“The good news,” said Gary Lincoff, “is that there are only a few deadly mushrooms in Central Park. You’re more than welcome to experiment, and we’d love to write up your obit in our newsletter.”
He was speaking to a group of twenty-five members of the New York Mycological Society, before they embarked on the first Central Park mushroom hunt of the season. Make that twenty-six, including me, and twenty-seven including my girlfriend, who let me drag her there. We’d gathered at ten in the morning at 96th and Central Park West, toting baskets (though Lincoff recommended Citarella bags and old egg cartons, because “there are rangers who don’t understand what we’re doing”), loupes, DLSRs, and knives with tiny brushes attached on the end. In the quiet mist, it was easy to forget we were in the middle of Manhattan, where there seems little room for ecological mystery.
The once-defunct Society was reinstated in 1962 by the avant-garde composer John Cage, who was fanatical about mushrooms. Cage taught classes about them, wrote poetry about them, and won an Italian game show about them. According to Kenneth Silverman’s 2010 biography of Cage, Begin Again, he also ran into plenty of mushroom-hunter trouble: rousing angry yellow jackets, poisoning himself, and getting lost, once prompting a search party of fifty people and a helicopter. In his book For the Birds (1981), Cage wrote, “It is useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition.”
Lincoff’s pre-hunt pep talk also emphasized the elusiveness of mushrooms. “There are more mushrooms in Central Park than there are trees,” he said. “There’s a different weather pattern every year, and new ones all the time.” Lincoff authored the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and was, according to several hunters, their reason for attending the walk. His detailed website examines fungi from every angle imaginable, with a section for “Mushroom Plays and Songs” (“I am the very model of an amateur mycologist”).
We set off, which meant a lot of kneeling on the dewy ground and looking through magnifying glasses. The members present ranged in age from twenties to eighties, including several PhD students, a Feldenkrais practitioner, a programmer, a sculptor’s assistant, and a psychology professor.
Near the tennis courts, we found a line of large white mushrooms. Lincoff explained that these were part of a giant fairy ring — a natural formation — that grows larger each year. “They dug up the area and planted the trees, but it didn’t matter—the mushrooms were underneath,” Lincoff said, smiling. In Van Cortlandt Park, a member of the society recently discovered twenty interlacing fairy rings.
Why do mushrooms inspire such passion? Many members of the society noted their delight in mushrooms’ fluctuating, evanescent, slightly perilous way of reflecting the seasons. Jackie Proctor, a stay-at-home mom, came to mushrooms from her interest in medicinal herbs and weeds. She reverentially described certain Russulas which, “if you throw them, they’ll crack open in midair.”
Juniper Perlis and Tom Bigelow, who run an identification event on Mondays, honeymooned at Lake Superior, where, Perlis said, “we found fistfuls of chanterelles every day.”
Bill Sinclair, a soft-spoken retiree, said his mushroom awakening came when his daughter led him through a forest to a large group of chanterelles. “They were a beautiful yellow-orange color. She cooked them up. They were sublime, like nothing I’d ever had before.”
Bruch Reed, an actor and acupuncturist, grew up collecting morels with his family in Illinois, but reconnected with the community as an adult. “I was out Gay Country Western Dancing, and this guy asked me to dance, and he was the mycologist at the Field Museum!” The pair found a new species of Pluteus.
Even my girlfriend was starting to perk up and notice mushrooms everywhere, which is often how the passion starts, said Vivien Tartter—“The more you know, the more you see.” She located an edible green Russula, with a quilted green and orange cap.
The group continued slowly past joggers, robins, confused dog-walkers. We found an Inocybe abundans, poisonous, with peeling scales. A Bird’s Nest mushroom, which would open to reveal what looks like tiny bird eggs.
We found Dunce Caps, Stinkhorns and their spore-filled “eggs,” which you can hatch at home on a paper towel, “Scrambled Egg” slime mold, and a gilled mushroom on a delicate stem that might make you high (“You’d need to eat three hundred,” Lincoff said, describing an acquaintance who did so and underwent the revelation that he should quit his PhD). As the walk continued, the group began to stink of the myriad smells of mushrooms: garlic, curry, bitter almonds.
It was a shock, three hours later, to find that the exit to 96th street was only a hundred yards away. At home, we sautéed the green Russula for thirteen minutes with butter and garlic. Eating the brown, shriveled pieces felt dangerous—when should you ever eat something you’d found on the ground in Manhattan? But Lincoff had assured us we’d identified it correctly, and it was crunchy and bright, bursting with flavor.
Photography by Molly Dektar.
Molly Dektar is from North Carolina. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn.