One of the people who taught me about mushrooms was Paul Stamets. Although he is now one of the most well-known and highly regarded experts in mycology, when he started out in the 1970s he struggled to find acceptance among his be-mushroomed peers. Despite the challenges, he did find mentors in the field eventually, and he was very clear about how he feels deep gratitude for those who offered him their tutelage. I transcribed one particularly cool story Paul told me about Dr. Alexander Smith, a great naturalist and mycologist whose books are some of the most useful field identification guides out there, despite the fact that they were authored many years ago.
Mushrooms and Mycologists Are Tricksters
Despite the fact that mycologists are typically very bright, scientifically minded people, they are also fond of practical jokes. There is something about spending a lot of time with fungus that makes you start to notice humor in the unexpected. For instance, when growing mushrooms, despite all one’s best intentions the fungus is still in charge of the process, and its behavior is often arcane and inscrutable.
There is a reason that fungi were originally dubbed cryptogams— derived from the Latin meaning hidden marriage— because their reproductive habits are difficult for us monkeys to understand. For example, some fungi have 26 sexually compatible genders. Some fungi mate with the hyphae of sexually compatible mycelium, and others recombine their own spore DNA, effectively having sex with itself in order to produce genetically diverse spawn.
This is all too complex to address in depth, but the point is that fungi are tricksters by design, and mycophiles often tend to develop some of those personality traits as well. As soon as the cultivator forms an expectation, the fungus seems to relish bucking it. This applies to both ends of the spectrum of experience— both in terms of success and failure. For instance, some of my most successful cultivation projects were the ones I thought were totally doomed (I once harvested mushrooms from piles of contaminated substrate that I had let sit for almost 3 weeks in 100+ degree weather in the middle of the Texas summer), and the ones I approached with the most care didn’t do a damn thing. This fact has changed my impression of what’s funny; there is an acrid bite to my sense of humor that grew out of my experiences growing cantankerous fungi.
So without further ado, here is the story Paul told me about Alexander Smith.
I met Dr. Daniel Stuntz, Professor Emeritus at University of Washington, who took me under his wing. In one particular event, we went the North American Mycological Congress in 1975 or 1976, I don’t quite remember, at the Cispus Environmental Center down by Mt. Adams in southern Washington State. There is a large conference there. I was a very long haired hippie, and I was treated like a lepper. Everyone avoided me. At the time, it was the Charles Manson sort of phobia about long hairs, and so there was a real chasm in our society. Most people don’t realize that, there was tremendous stratification in our society against long hairs and against the hippie movement. That was the polarity that was happening in a very big way. So I was avoided by everyone at this conference and I was in the auditorium, and I went out collecting mushrooms. I was sorting my mushrooms on a table writing down Latin binomials. I had Alexander Smith’s books out, and Daniel Stuntz’s books and I was trying to identify these mushrooms, and I was doing a pretty good job, I have to say. This elderly man comes up to me, and he’s wearing a little felted red hat with fishing lures in it, and he says, “Son, what do you have? What did you find?”
I just started rattling off names like Cystoderma cinnabarinum and Cryptoporus volvatus. I didn’t know who he was, I just rattled off all these Latin binomials, and he looked at me and he said, “That was excellent.” He said, “Who are you?”
I said, “I’m Paul Stamets, I’m just self taught…and I’m just getting started at The Evergreen State College.” And I said, “Who are you?”
And he goes, “I’m Dr. Alexander Smith.” And I said Oh my gosh… I just about swallowed my tongue. And I said, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean…” And I apologized for my identifications and he goes, “No, you did a really good job.”
So it was a really nice encounter. Here was The Godfather of Mycology, and I’m in a one on one experience with him. If I’d known who he was, I wouldn’t dare utter a single word to try and identify a mushroom, but I didn’t know who he was so I just rattled off these names thinking “what the heck.”
So that night, he’s the keynote speaker. He’s the keynote speaker at this conference. There are four or five hundred people at this conference. And everyone’s there waiting for Alexander Smith—Alex, as he was known—gets up on stage and he goes, “Before I begin my lecture, I want everyone to meet a new friend of mine.” I’m hanging out in the back, because I wanted to be near the door to escape, and he goes, “Paul Stamets, are you in the audience?” And he brought me up in front of the stage, and he put his arm around me. And he said, “I think this young man has a great career, a great future in the field of mycology.” I was like, “oh my gosh!” You know, I had a stuttering habit, still, and it was really nice and I was really touched, and he gave his lecture.
The next morning, everyone’s gathering around the cars and we’re going to go on forays, hunting mushrooms in the woods. And everyone wants to be with Alex, right? He’s the top dog, and Alex goes, “Nope, Paul and I are going to go out alone.”
So everyone goes, “Ugh, why is Stamets getting all the attention?” And so we went out in the old growth forest. Alexander Smith spent a lot of time in the Olympic National Forest in 1947 and 1949, and I knew his literature intimately. There’s a psilocybe mushroom called Psilocybe veliculoso that he identified and named. And so Alex and I went out into the old growth forest together and I’m way out in the old growth forest with him, and he finds this red russula mushroom. Now these are red, chalky stemmed mushrooms with white gills, and they’re very fragile. There’s Russula xerampelina, the Shrimp Russula, which tastes like shrimp with butter when you cook it. And there’s other russulas that are not edible, or are bland. And he picks up this red russula and he goes, “Paul, this is one of the best of the mushrooms.”
And I said, “Really?”
And he says, “I eat this one raw!” Now, you shouldn’t eat mushrooms raw, you should always cook mushrooms except for truffles, but all the other mushrooms you should always cook before you eat them. And so he took a big bite out of this mushroom. And he’s eating it, I’m in the old growth forest with him, and here he is, the father of my field! And he hands me the mushroom and I took a bigger bite out of the mushroom. And I said to myself, “If Alex is eating it, I’m eating it, I’m taking a bigger bite out of the mushroom.” Well all along, he bit this mushroom, and it’s related to Russula emetica. Emetic means you’ll throw up, you know? And so what he’d done is he bit this mushroom off and he rolled it in his mouth, so he didn’t lacerate all the tissue. And I put the mushroom in my mouth and I munched it, and chewed it, lacerating all the tissue and got the hottest pepper response you can imagine. I mean, this is overwhelmingly painful. And he spits out the big chunk of the mushroom after waiting about 30 seconds. I have tears in my eyes, my face is going red, I’M ON FIRE, we have no water, and he belly laughs at me, and points his finger at me and says, “Now you’ll learn a lesson you’ll never forget—NEVER TRUST A MYCOLOGIST!” I was ready to attack this guy, “You tricked me!”
Anyhow, the field of mycology has a lot of tricksters. I’m a Merry Prankster. Dusty, my wife, and I were indoctrinated or accepted into Ken Kesey’s group, we have a plaque on the wall. And so, I like that Merry Prankster attitude that the mycologists have, because they love playing tricks on each other, and on the unsuspecting public. Now, be that as it may, we also have a duty not to poison our customers, so we’re careful and we draw the line very carefully. But, if you go out in the woods with me, I’d be very skeptical of what I tell you.