Mr. Mushroom 

Experience the thrill of the hunt with Missoula’s master morel picker and fungal celebrity, Larry Evans

Ask Larry Evans where to find morels (and everyone asks him where to find morels), and his response follows something like the stages of the grieving process. First there’s denial, a gentle rebuff as he explains that there are no easy answers and, anyway, a particular location isn’t really the point. Then there’s bargaining, where he tells you he’ll be happy to fill in the details once you devote long hours of study and field work to his larger discipline, ecology, the science of relationships between organisms and their environment. If it becomes clear that you are, in fact, thinking little beyond how long to sauté the morels in butter before eating them tonight for dinner, he passes quickly through the stages of anger and despair before settling on a sad, thin-voiced acceptance that is uncharacteristic of his otherwise exuberant personality.

At this final stage, he tells you what any elementary textbook or field guide, website or magazine article on the subject will tell you. That morels grow most anywhere in the country, with the exception of the coastal plains of the southeast United States. That they typically emerge around April and may appear as late as August. That they are generally found in moist areas, especially near dead or dying alder, apple, ash, cottonwood or elm trees whose vegetative matter nourishes them. That they especially flourish in the disturbed soil of recent fire sites for reasons no one can conclusively explain. And that the best burn areas are 10,000 acres or more, the kind of places where Evans himself has gathered as many as 40 pounds of morels in a day.

The northwest United States is one of the world’s great fungal hunting grounds. Evans, who is 54 years old and lives in Missoula, is among its most experienced and enthusiastic hunters. In fact, he’s the main character of Know Your Mushrooms, the new film from subculture documentarian Ron Mann (Grass, Comic Book Confidential). The film debuted at South by Southwest last month and had a special private screening in Missoula during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival earlier this year.

Like oil prospectors and baseball scouts, wild mushroom sellers like Evans alternate in manner between a cagey reticence and a voluble boisterousness. They seldom explain exactly what they have and they almost never tell you where they found it. But whatever it is, wherever it’s from, they want you to know they’ve discovered the best. Top fungi—fresh, rare and, above all, tasty—fetch $10, $60, as much as $600 a pound on the open market. “The morel,” says Evans, “is probably the number one wild mushroom.”

Morels range in color from blonde to black. They blend easily with the pinecones and spider webs that often neighbor them on forest beds. Even among wild mushrooms, what Emily Dickinson called nature’s “outcast face,” morels win no beauty contests. When cooked, however, these wrinkled, webby, spongy, pockmarked fungi combine the best qualities of other fine foods—the savor of sausage and character of cheese, wine’s airiness and chocolate’s aftertaste. Their rich aroma, the olfactory equivalent of a mountain vista, makes devotees start to salivate. It lingers in the head and chest long after the last bite.

When it comes to hunting morels, Evans says, “Everyone wants to not work hard and get really rich.” It’s not so simple. What Evans sells can’t be planted, watered, raised and plucked like a tomato or a tulip. It’s wild. And to catch something wild, whether forest fungus or beast of the jungle, one must hunt.

•••

“Somebody’s digging,” says Evans.

His cheeks are drawn, his features angular. When he speaks, his face tightens and a dozen lines form from forehead to nose, eyes to ears, cheeks to chin. His voice is half-growl, half-purr. He sounds like an early-morning radio DJ, alternately revving up the first shift of the day or easing down the last of the night before. Around him stand cedar, Douglas fir, larch and lodgepole pine trees of northwest Montana’s Lolo National Forest. It is a resplendently sunny Saturday in mid-May, the height of the mushroom hunting season.

“Probably deer,” he says. Evans points out small holes in the dry dirt. Rusty brown and white braids rest like epaulets on the shoulders of his long-sleeved T-shirt. Silver metal-rim glasses edge down the bridge of his nose. Beneath the prescription lenses, incongruously, a second pair of black wraparound sunglasses shades his view. In beaten blue jeans, he stretches to 6 feet, 2 inches—albeit at a slight slant, since one leg is an inch shorter than the other. It takes some time in his company to notice the slant. Like many who make their living from the ground, Evans seldom stands upright.

He kneels to grab the object of the animals’ efforts—a cluster of coral mushrooms. “These are hard to ID,” he says. “Get the wrong species and you’ve got a laxative.”

Something in his voice suggests the wisdom of experience. I ask him if he ever screwed up an identification.

“I have a saying,” Evans says. “Every day you have a chance to really fuck up your life forever.”

He hums happily to himself as he kicks up dirt by the trunk of a dead Douglas fir. “A dead tree always gets my attention,” he says. “Might be fungal.” A woody, fecund smell emanates from the ground. Ants, dazed by the light, wander out. “Ant shit and wood chips are perfect for shaggy manes.” Evans breathes deeply. He sticks his hand into a hole in the trunk and scoops out tiny, black insects.
 

“Love story,” he says. “This is the cryptospore beetle and the cryptospore fungus. Beetles live all the way up the tree on one side, eating spores. Spores they don’t finish germinate in dung and grow in the cambium of the tree. If you see blue stains in firewood, that’s fungi.”

He kneels and digs out a series of dirt humps with his hands, brushing aside leaves, lifting branches and raising rocks. “Some of these might be plants coming up, and some might be mushrooms.”

I spot a patch of pale, fleshy mushrooms with off-center stems and white stringy roots. Evans identifies my find as Clitocybe albirhiza.

“These guys come out at snowmelt,” he says. “They’re pretty much done by now.” My field guide is blunter: “Better neglected than
collected.”

“What about that one?” I ask. Evans follows my finger to a brown-capped mushroom with clear gills and a handsome stem.

“This qualifies as an LBM,” he says. “Little brown mushroom.”

•••

Evans was born in the spring of 1955 in central Illinois’ Macon County, corn and soybean country. His father first made his living as a grain broker. Then, as the son puts it, “The grain business, like a lot of things, got taken over by big corporations.” Before Quaker Oats could drive them out, the family quit the grain business and bought a nearby 120-acre Christmas tree plantation. They moved to the tree farm when Evans was 8 years old.

Forty acres of the plantation were wooded with old-growth oak and maple. There, Evans unearthed his first morels. “They were beautiful woods,” he says of his early hunting grounds. “My dad would give us a nickel per morel.”

When he was 10, he read Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons’ 1962 paean to wild foods. Gibbons’ recipes ranged from dandelion crown salad to woodchuck in sour cream. His tone was learned yet avuncular, both instructional and inviting. “Maybe we will meet some day out in the fields hunting wild mushrooms,” Gibbons concluded his chapter on the subject. “Meanwhile, let me wish you good hunting and good eating. I must go now, for supper has been announced, and I know we are having Sautéed Shaggy-Manes on Toast, covered with a creamy black sauce made of their own rich juices.”

From then on, Evans says, “I was always into wild foods.”

After a brief, unhappy bout as a Phi Sigma Kappa pledge and civil engineering major at the University of Illinois, Evans entered the University of Montana in 1976. By the time he graduated, he was teaching others about mushrooms.

“The reasons I study mushrooms is that they’re infinite systems as opposed to closed systems,” he says. “The only way to navigate these is through patterns and associations, intuitive rather than empirical processes.”

He sold some of the mushrooms he hunted at the Missoula farmers’ market. Success came slowly.

“I spent a lot of time talking, not much time selling,” he says. “People were scared of both me and my product—afraid that my mushrooms were going to get them high or afraid that they weren’t.”

To get by in the beginning, Evans waited tables, washed dishes, formed a food co-op and self-published a hitchhiking guide that he promoted by thumb for a year. “It was like Kerouac,” he says. “Something that’s impossible to imagine and difficult to remember.”

Travels have taken him across Europe, the Americas and Asia, where he lived for six years, starting in 1984. There Evans practiced judo, traded currency, collected trinkets to import, taught English and acted briefly in a Japanese soap opera whose title he translates as “Single Woman in New York City”—all while hunting mushrooms. After he returned to Missoula, Evan purchased the Black Dog Cafe in 1998 from David Zinger and Nancy Randazzo. Before it closed in 2002, the restaurant specialized in dishes made from local ingredients. Mushroom hunting, he says, is “more of a lifestyle than an actual vocational decision.”

Evans doesn’t have jobs as much as projects, and he never has just one project at a time. When I met him in 2002, he worked as a mushroom consultant for the U.S. Forest Service. He taught mycology classes at the Glacier Institute, an environmental education center in Glacier National Park, and he often led fungal-centered botany walks. He served as acting director of Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers, a local environmental and human rights organization. Twice a week, he taught judo.

Volunteer efforts included serving as the impresario behind a fundraiser album for the Western Montana Mycological Association, which he founded. “It’s 14 tracks of all mushroom songs,” he says of the 2007 release. “Edible and poisonous, hallucinogens, of course. Everything from blues to rockabilly to waltz. We’ve got a polka number in there.” On one track a female voice is sexy, throaty and troubled.
 

“I just like morels too much,” she confesses.

Masks from China, Guatemala, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, South Korea and Zimbabwe decorate the walls of his small living room. A bookshelf holds texts on canine reproduction, guides to Asia, back issues of Foreign Affairs and Science News, and novels by Boyle, Bukowski, DeLillo, Ishiguro and Mailer.

On the floor against a wall sit several medium-sized cardboard boxes. Each box holds 10 pounds of dried morels packed for later sale in 1-ounce plastic bags.

The highest grade, old and gray, with reddish-brown stems as thick as the fingers of an interior lineman, sells for upwards of $100 a pound, the highest prices since the market glut produced by the wildfires of 2000, when 6.5 million acres burned in the western United States. That makes more than $3,000 in mushrooms on the floor.

•••

Evans turns and tramps up a hill. He’s fast, and I struggle to catch him even though he stops every few feet, often backtracking, to survey the area. Together, we scale a steep incline for a quarter of a mile. Here the trees rise not up and down, but radially out. I feel as if we’re navigating through a massive game of pick-up-sticks. Whitewater roars loudly below.

Director Ron Mann describes Evans as “the Indiana Jones of mushroom hunters,” and an inspiration. “He’s someone who’s trying to spread the spores,” says Mann. “I make movies about my heroes and Larry Evans is a hero of mine. He really is someone who has turned people’s attention toward the earth. It’s all about the earth.”

Evans forages by mossy stumps, turns over divots and digs under logs. He jumps branches and leaps around mud holes. On a pair of downed Douglas firs, he finds two brown fungi known as tree ears. “One of the first mushrooms cultivated thousands of years ago,” he explains, “near as we can tell, in Asia.”

He stops to scrutinize bear scat. Excrement supports hundreds of mushroom species. Because of the enormous geographic range the bison once enjoyed, over 40 fungi grow on that animal’s “chips” alone.

“He’s eating grass and beetles,” says Evans. “Must be kind of hungry.”

He scampers down hill, across the dirt road, and out of sight.

“I found truffles!” he hollers.

Mushroom hunters never worry about noise startling their prey.

I find him kneeling a foot from the trunk of a Subaru. The mid-afternoon sun makes me sweat outside the forest cover. Evans shows me a dusky, spongy sphere, marvelously redolent. “Geopora cooperi, a fuzzy truffle,” he says. “It only grows underground.”

He pulls off his glasses and edges the fungus close to his nose like a diamond merchant checking the cut of a stone. “Mm,” he sniffs deeply. His narrow eyes seem to shift color from hazel to indigo to black.

We drive down the road by the river, slowing down occasionally for Evans to study the roadside cover. He cranes his head out the front passenger window. “I’ve found morels in the middle of vacant lots in urban nightmarescapes,” he says. “I found a very confused and lonely morel in the middle of Soho.”

He jumps out and into the roadside brush. “That’s about as long as I can go without picking mushrooms!”

A family camps by the riverbank.

“Marco!” kids call by the water.

“Polo!”

Evans whistles long and loud from somewhere within the woods. “First one!” he shouts. “Beautiful!”
 

Orienting myself toward the direction of the shout, I follow. Branches cover the forest floor in shadows and leaves block every vantage point. Dark, damp air clouds my nose and throat. Twigs snap ahead. Above, the brush rises at least 6 feet high. As I progress, tree trunks strike my knees and catch my feet; branches scrape my chest and head. The terrain is too thick in places even to enter. In other spots it’s spiked and stings my hands and arms. Another whistle, and I find my companion in a narrow circular clearing, leaning lightly on a cottonwood branch cane.

“Look up,” Evans says calmly once I catch my breath.

I look up. The thick trunk of a topless cottonwood connects ground to sky.

“Look down,” says Evans.

I look down. Ants and empty snail shells dot the dirt and thorns, musty leaves and fallen branches.

“Keep looking.”

I squint.

“See them?”

Then I do. Three yellow morels, an inch apart from each other, in a tight triangle.

“Blondes,” Evans growls. “People might call them whites. What I might call ignorant people.”

He bends down, extends his long arms, and snaps the morel closest to me from its rooted stem. He rises to his full height and shakes the dirt from the mushroom. “This returns any primordia”—the pin that marks the beginning of a new mushroom—“to the dirt. I leave them so more will grow. So many times, I go to plant one, look around, whoa, and see 20 more. I’ve only known a couple ecosystems like this in the United States. I don’t know if any others exist in this form anymore.”

Evans and the rest of us look at the same ground. We see snails, pine cones, twigs and dirt. He sees mushrooms. Ephemeral or intangible characteristics, he insists, are as important as any standard indicators. “I feel out the humidity and amount of shadow in an area. The colors, the layers, the temperature.” The word is atmosphere—as much aesthetic as scientific. Evans doesn’t hunt mushrooms; he hunts habitats. “I think like a morel,” he says, “and then look for a place that feels like home.”

I step forward.

“Watch your foot!” The judo teacher crouches to swipe the body of another morel before I can crush it with the toe of my sneakers.

His own shoes, I now notice, are ringed with morels. I point these out.

Evans nods without looking down. “I leave one or two everywhere I pick. It’s spiritual.”

He lifts his cottonwood branch and traces an imaginary line from the sky to his shoes. “I walked over a mountain in Calabria covered with hundreds of footprints,” he says. “At the bottom, I bent down to brush off dirt and saw boletes. They must have been calling to me from miles away.”

I trudge off determinedly in the opposite direction. Dead white leaves cover ants and flies. The whole ground is alive with insects. I walk to a fallen pine, step over a spider web, and sit. Beetle galleries mark where the tree sloughed off bark, which covers the forest floor along with leaves and fallen branches. The ground is surprisingly warm to my touch, and soft as a baby’s handshake. Myrtle and boxwood shrubs, hemlock saplings and the pencil-thin stalk of a new pine tree, its seed head still intact, rise from the dirt and detritus. Above mossy roots, I trace the smooth, gray weather-beaten bark of a healthy, mature pine. A cloud of dust comes off at my touch.

I pace, bent at the back, eyes focused hard on the ground. Each leaf I turn over with my eyes. Gently but firmly, I toe the edges of any and every dirt hump. For 10 minutes, I half walk, half crawl downhill, the hair on my arms on end, my nostrils flared. I stand and squint at the shadowy area under a mossy log. Evans recedes from my mind. Poison ivy never enters my thoughts. I forget the possible bears, I forget my own breathing, I forget myself. Only the mushroom matters.

And so, perhaps another 30 seconds later, when in fact I do see a beautiful little black morel by a broken branch near the mossy log, I’m not in the least surprised.

Back at the road, Evans holds the specimen to the light. A bug falls off my prize. Evans picks it from the asphalt and moves it to safety off the shoulder.

“It’s always good to find a really interesting specimen,” he says, “and it’s even better if you can eat it.”
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