This is a Polish story, told on Dharawal lands by an Italian man in the Southern Highlands, Australia.
Michael Adams, Dan Musil and I arrived at Penrose State Forest to learn how to forage for wild mushrooms. We were here to learn from Diego Bonetto, an environmental artist, educator, activist and first generation migrant. I pulled up in the carpark was immediately struck by the demographic diversity of the workshop participants: students from Bangladesh, second generation Eastern European migrants, Anglo farmers, foodies, inner city hipsters, PhD students, academics and children gathered for a different kind of Easter Hunt.
Diego began by acknowledging Country. He wasn’t merely following protocol; he was acknowledging knowledge itself. Dharawal knowledge traditions have cared for Country over 40,000 years. Three generations ago most of our ancestors knew the wisdom of browsing animals; finding food depends on how you look. Two generations ago we forgot that the world could provide for us if we were attentive. Our parents stopped learning from our grandparents and underwent an industrialisation of the mind. Remembering, deindustrialising and teaching each other who we are through wild food is Diego’s mission.
“Your genes are here today because they are good at pattern recognition.” Diego sang this out to us as he prepared us for our first foray into the scraggly pines on the edge of the Hume Highway. “Find anything that looks like fungi, put it in a bag, come back in 20 minutes and we’ll figure out if you have the two types we’re looking for”. I wandered off in search of tasty third kingdom treats and my human animal. I took a couple of steps and felt a soft crunch under my boot. I’d just squished one of the two species of mushroom we were looking for, a Saffron Milk Cap, Lactarius delisiosus. I felt awful and remorseful. My boot did, however, alert me to the litany of milk caps popping up in clumps and clusters around me. I genuflected in deference to the food beneath my feet. I spent the next five minutes on my hands and knees slicing out orange tinged mushrooms, brushing aside pine needles and feeling insanely excited. There were mushrooms everywhere! I looked up at the pines I had minutes ago derided as, ‘junk forest’, I looked down and felt their conversation with a mycorrhizal world underneath. It was a mini mental revolution. Diego strolled over to me, a wicker basket swinging from the crook of his elbow and mused, “Ah, you’ve got mushroom eyes. Wait till you get mushroom fever. Then you’ll never see these pine forests in the same way.”
Diego brims with vigour and wisdom for a vernacular environmentalism, “I want to empower you so that you can learn that nature isn’t out to get you, it is full of gifts. In fact, what we’ve eaten is who we are.” He is quietly proud of his Italian heritage and is eager to celebrate the many migrant communities who’ve brought theirs to bear in Australia. He learnt that food could be found in the woods, along paths and in between places. His mother taught him this back in Italy on the farm. It’s in his cultural memory, and he’s helping people like me relearn ecological knowledge.
Our training in the edible environment was designed to give us a foolproof understanding of two (non-native) mushroom species that live exclusively in (non-native) pine forests. When asked about native fungi, Diego admits he knows little about their edibility. This admission doesn’t diminish his expertise, Australian mycologists reckon they have named only 5 or 10% of native fungi species; their edibility is even harder to determine. There are some reports from colonial era documents of Aboriginal fungi foraging though. I wonder how much Indigenous mycology has been wiped out in the land clearances and genocide especially in South Eastern Australia? I wonder what forms of ecological knowledge are popping up here alongside the novel ecosystems of pine plantations?
Diego tells us that Eastern Europeans are the masters of mushrooming in Australia. Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and other Slavic communities treat the pine plantations as food forests. Autumn and a downpour bring carloads of migrant families into these pine forests to seek out fungal delicacies (which reminds me of Anna Tsing’s work on Matsutakes). Pine Mushrooms fetch $30-40 per kilo. Some Polish families obtain hundreds of kilos on a weekend. Diego and others like him have been slowly educating the public about the migrant tradition of mushroom foraging. During the workshop, he invites us to share our traditional knowledge:
“If anybody has a story beginning ‘my grandmother used to tell us as kids’ OR ‘grandfather used to…” please share it, that’s part of our ancestry”.
I’ve never felt like this in any forest. At Penrose and Belangelo state forests during Diego’s workshop, I tapped into a way of being I’d never experienced. There were no magic mushrooms involved. There was magic involved though, and, mushrooms. I spent hours, mostly in silence transfixed by the forest floor: collecting, browsing, sniffing and sensing. I think I’ve got a serious case of mushroom fever. This could really become a new Australian Autumnal pass-time. But then again, I guess Slavic speaking Australians already knew that.
Ananth Gopal is a PhD Candidate with AUSCCER exploring the gardening and growing practices of ethnic minority migrants in the Illawarra. You can read Ananth’s previous blog post here, and follow him on twitter @wordsgrow.