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Wednesday, June 26


Amish Morrell is the Editor of C Magazine, and a Special Lecturer in Visual Studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

He is also a kindred spirit when it comes to pushing one's self physically as well as creatively.

I first met Amish when I planned an "adventure scrobble" called Crooked Smile: a small group of us ran the Toronto subway route from Kipling to Kennedy (approx 35km), stopping outside every station. Amish and I have been scheming similarly intense excursions ever since.

Recently he and his friend Michael invited me to "jog some of the Bruce Trail, looking for morel mushrooms." I felt a physical anguish to leave the city and purge myself of life's distractions, and this sounded like just the ticket.  We parked on a desolate country road and set off to navigate 17 kilometres of unpredictable trail, our eyes frantically scanning the forest bed as we passed. Despite finding a few older specimens we didn't collect any edible fungus. 

Our destination was Hart House Farm, 150 rural acres nestled on the ridge of the Niagara Escarpment, owned by the University of Toronto.  Amish insisted we run a bit further to see a sauna built by Finnish students, before meeting up with his wife Diane Borsato, their son, and Michael's wife and son who were waiting with a picnic. They had found plenty of morels and shitakes in the surrounding area, and that night Amish and Diane invited us into their home for a delicious meal made with the day's forage.

Everywhere in their home I found references to mushrooms.  Books. Field journals filled with hand-written notes and photographs. A mushroom-themed quilt. I was so taken by their fascination with so specific a subject, I decided to turn it over to Amish to tell me all about it:

The quilt was made by my mother, Anne Morrell Robinson, who is a professional quilter. She was commissioned to make one for an amateur mycologist who came foraying with us in Cape Breton, which is where I grew up, and where my mother still lives. My mother made a second one for my partner, Diane Borsato, and me when we got married. It includes about a hundred species that we found foraying near my family’s house there, realistically rendered, with their Latin names. If you spend as much time out in nature as I did as a kid, it’s hard not to notice and take an interest in mushrooms.

When I was growing up my family would pick puffballs, which grew in the farm pastures around our house, and as teenagers my brother and I learned to identify chanterelles, which grew in the woods. We ate a lot of both of them. While we also saw hundreds of other interesting looking mushrooms, I never felt comfortable enough to eat anything other than these two species.

When I was with Diane on one of her first trips to Cape Breton, I was picking different kinds of boletus, which are the family of mushroom that porcinis (boletus edulis) are from. Porcinis have a musky, earthy, sex-like flavor and odor. They’re a staple of much central and eastern European cuisine. There are also a few other edible species in the boletus family, and they are very distinctive and common in Cape Breton, so I was trying to identify the edible species, a process that included tasting them. Diane was a little concerned, so she contacted the Mycological Society of Toronto (MST), and we became members and went on about a half dozen forays with them the following autumn.

Being part of the mycological society is an amazing experience. Many of the mycologists are retired and study mushrooms intensively as a hobby. When we lay out what we found on the forays the foray leaders spend up to an hour rattling off Latin names and anecdotes about each mushroom, and updating their species lists. The mycologists themselves are also really interesting. One of the regular leaders specializes in mushrooms that are so small you need a magnifying glass to see them, and another has a collection of slime mould species that he keeps in his freezer. From just a few seasons of regularly attending the forays, which were usually within an hour of downtown Toronto, our knowledge of mushrooms increased exponentially.

However, my own interest was primarily in being able to identify what I would see in Cape Breton. While we might find fifty or so different kinds of mushrooms on a foray near Toronto, the diversity of species pales in comparison to what I find in Nova Scotia. After joining the MST, at one of their meetings I showed slides of some of the mushrooms we find in Cape Breton, including scenes of the forest floor blanketed in much-coveted chanterelles, and invited them to lead a series of forays there. That summer six of the more knowledgeable members flew to Cape Breton, we ran an ad in the county newspaper inviting anyone to join us, and between the mycologists and people who live in the area we identified over 140 species of mushroom. We found Trumpets of the Dead which are actually a delicious edible, Bleeding Tooth Fungus which looks exactly as it sounds, though it's not edible, Scaly Vase Chanterelles, abundant Lobster Mushrooms, which are formed when a particular mould parasitizes a common Lactarius or Russula, creating another kind of mushroom that looks like a cooked lobster and tastes like seafood, and an obscure Boletus that we called the Pink Lady because it has a pink cap, as well as a few that weren't in anyone's guidebooks. It's unbelievable how many different kinds of mushrooms grow there, Except for morels, surprisingly. We organize a foray there each summer, and invite anyone who wants to come. Diane invested quite a bit of time in learning the different species, so she does the identification.

Diane has also incorporated this knowledge into her teaching and into practice as an artist (she’s an Associate Professor in Fine Arts at the University of Guelph) and has organized forays in as part of artworks. In 2008 she suggested that the MST hold a foray in Chinatown, so one of the members, who speaks Chinese, lead a foray to the grocery and health food stores in Chinatown. He insisted they go to what he called the “real Chinatown” which is in Markham. It was really amazing! And in 2010 Diane lead a foray in New York City, as part of their Umami Food & Art Festival. The foray took them to different food stores and health food shops in Chinatown and in other neighborhoods, and Gary Lincoff, who wrote the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms did the identification of what they found. As part of the same event, the James Beard Foundation hosted a multi-course mushroom dinner. In 2010 she also organized a project with the Vancouver Mycological Society and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, called "Terrestrial/Celestial" that includes a mushroom foray for astronomers, and stargazing for mycologists. We often lead informal forays together, at events like Don Blanche, or for our friends. Diane has also taken her students on forays, as part of special topics classes she’s taught on themes such as food, and walking. It’s a great way to learn to read a landscape.

The idea of foraying for mushrooms while running was a bit of a joke, though it actually makes a lot of sense. Diane actually found morels one day while jogging in our neighborhood. If you are covering a vast distance, as one does when running, you’re likely to encounter a lot of different possible habitat. Had we jogged the section of the Bruce Trail we did during the late summer, or fall, we’d have found lots of mushrooms. But aside from morels, which are very hard to find, and a few other less interesting species, there is little to find in the spring. I carry a mushroom basket with me when I go hiking, and I’ve found lots of mushrooms during the fall, when they’re most abundant, on my bicycle. One day I filled my handlebar bag with Fleshy Chicken of the Woods while on my commute to the University of Toronto at Mississauga, and while riding to Kitchener-Waterloo another day I spotted more puffballs than I had room to carry.

For me, the connection back to running is as a method for knowing a place. When Henri organized the run from the Kipling to Kennedy subway stations we ran straight through Toronto along the subway line, but above ground, on an unseasonably warm Sunday in February. Making a rough estimate, over the day we came face-to-face with 10,000 people walking the along the sidewalk, just those who were going the opposite direction. It was a really intense urban experience. When I run in my neighborhood, which is near High Park, I seek out an experience that is more wild and less about the present; the traces of brooks and hills, the natural landforms that have been obscured by residential development and urban infrastructure. My routes take me along the Humber River, into the ravines, and along hidden trails between property lines, where there are contours and vistas that give me clues to what the city once looked like. I can read this other landscape with my legs, heart and lungs. As much as this method is about creating interesting running routes, it’s also about creating new neural pathways that map the city in ways that are different from those paths created for us.

 There’s a great line by the novelist Annie Dillard that reads: “when everything else has gone from my brain— the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.” This is in part why I like to run: we need to feel the spaces around us as deeply as we can. When I do this, mushrooms are just some of the things I notice.

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