Bon Appetit

Once upon a time I found myself sitting down to dinner in a tent not far from Tiniteqilaq. East Greenland. My hosts were an Inuit family whose food came from the land, the sea, and the ice. In Tinit, as it’s often abbreviated, you either hunt or you go hungry.

Our hors d’oeuvre consisted of square chunks of seal nose, an East Greenland specialty. We ate it by holding the attached whiskers as if they were toothpicks, then sticking the boiled proboscid morsel into our mouths. The resident elder, Avannaq, told me that this was the proper way to eat seal nose if you wanted to avoid greasy fingers.

ptarmigan shit, by Doug Holden

An Inuit culinary delicacy!

Then came the main course served up in a big bowl. It looked like some sort of meat casserole and smelled like a very ripe Gorgonzola. I found the flavor quite pleasant and asked Avannaq for seconds.

“Marmartuq?” he asked. (You like it?)

“Mamagiq!” I replied. (Delicious!)

At which point he provided me with the dish’s recipe:

  • Go out and kill a seal, then take a chunk of the meat, preferably from the flank, and cut it into small pieces
  • Chew each piece a number of times, then spit them into a bowl. Be sure you spit into the bowl too, as that helps the ingredients ferment and likewise serves as a sort of seasoning.
  • Mix in some ptarmigan shit. This ingredient should be dry. Fresh ptarmigan shit is somewhat astringent, and its viscosity is not pleasant to every palate.
  • Stir the aforementioned items for a few minutes, add a cup or two of slightly rancid seal oil, and –voila! –serve forth.

“Can you substitute something for the ptarmigan shit?” I inquired.

Avannaq shook his head vehemently. No less than Julia Child, he knew exactly what made a recipe work.

One culture’s prized entree is another culture’s visit to the vomitorium. I suspect Avannaq would have been appalled at the idea of eating a parsnip or cauliflower, not to mention brussels sprouts. And he might have asked me some rather pointed questions about what, exactly, lurks inside the skin of the American hot dog.

But there’s another point to this story besides the relativity of taste. The only hunting and gathering most of us non-Greenlanders do occurs within the confines of our friendly neighborhood supermarket. And if we do venture into the field, we take with us packets of freeze-dried ersatz probably processed hundreds of miles away.

I once offered one of these packets –I think it was beef stroganoff–to an Iban tribesperson in the jungles of Borneo. He ripped it open and poured the powdery contents into his mouth. The look on his face suggested that this cuisine did not compare with home-grown kitty cat.

Now back to the tent in Tinit. There was still some of our entree left. I declined a third helping not because I felt queasy but because I was full. I did not even have room for the salmonberry dessert.

After our repast, Avannaq and I, boasting literal shit-eating grins, gazed at each other with satisfaction. It was a satisfaction that can only come from putting into one’s mouth food snatched directly from the wild.

Many thanks to Doug Holden for permission to use his photo of ptarmigan shit taken atop Mount Cairngorm.

Relics: Three Recent Books of Interest

In this post, I’d like to take off my mycological hat and put on the hat of a passionate reader (and reviewer) of books on both the rapidly melting North and our rapidly disappearing natural world. You could say that I’m sloshing to a different part of the bog, which has a somewhat different ecosystem…

Toward Magnetic North
(Available from The Oberholtzer Foundation, 300 N. Hill St, Marshall, MN, 56528)

Toward Magnetic NorthThis extremely handsome book which includes photographs, diary jottings, and essays by various hands details explorer conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer’s epic 1912 canoe trip from The Pas, Manitoba, to Hudson Bay. The photos, especially, are remarkable; at once lyrical and austere, they provide an eloquent window on a lost time and a distant place. A “must” for canoeists and Arctic aficionados.

The Chukchi Bible, by Yuri Rytkheu (Archipeligo Books, 2011)

Chukchi BiblePart myth, part fiction, and part family memoir, The Chukchi Bible details the history of Siberia’s Chukchi from the time when Raven created the world out of gobs of his own shit to the year 1999. But it’s not only a history. It’s also an elegy on the death of a traditional culture due to assaults from the outside world. I have no hesitation in calling the late Yuri Rytkheu’s book a master piece. Urgently recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arctic or its Native people.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms by Richard Fortey (Knopf, 2012)

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet WormsPaleontologist Richard Fortey (author of Life: An Unauthorized Biography) rambles around the world in search of relic species, including onychophorans, gingko trees, lampreys, tuataras, chambered nautiluses, lungfish, ferrerets, horsetails, and echidnas. In his own home in England, he finds an ancient survivor known to everyone — the cockroach. Elegantly written and often very funny, this book provides an excellent complement to Piotr Naskrecki’s primarily photographic work Relics.


In my previous bog post, I considered the subject of overlooked fungi. Now I’d like to consider fungi that are underlooked — i. e., those that are either ignored or cause the viewer to avert his eyes. It seems to me that people who underlook fungi often do so because of an attitude instilled in them by Hollywood.

I can almost see the incredulous look on the reader’s face. Hollywood can be blamed for plenty of sins, but can it be blamed for a prejudice against certain fungi? Why not? Create a mental picture for yourself of a typical Hollywood actor’s face. Star, starlet, or mere extra, that face is doubtless the consequence of a botox treatment, excessive makeup, plastic surgery, or some other form of reconstitution. Even as such faces excite a fantasy-making mechanism in the viewer, they also make that same viewer feel his own face is unattractive, whereas his own face is simply natural.

A character from Dovzhenko's film, Earth.

Well, that’s the way it is with movies, you might say. Whereupon I would ask you to screen (for example) Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film Zemlya (Earth), and you’d see an alternative to Hollywood beautification, so-called. Dovzhenko’s characters are Ukrainian muzhiks (peasants) with scraggly beards, rotund bodies, wrinkles, warts, and various disfigurements. In other words, they’re real.

Unfortunately, many people regard fungi from a Hollywood rather than a Dovzhenko perspective. Thus they gaze fondly only at certain species, usually agarics. How often does a corticioid (crust) fungus or a small black ascomycete win a photographic contest or appear on a website (except here!)? Instead, you tend to see brightly-colored Hygrocybes (the young Julia Roberts?), slender-stalked Amanitas (Mel Gibson in fighting mettle?), suppurating Lactarii, or Leptonia carnea. Mushroom photographer Christian Schwarz gushingly calls the last of these “indescribable,” which I suppose means that it has a pretty face.

A beguiling batch of Rosellinias

As for myself, I tend to gaze at fungi from a Dovzhenko perspective. I delight in the tiny black pebbles of a Rosellinia; I clap my hands at the sight of a Kretzschmaria (=Ustulina) deusta, the so-called Carbon Cushion; and I gasp with pleasure every time I encounter Peridoxylon (=Camarops) petersii, which looks not unlike a dog’s nose (for a comparison of the two, see p. 93 of my book Fascinating Fungi of New England). If any of these species could talk, it might tell you that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. The Peridoxylon might also tell you that it’s quite proud of its perithecia (asci-bearing structures), and that perhaps you should appreciate them, too.

If I happen to be in the woods, I’ll investigate barkless white pine logs in the hopes of finding Pseudomerulius aureus, a species whose yellowish surface is as wrinkled as a Dovzhenko peasant’s face. And if I do in fact find this captivating fungus, I might repeat my old friend Sam Ristich‘s favorite utterance upon finding an interesting or unusual species — “Hallelujah!”

Images from this Dovzhenko exhibition and this website of Japanese fungi by Kutsuna Masanori.


Sarea resinae, courtesy of Jason HollingerCertain fungi are not so much rare as overlooked. How many people have gazed upon Sarea resinae, for example? This orangeish ascomycete, seldom more than half a millimeter in diameter, makes its home exclusively in conifer resin. Then there’s Coltriciella dependens, the Wasp’s Nest Polypore (see my book Fascinating Fungi of New England for a description), which typically fruits on the inside rather than the outside of a log. I dare say few fungophiles — or anyone else — go about prying open logs in search of this species, which does indeed look like a wasp’s nest, albeit an upside down one.

Alas, I can imagine a day in the not too distant future when Bridgeoporus nobilissimus — a species whose fruiting body is sometimes five feet wide — might be overlooked, assuming it doesn’t go extinct first (its substrate, the Noble Fir, is much in demand as a Christmas tree). You might wonder how such a giant fungus could be overlooked. A person could just as easily not see an elephant, a giraffe, or a charging rhino. Precisely. For we live in the first era in human history where a sense of the umwelt — defined by that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, as “surrounding world” — has all but disappeared.

Go out onto the street, and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about. Most of the population will be moving about in what might be called the iDevice Saunter whilst engaged in a colloquy with another saunterer somewhere else. Anyone who isn’t moving about in this mincing, halting, self-absorbed pace, punctuated by sidesteps, runs the risk of smashing into the saunterer… or mimicking the progress of a Galapagos tortoise. If I wanted to be unkind, I could refer to such individuals as digitally-fixated zombies hypnotized by the diminutive screens somehow glued to their hands.

But I don’t want to be unkind. Quite the contrary. I would like to help these aforementioned individuals. I want them to be aware of the sights, smells, and sounds of the natural world. Maybe even notice a mushroom or two. Plus, I’m worried that their obsession with their iDevices is putting their lives at risk. A tornado or tsunami could be approaching them, and they wouldn’t know it until it was too late. Or a real Android, as opposed to the digital sort, could be getting ready to grab them, and they would be absorbed in Kevin’s latest posting on Farcebook, er, Facebook that the Android would make mincemeat (or whatever Androids do with their victims) of them.

As for myself, I’m just content to wander about in search of odd organisms in our increasingly diminished natural world. I don’t own an iPhone, iPod, Android, Blackberry, or Bluetooth. But I do own two reasonably good eyes and a pair of legs, which, to me, is quite enough. After all, I used both of them to find a Sarea resinae a week or so ago.

My thanks to Jason Hollinger for kind permission to use his photograph of S. resinae.

Welcome to the bog

cottongrassBlogs fill me with a certain disgust, mostly because the word blog seems like it’s an amalgam of blah, bah, and blather. So, instead, I’d like to call what I’ll be writing for this site a bog. Bogs, to me, are beautiful, especially in the fall, when the reds of sphagnum, the teals of bog rosemary, and the whites of cotton grass suggest a painter’s palette. Unlike blogs, bogs smell of earth and life. My friend and bog expert Charles Johnson thinks wondrously strange gods inhabit bogs. So do I. Those gods have created (for instance) carnivorous plants like the sundew, the pitcher plant, and the bladderwort, the last of which can spring its trap on an unsuspecting insect in as little as two-thousandths of a second. Perhaps the rarest of all fungi, Echinodontium ballouii, can only be found in a bog. My favorite salamander, the four-toed salamander, is a bog inhabiter; I have never found it in a blog (a terrible habitat for a herp), but I have found it in several bogs in the Northeast. And here’s a parting salvo: bogs are timeless, whereas blogs are transitory, indeed downright evanescent.

Stay tuned for the first bog entry…