Under the Cover: Fungal by Ariel Gordon

Poet and writer Ariel Gordon celebrates the diversity of fungi and the complexity of the urban forest in her new book Fungal: Foraging in the Urban Forest (Wolsak and Wynn).

Today she shares an exclusive piece called “Foraging for Happiness” about the joys of walking in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest, the ethics of foraging, and living in harmony with nature.

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I started foraging because I’m a Winnipeg poet.

Which means two things: I like sizzling good deals but I like free better AND I’m hustling hard all the time but earn next-to-no money.

I am also someone who started beachcombing long before I took up mudlarking or mushrooming. As an adult, I still come home from day trips with pockets full: bits of shell, shiny with mother-of-pearl. Good pebbles. Bark fragments. Shed feathers. Seaglass. Seeds. Satisfying hunks of driftwood. Leaves for pressing in books. Weird plastics. Fallen wasp’s nests. Bones. Hagstones. Chunks of quartz.

But I didn’t start getting to know mushrooms until I met my partner Mike, who introduced me to Assiniboine Forest, a never-developed patch of oak-aspen parkland within Winnipeg’s urban forest, three million trees strong.

Assiniboine Forest

We built our relationship on slow walks through the forest. Which means two things: I learned that no matter how the bad the weather was, it was always better under the trees AND no matter how ugly my mood was going in, it would always be improved by the walk’s end.  

In the twenty-five years since, I’ve become a bit of an expert on the mushrooms, wildflowers, and fruit trees that appear in that little forest: Oyster mushrooms. Three-flowered avens. Chokecherries. Hazelnuts. Wild licorice. Lobster mushrooms. Ostrich ferns. Milkweed. Trembling aspens. Meadow blazingstar. Old man’s fingers. Wild plums. Sasparilla. Mica caps. Yellow lady-slipper orchids. Bur oak. Wild mint. Stinkhorns. Canada anemone. Hawthorns. Ghost pipe.

Mushrooms (Chicken of the Woods on the left, Blue Stain on the right)

Chokecherries

I’ve elaborated an ethics for foraging in Assiniboine Forest: I only harvest when something is both common and in abundance and I try not to take very much of it. Enough for a meal or two. I know that that space is a refuge and a haven for so many people that can’t get out of the city, to visit Manitoba’s network of provincial and federal parks. It isn’t my personal larder.

Morels, foraged

Over the past few years, I have been venturing out into the bush an hour or two away from the city for new-to-me mushrooms like morels and honeys. I have had access to expert advice on-line and in-person with this new venture — thanks to Alexandre Brassard’s Winnipeg Mycological Society group Facebook group and especially to Tom Nagy of River City Mushrooms — but I still have gotten stuck by the side of the road. Twice.

I have driven home, itching mosquito bites and ejecting ticks out the window. I’ve gotten scratched and poked by branches as I crash through the bush, fallen in the mud, gotten bootfulls of bog water. I’ve even dropped the mushrooms I spent hours collecting on the trail back to the car.

But I’ve discovered that you need failure for good narratives, which is important when a poet starts writing creative non-fiction. I think it’s much more interesting to admit that I’m not an expert, just an enthusiast. I like the idea that I’m learning about the things I write about alongside my readers.

But I’m selfish too: I forage for happiness.

I love how I am occupied, sated, worn-out in all the best ways after being-in-the-world, looking for things. I have had adventures and also something to show for it, some taste of the wider world to savour.

My goal is to try to live in harmony with the more-than-human, to adapt to the alterations that climate change is bringing to my city, my province, to the Canadian prairies. I want unlearn so many of the terrible lessons of my middle-class suburban childhood when it comes to urban nature: in particular, the to-the-death battle against so-called pests.

My goal is to have so many favourites I can’t name them. Sitting on my screened porch with my snoozing cats as I write this, I can see or remember seeing: my 112-year-old boulevard elm. Velvet foot mushrooms. Merlins. Bleeding heart plant. Lilacs. Manchurian alders. A hummingbird visiting the pink flowers of my lungwort. Dandelions. Flocks of sparrows, cheeping like mad from a cedar. Volunteer Manitoba maple seedlings everywhere. Midnight owls, hooting. Bumblebees. The creeping Charlie that’s taking over my little lawn. A swooping nightjar.

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Photo by Mike Deal

Ariel Gordon (she/her) is a Winnipeg/Treaty 1 territory-based a writer, editor, and enthusiast. She is the ringleader of Writes of Spring, a National Poetry Month project with the Winnipeg International Writers Festival that appears in the Winnipeg Free Press. Her first two collections of poetry won the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry. Her most recent books are the essay collection Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forests (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019) and the first book in the public poetry project TreeTalk (At Bay Press, 2020), which was nominated for three Manitoba Book Awards. In 2022, her work appeared in Canadian Notes and QueriesCanthiusperiodicities, and The Quarantine Review.