A LESSON TOO LATE FOR THE LEARNIN 'Bill Bakaitis, May 2011


 One of the reasons that I go mushrooming, in fact the thing I most love about it, is that it affords me an opportunity to move not only through the woods, but deeper inside myself. With each soft step I can slip deeper into the web of nature and slowly absorb what it has to teach.

This is a quiet pursuit, a solitary enterprise. A place where one learns that control and conquest is ephemeral and illusory and that the process of being there is what fills one's basket with life's treasures. For me it is time well spent. It is also the reason that I fish with a fly rod and hunt with a recurve.  Success in each of these pursuits depends upon slowly and patiently learning the ways of nature.

Recently I have been witness to a disturbing trend that seems poised to destroy much of what I love about being in the out-of-doors. It has to do with a desire for speed and an insistence that nature yield her treasures quickly and effortlessly. Powered by modern technology and supported by a culture of quick-cutting media, cut and paste scanning, bumper-sticker mentality, and instant-messaging devices this assault seems not only corrosive and addictive, but ultimately self-defeating.

In its mildest form we have all seen –and heard- groups of hikers or foragers with their digital mobile devices walking through the woods and talking with one another or with friends and acquaintances way out beyond the horizon. In this form the assault merely irritating.

It never seems to occur to them that their ring tones are ugly and intrusive, or that the sound of their inane chatter is completely out of place in nature. But perhaps I don't get it. Perhaps McKibben was right when he observed the 'Death of Nature' in our modern world. Perhaps those of us who desire quiet should just purchase a high-tech noise cancelling headset and get on with life. A nuisance perhaps, like the neighbor who has the yapping dog and thinks the dog's right to bark trumps the neighborhoods right to tranquility: a nuisance but not deeply destructive.

Move a notch up the technological scale and things become a bit more problematic. The self-defeating aspect of this crunch between technology and nature first became clear to me one October morning on a beach in Rhode Island.

I had come to walk the beach alone, fly rod in hand, searching and waiting for False Albacore, those members of the tuna family which in the fall of the year periodically rush the beach in search of food. To better improve the chance of catching one I had studied the life cycles of the various bait fishes, their seasonal migratory patterns, the water temperatures, weather conditions, tide charts, and beach configurations.  Nothing guaranteed, of course, but the thrill of having one of these fish hit your fly going 35 mph got me up at 1:00 in the morning, carried me through a three hour trip to the beach and an hours bracing hike to this likely spot. The tide was coming in, the sun was coming up and in the early morning glow, I was ready.

Then there they were, right in the pocket of a curve in the beach where I had expected them. I began to cast and then suddenly hordes of motor boats appeared, their twin engines roaring and their radios crackling to one another about the location of this pod of fish. Some of the boats overshot their mark – some always do -- and went over the fish. And just as suddenly, the fish disappeared.  The boats sat idle for a few moments, then a message crackled from a distant spotter about another pod at a new location and off they roared, a small fleet of $40,000 to $500,000 boats churning off after a 'trendy' fish which until a few years ago was considered 'trash'. 

"Trendy", that new marker of sophistication: Like False Albacore, Morels and Ramps have also become 'trendy' and hordes of foragers, foodies, purveyors, and locovores now prowl the woods in search of them, smart phones in hand.  More about this in a moment, but first another lesson learned from fishing.

For the past three years, Striped Bass have failed to come to many of the beaches in the Northeast. The reasons for this are a separate story, but suffice it to say that I was quite thrilled when late last fall I discovered a few schools of large fish.  This time of year I probe and study the beaches from Maine to New Jersey and by dint of fortune and persistence was able to unlock a few secrets long after most others had stopped fishing.  Eager to share my experience with a fishing buddy, I sent him a photo of one fish and a description of the day's activity.  He lives three states away yet with borrowed pride forwarded my email to his friend, a charter-boat captain operating even further up the coast. I was unable to fish the next day but my buddy showed up -- along with over 50 other fishermen each with tales about "Bill and the great fishing there yesterday". They had seen the pictures!  As it happened, the charter boat captain had forwarded my email to his client list and they had sent it along to their friends, and so forth. 

In the fishing world this is known as 'burning' a location and is the primary reason why responsible fishing chat rooms are monitored and no longer divulge sites. In this hi-tech world the line between success and devastation, it seems, is but a click away.

Unlike fish, Morels and Ramps cannot move easily to another spot and so become extraordinarily susceptible to systematic eradication by concentrated exploitation. I have learned never to bring my mycology classes to new locations, sticking instead to the same spots associated with my college's environmental learning center year after year, even though better ones exist, due to the fact that each and every spot we visit gets raked over and picked clean prior to our visit by members of previous classes. I show the students what I consider to be typical habitat, explain that this is a teaching- only site and encourage them to find their own places, but there are always a few who return to plunder the proven. Three prime morel sites which I knew to have produced for decades were wiped clean and barren by this plunder.

As an educator, the realization that my own students would forsake the ecological/ communitarian message of the class in favor of heedless greed troubles me deeply and gives me pause. The reasons I continue teaching are long and complex and are better addressed elsewhere.

The trend towards faster and more powerful wireless technology continues unabated powered by Moore's Law, and each season I see an increasing number of local mycological groups and wild food gathers use it as they scour the woods in search of these now trendy treats.  With smart phones they are able to snap pictures and mark GPS coordinates of their finds and instantly send these out to friends or collaborators. Like commercial fishing factories which send out aircraft to find and track schools of fish, there are mushrooming groups which now send out their scouts days before a walk in order to track the flush so that their club would be guaranteed to have a 'successful' outing. Paradoxically some groups will demand that anyone attending their forays must first join the club before going out, but in a baffling twist post the location and time of the walk in advance on their web and social network sites and encourage current members to bring along a half dozen friends.

Even if everyone were honest as could be, and only wanted a half dozen Morels or a handful of Ramps for their evening meal, thirty or forty collectors scouring a hillside or valley can cut a deep scar on the face of a fragile ecological community. Consider this, sans sheep, the mycological equivalent of the Tragedy of The Commons. When any system reaches a tipping point, collapse follows in a flash.

Foraging is now trendy and the same technological forces which help shape our social meaning of that experience and of those trendy products also provides the enhanced methods of precisely locating those scarce commodities which we now desire.  It is a consequence unplanned but nevertheless devastating: Foraging at warp speed threatens to destroy the very thing we desire. In this case the difference between excitement and exploitation is a tweet gone viral. Ramp Up to 4G and watch as the real Ramps disappear.

In the fading hippie days of the 1970's the social thinker and anarchist Paul Goodman commented on the limits of freedom. On a hot sticky day in the summer you might want to get away from the crowds and go to the beach, seeking comfort from the throngs. So do thousands of others, and each acting independently and reacting to the same natural and social forces arrive at the same beach at the same time to find it packed towel to towel with the horde all sought to escape. Add social media and you end up with crowd action on steroids.  When everyone, Goodman concludes, is free to do their own thing, someone's thing is to tell you what to do.   Enter 'Posted" signs, 'Environmental Regulation", and Libertarian reaction.

This spring while photographing a Black Morel in situ, I was approached by a hiker who chanced by, came over, and noticed the morel, even though I had quickly shifted location to a nearby wildflower. He smiled, took a shot of a nearby marker and as he walked away played with his smart phone.    Forty-five minutes later, as I was walking out of the woods, a group of three hikers with collecting baskets rushed past me. They said they were heading for the spot near the bridge where the rocks are. Their buddy told them that Blacks were up.

Another spot burned!

The process of nature is slow. Changes come gradually. Development of organism to site is organic, interrelated, balanced even though the final flush may seem swift.  The unintended consequences of mobile modern technology in the hunt and harvest of wild foods poses severe threats to the sustainability of these products. It is an oxymoron, similar to 'unobtrusive ring tones' in the Forest Primeval. There is no way a slowly developing patch of Blacks or Ramps can win in this race. Sooner rather than later, at least here in the populated Northeast, they are destined to be lunched.

"Creamed Ramps with Morels, Monsieur? Oh yes, a fine choice; our most popular. And may I suggest the Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume? Excellent!Would you like that I charged to your smart phone Monsieur?But of course."     

See also http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/dining/20forage.html?partner=rss&emc=rss and

http://www.sheersoycandles.com/blogs/articles/3156552-morel-mushroom-enthusiast-loses-secret-spot-to-high-tech-hunter


Bill Bakaitis May 2011