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The first thing I learned about foraging was to stomp my feet in the woods. Snakes were plentiful and my Finnish-Swedish grandfather taught me to make my presence known. At a young age, with white blond braids bobbing down my back, I loved wandering the woods near his summer house in Finland searching for blueberries, chanterelles and boletes, always arriving home to my grandmother lovingly scolding us for bringing back too many treasures.
Foraging for mushrooms is nothing unusual for a child growing up in Sweden. Allemansratten is the term and way of life that gives all citizens the right to roam any land to hike, camp or forage. In Sweden, exercising that universal right to harvest nature is a national pastime. It can also be slightly competitive: Swedes guard their secretive mushroom spots with passion. To forage is to feel at home.
In 2000, I left Sweden and moved to Canada. I had married a Canadian and was starting a career and a family. It would be a new home in another northern country. My husband and I would increasingly spend time at our family cottage and I would feel a primordial urge to disappear into the woods to forage. I scanned the forest floor for the mushroom that Scandinavians savour the most, the chanterelle. I hunted for years without luck. Until one day, paddling down a river and stopping for a break, there it was – one perfect chanterelle, hidden under a pine tree. I was overjoyed. After years of occasional foraging, I had been losing hope. But once I found that first mushroom, something reawakened inside of me. The following summer I received a large field guide as a gift. I studied every page. My family would find me nose-deep in the mushroom guide mumbling Latin names. My husband gave me a mushroom knife and I guarded it like a family heirloom. I was primed for discovery in Ontario’s fungi kingdom.
If there is anything that has felt entirely safe this past year, it is walking alone in the woods. And in the isolation that the pandemic brought, the mushrooms finally found me. Or maybe, I was just seeing the forest floor differently. Last August, I was running down a dirt road when five minutes into my jog I caught a glimpse of a golden glow through the trees. I returned home sweaty and red-faced shouting to my family to gather baskets and follow me back up the road. They all sprung to attention: a family foraging force. Soon we were all bent over picking chanterelles. With our baskets full, I was suddenly a five-year-old girl again, stomping my feet, feeling giddy and completely at home. It was in that moment that I went from an occasional mushroom hunter to a hardcore mycophile.
Soon after, I joined a local mycological society and various mushroom groups on Facebook. I started scouting and recording my favourite spots, illustrating specimens, watching mushroom videos and reading books. I started a foraging Instagram account not for the followers but for the knowledge and research required for each post. The more I obsessed, the more fungi I found, and I became increasingly confident in identifying edible species. Rare black trumpet chanterelles (Craterellus cornucopioides) emerged on a trail I had walked for years. Tasty chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) protruded from an oak stump in a popular urban dog park. Shrimp of the woods (Entoloma abortivum) revealed themselves blanketing the forest floor like spilled popcorn. Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum) dotted the entire side of a hill. Lobster mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum) lit up the forest in an orange light impossible to miss. In the fall, oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) dangled off fallen hardwoods in overlapping shelves. And even in winter, I identified gnarly chaga (Inonotus obliquus) on birch trees. Like a possessed northern woman of the woods, I snowshoed through the forest with a saw and small axe to harvest a chunk of what some call nature’s gold. I culled modestly, as chaga is currently overharvested due to a recent surge in popularity. With my bounty dried and broken into small chunks I made medicinal tea to last through the winter months.
How was I just now beginning to see what had always been there? And how was it that mushrooms could bring me this much joy?
I have a busy life with teenagers and a job that requires my full attention but somehow, there is more time in the day for my mycological passion. There is more space in my mind, too. I think of nothing when I forage. It’s a state of complete calm and focus that I wish I could bottle and drink during this overwhelming pandemic time. The solitude and the search are addictively potent. And I am never alone, surrounded by the abundance of mushrooms just waiting for me to find them.
After 20 years of living in Canada, I finally became a citizen a few months ago. I was never able to put my finger on why it took me so long. Would I feel less Swedish if I had a Canadian passport? Would it suddenly erase part of my identity? I often yearn for my Swedish home, and like so many new Canadians, I’ll probably always struggle with the idea that I have left something behind. The fungal lining in this wild pandemic year is that I have found my way back to the woods. A path that shows me that it doesn’t matter where I live, home is always there, right beneath my feet.
Carolina Soderholm lives in Toronto.