Excerpt: Fungal: Foraging in the Urban Forest

Excerpt from “Red River Mushroomer”

In November 2020, when I first joined fellow writer Sally Ito on a mudlark, I couldn’t see anything. My eyes were trained for mushrooms, for nuts and seeds, ferns and lichen.

Sally could scan the muddy banks of the Assiniboine and see bits of glass and pottery in amongst the plastic. So much plastic. Slurpee straws, shredded plastic bags, tampon applicators. All I could see was mud and tree roots, so I missed everything, but I was still happy to be washed with the golden light, the cold air.

By spring the next year, I was doing a bit better with finding man-made things. But it didn’t help that the riverbank, especially on the Assiniboine, was a stark place, mostly river-carved Red River gumbo. Which is to say: everything covered in, blurred by, a layer of mud and clay.

My photographs from a May 2021 mudlark were typical of this era in my mudlarking “career”. We had decided to explore the riverbank behind the Granite Curling Club, founded in 1880 and marked by a Tudor-framed clubhouse that now has a heritage designation. The gumbo as we worked its way down to the bank was leather-hard, dried with cracks so that the surface resembled a set of irregular plates, laid out across the upper riverbank. If you stepped on them lightly, they’d support you, but stomp and they’d collapse and you’d find yourself in soft, sticky mud. Which meant your boots would suddenly be twice their weight. There was a family of geese with goslings the colour of the sunshine, nibbling on fresh shoots of grass, paddling in the silty river. There were raccoon footprints in the mud.

I found a modern tart pan in the water, only slightly crushed, which I used to store my finds. I found the base of a fishy sculpture, a stylized fin in black stone or ceramic. I found two higly-textured pieces of brown ceramic that looked like feathers, like they’d come from a pigeon-deterring statue of an owl.

But I was most excited to find a clump of dusty mushrooms, the same colour as the mud they’d grown out of, halfway up the bank. They looked like fossils of mushrooms instead of mushrooms, but I was determined to spore print them, to get to know them better. When I got home I realized that they were too old and dry for spore printing, but tried anyways. Instead of spores, I got a fine dusting of dried mud on my paper.

I called them “gumbo mushrooms” on social media, but looking back, they were probably Agaricus sp., the button or field mushroom. Yes, the same mushroom that is now cultivated commercially as white or brown or Portobello mushrooms. What I remember now about that mudlark was how relieved I was to find mushrooms.

My old friends.

*

The things that draw my eye on the riverbank—sprigs of flowers or gilt on a sherd of pottery, bits of coloured glass in ornate patterns, fragments of doll heads or figurines—are parts of things that I have absolutely no interest in collecting when not on the riverbank. Which is to say: collecting old china bits hasn’t made me more interested in buying sets of china, even if I could find a matching pattern. I hate candy dishes. I never really liked dolls. The mudlarking YouTubers that I watch—because it makes me feel like I’m in good/weird company, because it helps me “get my eye in”—are mother-daughter teams or husband-wife duos. They’ll sometimes collect beer or soda bottles but they’re most excited by the small. Buttons, marbles, vials, and glass bottle stoppers, anything small or cute, are among their favourite finds.

I collect along various lines on the riverbank, but I am as drawn to the big chunks of waste glass as I am to the teacup handles.

Once, when Sally found a marble and was exclaiming about it, I muttered: “If you liked finding one, I could go to a dollar store and get you a whole bag for a coupla bucks. I’d seed the riverbank with them.”

She laughed. It was true, marbles were common and cheap, even as recently as my childhood, and aren’t worth much as antiques, unless they’re really old. But we both knew I was ALSO a bit jealous, not having found a marble of my own to that point.

But finding something cool on the riverbank has nothing to do with value, really. The bits and pieces we find are souvenirs of the two or three hours we spend on the riverbank, in ourselves.

Similarly, I’ve gone mushrooming with people who are only interested in mushrooms if they could eat them. I like mushrooms in the context of the ecosystem they grow in and I like them because of how varied, how ugly and beautiful they are. I was hurt and confused by these people’s disinterest in mushrooms-as-mushrooms, in mushroom-hunting as part of the experience of walking in the woods.

More recently, working in a mushroom factory where no one talked about how lovely the mushrooms were—in fact, people commented about how they’d stopped eating mushrooms as a result of working with them, that their cultures didn’t have much of a history of eating mushrooms—made me see mushrooms, temporarily at least, as commodities.

But shards of glass pulled from the river? They can’t possibly be assigned a value. They’re man-made but still feel natural, somehow. They’re wild, tangled in gnawed beaver sticks and enrobed in Red River gumbo, haphazardly crazed or broken or whole. It’s not even clear if the glass, most of it a seventy-five or a hundred years old, could be added to the recycling stream.

“What will you DO with all the things you collect?” I’m often asked by people on my social media feeds, when they’re not commentating on how fascinated they are by all the amazing stuff I find, or sliding into my DMs to ask if they can come with me, the next time I go out.

They might as well be asking “What will you DO with your writing?” Because most of what I write isn’t worth anything either: it has low cultural value and is probably the laziest thing a good capitalist would do. I write poetry because I can afford to, though just barely.

*

Mudlarking is an exercise in brokenness, in being satisfied with brokenness, in our wonky humanity. It’s a reminder that we can make lovely things that will persist, but that they can’t and won’t remain intact. That can be a china plate that becomes a china sherd or a plastic toy from China that becomes microplastics. These things can be benign or malignant.

Mushrooming is about remembering the loveliness of the natural world. It is about ephemerality: the mushrooms you find today, glorying in their shape and texture, will not be there in a week’s time. Mushrooms vanish but add to the soil where they decay, they break down dead trees and provide food for other organisms, unlike glass and ceramic.

While I shake my head at my settler ancestors, their friends and colleagues, who saw a beautiful river and thought, “Now HERE’s a good place to stow this garbage,” I see mushrooms as a different kind of magic, one that the natural world makes just for me. The variety of shapes, sizes and textures makes me ache the same way a big box of just-opened crayons makes me ache. It’s the easiest way I know to knit up a sweater of happiness.

Ariel Gordon (she/her) is a Winnipeg/Treaty 1 territory-based writer,
editor, and enthusiast. She is the ringleader of Writes of Spring, a
National Poetry Month project with the Winnipeg International Writers
Festival that appears in the Winnipeg Free Press. Gordon’s essay
“Red River Mudlark” was 2nd place winner of the 2022 Kloppenberg
Hybrid Grain Contest in Grain Magazine and other work appeared recently
in FreeFall, Columba Poetry, Canthius, and Canadian Notes & Queries.
Gordon’s fourth collection of poetry, Siteseeing: Writing nature &
climate across the prairies, was written in collaboration with
Saskatchewan poet Brenda Schmidt and appeared in fall 2023.

Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn (June 4, 2024)
Paperback 8″ x 6″ | 9781989496923
ISBN: 9781989496923

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.