First published online at http://www.entelechyjournal.com/morels.htm and in Mushroom the Journal of Wild Mushrooming Spring 2004.
I guess it had to happen. Parts of my radical farm boy past have finally caught up to me and caused me to be placed on a list of terrorist suspects. Mushrooms were involved, morels in fact. Here is how it happened.
On the Friday before Memorial Day I was driving home from a fishing trip to a nearby river. Morels in the Mid Hudson area of New York State are usually just about done by this time, but this year Spring had been cool, wet, and late, and when leaving the stream I chanced upon a single intact morel and the slug eaten remains of a few more. I bagged the good one, along with the 12” Brown Trout I had opened to see what it was feeding on, thinking these two catches would fit nicely together in my fry pan later in the evening.
On the drive home I decided to cast about for a few more morels, so I used the best technique I know of, one I have repeatedly advocated to readers of this magazine: look for and check under dead elms near the side of the road. Follow all traffic regulations and local laws, of course. You know, like use turn signals, park safely, and don’t trespass. So when I spotted dead elms both to the left and to the right of the road, I followed my advice, parked in a cleared area on a wide shoulder of the road and took to the woods with a lunch bag in hand.
Ten minutes and three morels later I emerged from the other side of the road to see a big yellow official looking vehicle parked behind my car, not quite a Humvee, but distinctly police-like and ominous. “Hummm”, I thought “something’s afoot here.” As I approached the parking area a disembodied voice crackled a warning over the PA system. “Stay back from the car and approach the yellow vehicle.” I did as requested. Soon two other State Police cars appeared, lights flashing, officers grim and apprehensive.
In retrospect, I can understand their concern. A motorist passing by as I went into the woods, (another state official, in fact) called a suspected terrorist alert. The Federal Office of Homeland Security had recently raised it’s color coded alert status to orange, only one shade from full scale war, and we were all to be on guard to protect our roads, bridges, power plants, reservoirs, railroad lines, ball parks, shopping centers, schools, etc. The dead elms I chose to investigate happened to be within a few miles of such a site, within what one officer described as a “secure area”.
I was told the official who made the call reported “two people dragging a large bag (or bags) into the woods”. Other versions of the story involved two suspicious women carrying bags, a large bag being dragged into the woods, and evasive actions being taken. And here I was, at that very spot, caught, bag in hand.
They were surprised when I reached into the bag to produce a morel, suspecting perhaps me to be a suicide bomber about to produce a WMD. “Is it poison?” asked the officer in charge flinching a bit. “Not this one” I replied. “This is Morchella esculenta, edible, but there is a poison look-alike Gyromitra fastigiata - or korfii - depending upon the size of the knobs on the spores… mono-methyl hydrazine, rocket fuel, is the toxin…” They looked at each other, spoke into their two way radios, and checked their computer screens. After a few minutes the lead officer spoke, “Is this something to do with science”, he asked?
All the while the Junior Officer kept prodding me. “Where is the other guy” he kept asking? He had gathered together a flashlight, a small communication device and other tools of the trade and had asked me to take him into the woods. I agreed but he softened to the idea when I mentioned that we would probably find ticks. I didn’t mention the poison ivy. “So where is the other guy?” “What else do you have in the car?” “What is the plastic bag sticking out of your pocket?”
As far as I knew there was no other guy. I pointed out to them that, thanks to the recent rain, they could see that there was but a single set of car tracks in the gravel, leading straight to my car. There was also a single trace in the wet grass leading from my car into the woods. The trunk of my car held another morel, a freshly killed trout and wet fishing gear. And the plastic bag in my pocket held the remains of a recent après fishing snack, a gourmet pastry from Bread Alone. I showed them the remaining crumbs.
I think by this point they were beginning to realize they had been had, not so much by me as by the overzealous officer who called in my “suspicious activity” and the rumor mill that, in the space of 10 minutes had spun out the permutations of “bag dragging” by “two men” or “suspicious women hauling bags along the road and into the woods”. Lord knows the lengths that terrorists will take to disguise their true intentions!
After a half hour or so, and after having a great deal of my personal history, gleaned from my license plate, driver’s license, and interview entered into the computer data base, I was free to go. I was never accused of violating any law. There were no signs that I could see designating this as “off limits” or “secure”, no “No Trespassing” or “No Parking” or “No Stopping”, etc. There was a sign warning against littering. Just that and the suspicion of a passing motorist that I was up to no good.
I think the officer in charge was right. This does have something to do about science. And about skills of critical thinking, hypothesis testing, concept formation and good police work.
My academic training in mycology grew out of my training in psychology. I am interested in how the mind works, how we select from the welter of sensory impressions those that allow us to differentiate one event, one taxon, from another, and how we group isolated experienced into an integrated whole, form concepts, designate species, genera and families. This is the work of science, logic, rational thought processes and ultimately of mental health. It is probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but for many of us it is the compass by which we set our bearings in life.
Mycology in some respects represents us with a superior challenge to this task as we attempt to differentiate between species with so many subtly similar shared characteristics. We learn to differentiate macroscopically by how they look, taste, smell, feel, etc. and add to this a considerable list of microscopic, chemical, and culturing factors to arrive at a tentative identification. You only need attend one foray to see how tentative this can be.
The mistakes I see as I work with the Poison Control network of New York State are usually the result of someone going off with insufficient training: children are obvious, followed closely by those “trained” in other climes and cultures. From the process referred to above, the most interesting poisonings to my mind are those that result from someone who is determined to have reality conform to his (or her) idea of idea of what it should be. The guys for instance – and so far they have always been guys – who say something like, “By God Gert, I don’t give a rat’s behind about what your Lary Gincoff thinks. That mushroom looks good to eat and if you want to stay married to me you better darn well cook it up for dinner!”
Back to “the two guys (or gals) dragging a bag into the woods”. Modern psychological research questions the credibility of much eye witness testimony. Perception (seeing) and cognition (thinking) are part of the same continuum. The retina of the eye is part of the brain and we tend to see what we want to see, what we need to see, and what we expect to see. It is our emotions that color what we want or need and our past experience that alters our expectations.
A single adult male, wearing among other things blue jeans and a red Ball Cap, with a lunch bag in hand would not normally be described as “two people dragging a bag into the woods”, unless, of course the observer had other things on his mind.
And here is the political commentary. Today, in America, we seem to have other things on our mind. The events of September 11, 2001 have altered the way many of us view the world. We are afraid. And this fear has altered the way we process information. Need I point out how differently I might have been treated by my interrogators had I a Middle-Eastern name, or dark skin, or turbaned headdress, a different profession than that of a college professor, or could not have produced a New York City security clearance?
Earlier this spring I was summoned from class by a Poison Control call that came from a family who recently moved into the area from NYC. As I spoke with the wife and mother I was amazed at how quickly she was able to process information. During the few minutes of our initial telephone contact she was simultaneously talking with me, checking a field guide or two, and running several pages on her computer.
When I called back at the end of class, twenty minutes later, she had arrived at a tentative ID of the mushroom her child had eaten… “the Sulfur Shelf, Laetiporus sulfureus”. I was impressed. “Not Bad” I said, “but probably not. It is the wrong season. Try Pyncnoporus cinnabarinus. It has a different mitic structure that allows it to remain intact throughout the winter.” “Is part of the redness because it grew on cherry wood” she asked? Were only my students so quick. I inquired about what she did for a living. She replied that both she and her husband were trained as Nuclear Engineers, although were now working at other tasks and had moved into the area to follow a job opening.
Later in the evening the family brought the mushrooms over to a member of COMA for positive conformation of the identification. They were so thrilled with the field of amateur mycology, with the mycologists they had met, with the challenges of field identification and prospects of mushrooming that they immediately decided to join that group.
Before my suspicious activity came to light and my identity placed into that computerized database, I had planned to write of this families experience in more detail. Now, I find myself hoping they don’t also wander into some ill defined security area and are revealed to be both a suspected terrorist and a nuclear scientist. As I reflect on the wonderful diversity of those of us motivated to attempt the mastery of field identification of mushrooms I am led to the conclusion than many could easily be suspect of being up to no good. We have, it seems, more than our fair share of mavericks and characters amongst our ranks.
The psychologists who studied the mind set of the followers of Hitler during the Second World War alerted us to the dangers of prejudicial thinking and authoritarian personalities. Those tough-minded and power hungry leaders were quite skilled at creating an atmosphere in which their bottom line sounded both plausible and urgent. “Defense of the Fatherland” created an emotional screen for them to advance an otherwise indefensible set of social policies, and a nation primed to follow the leader goose-stepped promptly into line.… I am not the first to suggest that aspects of today’s political climate and infotainment culture invite comparison.
As fear alters the balance of neurosynaptic transmitters in our brain and body it robs us of the ability to think and act rationally. If you recall the ghost stories we told as young scouts sitting around the campfire you also know how thrilling and stimulating these tales of terror can be. This is a romance as compelling and ultimately flawed as the search for a lover who will give meaning to our life. It is better to find yourself collecting mushrooms.
I recall a discussion I had years ago with Gary Alan Fine who at the time was investigating the culture of Amateur Mycology. He was interested in how we processed and shared information about the dangers inherent in mushrooming. Our discussion turned to the stories we mushroomers share with one another, the nuanced turning of the tale that approaches yet never quite reaches shadenfreude, but casts instead a soft beam of light on the dark face of tragedy, erasing the hard edges of terror with the softness of a smile, the twinkle of an eye, the deep belly laugh breaking the knot in our gut.
So, yes sir, officer, this does have something to do with science. But it can also be a heck of a lot of fun. Grab a field guide and come along. And bring that passing motorist guy. We are unlikely to find any bag ladies hiding amongst the shrubbery, but might find a pair of pink gilled fairies. Here, the soft one with the free gills, she is a pleuteus, musty but safe. And over there, with the erect nipple and gills attached, an entoloma, but I warn you, sickness awaits if you indulge in her pleasures. And here, dancing up this tree, with the lilly-white spores and long, dark, unveiled legs the lovely Flammulina velutipes, and oh so slippery on the tongue. You are going to love this hunt, I promise. And when you get good enough, this summer perhaps, we might even find Lincoff’s Dirty Trich in the leaf mould under those dead elms, over there by the No Littering sign!