The Graves That Dot Our Landscapes

I called my dad on Friday, as he’d left a voicemail for me to call him back. Whenever he’s cryptic in his voicemails, I know it has something to do with a bill, usually a cell bill, that I need to pay. This time though, after asking if I’d paid my portion of the linked account, he casually mentioned that my brother had been nattering on about me, as he’d been in Squamish for a month already, and I’d only seen him once, and had made no effort to go out to see him. Fair dinkum, it was all true. I had a lot going on in my life that made me escape to the comfortable solace of my friends’ living rooms instead, plus I had been house sitting out in Caulfeild on and off. Gas was expensive, time was short, Squamish was forty-five minutes too far away for the perceived hassle. But Dad was right, I should touch base with Marek.

I’d spoken to Steve about going shopping on Saturday, and he said he was interested in joining, but I knew that he’d be okay with it if I bailed on him; family trumps, and Steve understood this. So I called Marek to see where he was at (playing a zombie shoot ’em) and in between grunted efforts to skewer a particularly tough undead, he let me know that he was going mushroom picking with Evie the next morning. I asked if he wanted to come out to West Van, and we could go to our regular haunts, but he said no, he wanted to stay in Squamish. Alright, Squamish it was, I’d suck up the gas cost and spend some quality time with my brother and my niece.

The next morning, I got up bright and early at 7am, a painful sleep-in of only half an hour from my usual wake-up time during the week. I took Sophie out for her morning constitutional, and this time she didn’t fuss about going out so early, as the six thirty am walk was usually a bit of a drag for her and sometimes we’d only make it to the end of the driveway and back. This time, because I was in a bit of a rush, she decided to sniff every bit of foliage available and check all the neighbourhood pee-mail. When I got back to the house, I noticed that I’d missed a call from Marek: he needed to come into Vancouver to look for a book. I told him it would be better if he’d call to the bookstore ahead of time to see if they even carried for what he was looking, so as not to waste a trip out. I had my mind set on going to Squamish at this point. He agreed and said he’d wait for me.

I put Sophie out on the patio for the day, thankfully it wasn’t raining, and drove out to Squamish. As luck would have it, it started to piss buckets around Britannia Beach, and a virtual deluge by Murrin Lake. It wasn’t boding well for picking mushrooms, but then, we’d be under forest cover anyhow, and we weren’t made of sugar. When I arrived at my parents’ place, the rain had let up somewhat, thankfully.

Mum and dad were just sitting down to breakfast, mushroom omelettes, with Evie picking at the mushrooms. She looked at me shyly, from behind my mum’s leg; she rarely saw me to be fair, and I must have seem like some odd interjection into her life. Marek bundled her up in gumboots, three layers of sweaters, and a hat, and swapped out car seats from the Forerunner to the Explorer. We set out for Alice Lake to look for chantarelles.

photo 1(1)

Chantarelles

The plateau was bereft of chantarelles, sadly. I caveat here that we were in full mushroom-picking gear, that is to say, gardening jeans, rubber boots, over-sized sweater, and rain coat. Rather, I was in full mushroom-picking gear, looking slightly eccentric like a homeless person trying to make a stint of it in the great outdoors. I carried a bag in one hand for any mushrooms, and a expensive and sharp knife that I’d picked up at a gun show in New Mexico (gun shows are crazy places, but that is another story, for another time) in my pocket.

Mum and I had reached a conclusion some years ago that chantarelles really like to grow in places where there are salal bushes and a lot of moss, places where the leaves turn the same sort of yellow as the mushroom, so I waded into the forest undergrowth, brushing branches aside, and dodging scurrilously placed spider webs (where was a pointy wavy stick when you needed one, anyhow?). You have to walk slowly, or you’ll miss the faded yellow-orange of the chantarelle cap, and often the wee buggers hide under logs or in wooden niches.

photo 4

Matsutake, or Pine, Mushroom

Unfortunately, the place had been picked over; either that or it was a bad year for chantarelles. The forests between Squamish and Whistler are the haunts of many a professional picker, and if you have a found a good area for chantarelles, you don’t tell anybody where that area is. It’s a rule of thumb that if I had to tell you where my spots are, I’d have to kill you. So sorry, the mushrooms are that delicious. And for professional pickers, chantarelles are an easy bit of gold, as the mushrooms can go for up to fifty dollars a kilo. Even more lucrative are pine mushrooms, beloved by the Japanese as matsutake mushrooms, as well as lobster mushrooms, and these forests are also known for this particular bit of foodie heaven.

For better or for worse, the chantarelles were scarce and the lobsters minced. The only chantarelles were a couple of beauties, to be fair, that were hidden in places that were hard to reach, into which whomever had come before us hadn’t bothered to go. We found two intact lobster mushrooms that seemed to be the good variety, but I later found out that they were bitter so we had picked the wrong russula, covered with a secondary bright red fungus that gave the lobster mushroom its distinctive stunted look.

Evie entertained herself by digging into layer of Douglas fir needles that carpeted the forest floor, as she waited with either Marek or myself, as the other would tromp into the bush to go for a look; we didn’t want her out of arm’s reach, as the area was also known for cougars and bears, and cougars in particular would eye a little one and a half year old as easy pickings for a mid-day snack.

We eyed our miserable little haul and Marek suggested we head towards Whistler, as he’d seen some places where people seemed to regularly stop, and he was pretty sure it was to pick mushrooms. I agreed, as we had time, and it was worth the trek if we could find a good spot. One place, the entry to Garibaldi, I recalled from a previous mushroom excursion the year before, with my parents. We’d noticed a long cable lining the beginning of the drive into Garibaldi, and surmised that perhaps professional pickers were coming into the forest at night to look for pine mushrooms and needed the cable to drive power to lights. Maybe the lights helped find the white mounds of the pine mushrooms.

By the time we arrived to this spot, just south of Green Lake, the little one had fallen asleep. Marek was okay to leave her in the car, with the windows cracked open a wee bit for fresh air and to help us hear her if she woke up, and we set off into the forest. The forest here was different, sparser, more rocky, with a thick layer of moss covering the rocks and logged stumps of years past. It felt like we were walking on a plush green uneven carpet. We talked about my love life (on the rocks, shaken, not stirred?), about Marek’s job prospects in Vancouver (with a lemon twist), about Mum and Dad, about Dad’s Parkinsons, all sorts of things. One thing we noticed, in between topics, as well was the dearth of mushrooms again, so we headed back to the car to see about Marek’s spots.

We tried the area around Brandywine Falls, but it was far too rocky to support anything but moss. Evie had woken up at this point so we showed her the river but then the impetus to try one more area took hold before we crossed the bridge to the actual falls. The river was that lovely frigid blue colour, that you know will cause hypothermia within thirty seconds of a dunk (ah, for the bathtub warm waters of Hawaii). Evie was perfectly happy to gobble down those little golden fish crackers that one feeds to small children to keep them happy, as one might feed biscuits to dogs. Her eating habits were about the same, as well.

One more spot, on the other side of the highway, a bit further south from Brandywine, Marek said. Ok, let’s give it a try.

He pulled over to a tiny little side road that lead to Hydro’s lands; it was a good thing he had the Explorer as we had to drive up a little rocky knoll that would have taken out the undercarriage of many a low-lying sedan. We were now in grizzly country, so we kept Evie even closer. We crossed some tracks, and came across a set of relatively well-established trails, which looked promising. We set off down one, trying to keep our bearings straight so that we could get back easily, as it is so easy to get lost in a new forest, and especially out in the back country. The forest was denser with trees, with fewer rocks, lots of moss and salal. I started to find chantarelles right away, large lovely fist-sized chantarelles. Even Evie found a chantarelle, hidden beneath some moss.

Marek and I were pretty happy, as we’d gathered almost a kilo at this point, including what we’d gathered out at Alice Lake. We decided to push in a bit more, just to see if we could find any more, and came across a strange sight.

photo 2(1)Right there, in the middle of this nameless forest, we came across a grave. It was a cairn of rocks, well-covered in moss and the bottommost rocks covered over by forest debris. A simple wooden cross stood out in the middle of this cairn, with the vertical timber reading at the top: “RIP” then a faded word underneath that looked like “Pax”. The horizontal beam read “SEPT 79” to the left, and to the right, a faded “Bill.” There was a strange symbol in the middle of the cross, which reminded me of the Egyptian symbol, ‘Udjat,’ the sacred eye of Horus that was placed in the wrappings of mummies to protect the deceased.

photo 3A grave, all forlorn and alone, forgotten, no friends or family by which to remember the person within. It was rather sad. I took the “79” to mean “1979” but my Mum thought it must be “1879,” for a grave in the middle of nowhere to have been dug. I think that the wood would have rotted away though, if it was over a hundred years old, but then, the rocks were covered over with a fair layer of debris, and the rocks mossy.

Perhaps it was the grave of some hermit, whose once-a-year friend had buried him upon finding him lifeless; or a hunting accident gone terribly wrong; or the ashes of a loved one who wanted to be buried in the woods that he loved so much in life that he wanted to become part of them in death.

The archeologist in me wondered whether there was an actual skeleton underneath those granite rocks, or whether just Bill’s ashes. Who was Bill in life? All we had of Bill was his grave, not even his death. How many such graves dot our landscapes, without our even realizing it.

We kept on the path for a few minutes longer, after passing by Bill. A river was nearby. Marek found a lone pine mushroom on our way back to the car, which was a triumph, as it did look like someone had cleared the place out of pine mushrooms perhaps a week or so ago as there were all these unusual indentations in the ground where a mushroom could have grown. It is a strict principle in our family to always leave the stem, so that the mushroom’s spores can reproduce for the coming year; it kills me when I see that people have taken the whole mushroom, stem and all. That is why an area can get cleared out of mushrooms and they don’t come back year after year. I am surprised that places like Whole Foods, with their mandate on sustainability, are okay with such poor mycological practices.

Bill too, was taken out, in his entirety, from his world, leaving only a small shallow dip in someone else’s life, and for some strangers to come across randomly, in the forest, while foraging for mushrooms.

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