The Day After

Into The Woods

Oxford American
Spring 2013

On the morning of December 22, 2012, the first day of the New World, a small tribe of humans gathered at the edge of the forest near Old Fort, North Carolina, in hopes of finding something to eat. Our destination was lower and warmer than nearby Asheville, allowing for a wider array of winter solstice pickings for the fallout shelter.

Our leader was Alan Muskat, an expert at foraging for wild foods, and as we gathered in a circle Alan passed around edible samples he’d collected on recent forays into the woods, starting with a small dropper bottle containing a black fluid. While the mystery mixture made the rounds, our little clan made introductions.

There was a family of six from Florida who did some foraging in the Everglades. A pair of computer programmers who had been traveling for the past three years and had hit it big selling apps; they came to Pisgah after realizing they had no idea how to feed themselves.

A father-son duo both named Pete—“people call us Pete and re-Pete”—hailed from Jackson, Wyoming. They wore Carhartts and Pete the Younger sported a neck cravat. Pete the Elder had the craggy features and bowed stance of a man who has spent his life outside on a horse. He looked just like one of the lawmen from The Outlaw Josey Wales. Alan looked him over and said, “I’m going to make you my deputy.” Even postapocalyptic foragers, it seemed, need law and order. The newly deputized Pete the Elder took a squirt from the dropper bottle and grinned. “It tastes like geology.”

The decoction contained chaga, Alan explained, a Russian name for a fungus reputed to contain powerful anticarcinogenic properties. Even in this new era, one in two men and one in three women among us would suffer the disease at some point in our lifetime. Chaga fungus, along with turkey tail and reishi mushrooms, were among the best cures. Deputy Pete nodded gravely and took another squirt from the vial.

Alan passed out dried berries—sumac (sour) and beautyberry (sweet)—then came a bag of foot-long honey locust pods, which Alan claimed is one of the most flavorful wild foods in the region. We nibbled the edges of the pods, careful not to eat the mildly toxic seeds. The taste was sweet and reminiscent of tamarind, for which Alan says it can be used as a substitute.

Lastly, Alan passed around a plastic container filled with cut-up bits of purplish flesh. It looked like the tropical dragon fruit, and in fact tasted like dragon fruit, except this fruit grew right up the road. It was prickly pear cactus, another of Alan’s favorite wild foods. The container went twice around the circle, our fingers staining the color of blackberries, and when the container got back to Alan all that was left of the fruit’s dark flesh was an inch of what looked like coagulated blood. Like a priest draining the chalice after mass, Alan lifted the cup with both hands and swallowed the dregs.

“Okay, troops,” he said. “Time to move.” He picked up his foraging basket and started up the trail, then hollered over his shoulder. “Deputy! Bring up the rear!”

When it’s the end of the world as you know it, the qualities you look for in a leader begin to coalesce mainly around finding stuff to eat. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, and most of us are pretty clueless about how to eat from them, and yet eat from them we can, Alan insists, and bountifully. For the past seventeen years he has made his living selling wild foods, especially mushrooms, to Asheville’s top chefs, who pay handsomely for his discoveries. He once sold a fifty-pound chicken of the woods mushroom for $750. At one time he supplied nearly four hundred pounds of wild mushrooms a year to over thirty local chefs, but more and more he’s focused on teaching a new generation of foragers. He maintains a lively website called No Taste Like Home, featuring long, ruminative blog posts peppered with foraging advice, philosophical musings, and folksy epigrams (“Home + Land = Security,” “We revel in real eating and real-ating,” “Coming home to eat, we find what truly feeds us”).

Known as the Mushroom Man, “a carnival barker for fungus,” Alan has appeared on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, The History Channel, and PBS, and is now being courted by several reality TV shows. They’re digging for drama and lurid details, though, and Alan is not sure he wants to play along.

Most foragers tend to be a reclusive lot, but Alan has more Miami in him than Asheville. He drives a convertible 2002 Toyota Solara and listens to ’70s yacht-rock bands like Steely Dan and The Eagles. He occasionally DJs parties, which he did professionally for ten years before entering the foraging trade; he gives impromptu rap/breakdance performances, one of which is the popular “A Fist Full of Fungus,” which we would soon witness as a grand finale at the falls. And unlike most foragers, he doesn’t keep his knowledge close to the vest.

If Alan has a basic message he wants to get across to his fellow foragers at the dawn of the New Age, it’s that the world is still our home. We are safe here. There is enough for everyone. A Cuban-American Jew who graduated from Princeton, Alan has a cultural memory that reaches back to the days when his people gathered food each morning in the wilderness of Sinai; he knows that manna can’t be hoarded.

We don’t make it very far past the trailhead because Alan is stopping every five feet and pointing out, if not actual wild foods, then the indicators of their presence at other times of the year. Like those wineberry canes, which will fruit next summer, or the poplar trees which form a symbiotic relationship with morels that will emerge in the spring, or a dead hemlock tree lying astride the creek on which can be found in the month of June a mushroom called Ganoderma tsugae, known in China as ling zhi (the mushroom of immortality) and known in American as white butt rot, but most widely known by its Japanese name reishi, a medicinal mushroom that, when brewed into a tea, packs a wallop of antioxidants and immune-boosting polysaccharids known as beta-glucans. The Japanese government has officially recognized reishi as a treatment for cancer.

One of the Floridians asked if it really makes you immortal. “Well,” Alan replied, “I’ve been taking it for only a couple hundred years. Check back with me in another two.”

We walked further and found several persimmon trees, which still had a few fruits, though they were too high to reach. In addition to the fruit, which is very sweet, the seeds make a good coffee substitute. Alan had heard about coffee beans prized for having passed through the gut of the cat-like Asian palm civet, but those sold for $160 a pound, so he decided to try a local alternative. “I dug some persimmon seeds out of a pile of bear shit and roasted them for coffee,” he said. “The drink was quite tasty.”

Someone asked about the ubiquitous thorny vines throughout the woods. That would be greenbrier, also known as Confederate barbed wire, also known as blasphemy vine for the curses it will extract. But like just about everything Alan pointed to, it had a culinary use: the roots were called sarsaparilla, the main ingredient in root beer.

It was 11:30 A.M. and we’d barely walked half a mile. Alan wanted to get us to the falls before noon, when the class would end, so we covered the final mile as a forced march, with the deputy bringing up the rear.

The falls were lovely. In the e-mail Alan sent out earlier in the week (the computers were still working then), he instructed us to pack a lunch for the falls, but only a few of us did. I passed around a bag of carrots from my garden, Deputy Pete shared the salmon he’d caught in Alaska that summer and smoked, but the Floridians came empty handed. They were happy to eat our food.

Alan fired up the camp stove and cooked up a batch of oyster mushrooms he’d found the day before. He cooked them in nothing but olive oil, sea salt, and garlic, then mixed in a little Amish sour cream. A single plate was passed, and by the time it got to me there were just a few little morsels left. I hungrily lapped them up. To say that warm oyster mushrooms cooked in sea salt and Amish cream eaten on a cold winter day beside a mountain waterfall were delicious would be like saying that the world is our home and we should be content here. It simply goes without saying. But in this new world we’ve entered, we need to be reminded of the small, good things, so I’ll say it. They were delicious.

Then came the grand finale, the time in Alan’s program when he wrapped things up by rapping things up. He broke it down right there beside the waterfall and busted out his song. Donning an old woman’s velvet purse on his head, some shades, and a gaudy, oversized necklace, he rapped his “A Fist Full of Fungus,” complete with beat box and breakdance moves.

The group dispersed, everyone making their way down the trail at their own pace, and I joined Alan for the drive home. On the way he wanted to swing by a butcher’s place where he’d heard there were deer scraps free for the taking, as long as you claimed they were for your dog. Last time he’d made off with a scapula and a few leg bones. “Foragers can’t be choosers.”

The day was cold but sunny, and we rode with the Solara’s top down, Fleetwood Mac cranked at full volume, and the heat on high. That’s when I asked Alan about the long view. Had the world really just ended?

“It’s funny. People look at transition or collapse—whether it’s caused by a calendar shift or a pole shift or peak oil—and it’s based on an objective sense of the universe, like conditions are going to force things upon us. But people have chosen to live more self-sufficiently for ages, because it’s more rewarding in and of itself.

“We’re coming out of a 5,000-year-old fear-based civilization. We think that we need to take care of ourselves because Mother Nature won’t. That fear all comes down to our separation from nature. Science, engineering, agriculture— these all arise out of a desire to control that, in turn, stems from an objective view of the world. Yet quantum physics is only confirming what ancient traditions like nondualism have taught for centuries: that we live in a subjective universe, a much more fluid one, where we’re all ultimately free. It means we don’t have to be afraid. Like Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow. God feeds the birds. Isn’t he gonna feed you?’ It’s the practice of surrender.”

It seemed an attractive way of living in the New World Age. Still, the fear-based approach runs strong in our tribe. Alan has recently been contacted by a neocon survivalist group called The NOAH Project (Neighborhoods of Alternative Homes), who want him to teach them how to forage. Located somewhere within a two-hour drive of Charlotte, North Carolina, NOAH has been described as “high-end self-reliance” living, where you can “survive in style.”

Worried about hungry neighbors looting your larder? Fear not. The postapocalyptic community is a quasi-fortress “capable of providing its own self-defense” and apparently accessible only by helicopter or jeep trails. One of NOAH’s team members is Newt Gingrich. How would neocons survive, I wondered, after their MREs and Spam ran out? Would they turn on one another? I pictured an emaciated Newt crawling on the forest floor, digging for grubs among the mossy stumps of a world he helped destroy. A disturbing image. Yet oddly satisfying.

Turns out the butcher was out of deer scraps, but it didn’t matter, we had the top down, and we felt fine. On the drive home, a question was forming in my mind. I wanted to ask Alan if foraging habituates in us a posture of receiving, rather than squabbling over, the food that’s all around us, but that seemed overly abstract. The winter sun shone on his face, he was singing along with gusto to Fleetwood Mac, and I already had my answer.

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