TELLURIDE — In a straw-covered pile framed by distant summits, mushroom-laced wood chips are resolving into dark, rich mulch.
The fragrant, fungal mix could one day revive mining-depleted soils throughout this scenic valley, says ecologist Leif Olson, describing how mycelia can replenish nutrients and restore microbial life after decades of human interference.
But there’s an obstacle, he says.
To the fungi-phobic, it can all sound a little, well, funky.
“Don’t say a ‘special mushroom is going to heal this,’” Olson told two dozen visitors at the test site, urging sober, scientific terms. As co-designer of an experiment comparing the mycelia-infused compost against non-fungal varieties, he worries about scaring away farmers and land managers from what could be a cheap, nontoxic alternative to chemical fertilizers. “We’re trying to move this away from being a funny, wacky, counterculture thing.”
At the Telluride Mushroom Festival, bold ideas have always come with the burden of making them palatable to the mushroom-averse.
And this year’s edition — extolling fungi as a means to restore native growth, solve environmental problems and ease our toxic footprint — was no exception.
“We’re not here to preach to the choir,” said Olson, who has an ecology-related master’s degree from Duke University and runs an environmental consulting business.
The four-day mushroom fest was founded in Aspen in 1974 and moved six years later to Telluride, drawing intrepid foodies, far-out drug enthusiasts and an array of mushroom experts.
All converged in the San Juan Mountains from Aug. 14-18 for college-level lectures, cooking lessons, a “magic mushroom”-assisted drum-circle and group forays in search of choice edibles.
Tie-dyes and multicolor paisleys were predominant. At a freewheeling parade, a hand-painted bus had to be pushed by its would-be riders, and a smiling reveler waived a sign that read, “If I’m not me, Who R U?”
The focus on fungi’s untapped promise in large-scale environmental cleanups, from oil spills to agricultural runoff, appears to have widened the mushroom fest’s appeal.
Organizers saw record-breaking attendance, drawing about 350 people, according to Art Goodtimes, the festival’s top hat-wearing co-founder, organizer and poet laureate, a former San Miguel County commissioner. (Admission fees range from $20 per lecture/class to $400 for a full pass to attend most offerings — sending many festival-goers into Forest Service campgrounds to keep expenses in check.)
No matter the year’s theme, guided mushroom forays are a highlight.
Bearing dull knives and wicker baskets, foragers from the Rocky Mountain West and beyond pile into 4x4s, buses and Telluride’s free gondola en route to public foraging grounds.
With experts along to distinguish the delicious from the noxious, they search rock, log and duff for sought-after species — morels, chanterelles and porcinis, among them.
During a foray along a Telluride ski road, new discoveries came in fits, bringing envy and excitement.
“What else is as adorable as a mushroom?” said Maria Miller of Bayfield, as she returned from a damp hillside showing slender red stalks topped by tiny button-caps.
Her group leader, Pikes Peak Mycological Society co-President Brian Barzee, caused a minor sensation when he was presented with the find of the day — a rare matsutake, a mainstay of attendees’ bucket lists, and a culinary delicacy sold at market for hundreds of dollars an ounce.
“This is what it’s all about,” Barzee said. A witness who saw him identify the mushroom said Barzee inhaled deeply and flashed a Cheshire grin, setting off a race into the woods for more.
After a recent introduction to the world of wild edibles, Merrick Presser of Cleveland flew in with his friend and mushroom mentor Spencer Cowan, eager to see what dishes would grace Cowan’s table.
Cowan, a student of free-range cuisine and “mushroom maestro,” as Presser calls him, rattled off recipes involving bacon, honey and garlic, promising a “rollercoaster ride of flavor.”
“My secret power is to cook mushrooms for people who don’t like them,” he said. Later, Cowan walked the talk, winning over this writer and a Gazette photographer with a late-night medley of sweet and savory finds from the foray, including, yes, the prized matsutake.
Unforeseen connections emerged in the thick of the hunt.
Anna Sokolova of Prescott, Ariz., a former instructor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management near Phoenix, spoke of plans to study mushrooms for insight into political science and diplomacy — seeking clues on better negotiating in the dependencies among fungi, plants and animals.
“Ah!” she later exclaimed, stooping to examine a telltale protuberance on a log.
The day’s best specimens were passed around to be sniffed and squeezed, before being carted off to private dinner tables.
Some hunters passed up the pleasure of the eating to show their finds at a designated display tent, heavy with earthy aromas and buzzing flies.
The festival comes months after Denver voters moved to decriminalize magic mushrooms within city limits, another source of excitement driving the record attendance, said Goodtimes. He has come out in support of moving to legalize psychoactive mushrooms for medicinal use in Colorado before pursuing wider decriminalization.
The mushroom festival from its founding has been unabashed about its magic mushroom advocacy, citing medicinal benefits and a long record of historical use.
Organizers tout a family-friendly atmosphere, saying they are unaware of any serious injury, overdose or violent act in the festival’s history. Use of drugs in public appeared limited to occasional waftings of pot smoke, from unknown sources.
Law enforcement has largely adopted a hands-off stance.
A federal drug enforcement agent attended once, to keep tabs on a pro-magic mushroom speaker, but there was no trouble and no arrests.
“When our projector broke down, he was nice enough to fix it,” Goodtimes said.
While researchers in so-called mycoremediation reviewed promising results from experiments and one-off projects, forester Jeff Ravage honed in on a key problem: Performing the work to industrial scale.
Ravage, of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit environmental group heavily involved in wildfire mitigation in the Pikes Peak region and beyond, is trying discover a new means of disposing of trees chopped down as part of statewide fire mitigation efforts.
After a century of overzealous fire suppression, Colorado is stuck with 15 million acres of public land in need of thinning, rendering large-scale tree removal impossible. One approach is to burn slash piles in place, which pumps carbon into the air, hastening global warming.
Ravage touts wood-rotting fungi that can reduce slash to mulch — calling it “cold fire.” His treatment is made with mushrooms supplied by Mile High Fungi, a Littleton-based producer.
“They will become the bully right away and take over the woodpiles,” he said.
A series of slash piles in the Crags area of Pikes Peak is where he is working on refining a process that could be used statewide.
Amid sober, data-driven presentations and calls for careful advocacy, Chilean mycologist Giuliani Furci drew a standing ovation by throwing caution into the wind.
Referring to what she and her cohort call funga — a term they invented for Kingdom Shroom, to distinguish it from flora and fauna — Furci declared the future for fungi.
“This isn’t a funga-friendly world,” she called out on a raucous opening night. “But we’re going to create one.”
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