Pollan reminisces about his love of gardening as a child; gardens always “astonished” him with their ability to produce food in a few short months. He notes, however, that the forager has a very different view of nature than the gardener. The gardener sees an orderly world in which nature can be made to conform to human needs. The forager, on the other hand, must contend with plants, like mushrooms, that deliberately hide from and frustrate the efforts of humans to cultivate them—they can even poison the humans who try to eat them.
Pollan suggests that humans have become comfortable in settings in which nature is accommodated to human preferences—like, for instance, the garden, which is a product of human cultivation. The wild mushrooms in the forest, by contrast, offer a window into a very different world of nature free from human intervention.
1. Five Chanterelles. Pollan hunts for mushrooms with Angelo, who knows a good spot in the Bay Area for finding “chanterelles”—a delicacy highly valued by foraging enthusiasts. As when he hunted the boar, Pollan finds his senses heightened by the experience of searching a previously ordinary landscape for small signs of a hidden prey. Angelo teaches him to “put his eyes on,” i.e. to see the world more closely and in more detail, as a forager would. After a full day, Pollan finds five large mushrooms that he tastes that night with his family.
Pollan is only able to find the mushrooms after he quite literally adjusts how he sees the world, choosing to approach the forest floor with heightened senses of sight and smell. Such abilities are the product of thousands of years of human evolution, but people today are rarely asked to call upon or develop the skills that hunters and gatherers depended on to survive.
Pollan and his wife Judith recall a time when she found wild mushrooms in Connecticut. They were nervous about whether the mushrooms were poisonous, and so allowed a friend to taste them first—one less than ethical solution to the omnivore’s dilemma, Pollan notes wryly. In the case of the chanterelle, Pollan decides to eat the mushroom and resolve his innate fear of new foods because a trusted authority, Angelo, has assured him that these mushrooms are safe to eat.
Although Pollan is initially apprehensive about eating an unfamiliar food, he is reassured by Angelo’s expertise on poisonous and edible mushrooms. This is another example of the way that human culture and shared knowledge about food helps people navigate the omnivore’s dilemma.
2. Mushrooms are Mysterious. Pollan is intrigued to learn that scientists know so little about mushrooms and fungi in general, one of the three “kingdoms” (along with plants and animals) on earth. The mushroom is more like an animal than a plant in that it feeds on organic matter rather than photosynthesizing energy from the sun. Mushrooms often grow around trees because they break down the “blanket of organic matter” (i.e. dead leaves) left behind by plants. The association between mushrooms and decay and death may account for their somewhat off-putting reputation, along with the fact that of course many mushrooms are themselves poisonous or contain mind-altering substances. Most strangely of all, mushrooms contain vitamins but very few calories, since they don’t digest energy from the sun, and thus aren’t regarded as an important source of nutrition for humans.
All of Pollan’s food chains thus far have centered on protein derived from the sun—either directly photosynthesized, as in the case of plants, or consumed indirectly by animals. This is one means of efficiently transforming solar energy into protein. Mushrooms, however, are efficient in a very different way. They contain vitamins instead of calories—so while humans can derive valuable nutritional benefits from mushrooms, they don’t provide energy in precisely the same way as, say, steak or salad. Mushrooms thus represent an alternative food chain that offers different efficiencies and uses than traditional sources of protein.
3. Working the Burn. Pollan goes hunting for morels (another mushrooms delicacy) with Anthony Tassinello, a foraging enthusiast who is willing to share his “burn” sites. The hunting grounds are referred to in these terms because morels grow in woodland areas after forest fires, which are common in northern California. Tassinello tells Pollan to arrive at six in the morning, and they drive to Eldorado National Forest, where they meet up with Paulie Porcini, a professional mushroom hunter who uses a pseudonym. Although Pollan is struck by the area’s natural beauty, Tassinello and Porcini tell him to keep his eyes on the ground.
Only by staring at the earth in a different way, at ground level, is Pollan able to see the easily camouflaged morels. This suggests that mushroom hunting requires quite literally seeing the world differently—looking at it through the eyes of a hunter-gatherer, like the prehistoric humans of thousands of years ago. Mushroom hunting turns back the clock on human evolution, peeling back the layers of human culture in order to return to an ancient practice.
To find morels, Pollan relies on the “pop-out effect”—an evolutionary adaptation that allowed ancient human foragers to see what they were looking for in any given field of vision, like the layer of brown on the forest floor. As he searches for the morels, he reflects on the difference between a forest and a garden. A garden has been cultivated for human use, and the plants easily present themselves to the human gaze. In the forest, by contrast, nature is not so hospitable to humans.
One of Pollan’s primary complaints about the modern industrial food complex is that people have come to assume that growing food is easy, and nature should accommodate itself to human needs and preferences. The forest, by contrast, offers an entirely different space—one free from human intervention.
By the end of the day, Pollan, Tassinello, and Porcini have collected sixty pounds of mushrooms, which they will sell to local chefs and restaurants. Pollan explains that morels grow after forest fires to try to spread their organic matter above ground after the tree roots have died. Morels have an important role in regenerating the forest environment after the fire. Flies lay their larvae in the mushrooms, which are then eaten by birds, who spread the mushroom seeds across the floor, stimulating new growth.
Pollan shows that mushrooms are intimately connected to the life cycle of the forest. Although they grow in the wake of a destructive natural event—a forest fire—they also help regenerate the biodiversity of the soil. In this sense, although mushrooms are associated with death, they also produce new life.