On Reciprocity

The first time I plucked a mushroom from the earth with intention was during a walk led by a mycology group local to my area. I knew enough to understand that if I was to begin a relationship with the wild fungi around me, I would need guides who knew what it meant to forage safely and responsibly. With care and attention I knelt beside a bright white Amanita and gently scooped it from the surrounding soil. Back at the foray’s basecamp, I placed it among some 200 other collected specimens laid out on picnic tables, each mushroom with an accompanying notecard detailing its common and Latin names. I learned a lot that day—from basic mushroom taxonomy to using the flowchart-like key systems in mushroom identification field guides. 

When I’m asked the best way to get started building relationship with wild mushrooms, I like to suggest that finding a guided foray is a good place to start. The North American Mycological Society‘s webpage has a helpful list of affiliated clubs. 

Just as important as solid guidance from those with experience is the cultivation of curiosity rooted in reverence for the Earth. Passion tempered with humility is what opens the doorway to bounty. If we imagine that the plants and fungi of our sacred forests exist for us alone, the best possible outcome is that we do not find them at all. These beings provide for the immunity of the forest itself, of which our body is only a part. 

It is of utmost importance that we know an area intimately before we began asking the forest for its treasures. Ideally, we simply observe for at least a season. How else would we understand the relative abundance of the native fungi? How else would we be able to tell if another forager has arrived before us, the land already having given this season? Those of us who choose to bring the medicine of the mushrooms into streams of commerce must hold ourselves to especially strict standards, making and continuously upholding the sacred pact that profit will never, not ever, encroach on the sovereignty of the Earth. We must value the state of our integrity like our lives depend on it—because they do. 

Never take every mushroom from a patch or tree, gather only what you need and have the capacity to process or consume and no more, choose mature specimens that have already sporulated abundantly and leave the young ones, don’t trample sensitive areas, carry mesh foraging bags to aid in spore dispersal, receive in reciprocity (gather trailside trash, offer songs of gratitude, get involved with your local environmental action groups), defer to the wisdom and wishes of the indigenous—and if any of these tenants seem opaque, deepen your education until their sound is that of a clear bell ringing, guiding you home.

—Ali Banks
Forest Folk Fungi
July 2019

Written for The Alchemists's Kitchen zine "The Magic of Mushrooms," available for purchase here.