The disappearing world of the ‘shroom pickers…

 

Well, I think that should be “The disappearing ‘shroom pickers” really.

Because mushroom picking is the only thing that still remains from humankind’s ancient history. It’s the last remnant of the nomad life still remaining in the world, aside of the real nomads in places like Mongolia, the Sahara desert etc.ย  The last time where this kind of camaraderie existed, the gold mines, died out years ago….the freedom, independence and all the rest that comes bagged with this kind of life.

I’m fortunate in living in BC, Canada where a lot of the mushroom hunting goes on. Some time ago, I ventured out to the Charlotte Islands myself, or to give them their real name, Haida Gwaii…..mushroom hunting was the least thing on my mind at that time….I just wanted to get away from the rush-rush life of the city, and a trip to a far away place such as the Charlottes was too good to give up! Pity my wife, who ‘volunteered’ to stay at home!

It’s a long way away, and getting to the place all depends on how urgent your visit is. You can fly there from Vancouver via AirCanada which drops you off at Sandspit, or you could take the BC Ferry from Prince Rupert to Skidegate.

I had plenty of time on my hands, so I decided to take the more scenic and laid-back route, driving from the mainland to Port Hardy on Vancouver island, and thence the BC Ferry to Price Rupert as above.

The Haida Gwaii are an archipelago of 138 islands, 80 miles off the coast of northern BC and most of them are uninhabited, the native peoples having been moved forcibly when Canada first became populated by the white man.

Anyway, my idea was to travel alone and just camp by myself whenever the opportunity arose, but a chance encounter in a drinking place changed all that. nevertheless, I was still able to go it alone afterwards.

I met a guy in the bar who started small talk etc and very soon the topic of “where are you going…” came up, both from my side and his. I told him what I was planning to do, and he told me that he was there to pick ‘shrooms.

That intrigued me, as I’d never met anyone in person who’d done so, and we got talking further. He saw that I was interested, but I could sense a wariness about what he was telling me…he steadfastly refused to talk about where heย  would be going, who with or when. And he was quite open about his secrecy, too. “Their places are as sacred to ‘shroom pickers just as the Vatican is to Catholics!” he said!

I asked him if he was going in his own. He replied that some of the pickers work alone, but he works with a gang, whom he’d be happy to introduce me to if I wanted….but he warned me that they were a rough n tough bunch and don’t take too easily to meeting strangers!

The next day, I met him again at the same bar, we had a few drinks and he said he was going to drive over to where the rest of his friends were camped and I could come with him. The camp was about a 30 minute drive away, in a quiet forested area just off a dirt road. Sure enough, when we arrived and I got out of the pickup, the few people who weren’t in their tents all suddenly stopped doing whatever they were doing…and started staring at us…well, not us, but ME!

My friend Jon winked at me and said “…told you so…”, relating to me what he’d said about strangers in camp etc. It was late afternoon by the time we finished talking and telling our own stories, so Jon asked if I wanted to stay with them overnight or a few days, which I jumped at….I was not going to give up this golden opportunity easily, I tell you!

During the next few days, I met and talked to, it seemed, a whole cross-section of people……from a group of Chinese who kept themselves to themselves, only mixing with the rest of the people if they needed to, a single mother with her 4 children, some Hispanics who couldn’t speak a word of english but were the happiest people on earth, judging by the smiles when they met me, a native Indian guy who’d been picking mushrooms for coming up to 15 years, an office worker who, like me, had become fed up with the rat-race and had taken to mushroom picking because “it paid the bills and let him be with the eagles and the wolves..”, a student who wanted to make some cash, two russian guys who were as inscrutable as they come, and many more such colorful characters.

I got talking the office worker, seeing as he had the same ideas as myself. I asked him why he gave up what was a very comfortable life, to live in the wilds. I knew what he’d say, but what the heck. And sure enough, his answer was text-book.

He explained that he’d been working in administration for over 20 years, and in that time, all he could see was that he was working himself to death….it was the same boring pattern that I escaped from myself….work, eat, sleep, work, eat sleep, work, eat, sleep….ad infinitum.

Here in the wilds, he said, there were no deadlines….no boss to answer to, no office politics, nobody to please but himself. He still had an apartment in downtown Vancouver which was paid for, so there was no problem with paying a mortgage or anything, but he’d rented it out as he was away for most of the time.

And he also confirmed that mushroom pickers were a very secretive bunch indeed…and rightly so, as the crop was very elusive at the best of times and one could make substantial money once a site was found.

Bc was not the only place in Canada where mushrooms could be picked in large numbers….when the crop in this area was depleted, they’d head over to the East coast, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan or the Yukon.

I also learnt that there some varieties of mushroom that could be grown artificially, but some could not, only becoming available in the right conditions in the wild.

I spent a total of 3 days in the mushroom pickers’ camp and in that time everyone had become friendly with me, knowing that I was a person who loved the wilderness just like them!

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http://www.wholeearth.com/issue/2100/article/145/migrant.mushroomers

Following on from yesterday’s article about native peoples…

Not long ago, I was in a remote area of BC….the Queen Charlottes, sometimes known by their real name as Haida Gwaii.

I was alone, as I mostly always am when on hikes.

The Haida Gwaii area is almost pristine, even these days, and there are huge tracts of land that are still virgin, although rather difficult to get to.

I try to go there as often as I can…the isolation from the circus that is life is truly magical there, as it is in all such places elsewhere in the world.

It’s very difficult to put into words how one feels in such places….I can only describe it as recuperative, inspiring t be in a virgin place as that…..making you think that this is what the world must have been like before the multitudes and hordes invaded the lands and pillaged everything.

Inspiring and recuperative it may well be, but for me, and this is my personal feeling, not a crusade or anything I am on….the place cries out, reeks of….something missing.

And for me, I feel the missing link, that elusive feeling I get there, is the native peoples.

Somehow, don’t please ask me how or what…..it seems that their not being there….having been forced out….seems to have left a gaping void….an invisible, gaping chasm, which manifests itself into your mind, making you almost cry with sadness at the slashing of the ties the natives had to this area.

As ever, myself and my fellow-men, call us whites, north americans, whatever…..we are charged with depopulating the indigenous Haida peoples from their lands here. They say some 90% of the Haida died from something as simple as smallpox and the common flu bug, something the Haida never had any immunity to, and which our people brought into their lands when we decided to invade.

The survivors were removed forcibly from these happy, peaceful hunting grounds and placed in just 2 villages where they live to this day.

It is, for me, a feeling of incompleteness, if there is such a word….a land barren of an essential part of it’s ecosystem shall we say….and I feel the land itself, somehow manifesting a terrible sadness at this loss….a bit like how a parent, myself being one, would feel if, for some reason or other…..I were to return home one day and find all my family gone…just disappeared into thin air, never to return…..a sick, deep grief and sadness….I don’t know…maybe it’s just me.

But let’s talk about happier things….in places like the Haida Gwaii, we can come closer than we ever will be on tis planet, to being what creation has deigned us to be…..untrammaled spirits made to enjoy the timeless stillness of that same creation itself…..as if that creative force wants to tell us…wants to show us, through places like these, that that is where it comes from, where it resides..and ultimately where it wants us to be.

Could it possibly be the reason why we so love the wilderness, the deserted coasts, where we can be and just look out towards the nothingness, the nowhere where creation itself resides? And could it be why native legends and so-called folklore is full of tales imploring us not to destroy that wilderness? Because to destroy it, like we have done already, is to destroy the abode of the force that created it and all of us, too.

There too, I had one of the most profound experiences of coincidence, synchronicity…call it what you will.

I had always looked up into the sky and many times seen a solitary eagle or perhaps a number of them, circling or soaring on the thermals from below….I had often wondered if it could be possible to catch an eagle feather in it’s fall from it’s owner, before it touched the ground….could that be possible? I asked a Haida friend of mine about this, and he in turn put the question to an elder he knew.

My friend came back many days later, with a big smile on his face, and when I asked him what he was so happy about, he told me that if I were to get hold of even a single feather from an eagle, a feather that hadn’t fallen and touched the Earth, caught in mid-air in other words, that it would a very, very fortuitous thing indeed to happen, and such a gift is classed as priceless by the Haida. This he was told by the elder.

And that is exactly what happened a few months later, when I was in the Haida Gwaii again, having forgotten all about the feathers and the eagles.

I just happened to be walking on the beach, when by pure chance perhaps, or pure synchronicity…take your pick….I looked up into the sky, and saw not one, not two, but more than 7 or 8 eagles circling around very low…I’d say not more than 150 to 200 feet in the air, and for some odd reason, there were eagle feathers falling from them!

Of course, I wasted no time in running underneath them as fast as I could, with my shirt ripped off my back and held out like a basket, catching as many feathers as possible. That night I called my Haida friend and told him what had happened, and he said we would both take those feathers to the elder and ask him what this all meant.

A few days later, we were with the Haida elder…to just be with such a person is to experience peace and quiet….a result of the peace itself that emanated from him.

He told me that I was indeed very fortunate….that this was a very great occurrence, which meant that the gods were pleased with what I had been thinking, and that great experiences would envelop me, great happiness would follow me wherever I went. And the feathers were a tangible proof from the gods…a kind of confirmation of this.

Well, being a western-minded agnostic, it was a little hard to swallow, but I respected what the elder told us, and anyway, his words of wisdom both calmed me and made me feel happier anyway!

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