The Way Through the Woods
by Long Litt Woon
I saw this book recommended on Twitter and I honestly did not know what I was getting myself into. The subtitle – "on mushrooms and mourning" – is a great description. The mourning part that is hard to read if you're not in the mood for it is just at the beginning. The way out (or through) is most of the book. Litt Woon finds her new life in mushroom foraging at home in Oslo and around the world.
The book is filled with interesting facts about wild mushrooms, the culture of foraging, and her experiences going from beginner to certified expert. On a deeper level, it's about how foraging helped her create a new life for herself. That she could begin alone, when she was in no mood for company, and transition into new friendships and community built around her new interest made foraging a great fit.
I have been interested in mushrooms since my friend Jon encouraged me to watch a TED Talk by Paul Stamets (mentioned in passing in the book) in October 2013. I learned a lot about mushroom cultivation over the couple years following that as we explored starting a farm in upstate New York, including a visit to Cascadia Farm in Bellingham and two Stamets seminars.
Foraging is completely different, though. I have only gone foraging a handful of times and reading this made me want to go more often. The way I think about foraging didn't change much: I think it's great to go for a walk in the woods and if you find dinner, it's a bonus. If you can only have a good time if you find a basketful, I think you'll be disappointed unnecessarily.
My favorite passage on mourning is this one:
“If there’s anything I can do for you, just call,” people said after Eiolf died. The problem was that I didn’t know what I needed. Obviously there is no standard formula for how to be a good support to someone in mourning, but for me the map of my friends and acquaintances was redrawn after Eiolf’s death. People I had thought would be right there by my side, solid as rocks, never showed their faces, while others who had previously been more peripheral friends provided tireless and thoughtful help. They didn’t give up but followed me at the pace of my grief.
On foraging culture:
I once asked someone I thought was a friend where he had found his mushrooms. Obviously I wasn’t expecting to be given the exact location. It is generally assumed that everyone keeps their favorite sites to themselves. No one expects to be given GPS coordinates. But I did have some small hope of being provided with a little information as to the general location. Instead all I received was the useless and utterly worthless reply of “Oslo.” That earned him a big black mark in my book.
The book has lots of facts like this easy-to-overlook one:
Urban mushrooms are also a good plan B during a long dry spell, when the woods have little to offer but park lawns and grassy areas in graveyards—which are usually watered regularly by strategically placed sprinklers—more or less guarantee that there will always be some good pickings to be had.
I enjoyed it overall and recommend it if you're interested in mushrooms.