MUSHROOM HUNTING AT A RUSSIAN DACHA MUSHROOM HUNTING AT A RUSSIAN DACHA
Is an article I wrote that appeared in Mushroom;The Journal of Wild Mushrooming, Winter 1995-96. This Includes an article I wrote for TheSt. Petersburg Press (Russia), October 18th, 1994 entitled "Mushroom Magic".
So it's six am, wet, cold, and still nearly dark, and I'm gettingdressed: long johns, jeans, denim shirt, vest, waterproof boots, big leather fleece linedcoat, wool beret. And I'm still cold in my bedroom. What have I got into? Why did I slipand say "yes" when Olga invited us to her dacha to pick mushrooms, a dachaincidentally without electricity or running water? What am I doing?
I'm packing the protesting
cat into a basket witha cheese cloth cover, as my Russian roommate, Mila, and I lift heavy packs of food, sheetsand clean socks onto our backs and we head out the door. We run to the bus with the catcomplaining loudly, and catch it as it is rolling away. Our busmates, bleary eyed andheading for work, are amused by our vocal basket, and look enviously at our heavy clothes,the sure sign of an excursion to the country. It is mid-September, the height of themushroom season, and most of them would rather be with us, heading to the woods. Russianslove mushroom hunting, and going to the country, and it's usual this time of year to seewhole families dressed in wet clothes triumphantly returning after a days outing with hugebaskets of colorful fungi riding home on the Metro.
I however am still not too sure. On to the Metro, cat quiet now, acrosstown to Ploschad Lenina and the Finland station. We meet Olga there looking curiouslyfashionable in front of the huge two story black and red railway map of the northern raillines. Olga is in matching black stretch pants, with a red sweater and earrings and redrubber boots. Even her bag of supplies is in matching spotless red and black. On the greatmap the red letters marking our station have dropped off, as if we are going to a placethat no longer exists. In actual fact it bears the uninspired name "78Kilometers" and is almost two hours by crowded commute train. In the cold wet morningI am still wondering if it is worth the trip.
By ten am we are walking, walking, walking with packs that make my neckhurt and my head pound, down a muddy road that looks like someplace nice in centralAlaska. There is every sort of small and mid-size conifer, as well as lots of birchesturning gold. Pretty old wood houses like those you see in Western Washington or SoutheastAlaska line the road, and are punctuated from time to time with a new addition of a fancybrick "castle" put up by one of Russia's new grand bourgeoisie. The traditionalcountry sound of chain saws slice the air like gunshots in the quiet void. Olga apologizesfor the chain saws, complaining about their noise, but It seems to city-living Mila and methat we haven't heard such quiet in weeks.
The cat, sensing our journey is nearing it's end begins demanding to belet out. We cross a highway decorated with rusting steel monuments to some long forgottenSoviet general. We wander through construction sites for four story brick palaces thatwould cost a million or two back in the states. And then we are there, in a perfect greenwood, with a gorgeous little pine cabin with porch and wood stove, flower garden,cooking/picnic shelter, well, garden shed, and an amazingly clean outhouse. On being letout, the cat, who has never been outside our apartment before takes one look at the trees,and flowers and grass, and all this natural beauty and hides under the house inagoraphobic terror.
I however am charmed. Olga goes to draw water from the well, Mila triesto coax the cat to come out, and I run around photographing everything: Olga, theouthouse, the neighbor's chickens, the cabin. We unpack and make lunch, and the cat comesout to get her share. When she is cozily locked into the room with the stove, we head out,baskets on our arms and knives in hand, to hunt mushrooms. Mila and I know nothing atfirst, and have to keep running back and forth to Olga to ask "Haroshee eeleeploka?" (Good or bad?), but we get smart quickly, and soon wander off on our own,periodically having a group meeting to rest and have Olga double check our finds.
How to describe the feeling of hunting these funky looking little fungi?It sounds so tedious on paper. I never had the slightest interest in it before...and hereI am, knife in hand, at one in spirit with my primordial foremothers. Guys tell yousometimes that that's the feeling they get while hunting deer or ducks or something, thesense of being like a cave man. Mankind in his pre-technological-industrial state, doingwhat as human animals they were designed to do: Eyes on front of head, hands withopposable thumbs, the ultimate hunter-gatherer predator for an omnivorous diet.
Mushrooming is like that for women. Slowly, and delicately you pick yourway through swampy wet thickets, crouching to avoid getting jabbed by dry branches. Youhear your friends, by the snapping of twigs nearby, but you don't see them till you comeupon them. You meet a strange old man, carrying a knife, and you don't worry. You knowwhat he's there to hunt...and besides you have a knife too. At your feet is a whirl ofhundreds of colored fall leaves, broken branches, mud and swamp grass. Somehow in thiskaleidoscope you have to see the one dot of color that is slightly different, or the onecurve of brown muck that curves up not down, among hundreds in every square yard. And youcan do it. Somewhere in the mists of time when human genes were mutating out of the otherapes, we got the one that allows us to sort through millions of pieces of visualinformation in seconds to find the one piece that doesn't match. And, according to studieson human processing of visual information, women got a double dose of this particulartrait.
So I stomp for four hours, ankle deep in mud, not merely content, butgenuinely thrilled. Amazement racks my brain...how can I do this? With no training? I justlook at a picture of chaotic leaves and branches and muck and mire, all in shades of greenand brown, and I see the tiny curve of brown in the leaves that bends a millimeter or twomore roundly than the brown leaves curling around it. It is like in a dream, when youdiscover that you really know how to fly by just concentrating on flying. I imagine myselfas an ice age woman, foraging for food, and calling this ability magic, and it seems to meto be magic still. Alone in the fog shrouded woods, with only the crackle of branches tolet you know anyone else is there, you don't need hallucinogenic toadstools to have yourimagination run riot.
And the mushrooms themselves look like hallucinations out of a 1960'sLSD fantasy. Once you uncover them and dig them up they have amazing shapes. One sortlooks like striated apricot colored versions of the pillars in the Frank Lloyd WrightJohnson and Johnson building, others like missiles, tables, phalluses, ping-pong balls,Gaudi smokestacks, and a whole gamut of umbrellas. Mostly the poison ones look mostinteresting, so you can leave them alone to look beautiful. Here in Russia however, thereare the Russula family of edible mushrooms, which are perfect white ones with bright red,pink, green, lilac and maroon tops in all sorts of sizes and shapes. The Russian name forthem is "Seeroyejhka" mushrooms, which means "Fresh-eatable" so youcan use some of them to decorate salads (Russians never do-salad here is a small platewith a few slices of vinegar covered cucumber and tomato). They also have the advantage ofbeing truly easy to spot.
After four hours, we have no more room in our baskets and head home. Atthe dacha we clean and double check our finds in the picnic shelter. It is an amazingamount and variety of mushrooms for such a short trip. We sort out the "Beilee"("white"-Porcini ) and "Podberiozovik" ("belowbirchtree"-Birch Bolete) for drying at home, then divide the others in pots into"Seeroyejhka," "Gorkoshkee" ("bitter"-Red Hot Milk Cap), and"Masliyonok" ("Oily"-Slippery Jack) types for later boiling. I find anancient mildewed chart pulled out of a magazine with the names in Russian, Ukrainian andLatin and take notes and draw pictures, for reassurance that what we did today wasscientifically rational and not just Mother Goddess magic. The cat grows bolder andwanders outside, crouched low to the ground as if she expects the sky to fall on her atany minute. We make dinner and it does, pouring buckets outside. We, warm as toast withour wood stove, munch bread and soup, and the cat comes in wet, and thrilled at her ownadventure outside.
The next morning, a family of Olga's friends drop in for a day'smushroom hunt. Dad, with glasses thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, can't see them toowell, but the Mom is a self proclaimed wizard of mushrooms, and is only too happy to enactthe role of group leader and mushroom guru. She triple checks our finds of the day before,and tells Olga about the proper methods of boiling them. Then we head off. Moving in alarge group is less satisfying or effective than hunting alone, so half way through theday we split into smaller groups to later reconvene at the dacha. When we return, we findthe cat happily playing outside with the little girl, and a bunch of poison mushrooms inher basket. Apparently, even the "poison" ones have use in small quantity asdrugs for migraine and arthritis, and she'd gathered some young ones for her mom to dryand make into medicine.
So we clean, and sort, and boil. Dinner is served, and we bid goodbye tothe family. We shout "Schoolia!" out the door, at the cat, who now doesn't wantto come in, she's so happy to be outside hunting bugs. So we go for a walk to the lake towatch the sun set over the smooth reflective black of the water.
We return home. On cue, at dusk, it rains again, and we hang our wetsocks on the wood stove and towel down the cat as she runs inside. I take more notes bycandlelight, but my heart isn't in it. What does it matter if it is magic after all?
Morning, Mila and I go out one last time to the lake. Mila takes off herclothes and plunges naked into the icy water, and I take my basket one last time to aremote glade that is covered in mushrooms of all kinds. Some I have never seen before. Iwonder "are they safe?" As if on cue, a gnarly old woman, knife and basket inhand appears from nowhere. I ask her in my bad Russian what they are."Champignon" is the reply. Rare to find wild. The sort we buy in stores inlittle sanitized plastic boxes at home.
I am late. I run to Mila, basket full after only half an hour. A day'shunt in thirty minutes. Mila says "I don't want to leave," and I agree in myhead and heart but say: "we need clean socks."
Back at the dacha the cat won't come to us, and won't go in the basket.Olga is amused, and says "Cat not want to go home." But we pack the protester,anyway, and head for the station. On the train are dozens of others with baskets ofmushrooms, dogs, cats, children, tired and dazed with the steamy wetness of the train car.You could grow mushrooms on the train it's so wet. Then it's Ploschad Lenina again, and weare in a different world. Grey stone floors, neon lights, kiosks selling nylons and agiant mosaic of Lenin addressing the crowd at the Finland station in 1917. It's like adifferent planet.
And now, on the Metro, we are the wet people in soiled clothes carryingthe colorful mushrooms home in triumph, and the city-bound commuters look at us in envy,and the cat purrs in contentment in her basket.
I spent all of 1994-95 in Russia, and after losing my mushroom"virginity" last September, became a regular traveler to the woods. Despite thepervasiveness of mushroom hunting in the Petersburg area (hordes of families, singles,friends and elderly "professional" hunters scouring the countryside like a giantvacuum) nobody whines about a shortage of fungi "caused" by"over-picking". Russians, especially professional mycologists, in fact, find theidea of "overpicking" preposterous. St.Petersburg has spent so much of thiscentury with starving hordes (during the Revolution, Civil War, and W.W.II, as well aspresent) picking up anything edible, that if "overpicking" were possible, itwould have happened long since. Instead, even the most casual mushroomer will tell youthat dependent on the weather each year (and from week to week), different areas get goodor bad harvests.
When told of American mushroomer infighting over harvesting, Russiansreact with incredulity. A strong attitude of "the early bird gets the worm"prevails. One boasts of a huge harvest like a good "fish story", complainingabout a bad harvest would be an exercise in self flagellation, hardly to be borne. Kind oflike complaining about losing at football, it would sound like an unsportsmanly excuse forone's own failure.
If you want the best chance to get mushrooms, everyone knows you go outearly in the morning on Thursday or Fridays, when fewer people are in the woods. If youare in any forest in midday on a Saturday or Sunday, however, expect to spend all daybumping into more people than fungi. Russians learn to pick mushrooms as soon as they canwalk, and all of them go to the woods on weekends in August. By Sunday night virtuallyevery well-known edible within a 100km radius of the city is gone, and it's usuallyTuesday or Wednesday before you should even bother to go looking again.
Unless, of course, you can read Russian Mushroom books. The averageRussian hunter knows only the most basic rule about hunting: "never eat anything youdon't know," and sticks to it, despite knowing only about five edible species.Russian mycologists, on the other hand, have made the most extensive study of the localspecies, and list about a hundred as edible or conditionally edible. If you follow theirguides, you can still, even late on a Sunday, find many edibles which have been overlookedby others. A lot of species that are listed in American books as inedible, Russian booksdefine as conditionally edible. That is to say they may only be edible in certain stages,or when cooked certain ways.
Serious Russian mushroom groupies have lots of books to choose from.Most have color drawings as illustrations and not photographs, however the books are muchmore forthcoming about eating information than their U.S. counterparts, all indicatingwhich of the four ways of preparing works for each species: fresh, dried, pickled, orboiled. To be safer, average Russians eat no mushrooms fresh, and don't even know what drysauté is. But the regular column in the St.Petersburg Times for mushroom fanatics:"Quiet Hunting", combines literary quotations on mushrooming, with exoticcooking advice like sautéing, and recipes for Russula sandwich spreads.
High season in the St. Petersburg area is in August and September, withlesser amounts occurring as early as May and as late as October. Forest conditions aresomewhat similar to Alaska, however there are more Boletus Edulis (Whites) in the region,less mushrooms as a whole, and far less active worms. The cheapest lodging (about $15 anight) for a short stay in Petersburg is the Hostel Holiday, (FAX 011-7-812-277-5102)conveniently located two blocks from Finland Station, the best departure point for hunting"Whites". Hostel Holiday can also arrange your visa for a low fee.
While in Petersburg I made the acquaintance of Dr. A. E. Kovalenko, thehead of the Mycology Department of the Komarov Botanical Institute, Russian Academy ofSciences. He has indicated a willingness to cooperate with any American Mycological groupwishing to make a tour to Russia. He speaks good but slow English and can be contacted byE-Mail in his name at: BINRAN@GLAS.APC.ORG he is one of the leading Mycologists worldwide.Another Komarov scientist, Dr. Sergei V. Vickulin, (who speaks perfect English) also iswilling to work on tours, either group or individual. He too can be contacted in his nameat the above E-Mail address.
Finally, if you go to Russia, make a point of hitting theglassware/china section of the department stores for mushroom emblazoned thermoses.Mushroom books are found in the "household" section of bookstores along withcooking, gardening, pets and dacha-construction. Mushroom watercolor paintings are sold inthe Artists Market on Nevsky Prospekt, along with occasional items of mushroomfolk-kitsch. Remember also that dried mushrooms are permitted entry to the U.S. withoutrestrictions by the Department of Agriculture, so anything you can dry you can also takehome with you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Tara Maginnis is an associate professor of Theatre at the Universityof Alaska Fairbanks, where she is the costume designer for Theatre UAF
. Her Russian cat,
Shoelace, has come to Alaska with her has gone