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Why did they go ahead and eat mushrooms that might have been lethal? Maybe to savor the thrill of survival.
SARAH JUNIPER RABKIN Sarah Juniper Rabkin is a contributor to "The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing." She teaches writing in the environmental studies department at UC Santa Cruz.
September 13, 2005
ONE SUNNY AUTUMN day I went hiking in the redwoods near my home in Santa Cruz County with my friend Eli, a field biologist and passionate mushroom hunter. To his delight, we came across a patch of newly arisen, dinner-plate-sized Amanita calyptrata ? a well-known delicacy.
Eli pronounced these the largest specimens of this mushroom he'd ever seen ? yet also fresh, tender and immaculate. Gently brushing off loose redwood duff, he examined several and lifted the best ones into his collecting basket. When we got back to the house, he left my husband and me with a couple of good-sized mushrooms and a simple recipe.
A couple of hours later, midway through dry-saut?ing the diced fungi, I began to have second thoughts. Some amanitas are infamously toxic. Even though Eli had shown me the definitive field marks that distinguish the edible calyptrata from its lethal cousins ? such as the death cap and the destroying angel, deadliest of all mushrooms ? and though he had sampled this species dozens of times without mishap, I was suddenly plagued by doubt.
What if even Eli had it wrong this one time?
I pulled David Arora's "Mushrooms Demystified" from the shelf. Poring over the amanita section, I learned that the toxic species in this genus cause 90% of fatal mushroom poisonings.
Arora is not prone to overstatement. He decries the simplistic slogans characteristic of some field guides, such as "Do not eat-a the amanita!" He maintains that such injunctions simply "reinforce people's desire for expediency by fostering an unhealthy, mindless reliance on shortcuts and glib generalizations."
So his block capitals and exclamation point jumped off the page: "Unless you are ABSOLUTELY, INDISPUTABLY, and IRREFUTABLY sure of your Amanita's identity, don't eat it!"
Moreover, the symptoms of poisoning by the death cap, Amanita phalloides, may not show up for six to 24 hours after ingestion ? "by which time," Arora points out, "there is little modern medicine can do except to treat the victim symptomatically."
As I stood at the stove, heavy field guide in my left hand, stirring mushroom pieces over the flame with my right, my husband and I deliberated about whether to toss the pan's contents. The price of prudence would be, at worst, an embarrassing moment, if Eli were to ask how we had enjoyed his gift. The worst-case scenario would be agonizing death. (Arora: "The one adage with which I wholeheartedly concur is: 'When in doubt, throw it out!' ")
And so we decided to eat the mushrooms.
I'm not sure what this says about us. You might wonder why we would put saving face above ensuring that we could live to see another day. We asked the same question ? even as we arranged those tawny mushroom chunks alongside the steamed rice on our dinner plates.
They were tasty, if not spectacular.
Doing the dishes, we felt fine ? but as bedtime approached, we couldn't free ourselves from creeping anxiety. During our evening reading-aloud ritual, we occasionally looked up from the book to exchange nervous glances. (You still OK? I'm OK. Why did we do this? Too late now.)
We climbed into bed with funereal deliberateness ? shaking our heads at the folly of our dinner menu, declaring our unconditional love. Both of us were convinced that we might wake up hours later in torment, on our way out of this life. Yet we somehow managed to drift off, into a sleep troubled by uneasy dreams.
Since you're reading this, you know the outcome. Eli, of course, had not steered us wrong. But how to explain the crazy risk we took?
When we awoke to discover each other breathing and calm, inhaling the cool dawn air, hearing quail and robins, we were flooded with gratitude. Twenty-four hours after what blessedly turned out not to be our last supper, we were dancing giddily around the kitchen. Even months later, from time to time, I recapture the heart-pounding immediacy of that night of fear and reprieve.
In such moments, I experience anew the miracle of being temporarily alive, in this imperfect but serviceable body, on this besieged but astonishing planet, right now.
Perhaps that's what we were after all along: a wake-up call, a reminder to savor every second of this wild and unpredictable life. Amanita was our teacher for a day. What some people accomplish by studying at the feet of a guru, by jumping out of airplanes or climbing granite walls, we encountered at the end of a fork.