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As hunting parties go, we were hardly an intimidating bunch, even though we numbered nearly three-dozen strong. But this is understandable. Mushroom hunters tend to be a mellow bunch -- maybe it's all the mushrooms we eat.
Still, the laid-back, fungi faithful are a hearty breed. A little wet weather couldn't dissuade us from venturing into the Maine woods on a Saturday afternoon in October.
And so we assembled by the Messalonskee Stream Trail, one segment of the Kennebec-Messalonskee Trail system, armed with paper bags, wicker baskets and books on mushrooms.
Peter Garrett, president of Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, served as our intrepid leader. He was a last-minute replacement for the scheduled mushroom expert, but one who proved remarkably knowledgeable about mushroom myth and lore, as well as happy to share his personal fungi philosophy.
"I look at a mushroom," he said, "and I either know it or don't know it. It is sort of like a friend. If you know them and you think it is good for you, you can take them home. I never eat a mushroom unless I know it's a friend."
Peter went on to explain that many mushrooms are either poisonous or inedible, which I took to mean the ones he views as unfriendly.
I stuffed my collection bag into my jacket pocket immediately upon hearing this, even though Peter assured the whole hunting party that a person can leave the woods with a wealth of tasty, wild mushrooms as long as he or she is careful to use the proven techniques to identify them accurately.
This assumes, of course, that a person is capable of conducting proper scientific examinations.
I don't make such assumptions -- about myself anyway.
I still have nightmares about my high school biology class. Is a kingdom bigger than a genus? Does a class top a phylum? And what about species? Where do they fit into the whole hierarchy? And I won't mention the frog dissection travesty.
Plus, we're talking mushrooms here. They are naturally hard to figure out. Some have gills. Others have pores. And then there are the ones with spines. They also tend to be rather slimy and diabolical looking, which is another reason to reserve my mushroom munching to the friendly domesticated variety found at the local Hannaford.
Others in the hunting party, however, proved to be more adventurous than I dared to be.
Wolfgang Wurth, up from Virginia to visit his son Jurgen, came with his mushroom encyclopedia and a boyish eagerness to identify every mushroom he encountered. I had no doubt he'd leave with a bagful of fungi and probably chop them up in a casserole that evening.
Winslow resident Mary Morrison was another of the enthusiastic harvesters, although her interest in mushrooms is more artistic than culinary. She grabbed a huge white one, called an Artist's fungi, and did a quick landscape sketch on its porous surface. Morrison said as a young girl she did oil painting on dried mushrooms, works of art that have survived to this day.
Peter, meanwhile, seemed content to spend his entire Saturday patiently answering every question about Shaggy Manes, Destroying Angels, Coral Fungi and the host of other mushrooms encountered on the excursion.
As for me, I left the woods without a single wild fungi but with the thought of one day, after acquiring a lot more fungi knowledge, maybe daring to eat a mushroom picked from its natural environment.
Until then, I'll stay loyal to my domesticated friends -- the ones that come sliced and washed in the pleasant pink package at the grocery store.
Colin Hickey is an English teacher for Regional School Unit 18.