Its not often a forager enjoys being spotted “at work”. We aren’t doing anything wrong, but for myself, and several other foragers I know, we don’t like been seen when gathering, especially the more finite resources like fungi. Worse, infinitely worse, is bumping into somebody in a treasured foraging spot and realising, with a sense of horror, that they are also foraging. Its like going to the cellar and finding a stranger tucking into that sloe gin that’s just about ready. Or that dread feeling from childhood when you realise your best friend is playing with somebody else. Worse still, these interlopers have every right to be there.
So how odd then, that when I bumped into a guy with a wet plastic bag of chanterelles in a wee glade I have cherished and selectively harvested for nearly a decade, it turned out to be a lovely, warm and satisfying experience.
I don’t actively hide or go (far) out of my way to avoid people. But I will linger behind a tree until a car has passed, or stay crouched out of sight over a mushroom patch until passers-by have passed by oblivious, in that weird non-foragy sleepwalker way they have.
It is also one of several reasons why I use my Pick-o-Matic Omniforager 5000 GTX® when silently stalking the forest. This is, to be honest, nothing more than a canvas fishing bag. But it bestows multiple advantages: it makes me feel less like Little Red Riding Hood; it has several interchangeable compartments for keeping unidentified from edible species/berries from mushrooms etc; a closable lid keeps the rain out and eases fence-louping; and, crucially, it looks innocuous. Lets face it: nothing says “I have forest swag” more than a basket or trug.
But why should this bother me? Why is foraging so instinctively secretive? After all, unless you’ve been picking brambles, sloes or field mushrooms, less than 1% of people will have the faintest idea what you have been gathering. On once being challenged by a landowner for “stealing his mushrooms” (and after gently reminding him that I had the right to roam and pick leaves, fruit and fungi for my own consumption – I am lucky to live in Scotland with its more enlightened legal views on property – see here), I offered him the entire contents of my basket if he could identify one single species within it and say whether it was edible. He went a bit red and blustery before calming down and we then spent a pleasant half hour as I talked him through what he’d been missing all his life. He got the bug and came on one of my walks later that year.
The point is that there really isn’t much need to be secretive: mindful foragers are doing nothing wrong and most people wont know what that strange stuff is in the basket. In fact quite a lot pull a face as though you must have some kind of death-wish or been guddling for jobbies in a sheugh. This attitude has its advantages: I once knocked on the door of a house, the garden of which was red with crimson waxcaps, to ask if they minded me taking some home for my tea. The owner very nearly sank to her knees in relief and gratitude that someone was finally going to rid her of the noxious minefield of lethal toadstools that she imagined surrounded her.
No. The secretive side to my foraging isn’t much to do with “giving away” secrets. Our wild food treasures are still, for the most part, blissfully and tragically ignored or undervalued. I earn my living from teaching people how to forage, so can hardly get too precious on the subject. Though do please note, there is a clear distinction between teaching somebody how to forage and showing them where to forage. The locations I use for teaching are chosen to maximise learning, not to give out prize portions of my hard won wild larder. I wrote at length on this here.
I’m afraid secrecy is a direct reflection of my own obsession. An outward projection of my personal greed to know all the patches, be intimate with every special wild food place I possibly can. And though I harvest mindfully nowadays, I confess it hasn’t always been quite so. When I knew only a few species of edible fungi in my youth (usual suspects: chanterelles, hedgehogs, yellowlegs), and only limited patches of each, for a few years I took more than I ought. So I guess i’m poacher turned gamekeeper. And the trouble is, a gamekeeper can imagine poachers all too easily. It can be hard to countenance that somebody on “my” patch could be picking with the restraint it took me so long to learn. I’m being menaced by ghosts of myself.
Sometimes the ghosts come to life. I once bumped into a man in what I thought was a patch only I knew, squishing miniscule hedgehog buttons into a carrier bag. Although there were plenty of decent sized hedgehogs about, he clearly had to have all of them. We exchanged words, in which I explained the error of his ways, and he ascribed a career to my mother that I never knew she had, and we went our separate ways. Perhaps this was the point when I vowed always to leave at least 50% of a mushroom patch unpicked, to up my teaching, and to spread the word about mindful, responsible harvesting. To mitigate the pain of pillaged patches.
So to get back to my more cuddly encounter in the wee glade this August. I was wading up a riverbank easing tender golden trumpets from their mossy beds when I became aware of somebody approaching. Unable to fade to green, or even reasonably explain my semi-submersion without lying like a politician, we faced off.
George was in his 70’s, wore muddy slippers and had a nicotine streak in his white hair that put me in mind of yellow stainers. He moved at a shuffling pace that made a standard forager’s amble look like a steeplechase, and my jealous, gamekeeper eye instantly weighed half a pound of chanterelles in his Spar carrier bag. I pretended to be an ordinary, pleasant human and we chatted about mushrooms. When a verbal exchange is unavoidable, and both parties are undeniably engaged in mycophagy, I always ask how their season’s going. I’m afraid this isn’t really out of genuine interest – I know how the season is going. This is my standard opening gambit to allow my rival to start giving me more valuable information. Like how much they have picked out of this area, if they are mindful pickers, whether they forage anything other than chanterelles and, ultimately, what threat they pose to my larder.
George was lovely, and instantly shamed my selfish cynicism. Though I hadn’t recognised him, he knew me as he had come on one of my guided walks a few years previously, when his health was better. He had enjoyed the walk – leaves, roots, fruits – but it was the mushrooms that had captured his imagination. His house was just down the road from this wood and he’d come up soon after the walk to look for the one thing that stuck in his memory – beautiful, fragrant chanterelles. Of course he’d found them. His health was waning and these were the only things he foraged; he looked forward all winter and spring to their summer-coming; in season bi-weekly trip to the woods were the highlight of his sedentary week. He’d just pick enough for his tea – his wife only liked ‘proper’ mushrooms. The best thing was that when the grandchildren visited, they got really excited about picking golden mushrooms in the woods with grandpa.
I apologised to George for ‘invading’ his patch, and he said not to be silly, there was plenty to go around and he would never have known what was there if I hadn’t taught him. Besides, he could only pick the ones by the track, and even them probably not for much longer.
I haven’t been back to the wee glade this autumn. I might go back next year, but I wont be looking for chanterelles.
I’ll be looking for George.