My local bookstore is the beloved Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. This is where I scour the shelves for acceptable novels of dystopian distress for my extremely opinionated children, where I discover small press essay collections for my wife, and where I signed the first fresh-off-the-press copy of The Mushroom Hunters right after the book was published.
The night of the book launch party at Elliott Bay, I had a few surprises for the audience. The first was an excellent wild mushroom pâté made by the bookstore café’s chef. The second was a basket full of live samples to paw over—porcini, lobster fungi, both golden and white chanterelles. But it was the third that really excited me: Doug Carnell, one of the main characters from The Mushroom Hunters, had made the two-hour drive from the coast to be on hand.
Doug’s working life is a resumé straight out of the Pacific Northwest: ski lift operator, commercial fisherman, logger, and wild mushroom picker. I first met Doug several years ago during the fall harvest on the Olympic Peninsula. On that same day I also spied a bear and a bobcat in the woods; maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that a chance encounter with a mushroom picker would become so important to my own work.
The next time we saw each other was more official. Doug agreed to meet in Hoquiam and take me into the field, to see how a professional mushroom picker went about his business. Commercial pickers and buyers can be elusive, so I was grateful to Doug for giving me a glimpse into his world—but I was also a bit nervous. On that day I remember following Doug through a tangle of dense second-growth forest. Mushroom pickers, I would soon learn, move quickly through the bush. They know where they’re going, and on those short autumn days they need to utilize every last broken shard of daylight.
I fell behind as Doug cut through the evergreen huckleberry and salal, and soon I couldn’t see him anywhere. As I write in the book, “A paranoid thought crossed my mind. Maybe it was tradition, like with cops or soldiers, to haze the new initiate, to spin him around blindly in the woods and see how he did trying to find a way out.” Then, just as my blood pressure was cresting, I caught sight of Doug atop a ridge, where he was pointing to a shallow ravine below. I clambered up to see the bright caps of hedgehog mushrooms crowding the forest floor. I marveled at this wild bounty and chastised myself for doubting.
After that I met up with Doug regularly—sometimes near his home in Westport, other times as far away as the Lost Coast of Northern California—to pick mushrooms. I have hours and hours of Doug on tape telling stories. From the get-go he violated the popular myth of the mushroom hunter as tight-lipped guardian of secret patches. Not only did Doug take me picking, he shared with me some of his most prized spots.
At Elliott Bay I showed a few slides of Doug and other mushroom pickers in the field; then I mentioned that one of the book’s characters was with us tonight. Everyone turned to see Doug leaning casually against a wall in the back of the room, James Dean style. A crowd gathered around him as soon as I finished. I could hear his laconic “aw shucks” voice above the din as he tried to explain that mushroom hunting wasn’t any big secret. He handed out his phone number to several aspiring pickers, and within days I started hearing from a few of my readers that they were in touch with Doug, had planned some outings with him, and so on. For these folks, a character had stepped right out of the pages of a book and taken them by the hand.
Doug says he’s retiring from mushroom picking. In my mind, that’s like retiring from Major League Baseball or NASA. He has deep firsthand knowledge of the woods—knowledge of nature’s hidden web of life—that few will ever possess. It must be a good feeling to share a little of that with others, as he did with me.
Not long after the party, Doug called me up to say that he’d read The Mushroom Hunters. He said he had a review for me, just like the staff reviews that he’d seen at Elliott Bay printed on bookstore stationery in careful handwriting and taped to the shelves.
Doug explained that during his days as a commercial fisherman, free time on a boat was considered sacred, because there was so little of it. Mostly you worked and slept. But occasionally, when you weren’t too exhausted, you stole a few minutes to read. This was precious time, and it made the deckhands into the ultimate critics. Very few books survived such a culling process. Most got tossed aside within a few chapters or even pages, with another quickly taking its place. “But this is a book,” Doug went on, “that I would have finished on the boat.”
Meet Langdon Cook, one of the 2014 PNBA Book Award Winners, at his award presentation ceremony at Elliott Bay Book Company on February 8, 2014.