Category Archives: politics and commentary

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.

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

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

The Barter System

Tonight’s dinner was the result of ways old and new: the barter system and social networking. Last fall a friend of mine on Twitter, Corky Luster, back-channeled me with a request: might I have some wild mushrooms to trade? As a matter of fact, I did. I set aside vacuum-sealed freezer bags of porcini and chanterelles. In return, he would give me a package of wild duck breast fillets.

Corky, besides being a duck hunter, is also a bee keeper and the proprietor of Ballard Bee Company. In the small-world-that-is-Seattle, his bee’s wax was an ingredient in a medicinal balm made from cottonwood bud that my friend Melissa Poe gave to me in exchange for a jar of my Oregon grape preserves. For his part, Corky got some of the cottonwood bud in addition to the mushrooms.

And so it goes. We’re physically connected by our diverse appreciation and use of nature’s  bounty, and those connections spread out through society and loop back to us with the help of technological connections and associations. Is that too much for some believers in the American mythology of go-it-alone rugged individualism?

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Dylan was thinking about close-mindedness and the social change of the sixties when he wrote those lines to “Ballad of a Thin Man,” but we might as well flash-forward to today and consider all the Joneses who scoff at any idea that doesn’t fit into their narrow box. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, unknown and unheralded, there are committed folks trying to make their own small repairs to broken institutions such as our food system (corn subsidies, anyone?).

As the world continues to spin off into increased turmoil, I believe it’s instructive to examine old ways and make them new again. The barter economy is just one example—and if such a seeming anachronism is nudged back into vogue with a little help from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other gizmos of the New New Age, so be it.

Back to those wild duck fillets. They got lost in the freezer for a while, but I found them the other day while inventorying my stash of frozen razor clams and immediately thawed them out. I took Corky’s advice and did a quick grilling over high heat. First, I made a teriyaki marinade and sauce.

Teriyaki Marinade

1/3 cup aji-mirin
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp hot oil
1 tsp black vinegar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 tbsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp ginger, minced

Bring aji-mirin to boil, then reduce heat to low simmer for 5 minutes. Add soy sauce, sesame oil, hot oil, vinegar, sugar, garlic, and ginger. Simmer for another 5 minutes.

I used about half the teriyaki to marinate the duck fillets, along with 2 chopped scallions and heaping teaspoons of minced garlic and ginger. Next I added a couple teaspoons of corn starch to the remaining teriyaki to thicken it into sauce. This got poured over the grilled duck fillets along with a quick sauté of chopped scallions, chanterelles, and more garlic and ginger.

It was nice to see my boy, with his inherited trait of thalassemia beta minor, devour his iron-rich duck and ask for more. His world will hopefully do a better job of reconciling new ways with old.

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.

The Mushroom Camp

In late September, with my friend Beedle (of Fat of the Land fame) at the wheel, I rode shotgun on a long drive up to northwest British Columbia to go steelheading (more on that in a future post). We camped on the banks of the Kispiox, tributary to the Skeena, and sure enough the first big rainstorm of the season blew out the entire system just a few days after our arrival. So much for fishing.

Instead we took advantage of river out and explored the enormous country that is backwoods B.C., with an eye out for the mushroom trade that is such an integral part of this region.

In the hamlet of Kitwanga, just off highway 37 (only 700 miles to Alaska!), we found a buyer named Ave. He had his buy station—a simple wall tent with a wood stove—set up on a friend’s gravel lot just outside of town. As we pulled in Ave was in the middle of telling two First Nations men how they might go about finding mushrooms to sell. Otherwise the place looked deserted. It’s been a poor year for the matsutake harvest in B.C., with a record drought for most of the summer and early fall. We were told the Kispiox was as as low as it had been since river levels were first recorded, 70 years ago.

Meanwhile, with ample September rains, Oregon and Washington are enjoying a good year (recreational hunters might call it spectacular, while commercial hunters are happy that it’s finally underway after a slow start in August) and the matsutake harvest in places like Crescent Lake is bountiful enough that prices paid to pickers in Canada are as low as $3/lb. Ave figured he’d have a bunch of pickers pulling in later in the afternoon with mushrooms to sell but he wasn’t too enthusiastic about the season so far. In a few weeks he planned to head south to Vancouver Island to buy chanterelles, and then on to southern Oregon and northern California for the black trumpet pick come winter.
After lunch at the excellent Kitwanga Diner, we went north on 37 to … don’t blink or you’ll miss it … Cranberry Junction, where an infamous ad hoc mushroom camp has existed for years. 

Known affectionately (or frighteningly, depending on your disposition) as “The Zoo,” this place has hosted as many as 1,500 mushroom pickers during the go-go years when matsutake fetched exorbitant prices on the Japanese market and pickers stuffed their pockets with cash for mushrooms. Now, after several so-so harvests and prices in the tank, it was nearly a ghost town. We saw only a handful of campers who had erected various forms of habitation, from simple tarp-and-stringer tents to more elaborate school-bus shacks.

The only one around was Grace, who has run the mobile general store here for the last decade. Grace had never seen the camp so desolate and she didn’t expect it to get any better with the recent rain. At $3 per pound, there’s little incentive—even poverty, it would seem—for a picker to hump mushrooms out of the bush all day. Grace explained that expenses (e.g., gas, food, auto repairs) can be as much as $100 a day, meaning 50 pounds of matsutake hardly covers your overhead. And on a year like this, picking 100 pounds a day is only feasible for the most knowledgeable of pickers.

Grace’s two football-sized dogs yapped away and she finally had to go back inside her trailer to nurse an illness. We were left alone in a nearly empty camp with a few indelible images: an outhouse in splinters on the ground, as if overrun by grizzlies; a burned out car that might have once been used as shelter more than transportation; a rusted and bullet-riddled trash-can spilling its refuse; a ruined tent slumping in the wind.

Images such as these might make you think about your next purchase of wild mushrooms at the local grocery store or farmers market. And by think I don’t mean to suggest you not buy them, only that you consider the supply chain that brings us these wild delicacies. The other day I saw porcini advertised for $40/lb and chanterelles at $15/lb. Even birch boletes, not nearly as choice as king boletes, were commanding a hefty $30/lb price-tag.

I’m not sure what the answer is. An astute commenter on one of my earlier posts noted that the inequities in the wild mushroom business are no different than in any other industry in America; wherever you look, those on the lower rungs are compensated proportionately less than those on top, yet without those people there is no top. As a recreational hunter, I can tell you that the knowledge, physical ability, and sheer cojones required to harvest large quantities of wild mushrooms in the wilderness are substantial. As a consumer and restaurant patron, I can tell you that the costs of eating these delicacies are dear. And as a member of the human race, I can tell you there are other hidden societal costs of not valuing the skills that put these foods on our plates. What are those costs worth?

End of the Line

Imagine a world without fish.

On June 8 the film End of the Line was released. I encourage you to see it. The movie is based on a fine book by British journalist Charles Clover. I remember reading the book several years ago and thinking, this should wake up a few folks. But change is slow. The question is: Do we have enough time?

In one passage about the harmful effects of bottom trawling, Clover asks readers to to imagine “what people would say if a band of hunters strung a mile of net between two immense all-terrain vehicles and dragged it at speed across the plains of Africa.” The result, in this apt analogy, is a “strangely bedraggled landscape resembling a harrowed field. There are no markets for about a third of the animals they have caught because they don’t taste good or because they are simply too small or too squashed. This pile of corpses is dumped on the plain to be consumed by scavengers.”

This is just one of the common practices that occurs on the high seas every day.

Over-fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution are taking a toll that, for many generations, was hard to quantify—because it was hard to see. Then the great Atlantic cod fishery collapsed and since then the litany of diminished fisheries has been ever-increasing. The decline and fall is now clearly visible if we open our eyes. I’ve lived in Seattle since 1991—less than 20 years. In that short time I’ve watched certain salmon and steelhead runs in Puget Sound dwindle to near extinction. Shellfish beaches have closed. Limits on crabs continue to shrink, and stocks of rockfish are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

In 2002 the sorely missed Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran a 5-part series, “Our Troubled Sound,” that was a clarion call for anyone who thinks the Sound looks just dandy from the top deck of a ferryboat. More recently PBS Frontline has documented the hurdles facing the cleanup of Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. (You can watch the entire 2-hour program, “Poisoned Waters,” here.)

So, what can you do? For starters, you can get involved with your local watershed. In my area, Puget Sound Partnership and a number of smaller environmental groups are doing the heavy lifting; no doubt there’s a group of concerned citizens in your area too. You can also make a difference with your purchasing decisions. As a consumer it’s very difficult to know how to purchase fish wisely. Fish don’t come with labels. Usually we don’t know the specifics of where they’re caught, by whom, and with what equipment. Seafood Watch tries to take some of the mystery out of the equation so you can make an informed decision. Check out their helpful Seafood Guide—and make sure to bookmark it.

A Sad Record


The interweb has been buzzing recently with news of a tremendous wild steelhead caught on Washington State’s Hoh River. Normally such a fish would be worth celebrating, but these are not normal times. Though I was initially intending to stay out of the fray on this one, it occurs to me on second thought that I’ll be touching on some of these issues in print soon, so I might as well wade into the controversy now.

The behemoth pictured above was hooked, landed, and…killed. The angler has been quoted saying the fish was bleeding from the gill and he thought it would die if released. We’ll never know. It was tallied a day later, weighing in at 29.5 pounds, a state record. The fish was not eaten; it will hang on a wall.

The death of such a magnificent animal—and its pre-spawning removal from a diminished gene pool—saddens me. Wild steelhead are in bad shape throughout most of their range. This fish came from the Olympic Peninsula’s “West End,” the rainforest rivers that drain off the western edge of the Olympic Mountains into the Pacific and contain, by all accounts, the last best habitat for native steelhead in the Lower 48.

Incredibly, on a handful of these rivers it is still legal to kill one wild steelhead a year, a concession that no one would argue is a political bone thrown to the down-at-the-heels timber town of Forks, Washington, where town fathers are convinced a catch-and-kill fishery is necessary to attract paying anglers from around the world who want nothing more than to catch and kill a trophy steelhead. One wonders if these same “sportsmen” would leap at the chance to legally take one of the last Siberian tigers or Javan rhinos.

I’m not opposed to killing fish. Quite the contrary, I enjoy fishing for healthier runs of salmon in the fall to stock my freezer. Mostly, though, I release fish, especially those from beleaguered runs—even if the regulations allow for their taking. No shortage of huffing and puffing has been expended by supporters of catch and kill to point out the hypocrisy of those of us in favor of catch and release. Fly-fishermen in particular are deemed elitist. Now you may wonder why I advocate ending catch-and-kill steelhead fishing but still support catch-and-release. It’s not pretzel logic. Anglers are probably the steelhead’s best friend. Author David James Duncan has already given an eloquent response to this question.

So here’s my position:

First, I believe wild steelhead should be no-kill wherever they are found in their native range. Take hatchery steelhead home for the barbecue; leave the wild fish in the river. This is my practice whenever I go steelhead fishing, which isn’t much anymore. The wild steelhead I’ve caught on the OP and elsewhere have all been returned to the river. I do not keep wild fish, even where it is legal to do so. If I had caught that fish, I would have let it go—bleeding gill or not—and hoped for the best.

Second, I am not opposed to future limited kill fisheries if steelhead conservation measures are successful. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

Third, I recognize catch-and-release fishing is a blood sport. In pursuing my interest in fishing, I have inadvertently killed released fish; it’s a statistical probability. I don’t deny this. But legions of anglers such as myself are also responsible for the conservation victories throughout the land helping wild fish and watersheds. This may sound like a paradox to some, but it is a fact nonetheless.

Fourth, I cannot imagine staring at that great fish on the wall every day. Far from being a remembrance of a beautiful day on the river, it would make me sick. Those who hunt and fish only to adorn their walls with “trophies” should skip the “manly arts” altogether and turn directly to the back of the classifieds for ads on penis enlargement surgery.

If you’re interested in steelhead and salmon conservation, check out the Wild Steelhead Coalition and the Wild Salmon Center.

Local Food Events

For those of you near FOTL’s stomping grounds (or those needing an excuse to travel), a couple noteworthy food-related events are coming up in January.

First, Michael Pollan will be discussing food sustainability issues at Benaroya Hall on January 12 as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. Pollan, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, is the author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It would be hard to overestimate the impact his books have had on the current dialogue about how and what we should eat.

Click here to order tickets to Michael Pollan.

Second, the winter session of SAL’s Wednesday University begins on January 14: Food for Thought: The Ethics, Culture, and Politics of Eating. From the brochure: “Using key concepts and approaches drawn from ethics, political ecology, and cultural studies, this course will explore how food production and consumption creates meanings, identities, relationships, and values that extend far beyond nutrition alone. We will investigate how ethics and values inform who eats what, where, and how; issues of hunger and vulnerability; debates about farming and genetically modified food; movements to eat local and eat slow; food as a form of self-care; and the globalization of food economies.”

Click here to register for Wednesday University’s Food for Thought course.

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)