Amanita virosa, “Destroying Angel”
Take this as an IOU—I Owe You a housewarming gift.
I’ll start there. You’d laugh if you saw me practicing to write you, but I can’t ruin this mushroom card. It was the only one of its kind in a bin of 70’s stationery at an antique barn in the Hudson Valley. That’s where I was when I texted you a photo of the hat rack, the jockey cap that would have looked cute on you. You texted back right away, told me to try the blue pillbox with face netting for myself, and then the red sun hat with silk lilies. A mom with two bratty kids walked by and looked at me funny for trying on silly hats alone, and it was a new way to miss you.
I drove up to the Hudson Valley to find a gift. I thought about sending you something from the city, whiskey from the distillery near your old apartment, beaded earrings from that shop across from Juno’s, key lime pie from the bakery by the pier. But you chose to leave those places behind.
My next stop was a “general store” selling “local provisions.” You’d see right through the handwritten labels pasted crooked on jam jars, the caramel sauce that listed the name of every single cow that made the milk that made the butter. I bought nothing.
Pop quiz: what did you think when you opened the card and saw the white stem and parasol cap? Did you think, A tasty field mushroom! I’d sautée that with garlic and olive oil and sea salt! If so, check the caption: Amanita virosa, the destroying angel. Eight to twenty-four hours after dinner, violent vomiting and diarrhea would begin, and then subside for a day or two. You’d think you were fine. You would go about your business while the amatoxins killed your liver and kidney cells. By the time the pain sent you to the hospital, it would probably be too late. Half of one mushroom is all it takes. There is no antidote.
Armillaria mellea, “Honey Fungus”
You mailed me honey from your new neighbor’s hives—the cute one, you said in your note. I thought it would be funny to respond by sending you mushrooms from a honey fungus. Did you know that the largest living thing on earth is a honey fungus? Its mycelium filaments thread through 3.4 square miles of dirt in the Blue Mountains of Oregon. It’s thousands of years old. Honey fungus feeds itself by infiltrating trees, spreading a white film between the bark and the wood. The trees die, but the mushrooms are supposed to be delicious. I did more research and learned that the funeral bell is a dangerous lookalike. The spore prints are different but it made me nervous.
So, your new neighbor is training you to help out with his hives on the weekends. You have this whole back-to-the-land narrative about moving to California. Like you hadn’t seen a tree in years. Didn’t we forage in Prospect Park, and upstate too? And last summer we drove a few hours from the city to camp in the mountains, twice. Are you going to forget everything that doesn’t fit?
Pleurotus eryngii, “King Trumpet Mushroom”
The week before our trip to the Adirondacks, a woman swimming in the Catskills was infected with the brain-eating amoeba Naegleria fowleri. I brought my swimsuit anyway—I know how you are about mountain lakes—but you wanted to go swimming as soon as we got to the campsite.
“Can we relax a little first?” I had my eye on the fire pit and the beer cooler. Our campsite was sheltered by a thicket of tall pines and it was just so cozy. We’d pitched your tent and mine across from each other, framing a little courtyard where we could sit by the fire and look out at the view.
“Oh my god, you’re thinking about the amoeba.”
“No, I just wanted—”
“Come on: It’s. So. Hot.”
“They like the heat.”
“You know it could be anywhere, it’s in shower water too, are you going to stop showering?”
I know when to stop arguing with you. We changed in our tents. I came out in my daisy-print bikini and you were waiting in your racing one-piece. I followed you into the lake. Shin-deep, our feet disappeared in the murk. I slowed down to test the rocky mud with my toes and you ran as fast as you could against the water. Waist-deep, you dove under. I walked in up to my chin and you popped up for air further out, hair slicked to the back of your neck. You swam freestyle and I doggypaddled along the shoreline.
“Your hair is dry,” you said, bursting up from the water next to me.
You went under again. I felt a pinch at my knee and then there you were on my other side.
“Did you notice anything? Was that an amoeba?”
You skimmed your forearm across the surface to splash my face and I held my nose—it enters through the nose, that’s how it gets to the brain—and dropped under. I let the water sink into my hair, all the way down to the roots, before I came up.
We dripped down the path to the campsite. After the lake, the heat felt good again.
“What’s that?” you pointed off-path.
I followed you into the brush. A bramble scratched my ankle. We stopped in front of a tree with a patch of mushrooms growing between the roots, tall girthy stalks with small caps. You severed the largest mushroom with your foot; it lay prone in the dead leaves. You gave it one hard stomp and left it there.
Laetiporus sulphureus, “Chicken of the Woods”
We’d bought two bundles of firewood at a roadside stand but we needed kindling, so as soon as we dried off we went deeper into the woods. I was picking up twigs, and you were breaking up a larger branch into bundles when you pointed at a stack of fan-shaped orange fungi coming off the roots of a maple tree.
“Chicken of the woods!” you said.
I made chicken-dance arms.
“No that’s what they’re called, for real. They’re beginner mushrooms. No poisonous ones look like this.” You snapped off the smallest shelflet.
“Oh, you’re a mushroom expert now?”
“Aaron showed me. I should have made him teach me more mushrooms.”
Getting your mind off of him was the unstated point of this trip.
“The baby ones are the best. See? No gills.” The underside was egg-yolk yellow. You snapped it in half. “No bug-holes.”
Before I could say anything, you took a big bite. You chewed, watching me, and then you shrugged. “I bet it would be good cooked. It’ll go with our dinner.” You held it out like a poison apple, making innocent eyes. “The amoeba’s eating your brain, what’s to lose?”
Goddamned Aaron. I took a tiny bite—too little, I hoped, to kill me. Who would drive us to the hospital? We had no cell signal at the campsite, so it’s not like we could have called an ambulance. You started picking off young mushrooms and putting them in our kindling bag. It tasted like nothing.
While you arranged firewood in the pit, I said I was getting more kindling. Around the bend in the road I started looking for a cell signal. At the visitor’s center I finally got enough bars to google “chicken of the woods”—AKA Sulfur Shelf Fungus. It’s a saprobic parasite, which means it feeds on decaying organic matter. First, the mycelium attacks the tree and rots its heart. By the time mushrooms fruit on the bark, the tree is probably done for. I looked at three different mushroom hunting sites. Most of what you said checked out. The chicken of the woods has no poisonous lookalikes, but it can be toxic when it grows on conifers and eucalyptus. Did you know that? I couldn’t ask you without giving myself away. I brought back a few broomy branches for my alibi and rinsed the mushrooms at the spigot, chopped them on our little cutting board. Remember that creepy song you made up while you heated the oil? “Toadstools at dusk…fungi sublime, mystery mushroom musk.” You didn’t think I’d eat them. I speared a big slice, held it up in the firelight for you to see, and took the first bite. Then you speared one and went right for it. This surge of adrenaline seemed to hit when you swallowed, and you looked at me like this might be our last night on earth. You hadn’t looked that happy since the breakup. I felt guilty not telling you what I knew but I didn’t want to bring you down. Stirred into our packet curry, the mushrooms were actually pretty good.
Lactarius rubidus, “Candy Cap”
I don’t know how to tell you I want to take back your birthday present. I thought I would be there to help you use it. Could we negotiate a trade? I’ll give you a new gift and you’ll give it back. And then I’ll have two mushroom hunting guides, but the point is you won’t have one. I know, it’s the last thing that turned into a “thing” for us before you left. But you text me pictures all like, “Candy caps!!” and it scares me; they look so much like deadly skullcaps. You assured me your haul had the telltale maple smell and brittle stipes, distinct from the cartilaginous stipes of questionable lookalikes. Nothing I could see in a photo. Maybe I should give you more credit. You have a good eye, you say you take spore prints, and I’m impressed by your command of stipes. The thing is, I can’t forget the way you used to commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan on your bike with no helmet, because it made you feel alive, and what did I do? I got you into mushroom hunting.
Calvatia gigantea, “Giant Puffball”
You learned that your birthday was during the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and you wanted to see it. We booked another campsite in the Adirondacks. We both forgot to bring corkscrews so we looked for twist-offs in the refrigerator case at the liquor store. You picked up a bottle wrapped in metallic foil and did what I thought was a jack-off hand motion but then you said “Pop top!” We bought two.
The ranger told us the best time to see the meteors was the period after midnight but before moonrise.
“The witching hour,” you said.
Our campsite was a rocky clearing on the edge of a pond that carved a bowl of open sky into the treeline. After a swim and a dinner of campfire nachos, I gave you the guidebook with a post-it marking your favorite mushroom, the chanterelle.
We made a mug of weak pourover to stay awake and then we had some birthday Champagne. Technically Brut—I know how some people are about the Champagne region of France. We filled the coffee mug with bubbles and kept refilling until my head hurt from the sugar.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said. I needed a break.
Our flashlights cut a path around the lip of the pond. I paused my beam on a cluster of round leather-brown mushrooms with little holes on top.
“Puffballs,” you said. “I loved those when I was a kid.”
You squatted in front of them and read the guidebook by flashlight. “The average giant puffball contains seven trillion spores.”
You squeezed a puffball; a white cloud swirled up into my flashlight beam.
“It says here that spores travel all the way up into the clouds. They can change the weather by agitating a cloud to make raindrops, or snow or hail.”
“Let’s see if it starts raining.” My head was spinning. I lay down on the ground, resting my head on a mossy patch, and you leaned back against a rock. There were a few puffy clouds in the sky. I imagined the spores floating up and getting lost in the white haze, suspended in the heavens until the cloud flushed them down in a burst of rain to perpetuate their species.
Something bright flashed across the sky.
“A shooting star!” I said.
“Comet debris burning up in the atmosphere.”
“Let’s a make a wish on the next one. A birthday wish.”
When the next meteor streaked past I made a wish that we would come back to the Adirondacks every summer. It was a bad choice for a secret wish. I couldn’t tell you I wanted that, because then the wish wouldn’t come true. You know I’m superstitious. Not that it matters now. Now, you’re a six-hour flight away and I’ll be lucky if I see you anywhere every year. I can’t ask what you wished.
Back at the campsite, when we finished the Brut you threw the bottles one after the other at a big rock and they shattered, and
then you crawled into your tent and I went into mine and the last thing I remember thinking is someone’s going to have to clean that up.
In the morning I came out of my tent and you were already awake, pouring steaming water from the kettle into the pourover. Camping, the first person to get up claims moral high ground. The plastic bag hanging off the edge of the picnic table had long shards poking out at its sides. Plausibly two complete Brut bottles worth of shards, but what do I know. I was never anywhere close in the how-many-jellybeans-in-the-jar contests at my orthodontist’s office, which always seemed cruel. We couldn’t eat jellybeans with braces. Remember when my braces came off and my parents took me and you—you, who never needed braces—on a tour of the Jelly Belly factory? We stood on a glassed-in catwalk above the factory floor, staring down into stacked white crates filled with jellybeans and I wanted to plunge my hand in and feel the smooth pebbles clink around my fingers. The crates were organized in rows separated by color, and I named the flavors for you: cherry, lime, blueberry, cotton candy. I wasn’t sure about cotton candy, it could have been bubblegum, but you looked impressed until I said, thousands of them. You shook your head: millions. I decided that it was a significant day in my life: the first time I’d ever seen millions of anything. The tour guide could have told us how many, but I just wanted to believe you.
I figured it would be rude to check the bushes like I didn’t trust your bottle cleanup, you the first-to-wake-up, so I just sat down at the picnic table and watched the coffee drip. I opened the guidebook, began at the beginning. What is a mushroom? To make a mushroom, the reproductive “fruit” that spreads spores, the hyphae give up their individual questing underground. They weave themselves into a fabric that forms the flesh of the mushroom, their final unity.
Boletus edulis, “King Bolete”
You started mushroom hunting by yourself in the woods near your new house, and you swore you’d find chanterelles before the year was up. Your first edible find was a king bolete. It’s an upstanding forest citizen. Fungi aren’t always agents of parasitic rot. Until I read the guidebook, I didn’t know that fungi like king boletes and chanterelles provide an underground communication network between trees and other plants. The relationship is called “mycorrhizal mutualism.” In this symbiosis, mycorrhizal hyphae—fungal tendrils that spread through the earth in search of food—connect the roots of plants and trees. These networks conduct information and nutrients and facilitate cross-species exchanges, such as a phenomenon called fir-birch mutualism. Paper birches, rather than siphoning off Douglas firs’ resources, actually donate more photosynthetic carbon through the hyphae than they take in, helping their neighbors survive. For their troubles, fungi take a small cut of photosynthesized material. In a mycorrhizal economy, everything connected benefits. Doesn’t that sound utopic? I don’t know exactly how fungi and trees communicate their needs but I know it’s limited by proximity. With you so far away, if I’m being honest I don’t even know what you need any more, much less how I could give it to you.
Agaricus campestris, “Field Mushroom”
When you texted “Field mushrooms!” with a photo of suspiciously generic specimens I called you. Lots of mushroom hunters won’t touch round-topped white mushrooms with gills. Especially young ones.
“What if they’re destroying angels or death caps?”
“It’s fine! There were no sacs at the base! They’re in the pan already. I’m trying to have a nice night!”
“I have papers to grade.” You hung up.
Both varieties are common in California, I was going to say.
Morchella esculenta, “true morel”
I had this feeling walking back to my apartment the night you left the city. It was cold and dark and I was passing these beautiful warm-lit restaurants and bars and each one was just a place I’ll never go with you. When you visit we will go out on the nights you aren’t catching up with other friends, but those places won’t be part of our lives. Our only future in this city is nostalgia, and nostalgia is the dusty dried morels I buy when I think of the honeycomb-tops we found growing in the shade of a dead sycamore in Cold Spring. You left me in a place produced by the dialectic of our life in it, and now I don’t know where I am. Reality isn’t something that can be experienced alone. Reality is a shared space. You left and the city is bleeding significance. Juno’s could shut down and before, that would have meant now we’ll have to find a new place to end up on Friday nights but now—what would it mean? For you, it would mean I’ll never see Juno’s again and for me, I’ll never see Juno’s again with you; is it even Juno’s without you. I’d watch something else replace it, something that means nothing. I haven’t been back since you left. If I went back and texted you a picture of Marta mixing your favorite whiskey sour, you’d text me a photo of yourself in your sunny kitchen three hours earlier in Pacific Time, chopping vegetables from your garden. By the time you finish your second glass of wine after dinner I’ll be asleep. And I kind of want to text you right now to say Remember the Perseids? but it’s 2 a.m. on a Sunday night and we both have work in the morning. The text would find you watching TV. Or maybe you finally invited your beekeeping neighbor over. 2 a.m. texts look unhinged at any other hour. Across these time zones the only time of day that feels the same way at the same time for both of us is the afternoon, a static time. Possibility is nocturnal.
Cantharellus cibarius, “Golden Chanterelle”
It’s been raining all month and you know what that’s good for? Chanterelles. It’s 3 a.m. but I can’t sleep and I feel them out there, calling to me. I’ll get dressed and take the subway to Prospect Park. I’ll enter at 15th Street and find the lake from the north, shine my flashlight around tree roots until I catch a flash of gold, a fluted underside. I’ll check for false gills that fuse to a smooth stem, make sure I haven’t mistaken them for true-gilled toxic jack-o’-lanterns. The trees around them will be healthy, well-nourished by the mycorrhizal network. I’ll gather tender ones in my basket, enough for two. They won’t last long. Tomorrow morning I’ll wrap half of the chanterelles in bubble wrap to protect them from bruising. I’ll seal them in a box with an ice pack from my freezer. I’ll send them by two-day mail and you won’t believe I found them, your favorite, right here. I’ll wait until it’s dinnertime in California. Then, we’ll make them together.