Category Archives: environment

This Must Be the Place

forest_lgI had the pleasure of sitting down recently with Eric Parkinson, of This Must Be the Place, a podcast that seeks to reveal “the unique physical, cultural, and emotional layers of places.”

We talked about foraging in the deep emerald forests of the Pacific Northwest, the tenets of slow food, and the myriad charms of nature in its many guises, among other topics.

Eric is a curious and penetrating interviewer determined to get at the heart of both our individual and collective sense of place. You can listen to our conversation here.

Crazy for Conifers

conifersWhen beginner mushroom hunters ask me how to find fungi, I have two answers. First, join a mycological society and go on a foray; there’s no substitute for spending time in the field with a seasoned pro. The second answer might be more surprising: learn your trees.

Experienced mushroom hunters in southwestern Oregon and northern California know the many culinary treats that hide among roots of Notholithocarpusboletivores of the Rockies are skilled at locating high meadows dotted with Picea; and don’t even get me started on the need—the absolute necessity—to know the habits of Abies grandis if you plan to look for edible fungi on the east slope of the Cascades in springtime.

Knowing your trees is a huge part of the mushroom puzzle. This is because many species of fungi have symbiotic relationships (aka mycorrhizal associations) with trees and shrubs. The fungi and trees exchange water and nutrients, and in some cases the bond is so strong that the fungus will form a protective and permanent sheath around the tree’s root tips, a sort of shotgun wedding.

For those of us hunting mushrooms in the western U.S.—in the Pacific Northwest in particular—the trees to know are overwhelmingly conifers. I have a whole library of books about the life histories and identification of trees in my region, and a new one has just found a prominent place among them. Michael Edward Kauffmann’s Conifers of the Pacific Slope: A Field Guide to the Conifers of California, Oregon, and Washington is an important addition, and a broader companion to his earlier work, Conifer Country, which focuses on the rich conifer biodiversity of the Klamath Mountain region.

Of the world’s 600 or so species of conifer, more than half populate the Pacific Rim, and 65 species can be found along the Pacific Slope of North America. Northwestern California is the epicenter of conifer diversity on the continent. A hike into the Russian Wilderness’s “miracle mile” in the Klamath Mountains will reward the conifer enthusiast with potentially 17 (maybe 18) species, one of the richest assemblages on the planet.

Kauffmann has been mentored by some of the best. He dedicates his new book to John O. Sawyer, one of the pioneering botanists of California, who died in 2012. Stephen Arno, whose Northwest Trees has been considered a must-have for tree fanciers since its publication more than 35 years ago, calls Kauffmann’s guide “comprehensive” yet “user-friendly.” The book is divided into sections for each of the three families represented: Cupressaceae (cypresses, junipers, cedars, and redwoods); Pinaceae (firs, Douglas-firs, spruces, pines, larches, and hemlocks); and Taxaceae (yews). Most species descriptions are accompanied by multiple photos depicting bark pattern, cones, and foliage, along with range maps. Text includes discussion of habitat and other observations and remarks.

Tree geeks will need this book because Kauffmann is generous with information about locating some of the more hard-to-find species. Never seen Picea breweriana, the Brewer spruce? Try driving the Bigfoot Highway near Happy Camp, California. Or the beautiful subalpine larch, Larix lyallii? Hike into Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness and check north-facing slopes above 6,000 feet.

It pays to be arbor-aware. Mushroom hunters and foragers in general benefit from recognizing a landscape’s tree composition, whether looking for fungi, wild greens, berries, nuts, or roots. Besides, trees are some of nature’s most beautiful creations, and recognizing their many forms and life histories makes us all the richer.

Empty Buckets?

There’s a lot of chatter right now in mycological circles about proposed legislation in Oregon to require permits for all mushroom harvesting in the state. As written, the law would apply to both commercial and recreational mushroom hunters, although there is a proposed amendment to exempt personal use gathering.

After reading through the documents, I’m still not sure what I think about the legislation. There are arguments to be made for and against permitting. Complicating the issue is a whirlwind of accusations and counter-accusations flying around the message boards. Some say the bill is designed to discourage out-of-state commercial pickers and buyers; on the flip side, private landowners claim that a robust permit system will help to limit theft and property damage by truffle poachers.

The issue of truffle poaching, I suspect, is a real problem in places such as the Willamette Valley, but perhaps it needs to be taken up separately. There is also the question of large numbers of mushroom hunters impacting sensitive habitats on public land. This, too, is no doubt a problem in a few select areas where the habitat is limited (e.g., the Oregon Dunes) or the numbers of harvesters exceptionally large (e.g., Crescent Lake). But it’s hard to imagine that these instances can’t be handled on a case-by-case basis.

In general, it seems to me that public land managers in Oregon are in a better position to determine regulatory decisions in their districts than a sweeping, citizen-backed legislative effort. Admittedly, one could argue that land managers are playing “catch-up ball” when it comes to all things mycological, and we also know that citizen efforts have been necessary through the years to move an intransigent governmental apparatus.

The bottom line is that I’m in favor of getting people outdoors to interact with their environment. Local, state, and federal governments should erect as few barriers as possible to this outcome, while simultaneously protecting our natural heritage for future generations. It’s a balancing act, to be sure.

For years, Washington State’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest has required all mushroom hunters be permitted (a free permit in the case of recreational pickers), ostensibly to study land use patterns and user group demographics. In this case, the data might be useful to land managers trying to make decisions about sensitive habitats. On the other hand, the permit is a barrier to what is essentially, in most cases, a low-impact outdoor activity. Besides, it’s only valid for 10 days, which strikes me as miserly, especially since a biannual commercial license is $125, considerably more than an annual fishing license.

I’d like to hear other thoughts on this subject. Comments open.

Photo: JacobC

The Hawk Lady

Dear readers, I’m pleased to share with you an essay of mine that was a finalist in Terrain.org‘s third annual writing contest. Terrain is an online lit journal that celebrates the intersection between nature and the human-mediated world. My submission, “The Hawk Lady,” was published in issue 31, which debuted yesterday, January 15.

Those of you have read my book Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager will recognize the essay’s setting—the Rogue River Canyon of southwestern Oregon, where I spent a year off the grid with my family, a sabbatical away from the city that inspired both the book and this essay. So while it’s not about foraging, per se, this piece is very much a part of what I’m doing now and my interest in our relationship with the wild.

Save Bristol Bay

Now is the time to stand up for salmon, grizzly bears, the 10,000-year-old cultures of Native Alaskans, and one of North America’s signature ecosystems.

Please, if you enjoy this blog and what it means to savor our wild places, take a moment to add your name to the many who are trying to save Bristol Bay and stop Pebble Mine.

The proposed mine would be in the headwaters of the greatest salmon-producing watershed in the world, a place of unparalleled natural value and unbroken ecological processes. The rivers that empty into Bristol Bay, Alaska, nurture more salmon than anywhere else on Earth. All five species of Pacific salmon spawn in the system, as well as trout and char. Bears, moose, caribou, and a host of other large mammals thrive here. It’s a landscape of stunning beauty.

Ten billion tons of toxic mine tailings are not compatible with this ecosystem.

Tailings dams bigger than Grand Coulee Dam in the Bristol Bay headwaters, an active seismic zone, are not compatible with this ecosystem.

The EPA recently released its draft assessment, suggesting that environmental degradation, should the mine proceed, is likely, even imminent. The EPA has the authority under 404(c) of the Clean Water Act to put a stop to this nonsense. Pebble Mine supporters are on the ropes. It’s time to knock them out for good. Tell the EPA and your elected officials NO PEBBLE MINE. Time is running out for public input. This is the final week to let your voice be heard.

For more information:

In late May I attended the first public hearing on the issue, held in Seattle. The room was packed, and then the overflow room was packed. In all, I counted more than 400 people in attendance, and according to this summary, more than 80 percent of the speakers supported the EPA and its draft assessment. (More than 90% in the Bristol Bay regional hearings were in support.)

The comment period (2 minutes per person) included testimonies from Native American subsistence fishermen, commercial fishermen from Washington State and Alaska, local businesses and tour operators, and those who simply love our last wild places and want to protect them. The few speakers in favor of the mine could only summon feeble arguments based on speculative profits that don’t take into account the endless years of publicly-funded cleanup associated with the usual mega-mine boondoggles.

It’s time to say NO to greed, environmental devastation, and bowing down at the material altar. Sign this petition to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and U.S. President Barack Obama. If you’re an angler, you can sign this Trout Unlimited petition and let your voice be heard. Haven’t you had enough of these business-as-usual scams already?

Photo at top: Ben Knight

Down the Rabbit Hole with David Arora, Part 2

It’s no secret that I enjoy spending time with “the mushroom people.” (Think 1950s sci-fi flick, with a menacing invasion of creatures who fail to conform to the American standard of ignorant mall-walker.) Many of the mushroom people I know, while being a diverse lot overall, share a few similar traits in common. They like to tromp around all day in the outdoors. By night they’re in their kitchens, cooking up the day’s catch and drinking wine. They take pride in lost skills such as recognizing the plants and animals around them; cooking from scratch; and home-brewing, distilling, and wine-making. What’s not to like? These are my people.

And so it was a pleasure to recently visit the home in Gualala, California, of one of the mushroom people trailblazers (“take me to your leader…”). After the Albion weekend concluded a couple dozen of us drove an hour down the coast to David Arora‘s house, where another week of foraying and feasting went on, capped by a Saturday workshop on the magic of fire—hearth-cooking—taught by Arora’s good friend William Rubel. Imagine lighting out for the universe only to find a planet where the people looked  a lot like you but actually respected the natural environment and used its offerings to make wonderful food and drink.

Arora’s house is the ultimate shrine to the mushroom people. The San Francisco Chronicle has already done a piece on it (click for slideshow), so I won’t belabor the point. Just try to picture a labyrinthine cabin in the coastal mountains overlooking the Pacific, a place designed to entertain scores of mushroom people at once, with beds tucked away in corners and in lofts all over the house (including the amazing mushroom loft with its giant toadstool steps), five fireplaces for warmth, and several additional out-buildings for the overflow, including a “princess suite” and the “Saloon,” where games of dominoes and cards are waged with drams of the hard stuff. I didn’t see a single TV.

Arora is a collector. A collector of mushrooms, antiques, stories, even people. Guests included husband-and-wife jump blues musicians from Oakland, a public defender from Spokane, a Sonoma wine maker, a Washington State wine distributor, a wandering poet of unknown address, a local Mendocino forester, a Vancouver Island hotelier and co-founder of Slow Food Canada, another Canadian”nature awareness mentor,” two seaglass divers from Santa Cruz, a San Francisco web developer, and the Ashland, Oregon-based discoverer of the world’s first aquatic mushroom.

The first night’s revelry included a big sit-down dinner using Thanksgiving leftovers (Turkey and Chanterelle Tetrazzini), Hedgehog Crostini, a salad of baby lettuces and wild wood-sorrel, and an arsenal of wines complements of the guest distributor and hotelier. The toasting sticks (pictured left and below) got plenty of use and the musicians helped us work off dinner with a wild set of boogie-woogie.

Over the next few days a few of us made mushroom forays to Salt Point State Park, Jackson State Forest, and even on the property itself, which, during a midnight foray lit by headlamp, yielded baskets of white and golden chanterelles, matsutake, saffron milkcaps, shrimp russulas, and man on horseback mushrooms. Arora is a big fan of grilling marinated russulas over the fire, and I have to admit I’m now a believer in this edible mushroom that nevertheless often earns the distinction of being “better kicked than picked.” After thoroughly cleaning the cap, just brush on some olive oil and chopped garlic before roasting over hot coals until both sides are lightly browned. 

My last night was the hearth-cooking class. Along with a dozen students up from the Bay Area, we string-roasted legs of lamb by the fire, cooked wild greens and a mushroom tart over the coals, and made an amazing apple tatin—all by the hearth, with instruction (and occasional poetry readings) from Rubel. Great merriment and food enlivened a rainy night. It’s hard not to see the hearth-cooking as a metaphor. 

If this all seems like hagiography, let me say that in these dark days of the Republic, when our elected officials on both sides of the aisle will mostly be remembered as the butts of late night TV jokes, it seems high time to present an alternative vision. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be on Black Friday than Mendocino County, among the mushroom people. The rest of the week only confirmed my belief in the need for Americans to cease trying to fill the voids in their lives with stuff and instead reconnect with immaterial things of true and lasting value.

I know, it’s a tough choice: fight your way through the mall-walking throngs in search of the latest Furby—or sit around a table having a pointless discussion with other humans about such useless endeavors as art, travel, and natural history. After all, didn’t we have a recent U.S. president who made a political virtue of his lack of curiosity?

If you think you’d like to present yourself as a candidate for mushroom people abduction, I’d recommend joining a local mycological club. My own, the Puget Sound Mycological Society, is one of the great deals in clubdom, with an annual membership of $30 that gets you invited to free forays all over the state during the  spring and fall mushroom seasons as well as monthly meetings with speakers and slideshows and much more. Other storied places where the mushroom people meet include the annual Breitenbush Mushroom Conference in the Oregon Cascades, which includes all of the above fun plus natural hot springs, and SOMA Camp, a three-day event in January sponsored by the Sonoma Mycological Association.

Into the Elwha

Say wha’? The Elwha River Valley, on the north end of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula
Last week I backpacked into the Elwha Basin in Olympic National Park to see the place before it undergoes profound change next year. You see, in 2011 the process of undamming the Elwha will begin in earnest and five species of Pacific salmon will have a chance to re-colonize a river that historically supported large fish runs. Since most of the watershed is within the boundaries the park, the habitat remains in good shape and there are great expectations for filling the river once again with fish.
With this in mind, I decided a trip into the Elwha to see the place before the dams come down would be a good thing, a way to compare the before and after. My timing looked bad, though. Local weather guru Cliff Mass was telling his blog readers that this was a week to stay out of the mountains. A dreaded marine layer was headed our way from the Pacific with a forecast of rain every day for a week. Pigheaded as usual, I hoisted my pack anyway and walked directly into the teeth of the storm. 
The rain held off and that first evening I made it as far as the Lillian River, a major tributary, and a dark, dank foreboding place to make camp. Rodents pestered my tent all night but fortunately, with my food bags hung safely from a bear wire, nothing larger. The next  day I got deeper into the valley, leaving behind the popular destination Elkhorn Camp at the 10-mile mark to penetrate another six miles up-valley to where the Hayes River meets the Elwha. It was around Hayes that I felt civilization’s shackles start to loosen—and here is an important lesson known to serious backpackers: go deep. Your destination may be labeled wilderness or national park, but the essence of the wild doesn’t kick in until you’re suitably removed from the trappings of town. In this case I was 16 miles up a trail and another dozen or so miles inside a national park boundary before the magic of the back-country began to percolate. 
And percolate it did. Beyond Hayes the trees got bigger and the forest took on an enchanted quality. A lush carpet of moss covered everything. Winds whistled down from surrounding peaks carrying with them the sounds of glaciers creaking and melting. The river brawled through steep canyons. A fallen tree across the trail was as tall as me in its prone position; someone had counted the rings and noted them on the cut: 560 years old, this tree was a sapling here a generation before Columbus set sail for the New World. 
On Day 3 I left base camp to hike another 11 miles into the valley, making for a 22-mile day. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the headwaters but the weather finally caught up to me. It rained all day and the mountains remained mostly hidden, socked in with fog. I had to settle for close-in views of the Elwha Basin and a look at a tumbling, roaring river that gouged out its banks and stacked enormous logjams of old-growth Douglas-fir like cordwood. In this way the river looked nearly perfect on the surface. But I knew that deep within those dark blue pools behind the logjams—ideal shelter for salmon fry—the currents were empty of anadromous fish. For now.

At Happy Hollow, the last shelter on the trail before it becomes a climbing route, I ran into three trekkers who had just come down from the Bailey Traverse, a famous bushwhack through a remote range in the Olympics that has never seen a designated trail. The trekkers had a fire going to dry their gear and seemed both exhilarated from their multi-day expedition and glad to be found. They had spent a full day lost in the hills and told me they were two days behind schedule and worried that a search party might be sent after them. I agreed to notify a ranger of their whereabouts on my way out.

The mushrooms were just starting to pop and they seemed to grow right in front of my eyes, the shiny red caps of Russulas emerging where there had been only moss just a few hours earlier, and hedgehogs clustering in the darkest patches of forest. I made dinner with a medley of wild mushrooms, including chanterelles, lobsters, and hedgehogs. I also caught rainbow trout and released them back into the river where they will seed the future stocks of steelhead that will hopefully reclaim the river once the dams are gone.
Trips like this got me foraging in the first place and when I reemerged on Day 5 to find my car in the parking lot, the spell of the wild was still on me. I drove back to Seattle in a daze, blissfully unaware of the traffic, neon signs, and hurly-burly of the city, at least for a little while.

Howl

In recent weeks there has been a trio of developments in the West that should excite hunters and nature buffs, all involving wolves. For the first time in several decades, wolf packs have been confirmed in both Washington and Oregon, and a federal judge has ruled to temporarily place wolves back on the Endangered Species list, effectively scuttling the wanton killing in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana following de-listing earlier this year.

Why should hunters be excited? This is certainly an emotional issue, but in FOTL’s opinion, any real hunter would want to practice his age-old craft in an environment that hasn’t been debased by the elimination of top predators. Any real hunter would be in tune enough with his environment to see the benefit of returning wolves to their rightful place. Any real hunter wouldn’t believe for a moment the red herring arguments about wolves devastating elk populations.

Just look at Yellowstone NP. With the return of the wolf, elk are no longer lounging around in the willow beds like tenured tourist attractions, munching their way through the web of life. Elk are once again on the move as wolf packs pick off the sick and the old. Now the willows are back—and so are trout populations that depend on willow cover for shade; so are willow flycatchers and all sorts of other songbirds and small mammals; so are the raptors that feed on the small birds and mammals. Meanwhile the leftover wolf kills feed grizzly bears, eagles, ravens, and host of other scavengers.

In biological terms, this is called the trophic cascade. When you remove top predators from an ecosystem, all sorts of ecological mayhem ensues, with unintended consequences right down to the level of single-celled organisms. The result is an impoverished landscape.

Yes, resurgent wolves will occasionally take livestock—but there are costs associated with living in harmony with the natural world and its critters. The costs of living with wolves will be a pittance compared to the costs racked up by climate change. The sooner we learn how to live responsibly, the better. It’s a simple question of ethics, really.

I’d like to hear from my hunting readership on this issue. My guess is that most hunters who read FOTL would be thrilled to hear a wolf howl in the wilderness—but maybe not. As a forager, I spend a lot of time in our wild places. Those places will feel a little wilder with wolves in the mix.

(photo by ucumari)

Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival


The 10th annual Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Festival starts today and runs through May 4. Films will be shown on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. You can see a schedule here.

Hazel Wolf was an amazing person. She was born at the end of the 19th century and lived to be 101. She was active in the burgeoning environmental movement—as co-founder of Seattle Audubon, among many other achievements—and continued this activism through her long life. She was the National Audubon Society’s Conservationist of the Year in 1978. I had the good fortune to interview Hazel for The Nature Conservancy magazine in the early 1990s, when she was in her nineties and still going strong.

The Hazel Wolf Film Festival’s mission is to bring “filmmakers together with environmental activists, educators, government, scientists, business, and concerned citizens, to improve the quality and effective use of environmental media.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

I’m always amused by the accusations aimed at sea lions by angry fishermen. Can we get something straight? The sorry state of our salmon fisheries has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with a bunch of resourceful pinnipeds. It has everything to do with a bunch of resourceful bipeds.

Sea lions are opportunists by nature, sorta like humans. A few of them—the Lewis and Clarks of the sea lion crowd—discovered that you could swim 100 miles up the Columbia River and find easy pickings at the Bonneville Dam fish ladder. They told their buddies. Now there’s a sea lion convention below the dam.

Last year while shad fishing at Bonneville, I ran into a crusty old sturgeon fisherman. He was catching shad for bait that day. Wrap-around mirror sunglasses and fatigues. A real hombre. He told me a sad story about how the sea lions had learned to target sturgeon when their usual tablefare wasn’t around, said he’d witnessed it himself. “Ain’t a pretty sight. Got-damn lion taking down a 80-year-old fish, fish been swimmin’ around down there since before any of us were bornt.”

As he was packing up to leave, the sturgeon fisherman gave me a wink and said there were ways to deal with the sea lions. A couple days later I read a story about a lion washing up dead, several bullet slugs in its head, and thought of my sturgeon fishing friend.

This year the feds are trapping some of the sea lions and hauling them off to zoos. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has the story.

(photo by embot)