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Salmon Love & Truffle Lust on Mount Tamalpais

Print by Tom Killion

As I write this, there’s a rainbow arching from the clouds obscuring Tamalpais. It reminds me of a passage from Journey to Mount Tamalpais by artist Etel Adnan, "The pyramidal shape of the mountain reveals a perfect Intelligence within the universe. Sometimes its power to melt in mist reveals the infinite possibilities for matter to change its appearance." In Alaska, indigenous people once believed that gods lived inside volcanoes and conjured up the weather. Mt. Tam in California seems less a place of conjuring than a co-conspirator, a sort of “if you bring me the rain, magic will happen.” And so it is!

Over twenty inches fell in October and another front is drenching it now. Mt. Tam went from cracked earth and trickling waterways to plump moss, mushrooms sprouting, tumbling streams, and trees downed by the lashing winds that are changing the dynamics of the flows, making slow eddies and deep pools in the rushing water. Which makes for ideal salmon habitat.

In the Redwood Creek Watershed on Mt. Tam, there are Chinook King salmon returning for the first time in 70 years, and Coho are arriving in larger than usual numbers. On the other side of the mountain, Lagunitas Creek is hosting four species of salmon for the first time in decades – Chinook, Coho, Chum and Pink. Over 500 species rely on wild salmon for nutrients, from Orca whales to gaddisflies; as well, salmon reverse the energy of the river, bringing minerals from the sea to the land, as their carcasses fertilize the trees that provide shade for the streams. Returning salmon are injecting vital, primal energy into the Mt. Tam ecosystem.

While I know salmon are coming back due to habitat restoration and enough rain, I like to think our dinner and rituals during Salmon and Circumambulation on Mt. Tam assisted in their return. I know it’s magical thinking – but we could use more experiences that allow us to weave ecology into our lives so that we see ourselves as part of the natural world. Author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer, wrote in her exquisite book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “We need acts of restoration, not only for polluted waters and degraded lands, but also for our relationship to the world.” This is the goal of Flora & Fungi Adventures- restoring our relationships with nature. And so I can take my dog to work with me.

Following the atmospheric storms, the news will inevitably tell us that it’s not enough water to end the drought. In a society based on extraction, nothing is ever enough. More alfalfa for cattle will be planted in the desert, more water-sucking golf courses, more huge houses to hold more stuff with lawns that need watering. Having bountiful flows of water in the streams for salmon is temporary – it will be diverted from them towards our insatiable consumption. But the mountain teaches us a different experience of enough. Her style of extravagance benefits all creatures. So it’s no surprise that along with salmon, there are truffles on that mountain. Or so I’ve heard.

In the 1970’s, mycologist and truffle expert James Trappe, found Tuber gibbosum, or the delicious Oregon white truffle on Mount Tamalpais. Creator of The Peanuts, Charles Schultz, lived nearby, and learning of this discovery, created the alter-ego for Snoopy as “The World Famous Truffle Hound”. My less famous truffle hound, Flora Jayne found rhizopogons on Mt. Tam last year. These are underground tubers known as “false truffles”. I sent a picture to a truffle guru in Oregon. He texted back, “Good job. Keep searching and you may discover new species of truffles.”

There are over 240 wild truffles identified in North America, and probably thousands more that haven’t yet been studied. Like other mycorrhizal fungi, they help the host plant access more water and nutrients, including nitrogen and phosphorus, creating healthier trees and more robust forest ecosystems. As these underground networks strengthen and spread, they increase resiliency in an ecosystem by helping protect trees from soil-borne pathogens and enhance their ability to withstand drought. Yet when the rain taps and pounds, sending molecules into motion, sometimes the knots swell into mature globules, shaped like contorted brains, amorphous hearts. When they are ready to send out their spores for reproduction, they develop their scent.

The scent is their story –- one based on the thousands of elements that went into that humble-looking knot. Of flooding, landslides, animal scat, meteor strikes, and sunlight filtering through leaves eventually fall and decompose. Truffles can have 50-100 molecules that create their scent. This heady perfume is how truffles beckon animals. As the spores ripen, the scent increases. Squirrels and chipmunks and wild boars and any number of creatures dig them up and spread their spores through the woods, where they can sit as a speck of dust, until just the right conditions occur.

And I suspect, they are taking place right now. I'm heading out with my truffle hound to explore.

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