HEATHER ARNDT ANDERSON
Heather Arndt Anderson is a Portland-based plant ecologist and culinary historian. She is the author of Chillies: A Global History (2016), Portland: A Food Biography (2014), and Breakfast: A History (2013). She is a contributing writer toTaste, Roads & Kingdoms, and a frequent panelist on the James Beard Award and IACP Award-winning podcast, The Four Top.
All summer long, the West was ablaze. In Portland, Oregon, schoolchildren were sent home early in the second week of school because the air in their outdated classrooms was too hot and dangerously choked with smoke. The sun and moon took on the hue of glowing sockeye flesh. Then came California’s purgatory; in only a few short, mid-October days, dozens were dead.
Napa’s fires are of unknown origin, but the fires closest to Portland were started by cackling teenaged sociopaths tossing illegal firecrackers into a canyon of a national scenic area, and for days, tiny flakes of incinerated evergreens delicately mizzled down onto our cars and porches, stippling our tomatoes, our summer squashes and our berry plants.
The people of the West vacillated between frothing for justice and hand-wringing over the fate of the land. These are typical human reactions. But fire is normal here; it is one of the seasons, and forests are patient.
The first time I ever picked mushrooms, it was on accident. It was October 1997, and I was in my second year of forestry school. We were out walking Larch Mountain, learning to cruise timber and predict the future value of a stand of young Doug-fir with a Spiegel Relascope and a calculator. As we crossed through the doghair and into the stand of adolescent trees thinned a decade prior, I started seeing flashes of butterscotch glinting through the spiny black duff. I’d never before seen them in the flesh, but I knew what I was looking at. Chanterelles.
Isn’t a forest worth more than its wood, I’d often idealistically wondered, and after I picked as many of the cheerful ruffled trumpets as I could carry out (in a basket hastily fashioned from a sweater with the sleeves knotted together), dollar signs danced in my head. I didn’t plan on selling a single one of My Precious, but the thought that I was carrying a few hundred dollars’ worth of something just picked off the ground for free was exhilarating.
I brought them all home, giddy for the deviation from my usual college student rations of stir-fry and peanut butter sandwiches. I made a curried chanterelle bisque redolent with ginger and mossy humus, enriched with tangy buttermilk. I made garlicky ragouts flecked with herbs scavenged from my neighbors’ overflowing gardens to eat with linguine. I topped a store-bought pizza crust; I turned them into gravy. I became a cook. I was rich.
I went back for them year after year, to the same spot that had always provided, but eventually I started seeing cut stems: the telltale sign that others had discovered my patch. By the mid-2000s, the area was being logged, and I had to move on for good.
My new spot in the Tillamook State Forest was burned to smithereens during a twenty year period that spanned World War II. My dad’s Boy Scout troop were among the thousands of Oregon youngsters that replanted a million seedlings during the reforestation effort. Though their callous actions can be wantonly destructive with minimal effort, human children are feeble at remediation on the ecological scale; the forest is still in recovery more than 80 years later, and it will be centuries before it’s back to anything resembling its pre-burned state. But the forest doesn’t mind. It has time in spades, and doesn’t care much about the impatience of humans.
Fire hurts many plants, but mushrooms spend most of their time under the soil surface, hiding out in vast mycelial networks that make the world wide web look like cat’s cradle. In forest plantations, chanterelles fruit when the stand reaches 10-40 years of age, but in dry years they do well in the accumulated dampness of a mature forest. They’re more abundant after a hot summer, and seem to disproportionately favor the hardscrabble life on the edges of abandoned logging roads and old skid trails. They’re rather facultative in their tolerance of a ruckus.
Morels even more blatantly favor drama, thriving on tree death, soil disturbance, fire and perdition. (To wit, I once received a delivery of free wood chips from the city’s street tree-trimming and the following spring my urban garden was covered in little blond morels.) Morels exhibit a lavish, almost obligate response to fire, flourishing most in the springtime after a fire has cleared an area and augmented the soil with carbon. Some species will only grow for a year or two following fire, then patiently wait for the next ecological tantrum before peeking back out. The removal of nitrogen and deposition of carbon—both of which fire accomplishes handily—are key to a mushroom’s happiness.
Though devastation may occur in the human temporal scale, the recovery doesn’t heed our direction, and the belief that we are necessary to replenish a forest after a fire is a uniquely human conceit. We’ve done enough. Let’s sit this one out. The fireweed and the foxglove will soon enough be replaced by the moss and trees, and how fast that happens isn’t up to us. In the meantime, the rains have mercifully begun, and the forest floor is up to its old chrysopoeian exploits. Chanterelles are once again coming out to play.