A PSYCHOLOGY OF MUSHROOMING


(First published in Mushroom; The Journal of Wild Mushrooming Fall 2002)

 

It was while on a sabbatical at the New York State Museum in the mid-90’s that the rather profound rearrangement of my life created by this experience led me to reconsider a connection between psychology and mushrooming.  I would not quite call it an epiphany. It was more like a subtle awareness and rearrangement of some of the connections in my own experience, but I believe it has universal application, so I offer it for what it might be worth.

 

I was working with John Haines, dealing with some aspects of the Peck Collection, but mostly helping him with his monogram on the Hyaloscyphacea. These are tiny, usually stalked, usually hairy, ascomycetes, often not much bigger than the head of a pin.  They are usually of not much interest to collectors of Amanita, Boletes, and Chanterelles, [you know, “Real Mushrooms for Real People”] so it is completely understandable if you have never noticed them. I hardly had, even though my good friend Pete Katsaros was always quick to point out that from a taxonomic perspective each organism, no matter how small, was just as valid and interesting as the next.  If you are interested, there is a picture of a common one, Dasyscyphus virgineus in Lincoff’s Audubon Guide (photo 630).

 

My previous professional work in mycology had been with the large fleshy fungi, edibles and their toxic look-alikes, as well as the conspicuous, showy or otherwise interesting forms.  I loved the sculptural quality as much as anything else about them.  So I took lots and lots of photos, went to all the forays I could, sorted and resorted my slides and was forever teaching Mushroom ID classes.  This was a very logical extension of the previous 30 years I had spent as a seat of the pants mycophage.  I had collected for the pot, extending my knowledge mushroom-by-mushroom, season-by-season, habitat-by-habitat, with only the occasional upset stomach and the rare giggly loose-jointed serendipitous moment.

 

But now, here I was down on my knees in amongst bramble and bog scratching around for things that I could hardly see!   To photograph them I had to repair to the lab with a series of powerful magnifying lens, ring flash and phase illumination devices, and an air cushioned trip release camera mounted on a rock steady tripod in a dead air space.

 

This was all very lonely work as John had departed to Estonia for a series of conferences with his European Hyaloscyphae counterpart. (Little did I know then that he would be having a ball tooling around Europe looking for real mushrooms with real people! See his accompanying piece.[in MtJ])  For those not in the know, the bowels of  a museum is the last place you would go for an enriching social adventure. There was one other fellow in a nearby dead air space who spent his time pulling apart dead flies in order to count the veins on their wings. Occasionally he might respond to a greeting.  Outside of that, pretty much zilch!  Dead air, drawers of dried mushrooms and shelves full of fly wings and mastodont bones.

 

By this point, a picture should be emerging to the reader. My past had given me a richly rewarding organic experience with large beautiful fleshy fungi. They tasted good, were fun to collect, and lots of people went ga-ga over them. And now, here I was, involved in a demanding, dry, and desultory dance with seemingly inconsequential bits of nothing played to the penultimate in a sterile lab. This, I thought, must be the prelude to a true existential crisis… What on earth am I doing here?  This isn’t mycology. This has got to be a stop on one of Dante’s cut-rate tours.  If not hell, it must at least be purgatory.

 

If you have ever ridden a bike, you know that you have to keep moving in order to keep your balance, so that’s what I did.  I traveled around a good deal of New York State, from estuarine bays of the Hudson River through rich farm country to the east, the Catskills to the west, and north to the Adirondacks. I went to the Green and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, and then to Coastal Maine and back again, collecting as I went. Aside from the forays I arranged to attend, I was pretty much alone with my collections. Pulling together my field notes with the photographs and the dried specimens allowed me to become conversant with them and with an imaginary discussion with John about what I had been doing.  As I collected and worked with the collection the perceived quality of this experience gradually shifted, becoming familiar, comfortable, and even at times vital.

 

When John returned from Europe in the fall we had just enough time for one quick collecting trip out to the western part of the state.  On a piece of state land, next to an Indian reservation, near the Pennsylvania border a fellow researcher from the State Museum was collecting scat from small mammals. He was interested in their diet, and this is one way to see what they eat.  It turned out that scat from Flying Squirrels caught in traps in a very specific location contained spores from Elaphomyces leucosporus, an obscure underground fungus previously known only from the south of France and Northern Italy. The only sighting by humans in North America had been of these spores caught by high power cameras in a dead air space of the State Museum.

 

Now, to reset the scene. Imagine the Allegany State Park near Salamanca, NY: A gorgeously beautiful wilderness area, apple crisp air,   rivers and streams flowing with and reflecting the polychrome leaves of a northeastern autumn. Add great stands of timber, deep moist duff, and bushel upon bushel of chanterelles, dentinum, Boletes, and agarics.  I had rarely seen so many delectable collectables!  And here I was ignoring the mushrooms, in some cases actually shoving them aside in order to uncover the source of some squirrel’s scat. And doing so with gusto!  As I say, it was not an epiphany, but a minor gestalt.  And herein a lesson of motivation, pleasure, and what I believe to be a connection between the lessons of psychology and of mushrooming.

 

From Poetic Phenomenology to Precise Psychology:

Like so many other mushroom collectors who had come of age in the psychedelic ‘60’s, I had my education fully laced with symbolism, philosophy, literature, and the sort of existential reality testing that seems today to be found mainly at Telluride and other upscale spas.  I had read with interest many of the articles of the day that sought to explain “The Psychology of Mushrooming” from a rarified symbolic perspective.  They were tasty enough, salty and spicy, but always left me hungry.  Something in my farm boy’s upbringing wanted more substance. More structure. Meat and potatoes, perhaps. Less ephemera, more nourishment.

 

My training in academic psychology came to the rescue as I considered the conceptual power of learning theory.  In brief, Motivation, Emotion, and Locomotion are all facets of the same neuro-bio-chemical event.  Motivated by various needs (say hunger) the organism flails around (is driven to activity).  Babies, for example, put all sorts of things into their mouths, including even poisonous mushrooms… but that is another story.  The more or less random nature of this activity slowly becomes shaped by the reward values of the items ingested and their ability to meet needs.   Slowly, but almost always surely, the child comes to eat a greatly reduced subset of all that its environment has to offer. Children deprived of calcium in their diets have been known to go to certain secluded hallways where they nibble away at the plasterboard in order to meet their need for calcium. Tragically, lead poisoning occurs if the child eats older lead based paints on their way to the plaster.

 

Culture certainly plays a part as various agents of socialization (parents, for example) offer other rewards (hugs, kisses, smiles and attention) when the child behaves appropriately.  Order replaces disorder; habit and repetitive activity replace randomness, impulsivity and inefficiency.  A Social Theorist might say that civility comes to replace savagery.

 

Reward Mechanisms and Schedules of Reinforcement:

In the beginning stage of a learning curve, there is a heavy investment of time and training. It is important to reward the organism each and every time it makes the correct response. At piano or computer lessons, for example, the mother sits at the child’s side to offer constant reward, keystroke by keystroke. A foray with an active club provides similar rewards, specimen by specimen.  This total reward schedule of reinforcement is effective but quite pricey for the parent, teacher, guru or capitalist who must pay each and every time the learner makes a correct response.  Without constant rewards the learned behavior quickly disappears or extinguishes.

 

Once learned, however, the desired response can be maintained with far fewer rewards if the parent shifts from a total to a partial schedule of reinforcement.  Without getting into the details suffice it to say that the most committed behavior comes from a variable ratio reward schedule. Paradoxically, less becomes more, and chance becomes key.

 

From a reward every time the bar is pressed you gradually move to a fixed ratio of rewards: reward every other bar press, every 5th, 20th, .1000th   etc.   So long as you reward before extinction the learned response will persist. If you switch to giving a reward on the average every 5th, 20th or 1000th bar press, you will produce extremely persistent behavior.   It is as if the organism (rat, child, salesperson, mushroom collector, or gambler) becomes addicted to his pursuit.  This is motivation par excellence!  Rats for example can be conditioned to work themselves to death, expending far more energy in pressing the bar than they can ever get from the few meager pellets of food given as reward. 

 

From this perspective it is easy to see how many of the passionate interests of our lives develop.  Since much of natures rewards come on a variable ratio schedule, we never quite know when we will hit the jackpot, and so, once involved, we persist long and hard in our quest.  We could be collecting mushrooms for the pot or for that elusive new specie. Or, it could be field guides, technical monographs, fish or paraphernalia from yard sales that we collect.  (One day, perhaps sooner than we wish, an enthusiastic new mushroom collector will be trolling eBay for that increasingly rare, long out of print, edition of Mushroom, The Journal… and wishing that it were still in existence.)

 

 

 

Back to Phenomenology

So much for this committed behavior from the outside.  From the inside we develop a feeling for what we are doing, a commitment and a passion, precisely because of our time spent on task. Life is uneven and water runs downhill. Spend enough time in a pursuit and sooner or later a moment of contentment will occur. Through association we come to attribute our contentment to the object of our pursuit, develop an inner constellation of these associations, and then to search out the repetition of those moments.

 

From the pulpit may come a Calvinistic pleading that hard work is good for you. The rebellious youth of the ‘60’s demurs, “If it feels good, do it”.  Today’s morally challenged genXer might conclude “If it feels good, it is good”.   Throughout, the technical psychologist reminds us to simply “Trust our feelings”. 

 

And our feelings often require us to search out a challenge. To those of us keyed into the structure of a process, too much repetition becomes boring, and can be as unrewarding as no reward at all. So we improvise and seek the challenge.  We look for the new, to taste, perhaps, Boletus barrowsii;  the difficult, to catch a grayling on a fly;  the nearly impossible, to find Elaphomyces leucosporus in North America.

 

Sandy Sheine, the organizing force behind COMA, the Connecticut/Westchester Mycological Association, speaks enthusiastically about “the great Easter egg hunt” that mushrooming is. You never quite know what you will find, or when you will find it, if indeed you find it at all.  But there is something here that keeps pulling us back.  We may endure dry spells, dry seasons, dry years, year after year, yet each season, each hunt, each foray always offers promise.  We remember green springs, wet with youth and morels galore; that serene summer bursting with boletes; the unexpected catch of chanterelle while on an innocent family hike.   And these memories keep us locked on task until the next great flush fills our baskets with fungi, our bellies with food, and our hearts with the desire to do it again, and again…  In a word, mushrooming fills us with hope, the distillate of our passion.

 

I can’t close without a word of deep appreciation to Don Coombs and Maggie Rogers who have helped us keep that hope alive during those dry spells and barren winters. Again and again I have looked forward to the next issue of the Journal.

 

And now? Perhaps to recall the words of the poet Shelly who, in Prometheus Unbound, reminds us… “to hope, till hope creates from its own wreck, the thing it contemplates”.   Good advice, it seems, for good collectors of all ages and stripes.   Good Luck All!

 

Bill Bakaitis   7/2/02

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 The last two paragraphs of this article reflect the retirement of Don Coombs from his role as Publisher of Mushroom, The Journal of Wild Mushrooming, where this article appeared..  Leon Shernoff  subsequently acquired the Journal and these roles. BB 12/10/2011