Innovation Ecosystem

The richness of our landscape, revealed

The emergence of a bountiful crop of wild mushrooms in rural Rhode Island leads to strengthening of an engaged community

Photo by Besty Taylor

A bountiful autumn harvest of wild mushrooms on a local farm in western Rhode Island.

Photo by Betsy Taylor

Fah and some of the bountiful harvest of wild mushrooms.

Image courtesy of Betsy Taylor

Betsy Taylor carries a small basket of freshly picked wild mushrooms.

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By Betsy Taylor
Posted 9/23/19
The world around us can serve as an important classroom to learn about the biological diversity throughout Rhode Island’s lands and waters.
In all the brouhaha about the future of education in Rhode Island, how can a greater appreciation of all the life teeming in the landscapes and oceans in the state offer a doorway in the different kinds of learning that are part of the human enterprise? How can projects such as the Barrington Farm School, a nonprofit community organization dedicated to preserving a working farm rather than have it succumb to building lots, be replicated in other areas of Rhode Island? What is the status of the planned mushroom and vegetable growing enterprise that was chosen to be one of three innovation campuses in collaboration with the University of Rhode Island? What assumptions will need to change about preserving Rhode Island’s agricultural enterprise in the very real threats from climate change, including clean drinking water insecurity?
Amidst all the chatter about co-working spaces as being the spark behind the growing hub of entrepreneurial activity in Rhode Island, envisioning the sharing of ideas and collaborations as driving the hub of future economic exchange, the simple but complex story of foraging for wild mushrooms reveals a different kind of human endeavor: Products that are shared, not gathered to enrich a marketplace; a sense of discovery that was freely revealed and then passed down, generation to generation; the way in which community is continually being redefined, often in surprising fashion, built upon generosity, not scarcity.
What the eyes don't see, the title of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha's book about the lead poisoning of children in Flint, Mich., also applies to our lack of vision when it comes to how we experience and understand our relationship with the world around us.

SOMEWHERE IN WESTERN RHODE ISLAND – It was a luminous fall day in early September as I slowly drove up my winding driveway in rural Rhode Island. Suddenly I stopped the car. What was that?

Growing around the base of two oak trees that had been decimated by previous years’ gypsy moth plague was a bubbling settlement of creamy white and soft yellow mushrooms.

My husband and I have lived on this old dirt road for almost 14 years, and every season I have found quiet inspiration peacefully admiring the diversity of wild plants and mushrooms that seemingly pop up overnight to punctuate the rocky glacial landscape.

Remembering that a fellow ESL teacher friend knew a thing or two about wild mushrooms, I snapped a couple shots and texted them to her.

“Do you know what these are,” I asked. “Yes, total deliciousness!” she promptly replied.

Less than an hour later she was at my house with her 6-year-old son and her godsister, Fah, a lovely Thai lady who was so elated by the mushrooms that she literally did a dance.

I grabbed a small knife and a couple of baskets for them and hobbled with my broken ankle over to the first spotting. Within seconds, Fah was at work expertly cutting mushrooms from their base to ensure the rhizomes were not harmed for future crops.

I watched as Fah, with the help of the child, collected their treasures; the generational wisdom being passed down was a lovely sight to behold.

“Look,” she squealed, darting across the field. I did not see what she saw, but her excitement was on par with a kid’s first visit to Disney World. Another happy dance ensued.

A bountiful harvest
After a couple minutes of walking along historic dry-stone walls, Fah came back with a different looking mushroom – meatier, with a deep russet red cap. Apparently this type is also considered a delicacy.

My mind was slowly being blown. Who knew that I lived in the magical land of wild edible mushrooms? Within an hour, two large bins had been completely filled with wild mushrooms. Different shapes, sizes, and colors mixed to create an impromptu quilt of late summer bounty.

Before leaving with their jackpot, Fah wanted to know if she could return for some more mushroom foraging the following day. Naturally, I said yes. The next day, upon returning from a doctor’s visit, I saw her vehicle parked in the field next to two overflowing hampers of wild mushrooms.

This time her harvest contained even more varieties and shades of color than on the previous day. I paused to allow my eyes to slowly drink in their raw beauty.

The value of knowledge handed down
“How much would these cost in the store? Where can you find them?,” I queried.

“No store,” she replied. “Only wild.”

This happy, diminutive lady from Thailand possessed depths of knowledge that I could only dream about. She knew how to hunt wild mushrooms with joy and confidence, how to process them, and how to use them to make delicious food to serve her family and community.

On her third visit, I was greeted by Fah, her mother and two other Thai ladies. They had brought me a platter of vegan nime chow complete with homemade dipping sauce. The visit before they had brought me a generous portion of fresh ramen sautéed with vegetables. No fish sauce, as per my special request.

Leaving an hour later, with promises of mushroom soup to come, Fah, her mother, and her friends climbed into their car and headed back to Connecticut, where they would soon begin processing the mushrooms by boiling them before adding them to favorite dishes.

A lesson in biologic diversity

There are about 10 different species of honey mushrooms, with the most common species being Armillaria mellea. Armillaria is a parasitic fungi that devours both living and dead plant matter.

They can be found at the base of trees and shrubs, especially oaK and are known for their nutty, sweet flavor and chewy texture. Caution must be used when foraging, as there are several poisonous imposters.

Researching this species of mushroom, I discovered some wild facts. Some Armillaria mellea are bioluminescent and glow in the dark. This phenomenon is called “foxfire,” which despite having the same name, is much different than the 1950s girl gang that author Joyce Carol Oates wrote about.

Ever wonder what the largest organism in the world is? Until 1998, the 200-ton blue whale was thought to hold this distinction. Not anymore. Make way for the honey fungus!

There is a patch of Armillaria ostoyae that covers over 2,400 acres [that’s 1,665 football fields] in Oregon’s Blue Mountains that is estimated to be more than 2,200 years old. Some estimate its age at closer to 8,650 years old ,which would make it not only the largest but oldest organism on earth.

An outdoors classroom of discovery
Late summer and early fall are when the forests come alive with these intriguing mushrooms, and I encourage you to take a romp and see what you can spy. While I don’t suggest popping any in your mouth without the guidance of an experienced forager, hunting mushrooms and photographing their ancient charm can be just as rewarding.

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