Friday, January 6, 2012

Backyard Mushrooms: A Casualty of the Wind Storm

Mushrooms growing in the cracks in our concrete pathway, late November 2011.
I was just about to write a post showcasing the beauty of our inedible mushroom crop when the winds hit Los Angeles in late November.  Amazingly, the winds didn't finish off the mushrooms, but the following heat wave did.  I knew I should simply file away these photos and move on to other topics, but after a month of looking at these photos in my "blog stuff to sort" folder, I found I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I love these photos not simply because I love looking at pictures of mushrooms (although I do.)  I love them because I am fascinated with the many varieties of mushrooms that thrive and die in our backyard.  There's always something exciting about going to the backyard and discovering a new and unknown variety of mushroom growing there.  This feeling is much like watching a black and white print develop in the chemistry.  As many times as I've printed photographs from a negative, the moment that the image first appears in the developer tray is always exciting.  It's a moment of promise and of excitement that doesn't last long.  Most often, this feeling drains away as I realize that the photograph has faults that can only be corrected by reprinting.  In the backyard mushroom watch, this feeling rarely lasts more than a day or two as the mushroom crop is killed off by a heat wave or the stomping feet of an exuberant toddler too fast to deter from a mission of destruction.

Phallus Impudicus, 2011.
Our backyard has been host to Phallus Impudicus (a Stinkhorn species) and Inky Caps (a Coprinus species).  Both of these mushroom species were identified by my friend Bharati, a known fungus-lover.  I suspect that the mushrooms shown in the photos posted here may be one or two varieties of Inky Caps, but I know so little about mushrooms, especially the inedible kind, that it's impossible for me to say.  What I can say that is that mushrooms are a resourceful and mysterious life form.  They are a seemingly delicate species, sprouting quickly and dying even faster with the slightest change in temperature or humidity.  I've lived in this house for several years now and in that time we've seen a number of different mushroom species and they always seem to pop up in different places in the yard.    I suppose this is a round-about way of saying that what I like best about mushrooms is their unpredictability and their capacity (dare I say determination?) to find a hospitable spot to grow.

Mushrooms growing in my backyard, late November 2011.
I also love mushroom hunting, even if it's only for photographic purposes.  As a mushroom ignoramus, I would never trust my powers of identification enough to eat any mushroom I find myself, but I do enjoy the "search and reveal" qualities of a mushroom hunt.  When I was a kid my grandfather would go on walks through the foothills of the Alleghany Mountains behind his backyard and come home with a brown paper bag full of mushrooms.  As I remember, he found mostly Morel mushrooms and although I didn't like eating them at the time, I did love looking at them.  (We weren't allowed to touch them much because he didn't want them bruised before dinner.)  I loved the fact that my grandfather, who cautioned me against eating wild mushrooms myself, knew enough about them that he could not only determine which mushrooms were edible, he also knew when and where to look for them.

Mushroom hunting embodies a number of qualities I find appealing-- the excitement of a quest and a great reward that comes with a threat of death that can only be overcome with confidence and certain knowledge.  I don't know what it says about me that I don't possess any of these qualities, at least not in relation to mushroom hunting.  Perhaps it is the fact that I lack them so completely that I find the idea of mushroom hunting appealing.  Or maybe I just read too much.