My friend, Travis Kriplean, organized a “mushroom learning pod” for his pre-school age son and friends up in Portland, and he’s been regularly sharing stories and photos from their adventures in my colearning group. I’ve not only been moved by what he’s been doing and why, I’ve been highly envious. Last month, Travis shared a writeup of what he’s been doing, and I thought, “Why does this just have to be for pre-schoolers?” I pinged Travis about starting up a San Francisco Bay Area pod, and I pinged the Bay Area constituents of my colearning group to see if they’d be interested in playing. To my surprise and delight, all of them said yes!
Unfortunately, I know nothing about mushrooms, other than that the edible kinds are delicious and that they play an important role in our ecology. I also already have plenty of things keeping me interested and occupied and didn’t need or want another big project. Fortunately, Travis explained that neither of these would be impediments, and he suggested keeping things simple. Go out, find mushrooms, and document them. Most importantly, enjoy some hot chocolate together afterward.
This framing appealed me for a lot of reasons. It reminded me of Mary Oliver’s instructions for living a life, which has felt like my mantra for these pandemic times:
Tell about it.
So that’s what we did. I did a minimal amount of preparation. I found a place close by (Joaquin Miller Park), picked a date and time, and put some hot chocolate in a thermos.
When I arrived at the trailhead, I felt a little bit bad about not being more prepared. It was unseasonably warm, even for the Bay Area — about 80 degrees. The one thing I knew about mushrooms was that they like moisture, and the trail I had picked was bone dry. Still, I had been transparent about my lack of preparation, it was a beautiful afternoon, and my friends had great attitudes, so on we marched.
We found a grand total of one mushroom (pictured above), which felt like minimum success. I also learned some things about lichen (it’s both a fungus and an algae!), and we spotted some beautiful birds, including some Dark-eyed Juncos. I also had learned enough from this experience to start plotting a second trip, this time closer to my home in San Francisco, where it was foggier and hopefully more mushroom-friendly. Plus, drinking hot chocolate with friends as the sun began to wane, even on a warm evening, was pretty great. All in all, I was pretty happy about the afternoon.
But when I got home and tried to identify the mushroom, things got even more interesting. We found it on a Bay Laurel stump, so it’s probably a Ganoderma brownii, but it could also be a Ganoderma applanatum. Both mushrooms are known as “artist’s conk,” because the white underside turns brown more or less permanently when bruised, and artists have been known to do etchings on the bottoms of these mushrooms. They are hardy mushrooms, which is why we were able to find them under such dry conditions, and apparently are also used for medicinal teas.
When I uploaded my photo to iNaturalist (my very first contribution!), I was stunned and delighted to see that the app correctly guessed what it was.
I’m sure I’ve seen these before, but I’ve never stopped to pay attention and to figure out what I was looking at. Next time, I know to look even closer, so that I can more definitively identify it. I had felt self-imposed pressure to find more mushrooms, so rather than slow down to look more closely and carefully document it, I took a quick snapshot, and moved on. This was the very muscle I was hoping to develop, and this experience reminded me how much practice I still need.
Excited about this first foray! Let me know if you’d be interested in participating in the next one! I’m thinking early December at Land’s End.