At the start of autumn, after that first drop of rain, we scurried to the pine forest down the road to check whether the season’s first saffron milkcap mushrooms had poked their heads through the pine needles carpeting the forest floor.
We returned home, our basket empty, after that first visit. Regardless of how much we willed them to be there, these things happen in their own time and according to their own plans. With the right light, the right rain, the right temperatures. We could desire them all we liked. We could even plan what we were going to do with them. But in the end, it’s not up to us. To paraphrase those crazy kids in The Goonies – out there, it’s our time, but in the forest, it’s their time. We had to be patient.
On our second visit to the forest something had aligned. Mushrooms were scattered across the forest floor in all their lobster-coloured, smooth-topped, perfect-gilled glory. Kneel down to cut one, and you could almost swivel 360 degrees and pick five more. This was autumn. The season was upon us.
Over the ensuing weeks, we spent hours scrambling about in the eerie half-light of fading afternoons, pine needles in our hair and tangled in our jumpers, collecting mushrooms. Starting in one favourite spot. Trying a new spot. Clambering over the fallen, moss-covered log that we saw last time, and up a small ridge to discover a new outcrop we hadn't seen before. Bending and stooping, brushing aside debris on the forest floor, dodging mineshafts and blackberries. Senses focused on being right here, vision sharpened to the area directly below our feet, and two or three metres around that. Thoughts of emails that needed answering, cakes that should have been baked, evaporated. Wondering and adoring out loud. Whooping and calling to each other across the stillness of the afternoon as we found another one! And another! Revelling in participating in our local food culture so viscerally and so immediately. Thanking the forest and the season for giving up their bounty each time.
A mere few weeks ago – about a month after our first, fruitless, visit - we went to the forest again, basket and mushrooming knife in hand. We knew that the season was coming to an end, and yet we clung to it, desperate to taste one more harvest. Around us, the dangerously red toadstools were turning to orange mush. The tiny pin-prick mushrooms that dotted the forest were collapsing on themselves. It was as though everything was melting away; as though Dali had taken his paintbrush to the scene.
In amongst the withering funghi we found a few decent saffies to pick. But our efforts were mostly in vain. We voiced our disappointment to the silent forest, and then mid-grumble, stopped short...
It struck us like a beam of light in the gloom. We can’t shake our fists at the forest or the rapidly deteriorating mushrooms, because this is what living one’s local food culture feels like. The feeling of loss, of scarcity, of seasonal variation in availability, is one that is perhaps foreign to us, in our you-want-it-you-got-it capitalist market economy. The notion of something being available for just one or two months of the year, is very much laden with negative value in our culture. Through capitalism's lens, seasonality denies us the choice that we, as "consumers", have come to consider ourselves entitled to.
However, the end of a season, as much as the beginning, is cause for celebration. The end of mushroom season reminds us that there exists incredible food diversity in our local cultureshed, and that the excitement of searching for, harvesting and cooking up the year’s first saffron milkcaps would be significantly diminished if the season simply stretched on forever. To will the season to continue, and for nature to contort itself to our desires, is to act according to a set of confected, very culturally specific “rules” to which we have grown dangerously accustomed. It’s to abide by a set of expectations set for us – and which we now perpetuate and set for nature – by an unnatural market-based economy that cares not a shred for the delight that comes from unique, local cycles of abundance and scarcity, or for foods that nourish not just individuals, but also places and communities and stories.
The start and end of each season is something so specific to each geographic area, to a tiny window of time in the ebb and flow of a year. It is a cornerstone of the very idea of a "cultureshed". It defines our cultureshed, not just as place but as place-in-time-and-of-people-and-of-nature, infused with a one-in-a-million food culture that cannot be replicated by a hyper-market-economy, no matter how hard it tries.
And for that, we celebrate.