Fungal: Foraging In the Urban Forest by Ariel Gordon

Jun 11, 2024

Ariel Gordon’s wonderful new book, Fungal; Foraging in the Urban Forest, isn’t about fungi or mushrooms or even foraging per se. It’s really about mushrooms as obsession, as metaphor and as a glorious pathway into the wonders of nature and the foibles of human nature.

From hilarious descriptions of her “mushrooming” family—Ariel, husband Mike and daughter Anna, each of whom winds up with a cat of their own, one of which is known, affectionately, as “Philip the asshole”—to her secondary obsession with mud larking on the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, every chapter is filled with humour, acute observation and the kind of extensive, yet perfectly invisible research that elevates the personal into a story with universal appeal.

Take her chapter on morel hunting. Like all great natural history, it provides not only an excellent description of where these much-coveted mushrooms grow, as well as information on how to distinguish a false morel from a real one, it also documents the various calamities that may await you when you try to hunt them down. Among them, the author losing a bag of carefully picked morels somewhere in the bush, a mile away from the car she’s just walked back to, or said car being marooned in a soggy rut, on a dirt road to nowhere, on a Sunday.

Add to that misgivings about a recipe for false morels that might poison her and her husband, and you have a fair idea of the lengths to which the author will go to satisfy her appetite for mushrooms.

In fact, Ariel’s hunt for the fruiting bodies of fungi takes the reader down roads most of us will never experience. One of my favorite chapters in the book—and I have quite a few—documents her time as a harvester in Winnipeg’s largest mushroom growing operation. What she discovers, in addition to the skills needed to harvest twenty-pounds an hour, is a grow factory where Cantonese, Punjabi and Somali are the dominant languages. A workplace where she finds herself experiencing the kind of alienation and exclusion experienced by thousands of immigrants—including her co-workers—in the broader world of largely white, English-speaking inhabitants.

All of which leads to a meditation on what it really means to be marginalized:

“…as in the rest of Canada, the hardest and dirtiest jobs…are often taken by foreign workers, by newcomers to Canada and lower class people who can’t afford to attend university … I had expected this job to be about exploring the differences between field and factory, natural and unnatural mushrooms, but instead, like everything else, it was about class and race.”

And that’s what makes this book such a joy to read—the fact that you’re journeying alongside a writer who truly and fully sees not only the natural but the human world that surrounds her; one whose empathy leads her to challenge her own assumptions as to where the real story lies.

No story is more poignant than the one entitled “Rotten.” Here, the author parallels her own struggle coming to terms not only with the threat of a possible cervical cancer diagnosis, but the inevitable death of her beloved boulevard tree, which is slowly succumbing to the fungal disease called Dutch Elm. It’s a story about loss and grief, fear and surrender and the comfort to be found in nature even in a time of chaos—both personal and planetary.

Whether she’s talking about a friend who’s micro-dosing psilocybin, (the psychoactive agent found in magic mushrooms) to treat debilitating depression, chronicling the amusing mushroom-stuffed correspondence of Winnipeg mycologist, David Punter, or the fear and anxiety that accompanies the climate crisis, this is a book about nature and human nature that will make you to laugh, think and self-reflect.

It’s also a book that combines both the sublime economy of language and keen observational skills of Ariel Gordon, the poet, with the obsessions and appetite for adventure and discovery that drive her as a non-fiction writer.

It’s the perfect blend, and Fungal is more than worth the time to read.

Fungal: Foraging In the Urban Forest
by Ariel Gordon
Wolsak & Wynn, June 11, 2024, 242 pages, $22.00
ISBN 978-1-989496-92-3

Erna Buffie is a writer, filmmaker and environmental advocate. Her first novel, Let Us Be True was nominated for the Margaret Laurence fiction prize and will be re-issued by Shadowpaw Press in summer, 2024.

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