I discovered this mushroom association from my newspaper. The Washington Post reported in this way: “On day x of month y, the Mycological Association of Washington, Inc. (including the Washington, D.C. area and its suburban Maryland and Virginia States, and the surrounding areas) will host a banquet for tasting wild mushrooms. The fee is only 10 dollars, but free of charge for those who bring their own mushrooms. Your attendance is welcome. But non-members must join as members on the scene at the entrance. The annual membership fee is 20 U.S. dollars. The location is at library z in the town of w.”
I joined the mushroom association this way. Its official name is the Mycological Association of Washington, Inc. (MAW). In fact, the members are all amateurs. But there are strict rules for tasting a mushroom feast. Upon entering the door, you are required to sign on a form promising not to sue the association in case you eat poisonous mushrooms. In reality, it has been very safe. Since then, I have tasted mushrooms every year and simply have not had any problems. If you want to take mushrooms to invite others for tasting, you are not allowed to cook them at home. If you do so, the cooked mushrooms can no longer be identified. You must bring raw mushrooms, condiments, pots and pans with you and let the experienced experts at the entrance examine your raw mushrooms. Only after that clearance can you enter the door. In the library's large conference room was arranged a huge circle of long tables and the cooks stood behind these tables. On them were placed gas stoves with frying pans. In front of each pan, there was a big form. Every pan had a coded number. All tasting members wore on their chests tags carrying their own name and a coded number. The big paper form in front of the frying pan listed the numbers of all the tasters. After you ate a mushroom from that pan, you drew a circle around your own number on the form. The organizers kept copies of all the forms. In case the next day you had stomach pain, food poisoning or had to go to a hospital, the mushrooms that you ate the night before were recorded, and you could tell the doctor.
I have tasted a large variety of strange flavors in this kind of banquets. In addition to mushrooms, there were all sorts of wild vegetables and animals; for example, tart-flavor fried rice wrapped in wild grape leaves, squirrel meat… I also heard that raccoon meat is eatable. Animals like squirrels can be found everywhere in North America. There is no need to worry. As long as you join this mushroom association, even if the U.S. economy totally collapses, there will be no starvation to death. The forest resources in North America are still relatively abundant.
The activities of the mushroom association usually happen in the evenings and on the weekends. The evening activities such as lectures and eating are held indoors. The weekend activities are held during the daytime, to pick mushrooms in the woods. Each year we have a three-day camping trip to visit a Christian meeting site in nearby Pennsylvania State. We do not know who has the connection, but we are allowed to live there. In fact, it is a beautiful forest hostel, which has mostly been used for visitors to attend classes, and is non-profit. Its income is tax-exempt, and therefore the rent is cheaper. It consists of rows of bungalows and a courtyard with a large lawn, also includes a restaurant, which provides three meals a day with very simple types of American-style fast food. Since we could borrow their kitchen for the banquet the Saturday night after we picked mushrooms, this was much more convenient than staying in a big hotel. There is also a big hall where in the evening the European old-fashioned antique fireplace burns with large wood logs. The nights in the mountain forest were a little chilly. We sat around the fireplace to keep warm and chatted on every subject under the sun. I recall that, while participating in this event in the beginning, I once criticized the environmental policies of the Bush administration. Some people immediately tried to stop me by saying: "Please do not talk about politics!" After a long time, I gradually began to understand the atmosphere and custom of the occasion: the main topics are mushrooms, love of nature and being away from the bustling city; while topics like politics, money, income and social status are more or less taboo.
During this three-day event, the day-time activities were to pick mushrooms on the mountains. The Pennsylvania laws on the picking of wild plants are more lenient than in Maryland. We, dozens of individuals, were separated into groups of seven or eight each. Every group was guided by an experienced veteran with knowledge of mushrooms. I got to know at this time our group leader John. He was a member of the Mycological Association of Pennsylvania, a local guy. Several of us followed behind him to climb up the forest trails. He had truly sharp eyes for spotting mushrooms. Often from tens of meters away, he was able to point his finger and say: "Look! That is a mushroom!" The beginners among us then went ahead to pick it. As a Chinese, I did not want to appear too greedy. I remember that a pair of young people who seemed to come from some Eastern European country always rushed to the very front whenever John pointed his finger. We always let them have their way. The president of the Mycological Association of Washington was also in our group. He warmly and friendly chatted with the young pair. Then I learned that the two had not even paid their membership dues. The president told them specifically that, except for the mushroom banquets that were for members who paid dues, this kind of mountain activities welcomed non-members to participate without any requirement; foreigners who lived temporarily in the United States, homosexuals, and any other kind of people could participate.
Now let us talk about John. He is a poor man living in the dense forest in the mountains. His wife is a chubby village woman, not pretty, who also walked together with our group. But John looked full of joy and pride during our mushroom group activities. Later in the western part of the State of Virginia, I met him again during a Conference of the Mycological Association of North America. He won the first prize in the top-rank photo competition of that conference. I guess his camera equipment had cost him not a small sum of money. That annual conference in North America was held in a big hotel inside a State Park. Most participants who stayed in the meeting hotel had paid a package price that included a few days of lunch and dinner. People like me who did not stay in the hotel and brought their own tents for camping in order to save money generally would also pay to board. John could not even bear to spend this kind of money. Once during the meal time, I saw him in a secluded corner eating the sandwich he brought in. But John loved mushrooms and liked vegetarian food. It took about four or five hours of driving from his home town to Washington. But he was familiar with many vegetarian restaurants in the city. When he took us to pick mushrooms on the mountain, he asked me whether I had been to these vegetarian restaurants in the city. I said no. He then asked whether I had eaten mushrooms in a particular restaurant that sold mushrooms. I also answered no. After a series of questions that referred to four or five places, we all said that we did not know them, and he wondered: "How come you city folks do not know more than I!" We all laughed. John disliked officials very much. He has had lawsuits with local officials almost one hundred times in a year. We were very surprised and asked what law he had violated. He replied: "What happened? I cut down a tree in my own backyard, they said I was wrong; I planted one more tree, then they said that I broke the law." It seemed plausible. Consider what village officials can manage in this remote countryside village? Only some trivial matters. Was John not living properly now? Obviously, he had not committed any major crime. He said further that he had originally worked in the local government; but, later, he could not get along with those people and decided to quit. He even told us that the mountain next to our mountain belonged to a hunting club of the rich people. But that was an organization which differed from our mushroom association by an order of magnitude. The annual membership fee would cost several thousand U.S. dollars. It makes sense. Hunting requires blockage of the entire mountain to prevent the entry of outsiders. That was where the U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally injured his friend during a hunting activity. John asked again: "Do you know where the fund for the creation of the National Art Museum came from?" I really did not know, although I had been there many times to see exhibitions, attend concerts and enjoy movies. John said that the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States had a large income from tax evasion that year. This was discovered. So the Secretary hastened to donate this large sum of money for the construction of the national gallery. In the United States money used for charitable donation can legally not be taxed, so this Secretary could escape from violating the law and disgrace. John simply has become the modern hero in my mind: the whole year he comes and goes in the dense forest in the mountains, does good things for fairness, and struggles with officials for justice. Many overseas Chinese friends listened to my story about John and afterwards their first question was: How does this kind of people make a living in today’s society? John's answer was that sometimes he earned a little bit of money from the rich. He helped those who were tired of the city prosperity and thought about buying villas in the beautiful remote villages to buy properties. He did some of this kind of real estate brokerage business. He knew where the best scenery was. The most basic cost of living of the Americans is the housing cost. The housing cost of the countryside where John lived was very low. He did not need a lot of money to live his life. The Mycological Association of Europe had also invited him to participate, but he had to pay for the ticket himself. He did not have the money and could not go.
The North American Mycological Association is the upper-level organization of the Washington Mycological Association. At this level, the backbones of the leadership are professionally directly related to mushrooms. There are college professors, graduate students, post doctors of relevant professions, and personnel in charge of national parks, state forest parks. They have one thing in common: Their work in the mushroom association are volunteer work, they are volunteers. Only one person in the entire North American Mycological Association receives salary. She is an old lady, an accountant. The main activity of the North American Mycological Association is the once-a-year annual meeting held taking turn by the state-level associations, which is the only requirement for its joining the main association. The annual meeting is to let you have fun, and cannot be too expensive. In addition, the main association also arranges for international travel. Once, the trip was arranged for going to Chuxiong in the Yunnan Province of China. I looked at the advertisement and felt it was quite expensive. The 2005 annual meeting of the North America Mycological Association was held in West Virginia. This was the annual meeting held in recent years in a distance closest to the Washington area where I lived. Think of the United States that has 50 states. How many years it would take to have such an opportunity to hold an annual meeting that was within driving distance of my home! For this reason, I joined the North American Mycological Association that year.
Let me talk a bit about my first annual meeting. It took about six or seven hours to drive from my home to the place of the annual conference. I am a timid person, and had seldom driven long distances. On this day I made my driving record of the longest distance. The registration fee for the annual conference cost 200 U.S. dollars, which included several days of lunch, dinner and all activities. The venue was in a beautiful big hotel on top of a scenic mountain. One side of the hotel’s large corridor had huge windows with views over all the surrounding mountains, dwarfing them. In the morning, the sea of clouds hung right above the mountains under our feet (inserted here is a beautiful photo). The participants of the annual conference could live in this hotel or could camp by setting up their tents in the state park where the hotel was located. A camp site with power connection cost a bit more than ten dollars per night. I brought a microwave oven to heat my breakfast and boil water. In the tent next to mine lived an old lady who also came for the meeting. She brought with her a big dog. She said that she lived on collecting wild herbs and had lived in New York for many years. She got bored and went to South America where she lived with indigenous tribes for two or three years, then returned to the United States. In the mushroom association you often meet this kind of people who dislike the bustling cities but love nature. Let us return to the topic of the annual meeting. In the morning after eating the breakfast, you could get to the conference hotel by driving along the small road in the park for one or two miles. Along the way, clouds floated beneath my feet, which was extremely interesting. The three-day annual conference of the Mycological Association of North America went like this: Every morning we gathered at the hall of the hotel; rode in several vans from this state park to some place nearby on the mountain where more mushrooms grew; then we stepped out and walked to pick mushrooms. The organizers told us in advance how far the walk would be, and whether the roads were good or bad. People who were physically strong chose the rougher roads, and naturally picked more mushrooms, saw more beautiful landscapes; people who were physically less strong walked on easier roads; the older and weaker ones, especially, could stay in the hotel hall listening to lectures on mushrooms. These presentations with slides and films were similar to other speeches in the professional and academic conferences and also quite interesting. On the first day I did not have experience to register for the van that went to the most fun place and had to stay in the hotel. In fact, listening to the lecture by a botany professor was also very nice. He popularized the knowledge of mushrooms and spoke very vividly, which gave those of us who were not professionals a general and scientific education on mushrooms. His topic was: "Are folk proverbs grandmother talked about all accurate?” For example, popular thinking had cats and dogs being capable to identify poisonous mushrooms, so if you just followed what your dog ate, you could not be wrong. This statement was without any scientific basis. On the second day, I boarded the van to the nice place. We, a group of more than ten people, walked along a river valley between mountains. The road was difficult and dangerous. Walking at the very front of our group were two young men who were farmers specialized in growing mushrooms. We asked if they could sell us some mushrooms that they grew. They said that in recent years people paid attention to healthy vegetarian food, it was very easy to sell their mushrooms to restaurants. Usually they no longer needed retail customers like us. They introduced themselves by saying that they had a very poor childhood, grew up in a remote village and had not seen much of the world; ever since they learned to grow mushrooms they have gone to Canada to participate in a conference on introducing planting techniques and learned a lot of new knowledge. They liked this profession. I thought that they were also like the poor children in remote areas of China; due to the poor quality of the primary and secondary school education, these children cannot get admitted by better universities as easily as the children in cities.
The international travels organized by the Mycological Association of North American were sometimes very cheap, since the participants who were involved in arranging the activities were enthusiastic volunteers. The purpose was to serve people, unlike those travel agencies who just wanted to make profit.
Weiwei Li and Xiaoyang Dai 2009-5-3
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