Some Tentative Explorations into the Genus Boletus

Last year around this time I poisoned myself, rather severely but not life-threateningly, with a mushroom by the name of Boletus sensibilis. A surprising amount of hilarity ensued. People love to hear that story; I will never live it down, and I can’t say I feel bad about that. It’s a story I enjoy telling, a cautionary tale, and something not a lot of people have or hopefully will experience.

However, it has had the inevitable side-effect of making people doubt my mushroom hunting erudition and caution. Believe me, both have improved dramatically as a direct result of poisoning myself. But I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life combating that judgment. And that’s fine, well and good. Don’t eat wild mushrooms unless you know what the fuck you’re doing.

To that effect, this summer I have undertaken a hands-off study of genus Boletus, a rather large class of mushrooms that distribute spores through a porous membrane rather than laterally separated gills. I don’t expect to be eating much in this genus ever again; among the people whose faith in my skills at positive taxonomic identification I have permanently shattered is my wife, who forbids me from eating any mushrooms I haven’t previously eaten without poisoning myself. I can still look. I can touch and smell. I can learn.

First, the easy ones.

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Strobilomyces strobilaceus, the old man of the woods mushroom. Found on the North Country Trail, Newaygo County, MI. A hard mushroom to mistake, and yet I learn it has three subspecies distinguishable only through microscopic identification of spores. All three, as I understand it, are edible only when very young, otherwise rather unappetizing.

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Boletus edulis, aka porcini, like you’d find in the grocery store, this one again found on the NCT in West Michigan. A rather aged specimen, though lovely, as you can tell by the bug-eaten decay in the cross-section. I am surprised to learn that there are not actually very many species of buff to tan, white-pored boletes, mycorrizal with mixed deciduous and evergreen woods, fruiting in late summer in the American northeast. And all of them appear to be choice edibles. Not that I would know.

Now on to the scary, confusing, variously blue-staining, variously poisonous red and yellow boletes, at which my gorge rises Lovecraftian despite their beauty.

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Baorangia (formerly Boletus) bicolor? var. borealis? This is (perhaps) the mushroom I thought (hoped) I was eating when I poisoned myself. Found a mile from my house in Bald Mountain Recreational Area, Oakland, MI. Beautiful soft creamy flesh, smells wonderfully of something very much like Indian yellow curry, tastes…well, I’ll never know. But delicious, they tell me.

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Boletus sensibilis, aka the Brick-Red Bolete? The one that poisoned me. Maybe. Or maybe it’s another variation of bicolor. Beautiful thing, isn’t it?

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Boletus flammans? or etc. Note red pore surface and blue coloration in pore cross-section, which came on almost as soon as I sliced into it. Here we have the trouble. There are just too many of them, with too much commonality of season and habitat, too much commonality of color and form factor, too much variety of color and form factor depending on age and habitat.

For example:

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Boletus subvelutipes, the red-mouth bolete. Or not. Just look at that monster’s deadly, blue-stained jaws.  I feel like a mouse hypnotized by a snake. How could I not be fascinated? After an experience like that, how could I not want to learn more?

Now I’m going to go donate some money to Michael Kuo, whose website is dauntingly detailed about all this and makes very clear what a vast and complex discipline is mushroom identification, and at which I have probably spent more time this month than facebook.

In conclusion: I need a microscope.

Also, here’s that caveat again:

Don’t eat any mushrooms you find in the woods unless you really, seriously know what you’re doing or have someone with you who does. Don’t come crying to me if you do and it doesn’t work out. If you do, and it doesn’t work out, and you find yourself violently expelling the entire contents of your digestive system, go to the hospital. You’ll live, and if nothing else you’ll have a very interesting story.

Readercon 2016 Schedule; Reckoning Tease

Readercon is next weekend. I’m excited. I signed up for the utopian fiction track, which I think I also kind of sort of helped suggest, after last year’s eco-futurism panels went so well, and which fits quite serendipitously with my new project, Reckoning Magazine. It’s a literary journal themed around environmental justice…but let me say more about that in a week.

In the meantime, here’s my panel schedule, including a reading of some utopian fiction of my own.

Friday July 08

11:30 AM Reading: Michael J. Deluca. Michael J. Deluca. Michael J. Deluca reads “#Anon and the Antlers”, a short story that came out in Orthogonal SF Volume 1 this winter.

Saturday July 09

12:00 PM  The Apocalypse Is Already Here; It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed. Michael J. Deluca, Haris Durrani, Paul Park, Vandana Singh, John Stevens. Countless cultures and peoples have experienced, or are presently experiencing, apocalypses: invasions, genocides, civil wars, natural disasters. Why do so few apocalyptic science fiction novels acknowledge that worlds have already ended? How does the experience of reading those stories change depending on one’s personal or familial connection to recent apocalypses? If science fiction moved away from the idea of a globe-spanning apocalypse to explore smaller, localized, but equally devastating apocalypses, what might those stories look like?

3:00 PM What Good Is a Utopia?  Michael J. Deluca, Chris Gerwel, Barry Longyear, Kathryn Morrow (leader), Andrea Phillips. If an author sets out to write a utopia, several questions arise. Character and interpersonal conflict can drive the story, but how do you keep the utopian setting from becoming backdrop in that case? Were the Talking Heads right in saying that “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”? And how do you showcase how much better things would be “if only”?

By the Brook Today: A Foraging Adventure

By the brook today, I had such a fruitful and thoroughly representative comedy of errors I decided it was worth more than the usual tweet.

I arrived at the brook with my foraging kit (bag, basket, camera, knife) not expecting much. It had rained a bit that morning, not enough to get my hopes up.

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So I started with a visit to the nettle patch. The brook is Paint Creek, so called because the textile mills used to dump industrial dyes in it. That was 150 years ago; it has been cleaned up–but not so much that its environs don’t remain very obviously a post-industrial landscape. The Grand Trunk Railroad used to run a stone’s throw away; now it’s a bike path. The nettles are native—they’re native practically everywhere—but here they’re fighting a pitched battle with invasive garlic mustard, acres of it, so much there’s no hope of getting rid of it. Still, the nettles hold their own. I help as I can, ripping up the garlic mustard by the roots before I harvest the leaves, harvesting only the top few leaf pairs of each nettle so they’ll grow back bushy. I get stung. I don’t mind.

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Then I climbed over the brook along this branch. I had figured out this was possible (and really very satisfying, though it’s touch and go there in the middle) back in the fall. I’d never done it with my foraging kit, but I wasn’t worried. There’s another way back, hopping across the graffitoed bridge ruins a quarter mile downstream; I always go back that way, it’s less acrobatic, and safer, as long as the water isn’t running too high. Much less risk of losing any found riches.

I forayed upstream a bit, then cut uphill to the top of the ravine and then back downstream again, not looking very hard for mushrooms because I didn’t expect to see any. I never expect to find morels. I’ve never even seen one in the flesh. And like I said, it was relatively dry. So I made it to the bridge ruin, I skipped across, dropped off my nettle and garlic mustard harvest at my bike, then lingered by the brook a bit more. And that’s where I came across the dryad’s saddles, growing in profusion out from under this old, burl-ridden willow log dragging its roots in the brook.

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Polyporous squamosa, lovely, tawny-textured on top, hexagonal-pored white underneath. Considered a poor consolation prize for the morel hunter, but I love them. They’re best when young, which these were, brand new, some no bigger than a quarter.

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Gleefully, I reached for my knife…but it was gone. Lost! The precious! It had fallen from my pocket somewhere. A sinking feeling. Then a stubborn resolve. You have no idea how often this happens to me. I drop things in the woods. Important things. Wedding rings, garage door openers, phones. I’ve had remarkable luck finding them. I retrace my steps. I search, keen-eyed.

Back around through the nettle patch I went. Had I left it when I went to pack up my basket? No. Two other possibilities: I’d climbed a black cherry tree up above the ravine on the far side. Or there was that branch across the brook. But if I’d dropped it there, wouldn’t I have heard the splash?

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In fact it appears I would not have. Yay! Finding of lost things streak sustained.

On my second trip up and over the ravine and down, I paid more attention. I was tireder, slower. I saw this:

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False morel, Gyromitra brunnea. Easily distinguishable from true morel by lack of a hollow central cavity in the stem.

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Never seen one of these before either. Wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t dropped my knife. I call that a win.

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Broken arrow. Took it home for propping up tomatoes.

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Sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, naturalized European ground cover; flowers widely used in Germany for flavoring May wine.

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And then again across the graffiti bridge and back to harvest the dryad’s saddles.

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Quite a gratifying and productive day in the woods, I must say. And that’s not even counting the wild mint I picked up on the bike ride home.

Sleepwalking

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Today on their website, the art-rich and beautifully designed short fiction zine Middle Planet, made by Julia Gootzeit and (LCRW 33 contributor!) Eric Gregory, features my story “Asleep in the Traces”, about a sleepwalking giant that steps on a girl’s hometown, then sucks her up onto its back to live with the refugees, which Julia has generously interpreted with the deliriously surreal artwork above. Please support and patronize them, should you feel inclined! There will be new pieces coming live on the website from the second issue once a week through June, and ebook and print versions eventually. And they have a Patreon.

I’ve gotten in the habit of coming up with something rambly to say about a story of mine when it comes out. I’ve tried to make it something not so much about the story as tangential to it, because I hope the stories speak for themselves. I think it’s a good habit, or I’d break it. But this one I’m having a little trouble with.

“Asleep in the Traces” is a story about how you can never go home again. It’s a story about finding out what you took for granted. I wrote it from my tower of isolation, the year after I moved from my home city of Boston to north suburban blight Detroit. As such, it’s of a piece with “Virtual Goods”, which was in Ideomancer a few years ago, and “Cloud Mountains”, which is forthcoming in Strangelet sometime soonish. They’re all three rather desolate stories, concerned with loss and alienation, though ultimately, I hope, redemptive. And I love all three of them, don’t get me wrong. Particularly this one. Because figuring out how to move on from loss is a pretty essential human skill, and Marie has it harder than most, and I think she manages beautifully. But the place I wrote those stories from–it’s a hard place to want to go back to. I mean, I wrote them to try to get out. Into my head, since I couldn’t actually get away the way the people in these stories do. Look back in this blog and you’ll find posts that pretty clearly illustrate my mindset in that period, should the stories themselves prove too obscure.

When I first found out I’d be moving away, a few well-meaning friends reminded me of a stereotype familiar to writers, that of the artist expat. Maybe, they were saying in not so many words, you’ll find out you need to get away from a place before you really understand it. At the time, I hated this advice. It was insufficient comfort, offered at no cost to themselves from people who didn’t have to leave.

They were right. The longer I’m away, the truer it becomes, the more deeply I understand the place I come from, and through it, myself. But being away from home doesn’t just help me understand it. The phenomenon being observed is altered by the act of observing it. The more clearly I understand it, the further removed it becomes from the place I remember. I can’t go back.

On the other hand, I am suddenly able to understand and empathize with a whole category of narratives in ways I haven’t before. The immigrant experience, for example. Also certain traditional laments.

Is it a fair tradeoff? I don’t guess anyone has much of a choice but to make it worth their while, whether in fiction or otherwise. Like Marie, I’ll keep trying.