Under the Radar: Notes from the Wild Mushroom Trade
by Olivier Matthon, Spring 2013
40 pg. at half-letter size
$5 from Pioneers Press
Here in Ottawa, the last of the snow is now gone, and this past Sunday I had my first picnic, eating bread and cheese in a city park with some friends, listening to a teenage band cover classic rock songs from a rooftop, and getting my first sunburn of the year.
For me, though, the thing I anticipate most about the change in seasons is food, and I’m looking forward to ramps, morels, and other exciting springtime treats to start turning up at the market. So I was excited to hear that Pioneers Press is now accepting pre-orders for their latest publication, a zine about West Coast foraging culture. I reviewed an electronic copy, but the printed version will have the handsome cover pictured below:
Under the Radar is a tremendously interesting piece of investigative journalism by Olivier Matthon, a Québécois writer, student of anthropology, natural resources management, and creative writing, and itinerant worker in such diverse enterprises as Christmas tree farms, clam digging, and commercial fishing. In this publication, he looks into the wild mushroom trade in Mendocino County, California, spending time with pickers, and with the brokers and intermediaries who get the mushrooms out to chefs.
Written like a novel, Under the Radar was inspired by a book called Voices from the Woods, which collects oral histories of non-timber forest workers: treeplanters, gatherers of medicinal herbs, and, Matthon’s focus, mushroom foragers. It turns out you can actually read Voices from the Woods online in English or Spanish here.
I’d heard that the foraging world can be dangerously territorial, but Matthon exposes another side of the business, where buyers mentor pickers and point them in the right direction, hoping to pass their skills along to a new generation. Matthon shadows Alvin, a buyer who “lent money to people in need, taught new skills, shared knowledge with less experienced pickers, and listened to lonely people’s stories”.
Alvin also acts as a security net for the pickers who make a marginal living in the foraging economy: working sick, dealing with addictions and traumas, living out of their cars or in cheap motels or tents in the woods.
Matthon describes mushroom picking as “one of the last cash economies”, attracting those who haven’t been able to make it in the capitalist economy, and those whose libertarian views make them disinclined to try. Frequently, and sometimes dangerously, pickers run across people involved in the cultivation and harvest of Northern California’s other great cash crop, marijuana.
While Matthon doesn’t romanticize his subjects, when he writes that “They are not torn each morning between the desire to change the world and the desire to enjoy it,” it’s hard not to want to follow them out into the woods. Under the Radar is an engaging, well-researched, and compassionate look into a world hidden from most of us, and I’d highly recommend it.
- Lily Pepper