The Magical Mushroomy Tour

August 7, 2009

With all the rain we’ve had lately there have been mushrooms coming up all over the place. There have been mushrooms of every color. Well, every shade of white, yellow, brown, and plaid, but there have been a lot of them. I’ve always been fascinated by mushrooms. When I was a kid my best friend’s dad had a whole shelf of books about mushrooms, and he and I would sometimes try to identify ones that came up in our yards. There were some types of mushrooms he told me that anyone could identify and which were not only edible but delicious. Inky caps, for instance, were easy to identify because in a few hours after popping up they’d turn into slimy goo. They were inedible but, hey, if your mushrooms turn to slimy goo, at least you know they were inky caps and that you could have eaten them. And that they would have been delicious. The book of my friend’s father I liked best was a field guide that had clear, full-color pictures of the mushrooms and on the facing page a description with a key t that told you exactly which mushrooms were edible and delicious, which ones weren’t that tasty but still edible, which ones would kill you, and which ones would take you on a magic carpet ride through the universe for nine hours before waking up naked in a fountain in the middle of a gated community.

I always wondered how people originally figured out which mushrooms were edible and which ones were poisonous. Figuring that out is not a job I would have wanted, especially since some of them weren’t just poisonous–they were really, really, really poisonous. There was one mushroom that was so lethal you couldn’t even look at it. There wasn’t a picture of it–just a blank page with a note that said "Three nature photographers gave their lives attempting to photograph the Eye-Stabbing Morel." It was an important reminder not just of how dangerous mushrooms could be but also how difficult the life of a nature photographer must be. That was something else I wondered: how did the author of that book get photos of all those mushrooms to go with the text? I used to wonder the same thing about nature documentaries. I’d watch a nature documentary and think, Boy, those camera guys sure were lucky that they were able to get a shot of the rare mandingo mosquito to go with the script. It wasn’t until years later that it finally occurred to me that they probably shot the film first and then wrote the script to fit it, but even that must be a pretty tricky business. Obviously they don’t go out with a vague plan, like, "Hey, let’s go and photograph some stuff and see if we can make a nature documentary." They have to have some idea, right? Say they want to make a nature documentary about mushrooms. What if they can’t find any mushrooms? I guess they’d really have to change their plans. I can imagine some husky-voiced British guy strolling through the woods saying, "Tonight we’ll be looking at the odd collection of creatures that make up a film crew. Over here, for instance, we see George. Frustrated in his pursuit of an acting career, he has instead decided to set his sights on the easier prey of being a gaffer." At least there was a time when that’s what they would have had to do. Thanks to the magic of technology, of course, they can do everything from a computer-generated Eye-stabbing Morel to simulating the magic carpet ride that certain mushrooms will take you on. All without the inconvenience of waking up naked in a fountain.

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