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Fire and Rain

We just had our first Wild Food Camp in Alaska and it was a rollicking adventure.

Kachemak Bay is so stunningly beautiful that it never fails to enchant people.

We stopped by a floating “farmstand” to pick up oysters on our way. Had a resident otter paddling along the shoreline, found loads of blueberries, salmonberries, and watermelon berries on the island. We foraged nori and brined and smoked salmon eggs. We ate lots and lots

of wild sockeye salmon. My main worry was that it would pour rain the entire time. It did rain some, but not too much for us to get outside and be gobsmacked by the exquisiteness of Alaska. We are fine-tuning this event for next summer, so stay tuned.

Back home in California, we have the opposite problem - no rain. I’m more secular than spiritual, and so when it occurred to me to pray for rain while on a hike in our parched landscape one day, I quickly shut that urge down with, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t make it rain.” It led me down the rabbit hole of the impact the individual is on the biosphere. And then, why shouldn’t we pray for rain?

Some mushrooms can make it rain. It’s well known that you need rain for the fruiting body of mycelium to grow – mushrooms appear after a drenching and then release their spores into the air. Those spores, while floating in humid air, attract water droplets, which can eventually grow into rainclouds over forests. Mushrooms can make it rain, which then helps produce more mushrooms. The wonders never stop with fungi. All systems in nature are regenerative, even fire, though it doesn’t seem like it as the blazes rage in California. It just seems apocalyptic.

Two years ago I went hunting for morels in the Plumas National Forest, where the Walker Fire had raged. Many trees remained untouched. It was almost like the fire moved like a river delta through the forest. Lines of trees were charred, others clearly alive. There were areas seemingly free of the fire's destructive brush

These are known as "fire refugia," which is where the small animals hid during the fire.

Pinecones need a fire to release their seeds, and new, tiny forests of tiny pines were already poking up through charred dirt all around us. We followed the path left in the wake of the fire. Those trees that had burned had often had deep holes around them where the roots had burned.

We began to find patches of morels, their caps a tapestry of velvety dark ribs and beige pits amidst pine needs and fallen leaves. Scientists don’t know exactly why morels follow fire. They suspect that it’s because there’s less competition – fire has cleared the area. And there’s a flush of nutrients from the fires to feed them.

Since mushrooms are regenerative by nature, they in turn help rejuvenate the forest, though scientists aren’t sure how morels do this. It might be by breaking down nutrients in the soil or spreading nutrients throughout the burned ground via animals that eat them.

We also passed an area where the epicenter of the burn had happened. There wasn't a sign of life. This area was known as the "hot burn" by mushroom hunters. The charred trees were being salvage logged. Trucks carrying the logs wove around the mountain road. The black soil appeared to be on the verge of a landslide. On those charred hillsides, it looked like there was nothing left at all. Not a hint of greenen, no signs of roots, no morels. Just black, charred earth.

Indigenous people of California knew that fires could be regenerative. For over 13,000 years they used controlled burns to manage the lands they hunted, fished, and foraged. They viewed this as tending the lands. They used new shoots of hazel to weave baskets, more huckleberry and blackberry

bushes could grow; the following year they had bumper crops of morels to harvest. Pastures would lure elk and deer to hunt, more water could flow to the salmon rivers. The fire was a way of tending the earth. And they reduced the risk of larger, more destructive wildfires.

What’s taking place around the globe with fire and rain has a lot to teach us about destruction and rebirth, about tending to nature and adapting ourselves to it. Learning to enter the ecosystems is the driving philosophy behind Flora & Fungi. To get out into the woods and the intertidal zone and learn from the seasons and the mushrooms and seaweed.

To that end, I’m super excited about some upcoming events Flora & Fungi is planning in anticipation of autumn rains. We are collaborating with Good People/ Camp Ernest for a long weekend fungi extravaganza. Learn to hunt wild mushrooms, eat a variety of delicious culinary ones, attend a workshop on how to preserve medicinal ones, learn about our galaxy and the woodlands of the Sierra foothills from experts.

I’ll be on hand with Flora Jayne to do a truffle hunting demonstration and I'm going to give a talk about why truffles might just save us from devastating pandemics and forest fires. There’s also a fantastic sauna, guest chefs, good wine and great people.

So save your spot now for the Fantastic Fungi Weekend!

In the meantime, let’s all start our rain mantras, dances, wishes, prayers, science experiments – for lots and lots of rain this fall.

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