an exercise in futility

Golden calf of the sylvans

Tucked into the foothills of Mt. Hood, shrouded by a thick canopy of maple and aspen and Douglas fir, a triangular cabin sits squarely on the banks of Still Creek, its slanted eaves sluicing rainwater. The creek—whose turgid waters belie its name—gurgles loudly enough as to give the impression of a monsoonal downpour, when in fact the rain comes down in an unremitting drizzle, soaking the forest from crown to humus. The cabin is replete with modern accommodations: electric stove, microwave, reliable plumbing, central fire pit, and delicious well water on tap. It sports an equilateral frame, which is not immediately apparent and is a topic of idle conversing among the newcomers. The main item at hand is not what’s inside the cabin, though, but purportedly surrounding it: hillsides bursting with the fall emergence of Cantharellus cibarius, or the golden chanterelle.

The rain does little to dampen the spirits of the foragers gathered here. There is a nurse-in-training, an environmental educator, two medical students from Alaska, a waitress, a computer scientist, and a writer, all decked out in raingear and wielding small knives to cut mushroom stems. They carry an assortment of fungus receptacles, ranging from modestly-sized baskets and reusable grocery bags to the rather optimistic six-gallon bucket. “Let’s look at pictures from the last harvest [two years prior] to get inspired,” says the waitress, who is dating the computer scientist whose family owns the cabin. The cellphone images show a dining table piled almost six inches high with chanterelles—an unbelievable haul, probably more than fifty pounds’ worth of the yolky trumpets. “Those all came from the hills right out there, less than half a mile away.” Thus incentivized, they trudge along a sodden footpath toward the hills. Most of the party is dosing on psychotropic fungi—“to get into the mushroom mindset,” as one puts it—and this perhaps accounts for much of their indifference to the drenching rain.

Hours go by in the darkening forest. Sounds are muted in the rain, or maybe drowned out by it—there is little that punctuates the static dripping besides a barred owl’s hoot, a solitary Bewick’s wren, and the chopping of firewood at a nearby cabin. There are no jubilant cries of mushroom discovery. The party fans out, covering more ground, but it soon becomes clear that the abundance of years past is not to be actualized. “The chanterelles just aren’t here,” laments the computer scientist, sitting forlornly on a rotted log in the rain, thumping his plastic bucket with a stick. It is a dirge to the dearth of mushrooms, and it draws the dispersed party out from the forest back to the triangle.

By the end of two forays, only two chanterelles are found: one a magnificently fluted adult, the other a molded, ill-formed baby. Various other edibles make their way to the cabin, including a cauliflower fungus and several bright-red lobster mushrooms. The mood is somewhat soured by the skimpy haul. Various theories are bandied about around the fire: abrupt season change, resulting in a poor showing; weather was too warm; weather was too cold; other foragers got to them first. This last seems too painful to countenance—an affront of the highest order—and the group dismisses it out of hand. “See, I didn’t even find any stems,” says the educator, “and that makes me think that there just weren’t any chanterelles out there at all.” The golden trumpet proves elusive, the game is afoot, and a fungus hunger is whetted to a razor-fine edge.

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