Chateau

When my uncle first mentioned that my cousin had purchased a chateau in France, I imagined that a chateau was some kind of rustic country house. In this case, it turns out that chateau meant closer to ‘castle’, complete with a turret that houses the staircase from basement to attic. Though it’s in a bit of disrepair (and has salamanders invading the basement), everything seems intact.

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It also apparently came with several other buildings on the property, including a stone farmhouse and chicken coop. These buildings are also looking worse for wear, but they make for beautiful photos.

Nothing a bit of hard work can’t fix, right?

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The chateau also comes with a guardian in the form of Drago, the chubby dog owned by the farmer next door. He bounds up to meet us when we arrive, on the heels of my uncle. The entire back half of Drago’s body wags when my uncle pulls bags of treats from a drawer in the chateau’s kitchen.

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Drago follows us for walks in the nearby woods, which is the primary activity in our days. We wander through the trees, still verdant despite the increasing chill each morning, and forage for fallen chestnuts or document the fungi we find.

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Back at the chateau, we use the oven to bake our foraged chestnuts and huddle in the kitchen over bowls of warm chicken soup. We visited a nearby supermarket, Super U, when we first arrived and bought some chicken and vegetables. They don’t seem like anything special, but they taste far better than anything  from the U.S. supermarkets. The food really is just better in France.

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The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Lahemaa National Park

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The view when we got off at the Loksa Tee bus stop.

We don’t have a car in Tallinn, but we managed to use the local bus system to get to Lahemaa National Park for a five-hour hike through boreal forest and bog. It was gorgeous (see below), filled with fantastic wildlife and tons of edible blueberries that yes, you’re allowed to collect. It seems like Estonians view the land through a practical lens, and the mantra of “don’t take more than you need and it’s fine” is the rule here. That being said, DON’T eat anything unless you can positively identify it.

If you’re looking to do the same hike, use Google Maps to find public transit directions to the stop “Loksa Tee” pictured below. The hike will start just east of the bus stop:

Now, motivation for you to go:

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Wood planks form a narrow trail through the wetter, boggier parts of the hike.

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A European Peacock butterfly (Aglais io) perches on purple heather (Calluna) – we last saw this in New Zealand, where it was invasive.

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The little mushroom that could #1.

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The little mushroom that could #2.

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A dense bed of lichens (light yellow) grow on the forest floor here in Lahemaa.

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What I suspect are cowberries, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t eat any of them.

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An interesting leather-like foliose lichens grows among moss on the forest floor.

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Be yourself, tree. Be yourself.

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Putative chanterelles. We encountered a few women in the park collecting ‘gribui’, or mushrooms, mostly of the chanterelle variety.

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A resting point along the path. You can supposedly take this trail all the way to the sea, but that’s several days of hiking.

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A patch of mushrooms among the moss and decaying pine needles.

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An Alder Moth caterpllar (Acronicta alni) munches on summer’s bounty.

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Fresh wild blueberries hide among the foliage. They’re delicious.

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A salticid in a patch of grass.

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Pine trees grow at the edge of a bog pool. The water here takes on a dark brown hue due to tannins seeping out of the dead plant material beneath. The same thing happens in your tea.

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A lone tree grows on an island in the bog.

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Fruticose lichens growing on the forest floor.

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A polypore fruiting body grows from a fallen tree.

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The color of moss.

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The caterpillar of an Emperor Moth (Saturnia) hangs out between planks along the trail.

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Lengthening shadows in the forest.

And just for you, here’s a panoramic shot – click through to enlarge:

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Made possible by Google Photos.

Stolby Nature Reserve: Fungi

Stolby Nature Reserve in the summer plays host to hundreds, if not thousands of fungi species. Here are some of the gorgeous specimins we saw during our camping and hiking in mid-July. Identified *tentatively* wherever possible.

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Saprophytic white mushrooms with reddish-brown spores growing  on a tree stump.

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A pair of tiny Russula sp. caps. Russula is notorious for being a genus vaguely-defined species.

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An Amanita sp. I would venture, based on the prominent volva and cap shape.

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A scaly/hairy golden mushroom that reminds me of plums and custard (Tricholomopsis rutilans), but without the purple coloring.

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The underside of some saprophytic mushrooms, probably a Pleurotus sp. (oyster mushroom).

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The top side of the same saprophytic mushroom cluster.

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Lycoperdon sp., though it does not appear to have the same properties of most puffballs (a central hole that emits a puff). Perhaps Lycoperdon saccatum?

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A cluster of Coprinellus sp. growing on a log. I’d guess Coprinellus disseminatus.

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A close up of the same Coprinellus cluster.

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A polypore fungi, maybe a young Fomitopsis sp., with guttation droplets on its surface.

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A small cap mushroom with a tiny cricketlike fly on the stem.

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An Artomyces sp. found on a log. The North American species is Artomyces pyxidatus, which looks highly similar to this, so this could either introduced sor a highly-similar native.

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A gilled mushroom hiding along the trail. You can see the lack of pigment on the right that results from shading by the leaf above it.

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The underside of the same mushroom, showing continuous gills down onto the stem.

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Crowded space – a plant shoot and fairy cap grow side-by-side.

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Another small fairy cap growing among moss.

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A bolete or slippery jack (from the porous underside). We found them this way, so it looks like someone else was doing a bit of mushroom ID.

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Another Coprinellus sp., maybe Coprinellus micaceus.

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Small gilled mushrooms growing from a log.

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Another mushroom, this time with gills that end abruptly on the stem (adnate gills).

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A cute little mushroom cluster illuminated by the sunset.

I’d lichen more…

Okay, so technically not just fungi, but lichens do consist of at least one fungal species! Here are two bonus shots of the local lichen for you.

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A free piece of lichen, perhaps fallen from a nearby tree. I can’t tell if this is multiple different lichens, or one that takes a variety of shapes.

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A whole wall of lichen for you!

Mushroom hunting in Australia’s pine forest

Intro: We’re stuck in Australia for two extra weeks, waiting for Russian visas. Here’s one of the things we did in the meantime!

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My box full of pine mushrooms (Lactarius deliciosus).

We’ve been trying to find things to occupy our time (besides catching up on the nearly 50-strong backlogged blog posts), and last week I found out about a foraging and wild food workshop led by Diego Bonetto. He offers tons of plant foraging workshops, but the one that caught my eye was a mushroom foraging workshop—the first of Australia’s season, thanks to the overwhelming abundance of rain in the last two weeks. I signed up and got my wicker basket and kitchen knife ready.

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I board the train in the pre-dawn darkness to be at the meeting point on time.

The workshop takes place in state forests two hours outside of Sydney, so Diego offered transport to those of us without cars. I’m up at 5:30 am to catch the train to the meeting spot at 6:45 am. Diego meets us cheerfully, and all of us pile into a van and drove out of Sydney on the M31 highway. After half an hour, the city gives way to countryside. Diego points out plants from the car. “That’s fennel. It’s a good food and medicinal herb. Those trees there are wild apples. They grow from discarded apple cores.” It’s amazing that he can recognize the plants at a glimpse from the highway.

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Chestnuts that Diego found on the ground within minutes of arriving.

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Diego cuts the first mushroom from the ground.

When we arrive at our first foraging ground, we meet the rest of the attendees and gather around a table to begin the workshop. He first gives thanks to the original Aboriginal tribe who once inhabited the land and acknowledges previous generations who carried the knowledge of the environment to the present day. “Knowledge doesn’t belong to one person, or one group. It belongs to everyone. That’s why I’m sharing it with you,” he told us. Then he gives us the first assignment: go into the woods and pick everything we see that looks like a mushroom, put it in our baskets, and bring it back to the table for show and tell.

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Finding a tiny jumping spider along with the mushroom.

I experience a brief pang of trepidation at the thought of putting any mushroom into my basket. Many species are inedible or poisonous, and the thought of them jostling around in my basket isn’t a comforting one. Still, we trudge into the forest and start picking mushrooms—a slimy orange-capped one here, a lemon yellow one with brown “fur” there, and a thin-stalked tiny thimble over there. In fifteen minutes I’ve gathered at least 10 different species, and I’m still finding more. The prolific rain has produced a bounty.

Near the end of my collecting I stumble across what appears to be an all-too-familiar mushroom – the fly agaric, Amanita muscaria. I’m hesitant to cut one and put it in my basket. A. muscaria shares a genus with the famously deadly Amanita phalloides, the death cap, and Amanita bisporigera, the destroying angel. A single mushroom of either of these species is often enough to kill a person. While A. muscaria is nowhere near as toxic, it can still induce nausea and vomiting. And as one of the most cosmopolitan mushrooms in the world, it would be a good one to teach others. I cut three specimens in various stages of development and place them in my basket.

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Our mushroom finds, spilled out onto a picnic table.

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A mysterious fur-lined mushroom cap, potentially Tricholomopsis rutilans, also known as Plums-and-custard. Don’t try to eat it.

Back at the table, Diego instructs us to put the mushrooms we’ve found on the table. “Pick out the unique ones, especially ones not on the table yet,” he suggests, as we pile dozens of mushrooms before him. Once most of the mushrooms are out, he begins sorting them into groups based on similarity until we have more than a dozen piles of different mushrooms. He points at two piles and says “Look at these two. These are the two species that are edible and you want to collect. This one,” he gestures to a pile of dark, slime-capped mushrooms, “are Slippery Jills. Edible and good. They’re usually later in the season, so we won’t find many now. And these,” he gestures to another of orange-white capped, hearty mushrooms, “these are the saffron milk cap, also called the pine mushroom. Also edible and delicious. This is what we’re here for today.”

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Our mushroom collection, after Diego guides us in sorting it.

One of the attendees pipes up, “what about the rest of them?” Diego grins and responds, “What about them? I don’t know them, and I wouldn’t trust myself to identify them safely enough to eat.” Then he picks up a saffron milk cap and a similar-looking orange mushroom and asks, “What differences do you see?” We spend several minutes examining our piles of mushrooms and I realize how brilliant this exercise is: it teaches you not only the mushrooms you’re looking for, but also how to distinguish them from other mushrooms around at the same time of year. It’s a physical exercise of the mushroom forager’s mantra “When in doubt, leave it out.”

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Amanita muscaria, the fly agaric. It’s mildly poisonous, although there have been some reports of use in traditional medicine and even as food.

We pile back into Diego’s car and drive down to our main foraging ground: Belanglo State Forest. While historically known for more sordid things, Belanglo is primarily planted pine forest and so ideal for finding pine mushrooms. Around this time of year it becomes an epicenter for Polish visitors because of the huge number of pine mushrooms that sprout every fall. When we arrive at the forest, we find campers there already busy with collecting.

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Diego prepares pine mushrooms for frying.

Diego sets up his cooking equipment at one of the picnic tables and sends us into the forest to find mushrooms. If we had any worries that we would have to compete with the campers already there, they disappear as soon as we step between the trees: hundreds of pine mushroom caps dot the landscape, as far as you can see between the rows of trees. They intersperse with clusters of fly agarics and a plethora of other mushrooms I don’t recognize. I ignore these and focus on collecting only the best quality pine mushrooms: firm fleshed and not wobbly (wobbly means the inside has been eaten by insects), brightly colored with no bruising. With the panoply of pine mushrooms at my feet, I can afford to be choosy.

 

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Pine mushrooms poke their caps through the pine needles on the forest floor.

 

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Unloved: a pile of pine mushrooms past their prime, dumped by someone else. At least they return to the ecosystem here.

I fill my basket half-full with mushrooms, reluctant to take more than I can eat in the next few days, and return to the picnic table where Diego is frying a few pine mushroom caps. In the meantime, he passes around a pickled version of pine mushrooms for us to share, and someone starts slicing bread. We stand around eating pine mushrooms and share stories. We talk about what it is to forage food from the wild. One person is here to learn about the land. Another is an aspiring chef who worked in a wild food restaurant and got hooked on the idea of foraging his food. Others are people who just want to know, to have the knowledge of their surroundings.

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The picnic basket.

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We listen to Diego talk about pine mushroom recipes and the significance of foraging.

Back at home, I clean the mushrooms and prep them for cooking. I’m personally a fan of drowning them in cream and serving them on pasta, but there are so many that I’ll have to branch out. I cook a hearty serving of the aforementioned creamy mushroom pasta, then turn the rest into a tomato and mushroom stir-fry known in Turkish as sucuk. It’s all delicious (and, regrettably, I photographed none of it). As I’m cooking, I remember one of the things Diego mentioned at our communal meal: “The food here isn’t free. You’re taking it from nature, and even if it sounds hippie, you should give respect and thanks in your own way.” I have my own ritual of giving thanks – bowing three times and remembering where my food comes from.

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Pine mushrooms, with kitchen counter to scale.

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And now, more up close and personal.

Dorrigo National Park: Waterfalls and Wildlife

Just south of the Queensland-New South Wales border, Dorrigo National Park is a green rainforest refuge, one part of World Heritage Site known as the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. The patches of rainforest here are all that remain of the thick rainforest that once blanketed Australia millions of years ago. Thick mists and rain nourish the forest, and the water flowing from the soil collects into streams that tumble from rocky cliffs. And uncleared by humans, these forests remain a refuge to thousands of species: microbes, plants, fungi, and animals. Just a brief stroll through the forest reveals a kaleidoscope of wildlife, carrying on just as it did when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

We visited Dorrigo National Park on a rainy day, raingear ready and cameras poised to capture what we saw. Sometimes we were surprised. Sometimes we weren’t fast enough. But here’s a sample of what we found in the 7 km loop from the Dorrigo Rainforest Center:

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Peek: a tree that has fallen across the trail sports a family of fungi

 

 

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This shy bug has pulled his eyestalks in and waits for me to leave.

 

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A heavy vine winds around a tree and runs up into the canopy above

 

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Little family: mushrooms of varying age and fray clustered together

 

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Crystal Shower Falls, at one end of the Wonga Walking Track

 

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The view from the carved crevice behind the falls, where water collects and forms mud

 

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Eco-friendly graffiti: Hikers put their hands in the mud pools behind the falls and leave their prints on the wall.

 

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A skink rests on a rock near the falls. Possibly an orange-speckled forest skink (Eulamprus luteilateralis)

 

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Hiding out: more tiny mushrooms huddle in a woody crevice.

 

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Red fruit hangs from a walking stick palm (Linospadix monostachyos)

 

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Spot the leech in this picture. Leeches were all over the forest, and we had a few get onto us and suck blood.

 

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Ascomycete fungi grow from a tree trunk.

 

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A large bird (Australian brush turkey?) dashes off into the forest.

 

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Tristania Falls, the second waterfall on this hike.

 

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The water of Tristania Falls flows over the contours of an unusual rock formation

Funky Fungi and Lichens of the Salkantay

As creatures in the “not animals” category, fungi and lichens are another ubiquitous inhabitant along trails that don’t get enough love. But they come in some of the brightest colors and weirdest shapes, attesting to the creativity of nature’s palette. Here are some of the funkiest little fungi and lichens we encountered during our hike.

Note: I’ve made some broad attempts to identify these, but fungi can be notoriously hard to pin down (even into Families) without extensive analysis of microscopic details. We didn’t have a microscope on the trail, so that’s the best I can do. That being said, if there’s a field guide floating around out there that covers the fungi of the Peruvian Andes, TELL ME!!

Second note: We hiked in January (the rainy season), the abundance we saw may be due to the increased rain.

Friendly Fungi

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I’m guessing a type of Basidiomycete, perhaps an immature stinkhorn or earth star. This is one of the more unusual shapes I’ve seen for a mushroom.

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A vividly orange Ascomycete that is probably a relative of the orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) we see in North America.

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A pair of young puffballs. Judging from their somewhat spiky exterior, I would guess they’re from the genus Lycoperdon.

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Small purple mushrooms found along the railway to Machu Picchu. Beyond Basidiomycota, I couldn’t tell you much else except that it seems to have fairly irregular gill formation.

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Tiny white mushrooms growing from a dead tree stump along the railway to Machu Picchu.

Loveable Lichens

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Lichens growing on a rock in the Andes; there are probably a couple of different species here, including squamulose and fruticose forms.

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An intense foliose lichen, probably of the Dictyonema genus.

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Another foliose lichen, this time growing on a tree trunk.

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An intensely orange fruticose lichen, maybe something in the genus Teloschistes

References

Wikipedia article on orange peel fungus

Wikipedia article on Puffballs

Getting to Know Lichens

Lichen Mophology

Dictyonema Wikipedia Article