Mushroom foraging becomes ‘a spiritual journey with nature’
on January 31, 2022
Tony Alvarez pulled his SUV into the deserted parking lot before sunrise on a chilly January morning and unloaded two grocery bags, a jar and a backpack from his trunk as he waited for others to arrive.
It was 6:30 a.m. and he was expecting 15 people to join him for mushroom foraging in Tilden Park, an excursion people pay $100 to experience with Shroomy Walkabouts, a business he started four years ago in the Bay Area. Participants arrived slowly, some of them shyly, put at ease by Alvarez’s warm smile and embraces — he’s a hugger.
As the group formed a circle, Alvarez placed a shell of burning sage and cedar in the middle, a ritual called “smudging” meant to cleanse the spirit and the mind. The earthy aroma wafted into the air, mingling with the dewy scent of the forest.
Each person introduced themselves and said a little bit about their mushroom foraging experience, or lack of it.
“I like to eat mushrooms,” blurted a short, gray-haired newcomer, hopeful that she would be leaving the forest with her purple backpack full of the flavorful fungi.
Alvarez walked around the circle with the fuming shell, reciting a prayer.
“This is a ceremonial practice that I do. It’s to celebrate life and our connection to nature and mushrooms,” Alvarez said. “It’s important to incorporate this practice because it cleanses our bodies from the city energy into the natural world.”
Then he held before them a mason jar of tea, lightly spiked with psilocybin, for those interested in taking a “sacrament.”
Psilocybin mushrooms are illegal but have been decriminalized in some California cities, including Oakland, and are a low priority for law enforcement in others.
Almost all of the participants accepted a cup of the warm brew. Mei Zhang, a 50-year-old writer who describes herself as curious by nature, sipped the tea from the upturned cap of her water bottle and later compared its effect to a beer buzz.
“Honestly, he was offering in such a casual way, like it was offered together with snacks, I didn’t think of it as a drugging experience,” Zhang said. “I figured it was dosed to be relaxing not to get high, because it was a public event.”
Alvarez has been leading these foraging expeditions twice a month for the last four years throughout the Bay Area. Along with his expertise, the expedition fee covers a study guide of native California mushrooms and snacks like oranges, bananas and granola bars. This particular morning he even offered pineapple.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend mushroom foraging without an expert. The CDC says there are 1,400 emergency room visits every year due to poisonous mushrooms.
Before Shroomy Walkabouts, Alvarez said he worked in the radiology sector of the health care industry for about 10 years. He found his calling after attending an ayahuasca (a plant-based psychedelic brew) ceremony and has been working in nature ever since.
Once everyone was smudged, Alvarez led the group into the woods. By this time, the sun was out. Within a few minutes, Alvarez found a log and flipped it to uncover turkey tail, a mushroom that’s boiled and used for its health properties. People picked a few with their hands or with small knives.
“Only what you need,” Alvarez stressed to the group, a message the foraging community knows well. Leave some behind for others.
As the group climbed a steep hill, Alvarez said mushrooms can be difficult to find, unless you know what to look for. “Under lifts of leaves, there’s magic,” he said. “Mushrooms definitely hide in plain sight.”
During these hikes, he not only teaches people how to forage for mushrooms but also gives tips on how to cook and use them. Culinary mushrooms are protein sources that can be incorporated into many dishes, while medicinal mushrooms are more rubbery and have to be processed before being used.
Alvarez said his goal on hikes is to build community.
“As a society, we are very disconnected from nature, each other, and our roots,” he said. “We tend to envelop ourselves in external things in society that take us away from connecting.”
Approaching a meadow, Alvarez called for a break. This is when Zhang started to feel the capful of tea she had drunk about 20 minutes earlier.
“It feels like your edges are rounded off, like in general, mellowed out,” Zhang said. “It was a very Californian experience for me.”
Zhang comes from a province in China, Yunnan, where foraging for mushrooms is common.
“It is communal knowledge. Everyone knows which ones to eat and which ones will let you see little people,” Zhang said.
Mushrooms there are delicacies. So Zhang was surprised to find when she moved to California that there was a stigma around foraging. It wasn’t until she attended Shroomy Walkabouts that she was able to put her mushroom knowledge and foraging practice to use.
Alvino Cordova, a Southern California farmer, drove five hours to learn how to forage. He’s interested in the medicinal uses of mushrooms and said he couldn’t find a foraging community closer to home
The experience, he said, turned out to be “mind, body and soul therapy.”
“In the end, I got a blister from my boots, but overall it was worth my time and connecting with like-minded people in the mushroom foraging community,” Cordova said. “From now on, anywhere I go I will be foraging.”
The hike covered 3.3 miles. Some folks turned around midpoint but most stayed, enjoying each other’s company and bonding over mushrooms even though each left with only a couple of handfuls.
Zhang said it turned out to be a completely different experience than what she had expected.
“I went expecting to bring home mushrooms for dinner, but when Tony lit the sage and cedar, I thought, ‘Oh this will be a very different purpose,’” Zhang said. “I realized this would be a spiritual journey into nature.”
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