A Shortcut to Mushrooms

Books Entertainment Featured Science

There is something wonderful about diving into a new world for the first time. Whether you are entering Hogwarts, rebuilding Carcassonne, or immersing yourself in Middle Earth, we can all remember that first flush of excitement. I am still blown away by the opening sequence of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring and I am equally in thrall when I crack open, for the umpteenth time, the pages of my beaten up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

For some time now I have been in hot pursuit of translated works of contemporary fiction. Things like A Girl Returned, and My Brilliant Friend. So I was delighted with a recent twitter event #womenintranslation, in which people from all over the world shared their translated finds with each other. From this I gleaned an unlikely read, a Norwegian woman’s journey into the world of Mycology following the death of her husband; yes, we’re talking about mushrooms. Bear with me.

The Way Through The Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning written by Long Litt Woon, is that delightful introduction to the world of Fungi that you never knew you needed. I know of DragonCon, I know of SDCC, I know of PortCon Maine, I did not know that in the world of mushrooms, there were such events, such fanatics, such connoisseurs. I may have had an inkling of this at one time, after all my mother-in-law fell in love with my father-in-law over a selection of photographs taken of microscopic Mount Washington Valley mushrooms, but I had no idea that such a rich world awaited me on my own doorstep.

Within a few chapters of The Way Through The Woods I was walking my own property lifting bits of grass, joining a local Facebook mushrooming community, and trying to discern what was the best field guide to buy for my area of the country. I did not see this coming.

After Long Lit Woon’s husband died suddenly she was left to navigate this world alone, to figure out what comes next without the aid of her best friend and love. She turned to a course in Mushrooming at the University of Oslo to help her out of the dark. This was something that they had intended to pursue together but never got around to. She is now a mushroom inspector and Norweigan Mycological Association certified mushroom expert. It caught her up entirely, body, soul, and taste buds. Very early on in the book she speaks to the very nature of the way we obsess over things to the detriment of the mundane around us:

“We have all known what it is to be fascinated by something as a child: to be so lost in watching ants hard at work, for example, that you don’t hear the call for dinner. The mushroom adventure is every bit as spell-binding. I switch off from all the day-to-day trivia on a mushroom hunt. The hunter-gather instinct is kindled and I am instantly transported into a unique enchanted world.”

Image: Sarah Pinault

I’m not a soccer fan, and I don’t really enjoy being part of conversations about it. My husband is an avid MST3K fan, where I quite frankly can’t stand it, I glaze over when he begins to wax poetic about Joel and his band of robots. A friend has an excellent podcast about Anne of Green Gables, that is exemplary and highly entertaining, but I don’t keep up with it because Anne is just not my groove.

So why on Earth am I now identifying the mushrooms growing outside my door in Maine? How is it that I can manage to spot one underneath a tree as we drive by, dreaming of finding some of the specimens my fellow hunters on Facebook are finding around the state? Why do I have a new mushroom fact to offer my obliging husband every day? I can attribute it only to this wonderful book and the almost spiritual way in which Long Litt Woon writes about this world she found herself discovering. She does not lecture, she does not critique, she speaks with love for her subject and lingers on the unusual aspects of this new realm of hers. The eccentricities of her new community, the unspoken rules, the variances between countries, you could not make this stuff up. It is a world unto itself and you don’t need a DM to access it. Whether foraging in Norway or making discoveries in Central Park, the journey she brought me on, made me geek out over Morchella Conica and Agaricus Augustus, and has me scratching and sniffing things I used to just walk by, literally scratching and sniffing. Does it smell like almond? Does it turn an inky color when scratched?

Translations: Image Long Lit Woon
Image: Long Lit Woon

Just as I am now finding mushrooms every where, I am finding that the Twitter account of the author herself is a book lover’s paradise. She posts each new translation of the book, and the cover art used in each country. It is absolutely delightful to see the translations and the different artwork.

If you are looking for a new diversion, simply looking for your next good read, or if you need to hone your hunter gatherer skills for the next time a wizard shows up on your doorstep in the middle of the night, you will not be disappointed with the Norwegian Mycological adventures of Long Lit Woon. If nothing else, it has shown me that there is always room in my life for something new to expand my horizons.

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