About three years into my doctoral program, my health broke down. The low-grade fever I’d run for a couple of years — a fever I referred to as my Victorian Illness, for its lack of specificity and its ability to render me prone on my futon, propped up with a novel like some swooning maiden — finally blew up on me. My entire mouth erupted in canker sores.
Because the regular doctors at my Utah university’s clinic didn’t have any good treatment for either the canker sores or the Victorian Illness, I wound up in a traditional Chinese-medicine clinic in a strip mall. There, I was told that the problem was “damp heat” and “mental overstimulation.” I was told to rest, to eat broccoli and beets and brown rice, and to not eat sugar or coffee or garlic or spices.
I was also told to walk. Not on a treadmill in a gym, but outside, in nature.
Since I couldn’t concentrate enough to get any work done, I took this advice. It was early fall, just after the monsoonal rains had swept in across the desert and rescued us all from the crushing heat of summer, and some nearly forgotten part of me could feel that there were mushrooms growing out there. I remembered that someone in my department had said that she’d found boletes up in the Uinta Mountains on the Wyoming border. So I got out my map and found a small road out of Kamas that looked like it’d take me up to the top of the plateau. About 90 minutes later, I parked at the trailhead and — after stuffing my daypack with a mushroom book, a trail map, some water, and a sandwich — I got out and started to walk.
I wasn’t hiking, exactly. “Hiking” implies a more vigorous activity than I was up for. I was still exhausted. I still ran fevers on and off with some regularity. I didn’t have any energy, I couldn’t concentrate, and although the canker sores had mostly healed, I lived in a state of constant vigilance, terrified of a return of that painful eruption.
So when I got out of my car on that rainy Wednesday afternoon, I was really hoping that I wouldn’t run into a group of those cheery, athletic types Utah is so full of. I’d been outdoorsy in my 20s — leading canoe trips, working as a raft guide, ski bumming, rock climbing — and now I found myself, a decrepit 30-something in a 10-year-old jacket, stopping every 100 yards or so to rest.
But mushroom hunting rewards the slow and the halt. Mushroom hunting requires very slow hiking. It requires that you pay attention. It gives you a reason to creep through the woods, stooped over like the prematurely old woman you feel yourself to be. It also gives you a reason to just look at everything: roots, rocks, leaves.
And after a while, you start to see that what looked like a weird yellow leaf is actually a chanterelle. And then you notice the other chanterelles around it. And then you’re seeing mushrooms everywhere. One minute it’s a bare forest floor, the next it’s covered with mushrooms you couldn’t see before. It’s eerie. It makes you understand why there’s so much folklore linking mushrooms with fairies and magic.
When I began hunting that first year, I only really knew how to identify oyster mushrooms and chanterelles. I’d never found boletes before, but I’d read enough to know those were what I was really after. King boletes (Boletus edulis) are also known as cèpes, porcini, Steinpilzen, and, in England, as penny buns for their round, toasted-brown-bun appearance.
The key to the boletes is that, instead of gills, they have spongy-looking masses of tiny tubes on the undersides of their caps. This makes it exceedingly easy to tell if you’ve found a member of the genus. There are many boletes, including the slimy but wonderfully named Suillus tomentosus, but once you’ve found a real cèpe, it’s unmistakable. There’s just something about the heft of one — about the bulbous stalk, about the toasty color of the nice dry cap — that makes a king bolete memorable. And it does look as edible as a penny bun at a bakery.
I spent a day or two a week up in the Uintas that fall. My Chinese acupuncturist was right; getting out in nature and walking started to cure my Victorian Illness. True to form, I felt like a character out of one of those books, like Mary in The Secret Garden, who was cured of her sickliness by fresh air and everyday contact with the earth. The smell of the damp forest, the rain on my parka, and the clean air did the same for me.
By the time I got sick, I’d been locked in a small studio apartment for a couple of years, living almost exclusively inside my head. The irony was that I had holed up to write a novel that takes place entirely outdoors, in the mountains of California’s Desolation Wilderness area. At the same time, I was engaged on the academic front in a fierce battle with a number of literary, ecological, and religious theories. My brain had been spinning like a gyroscope for months.
Getting out of town, getting in my car and driving for an hour and a half up to the top of that plateau, getting out into the actual physical world — a world of smell and taste and touch — did me as much good as anything could have. Mushroom hunting was both meditative and active; I got some very moderate exercise, and I was forced to pay close attention to something other than words on a page.
Mushroom hunting brought me back to my body and allowed me some mastery of that most basic of human skills: finding and preserving food. I’d come home from the mountains and my mushroom meditations would continue as I cleaned and trimmed and put up my bounty. While I stood at the sink, rinsing, trimming and cutting chanterelles into chunks, I had a chance to think about how the woods must have looked to my characters, who were searching a different terrain altogether, but who were nonetheless spending their days walking slowly through the woods looking for something, too.
I sautéed my harvest until all the liquid cooked off. It gave me a chance to just slow down and watch something cook, a chance to slow down and smell something delicious, a chance to slow down and know that I was going to have enough Ziploc bags of chanterelles in butter stashed in the freezer to see me through the long winter to come. The porcini I ate fresh or cut into slices and strung on thread in my kitchen to dry. My little studio apartment smelled all woodsy and mushroomy that fall as, slowly, my health returned and I managed to finish my doctorate.
Sometimes life tells you the hard way that you have to pay attention. Sometimes life rises up and smacks you in the mouth and reminds you that you need to learn to feed yourself, that you need to learn to feed your body and your soul and that you are a part of nature. For me, this was the lesson of the Victorian Illness: that my illness was a symptom of a life out of kilter. I healed myself by walking very slowly through the woods, looking for the delicious things that nature has provided for us. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me, the questions I’ve asked as I’ve moved on to other places, other jobs, other homes: Will I be able to walk outside in nature every day? Is there a chance I’ll find a delicious surprise?
Charlotte Freeman wrote the novel Place Last Seen and keeps the LivingSmall blog. Also, occasionally, you can find her writing on The Ethicurean. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she hikes and gardens and gets outside in nature every day, even if only to the dog park with her two French Brittany spaniels.
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