A little over a year ago the Thomas Fire, powered by the strongest Santa Ana winds in memory, roared through Upper Ojai on its way to surrounding all of Ojai, rampaging into Santa Barbara county, killing two people, destroying 1,000 structures, and burning over 200,000 acres of land. The fire visited our property on the first night, got into a three-trunked oak overlooking the street, and wouldn’t die in that tree until a crew from (believe it or don’t) the Governor’s special Office of Emergency Services came by and put it out personally.
Here’s what that looked like. You can’t see the fire burning in the tree, but you can see the smoke and steam.
A year later, against odds laid by a couple of local expert tree trimmers, that tree still stands, badly burned, splitting, hazardous to stand under, but undauntedly alive. And directly in the burn this week grew a massive mushroom, of the “lions mane” variety. Amazing and amazingly wild creature.
For folks living in wetter environments, wild mushrooms may not be so surprising. But for SoCal: Holy Cow! I only know about this variety from a mushroom forager named Omar Uribe, whom I interviewed working last year on a story about mushroom growing and foraging and products generally.
Omar told me that lions mane is unusual among mushrooms because not only is it mild and almost sweet, but unlike many other succulent and edible varieties it has no toxic look-alikes. In other words: it’s safe to eat! After he reassured me by identifying it from a picture, I went ahead and cooked a moderate harvested portion into a leek and mushroom shepherd’s pie, according to an excellent and mild NYTimes recipe. Mmmmwah! Served it to a number of friends and relations to much appreciation. Thank you, universe, for a wildness we can taste, that wildness that will not go away.