Natural Justice

Still life with fungus   “Yah, so I busted dese people in the campground yesterday,” said Jacques as I was stirring my Red River Cereal. Jacques is an enforcement ranger, of the variety to whom a badge and a truck represent intoxicating power. A mwa-ha-ha ranger. He dreams of reading Bermuda-shorted matrons the Miranda Rights when they fail to extinguish campfires by 10pm. Every morning he tries to impress the chicks with stories of busting tourists over Regulation 748b. Every morning we turn the heat up under our oatmeal and stir faster to get out of there.
   “Yah, dey had a big basket of mushrooms. Dey were laying ’em out on the picnic table in the campground.”
   “What kind of mushrooms?” Surely he meant the magically delicious brand.
   “I don’t know the exact type, but you know, cooking mushrooms. Dey had the butter in the pan all ready to go when I confiscated ’em.”
   “You _confiscated_ their mushrooms?”
He puffed up. “It’s illegal to remove natural objects from the rightful place in the park. Dat includes mushrooms. And techically blueberries and raspberries too. I woulda gone easy on ’em if dey had five or six, but dey had a whole big basket.”
   ” Those people are on _holiday_! They’re probably immigrants camping with their kids. They don’t even know why you took their mushrooms. That’s so mean!” we cry.
He looks hurt. “Rules is rules.”

I was still in mourning for the berries I’d left to rot on the Coastal Trail. The whole park is carpeted with fungus. Even the bears are hardly denting this year’s fine natural crop. To protest Jacques’s lumpish enforcement policy, I dragged Ranger Tim ‘shrooming Sunday morning.

We walked the private trail from Beaver Rock to Laughing Brook with the big dented stockpot that’s been sitting outside the staff kitchen all summer. He showed me the basic identification rules: the fleshy, porous boletes, the gilled agarics, the snowy purity of the Destroying Angel. We picked bone-white coral mushrooms, strewn on the forest floor exactly like dead coral. There were brown-black pigs’ ears, turmeric-stained Slippery Jacks, speckled boletus, chanterelles. We found supermarket mushrooms and a few pearl-grey oysters. Tim told stories of tripping casualties of _Amanita muscaria_ in early mushrooming days.

At the Pilot Cabin he spread newspapers on the porch and arranged our many finds into little groups. I opened a bottle of wine and sat in a deckchair while he frowned over borrowed field guides. We would do a tasting menu, we decided, sampling each set. More than half our haul was unidentifiable or else too close to scary species to risk, but that still left a fine spread. He got butter, olive oil, salt and pepper and good bread from the kitchen and we fired up the camping stove. First, pigs’ ears steamed on a cocktail strainer (inevitably, they fell into the water). Gelatinous and good, like the wood-ear mushrooms the Thais serve. Next, Steinpilz, sautéed in butter, served on toast. Yum. Oyster mushrooms in olive oil. Mmm-mmm.

I’d drunk enough wine to feel like inviting Jacques to the fungus party, but Tim had to go to work. We promised ourselves a good mushroom omelette for brunch next day instead. Tim was in charge, slicing sulphur-yellow Slippery Jacks. “Edible and choice”, according to _The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide_ “Wipe the slime from the cap and remove the tubes before cooking”. They stained his fingers and blended pleasingly with the eggs.

Forty-five minutes later I was staring into an enamel bowl and letting loose enormous rumbling belches. Tim paced the porch looking up fungus poisoning treatment in the field guides. I retched and belched again, louder than ever.
   “Can you say your whole name in those belches?” he asked. Not funny. I wanted more than anything to get the Slippery Jacks out of my stomach.
Eventually he headed to the kitchen and rushed back holding out a tall glass that looked exactly like a pisco sour. I groaned.
   “Emetic,” he said briskly, “Salt and mustard powder in warm water. Hold your nose and chug it.” I got half of it down. It immediately shot back up my nose: hot mustard solution, like the worst icecream headache imaginable. “I’m going to make more.”
   “No! No! I can’t take it.”

But I did. Two minutes after I finished the second glass, the Slippery Jacks were returned to their rightful place in the woods and I felt suitably punished for my wanton transgression. Naturally, Tim felt no ill-effects. I’ve never had a food allergy in my life, but it turns out I react badly to slimy yellow fungus in the north woods. Could be worse.

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