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Chanterelles and the Exquisite Vein of Suffering

“An oak tree is an oak tree. That is all it has to do. If an oak tree is less than an oak tree, then we are all in trouble.” Thich Nat Hanh

Golden chanterelles are popping. Thanks to this wet winter, people are finding these toothsome fungi in spots they’ve never seen before. Golden flutes of deliciousness are blooming alongside driveways, growing en mass under tan oaks, and creating forking veins of gold, flowing up hillsides darkened with damp, leafy detritus. For years I’ve had an extremely reliable golden chanterelle spot minutes from my home for years under a cluster of California oak trees. From about Late October to April, depending on the rains, I used to be able to head out and gather a small bunch for dinner. On occasion, I’ve struck gold and found pounds of them in my little spot.

But each year, there are fewer and fewer chanterelles in my local spot. And the oak trees that they grow symbiotically with have less and less life. At first, I noticed branches with fewer leaves and more lichen clinging to them. Then branches started drying up and falling off. Now many appear grey and gnarled, even the lichen dripping from them seems worn and lifeless. One tree that was a reliable source of chanterelles is now mostly a twisted stump. Her branches now scattered sticks around her. All of this in about a decade. Sudden oak disease, from a pathogen, Phytophthora ramorum is to blame for this.

I’ve been saddened about the lack of chanterelles, but resisted feeling my deeper sadness about the dying oaks. I assuaged this by noting young pines moving northward that will take over the hillside when the oaks die. Or maybe other oaks, like the Live Coast Oak, or the Shreve Oak that don’t seem to succumb to the disease will replace them. But this rationale are to avoid the tremendous sadness of losing these trees. And did I help spread this by moving between the oaks? Maybe, maybe not. It travels on the wind and other plants and trees, like bay laurels are hosts to it. This brings up my complicity as a human for the destruction of planet earth – is there a way I can live my life that benefits the earth? When a person experiences a sense of loss or anxiety or sadness around the destructive practices against the earth, it’s called “Climate Grief”, which can be a sense of helplessness in the face of climate change, and a way of mourning the great extinction taking place on our planet and how we have no choice but to participate in destructive systems. In fact, we’ve been told our very survival depends on extractive systems that are literally destroying our habitat.

On New Year’s Day, I was listening to a recording of the wise Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nat Hanh talking about how to deepen our love and commitment to Mother Earth. What he came back to over and over was suffering. To learn to sit with our own suffering, to be present with the suffering of others and with that of Mother Earth’s. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, so I wasn’t 100% sure of what he meant by suffering. He talked about it as being “present.” Not fixing it, not fleeing from it. Not rage or righteous indignation. Just holding space for suffering.

So in 2023, my intention is to come to terms with suffering. To witness it, feel it, hold presence for it. I am usually focused on the beauty and pleasure offered to us by planet earth. It sounds like a bummer year to focus on suffering, right? But not according to Thich Nat Hanh. He wrote in his book, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness. Without suffering, there’s no happiness. So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.”

Everyone has suffered in their lives. We’ve lost loved ones, and had our hearts broken, and encountered myriad disappointments. We’ve lost 97% percent of our redwoods, 97% of our wild salmon, 90% of the indigenous people in California were murdered or forced to assimilate– and they are the ones who could lead us out of these problems, the ones who think seven generations ahead, the ones who know how to live with the earth in a way that benefits all.

What I’m coming to understand as I hunt for veins of chanterelle mushrooms running under the dying oaks, is that I can’t really know love in all its complexity and depth unless I can sit with suffering. I can’t really come to fully experience the wonder of the natural world without bearing witness to her suffering. As the Celtic mystic John O’Donohue wrote in his book Beauty, “True beauty must be able to engage the dark desolations of pain; perhaps it is on this frontier that its finest light appears?”

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