Magic mushrooms
The Oldie Magazine|December 2020
The joys of mushroom-hunting, the earthiest, most primordial form of foraging, are lyrically evoked in Colin Thubron’s Among the Russians (1983).
JAMES LE FANU

On the outskirts of a forest near the Moscow-Minsk highway, he falls into conversation with a young doctor.

‘I wish I could express it,’ the doctor tells him. ‘You know instinctively if the conditions are right. You can sense the thrill of it. So you go forward into a light clearing, perhaps – and there they are!’

The doctor then elaborates on his favourites: delicate, pleated ink-caps with their umbrella hats; strong-tasting red-birch boletas; yellow chanterelles growing in huddles together; and small, dense clumps of honey-coloured armillarias – best consumed, he insists, with a slug of vodka.

Despite this profusion of forms, colours and aromas, the magical enigma of the mushroom is that each of the thousands of species has the same absurdly simple structure – no more than a mass of tangled, interwoven filaments, or hyphae, readily discerned with a magnifying glass.

Those hyphae arise from a vast, subterranean network, stretching out in all directions.

This network, the mycelium, is the body, as it were, of the fungal organism. The mushroom is its spore-bearing fruit – as if a vine were buried underground and all that could be seen were its bunches of grapes projecting upwards.

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