Zen and the Art of Hedgehog Picking

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Early in 2015. My birthday month. Time to set intentions, right? Instead, I think I’ll just "set" here on the porch at Smith River, wrapped in a blanket of near darkness, spooling out thoughts on an afternoon in an ancient forest learning how to pick hedgehog mushrooms.

Don’t get me wrong. I already knew a lot about the mechanics of finding and picking hedgehogs. They look like dollops of pumpkin cheesecake on the dark forest floor, have cute hedgehog spines instead of gills, begin fruiting just as the chanterelles are turning to flaccid brown pulp, grow and persist well into the winter, and don’t seem to wither after a hard freeze. I love them for all these reasons, and because they a wonderful mushroom flavor. But these facts have little to do with right picking, a mycological follow-on of the Zen principle of right action. This I am only beginning to figure out.

The recipe for right picking is wrapped in subtlety, like the light of late afternoon in late winter in an old forest. The first step is to be in that forest, with giant fir and hemlocks upright and down and old vine maple with twisted mossy trunks looking stunted but not really stunted because that is the nature of vine maple growing in the low hung dimness.  Nylon rain paints swish too loudly against leathery salal, but that’s okay because we are here. This first step, this being here, does not end, not even long after we have walked out of the forest with darkness rising up around us from the deepness of the understory, not even ever.

In this pause that we have created, this calm space as quiet as the forest that enfolds us in its withered arms, we ask permission to pick, putting aside the idea that we are asking anyone other than the old forest of which we are now finally a part. There might be a voice to this request or not, but the asking is a conscious act.

We ask and take a deep diaphragmatic breath, drawing inward the cool moistness carrying the smell of decomposition that is death becoming life into those small empty spaces of our lungs that have been waiting patiently to expand. Then we exhale knowing that the CO2 passing over the mucous membranes of our respiratory tract, leaving our mouth and nose in a cloud of steam, is now available to the fir and hemlock and vine maple and salal and moss to inhale and use for making more of themselves. This is our gift to them. It is the only one that we can give in this moment. Listen. There will likely be no audible voice. If you hear words, question your sanity. But do not seek help. Sanity is a definitional state. Arbitrary. Go on about your business.

This afternoon permission came to me as intuition, an internal reality arising out of several external circumstances. I already had hedgehog mushrooms at home. I was not hungry. The bigger mushrooms had by now sent their spores into the soft air, their hope for future offspring that would be genetically different, perhaps even superior, to themselves. All of these merged into an intuitive sense that I had permission to pick the larger mushrooms.

So I began. That first step, the ongoing need to remain quiet, was challenging. When I finally encountered a hedgehog large enough to harvest, I felt that little foraging thrill I’ve experienced so often, the small flush of feel-good chemicals emanating from the center of my chest. I love this feeling. It is joy. But sometimes, especially when there are many mushrooms close at hand, my child-like elation can become downright manic, transforming itself into greed. Must. Have. More.

I am no longer a child. I only act like one sometimes. This afternoon chose to grow up just a little. I felt the joy and broke the mushroom off just above the moss from which it sprouted (hedgehogs are surprisingly brittle). Then, rather than crash recklessly off through the forest searching for more fungi, I took another small breath and exhaled my gratitude and steamy gift of CO2 out to the plants.

Let’s not be too melodramatic. I was not taking the life of the mushroom in order to feed myself, an act that would have required even deeper levels of introspection, gratefulness, and acceptance of my own mortality. The mushroom I picked was only a tuft of fungal hair, an above ground manifestation of a much larger being, the mycelial mass growing beneath the dark surface. These mycelia draw sustenance from the roots of trees surrounding them, and in future winters they will continue to send the familiar fruiting bodies that we and the guidebooks identify as a "mushroom" up to the surface, provided that the forest ecosystem remains intact. This is not a given. Most of my productive mushroom picking spaces have fallen prey to clear-cutting and so-called “thinning,” leaving the ground scorched and dry and incapable of supporting fungi.

Still, this afternoon and in other forests that persist, the lessons of right picking will remain. Quietude. Asking. Permission. Gratitude. Grace.

©Tom A. Titus