Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles called Pine & Crane. The mushrooms were infused with oil and vinegar and tossed with refreshing herbs and spices, among other ingredients. To date, it is one of the most perfect things I have ever set my tongue upon. The mushrooms snapped under the pressure between my teeth, releasing an intra-oral punch of rice vinegar, chilis and cilantro encapsulated within the bold depth of the sesame oil.
I would occasionally recall this invigorating salad when my appetite would act up, and it wasn’t until I wandered into Ming’s Noodle Bar in Tulsa about a year later that I would get to enjoy the gelatinous flesh again here in Oklahoma. When I found out I could add more of these mushrooms to my entree, I was in Ming’s for lunch at least once a week gorging on squishy black mushrooms, burning my tongue until it was time to head back to work. Sadly, I lost my favorite lunch spot when Ming’s closed in late 2016.
Sure, I could have researched the availability of these precious mushrooms, bought them in their dehydrated form from overseas and eaten them regularly at home. Instead, I let them fade into increasingly rare memories over the next year. During the winter of 2016 I noticed an old friend, Nikki, had become quite prolific in her mycological research and foraging. I had not talked to her in some time and was taken aback by her passion for mushrooms, science and the outdoors. Her lifestyle inspired me greatly.
Ever since I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan I had been kicking myself for having only unwrapped my food. I was missing the dirt under my nails, the thrill of the hunt and insight into my own backyard. It can seem impossible to break the societal mold bestowed upon millennials such as myself, but she had managed to own a craft foreign to most in our age group.
Given that Nikki was also incredibly beautiful, I had to gather my courage, asking that she escort me into the woods so that I might be able to write a piece romanticizing the hunt for edible fungus in the Tulsa hills. We messaged back and forth planning and rescheduling, finally meeting up for a long trek on a Tulsa mountain. These “foraging” trips turned into us just wandering around outside getting to know one another, talking mostly about life, adversity and anxiety. Before long we had come to realize that our magnetism was mutual, and we hunted my (our?) first mushrooms as an item.
As spring showed promise in its return, we set out into the woods aware of the potential prematurity in our venture. To be honest, my virginity in fruitful foraging inhibited me from becoming properly excited for what was to come. Sure enough, on our first trip we had only managed to find non-edible species. However, even this experience opened a whole new world of sensory reception to my brain. We have all seen pictures of mushrooms, and we all know there are an immense amount of species but until you have someone pointing where to look and what to look for, you have no idea just how vast the fungal world truly is.
By the end of our tour I was familiar with more mushroom species than I previously knew existed, and I was assured that we hadn’t even scratched the surface. We came across little black tubes sprouting from below called “dead man’s fingers”; Tremella mesenterica, which looked like a golden rose (if roses were made from the same tissue as human organs); and enough shelf-shaped turkey tails to put every ant on the planet into a tree house. Given the long day of non-edible discovery and having no mushrooms for gastric consumption, I was still thrilled to the bone.
Nikki was sure we were to find our first morels during our next outing, so we invited our close friend and photographer Brooke Allen to join us for a day of foraging. I was ecstatic: It was beautiful out, the greens were of their best selves that day, the moisture was still rising from the last rain and I was with two of my favorite people, lost in the foliage. We set out early in the day without a clue as to what we might or might not find. Nikki would see a patch of earth that aroused suspicion and Brooke and I would tune in, taking thorough notes with our senses. We hoofed around for some time, crunching the brush, poking around the base of dead trees and prepping ourselves for the wrinkled honeycomb-like appearance of the ever-treasured morel mushroom. Morels are typically found on the forest floor, so after a while of looking down, my racing mind began to look elsewhere out of boredom.
Scanning the edges of a skinny limb as I passed, something caught my eye. It was a flesh-like nub protruding from beneath the lonely branch. Upon closer inspection I found a mass of fungus resembling a cluster of organic gramophones bulging from one central anchor. Could these be what I thought they were? Was my favorite little mushroom, of Asian descent, really an international inhabitant found on my own continent as well? I felt infantile in my enthusiasm. I called the group over with a child-like shriek as if I had found buried treasure.
Nikki assured me that I had found a young, supple and coffee-colored variety of the wood ear mushroom. I was in awe as I delicately plucked the tender mushrooms from their base. The juicy-muffled pop I felt when the mushrooms released from their anchor was the most uniquely satisfying experience I’ve had in nature, and instantly I felt like I was a part of it. Crouching in the dirt and tuning in to the subtleties of my ecosystem, I had procured wild food.
I collected myself and we continued our search. Naturally, all three of us redirected focus to the branches lying dead and horizontal to the ground, looking for more wood ears, and sure enough we found a plethora. We hiked for hours filling our bag until we feared a blowout. The brown paper bag, which Nikki had recommended we keep the edible mushrooms in, just couldn’t handle the weight and wetness of our prolific haul. Starting at the base of the hill the plump mushrooms had more character, wrinkles and heft. As we continued up the hill we found mushrooms more juvenile in features. They were softer, more bulbous and more translucent. My mouth began to water. Not only had these mushrooms lurked in the back of my mind for the past year, they were visually more appetizing than any I had ever seen before.
I begged Nikki to give me the go on eating some of these beautiful mushrooms while we hunted, and she looked at me as if I was asking if I could drink antifreeze. At least three times she caught me raising one toward my mouth with intent to consume, and she would re-emphasize just how stupid that was. Thank the heavens for her. Eating wild fungus is not for the amateur or those unwilling to do a great deal of reading. Poisonous imposters are incredibly common and should be at the front of your mind always. Overnight spore prints and thorough identification processes should be performed by seasoned foraging experts and mycologists. Start by observing and identifying from a distance until you find a legitimate guide. Even just looking at the darn things is fun as hell.
As we got closer to the top we came to realize just how exhausting walking around and popping mushrooms off trees can be. Our bag was full, our eyes were tired and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. It wasn’t until it started raining that I would decide to give in to the group’s will to return home. I still had a hard time turning around, not knowing just how many little ears were left for the taking. Nikki assured me that leaving some was always a good idea. Greediness has no place in nature.
On the way back to the car the exhaustion really set in but it was different compared to the exhaustion of a day’s work in the office or my gym. It was the kind of exhaustion you deserved, that wouldn’t be accompanied by that underlying fear that you could have done better. That day we accomplished something many people wouldn’t have, and the fulfillment shared no stage with a promotion, a bill payment or the reading of a book. We articulated within the elements and expended energy that would later be replenished by the fruit of the day.
Young adults barely have enough time to change clothes between jobs, let alone take ownership of the food they eat. We have so many damn things on our plate, whether it is our own fault or society’s disservice, it doesn’t matter. I will tell you right now: We can make time for work, food, love, exercise and anything else we wish to. Even when it seems like our lives revolve around chores, there is time to exit the information overload and cross over to the euphoria to be found in the woods.
Tulsa is flat, red and offers no way to get you to work without a car and all the bills attached, but even in this concrete jungle there are pockets of immense wildness. One only has to step off the trail and find a rotting tree. An erosion of life can be found in the recently deceased, and if you are lucky, a beautiful human will show you how to find it.