Shroom. Shroom. Foraging, community, and mycology. Meet the citizen scientist curating a space for education in the mushroom community.
William Padilla-Brown is a glass-half-full kinda guy. After a short trek through the forest with Will, I saw and learned about mushroom species that I didn’t even know existed. Full transparency, it was my first time foraging, but Will has a way of teaching that makes information so digestible.
Earlier this February, Team OV met up with Will on the California coast to learn how to forage responsibly, chat mycology, and find a few mushrooms of our own.
by Caitlin Rounds
It’s been 10 years since you started foraging. How did you initially get into it?
I started foraging when I was around 17 or 18 years old. I got into it because I was smoking weed, going out on hikes, and tripping a little bit and it made me really sensitive towards what I was putting in my body. I was really noticing the effects of eating fast food or food that was sprayed with a bunch of chemicals. I began to realize that my stomach had been hurting my whole life, and I’d been tired my whole life and didn’t even realize it. In my late teens, I had a reconnection to nature that started to make me feel as though I wanted to eat clean food. I became really passionate about knowing where my food came from.
There weren’t any health food stores around me or anything like that. At that point, I wasn’t educated enough to look up or go find a farmers market, but I could clearly see that there was food outside. My grandmother told me, when I was little, that dandelions are edible. I realized that there was food outside of my house, I just didn’t know what it looked like. So I started to look it up around that time. I was interested in growing cannabis back then. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I couldn’t get active with that so I started to use that knowledge to grow some kale on the side of my house. From there I started foraging in my backyard.
There is a permaculture community around here; it’s not really an intentional community, but a group of people who get together and nerd out about this kind of stuff. Back in 2014, there was a permaculture apprenticeship being offered in the next town over from me in Camphill. I took it, and through that network of people, I got connected with a Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education in York, Pennsylvania. I met my rewilding mentor there — Wilson Alvarez — and he took me in the woods and started teaching me about wild plants and how to forage. Around that time I also met my mushroom foraging mentor; Micheal Weese runs a company called MushroomLife. He started to teach me how to forage mushrooms if I agreed to teach him how to grow them.
It was a mix of wanting to eat healthy food and the fact that there was no green juice spot out here, still. So if I wanted it, I had to go find it.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned while foraging?
Everything — including the individual human — has a function in an ecological system. I didn’t really understand or know what nature really was until I started to get out there and get involved. This plant is here because this plant is here and this plant is here because this animal is here. I started to see a more holistic experience. I think it’s important to learn and have a direct experience with everything that’s connected. Growing up, you might hear some hippie people say that “we’re all one,” but it doesn’t hit or really tell you anything deeper.
I learned that food can make you high. When I started eating wild food, I started to feel alive. I grew up on crap, eating Great Value food, Happy Meals all of the time — my body was not even working. Whenever I started to go out and eat the wild foods I was like, “whoa this is what it feels like to be human and have energy in my body.” I had mental clarity and I didn’t feel like that before. I’d wake up tired and all that kind of stuff. I don’t drink caffeine, I wake up at 5 AM every morning, and I keep a clean diet. Eyes wide-open, dancing.
I remember you always liked to walk back a different route than you enter from while foraging. Why is that?
I already saw everything on the way in. I don’t want to waste my time seeing the same thing over again. If I walk in and I don’t really find anything then I don’t want to waste time whenever I could go back a different route and see something new that I didn’t see. Even when I’m driving around I always go in a loop. I won’t drive one way and come back the same way, I want to see what’s going on. It’s a perspective thing.
Any other rituals?
When I’m foraging, I prefer to pick and clean up on site. It’s the respectful thing to do. To offer some back so you’re not taking everything. It’s also a practice of cleanliness.
If I remember to, I bring a little bit of tobacco to leave something since I’m about to take something. I’m continuing the energy exchange. Just because I’m not giving my dollars I don’t want to take, take, take and not give back. Tobacco, historically and indigenously, was used in that sense. A lot of indigenous cultures believe tobacco is a way of sending your prayers into the heavens. But if you think about it in a chemical state of mind, it’s a dilator — it can push chemicals further into your veins or messages out further into space if that’s what it is that you believe. There are different ways to see the same thing, but tobacco is something I view as an offering thing. Leave anything that you can leave, either something organic or some of what you take.
“There are different ways to see the same thing.”
What is your favorite specie of mushroom to forage for?
Maitake mushroom season in Pennsylvania is one of my favorite foraging seasons because you can get out and find so many mushrooms. I love the smell in my car when I’m driving with a lot of maitake mushrooms. They taste really good. I’m usually with friends when I find these mushrooms because they’re so big that you can find one mushroom that will take up your whole capacity to carry back to your car. It’s not like when you’re picking little mushrooms and can fill up your whole basket with a bunch, you usually have to go with a friend because you’re going to go back and forth carrying them to your car. I like that they’re so big that they bring a crowd. I also really like the Porcini in Colorado, in the San Juan mountains; it grows in abundance and it’s a really fun time to forage.
What’s something you haven’t seen yet but hope to one day?
I really want to find Antrodia in Taiwan or Japan. There’s a mushroom that grows on Mulberry trees out there and it’s super medicinal, that’d be cool to see. There are a couple of species of Cordyceps in the U.S. that I still haven’t found yet. They’re so uncommon, they only have scientific names. There’s still a ton of mushrooms that humans still don’t have a relationship with yet.
Could you give us a crash course on the basics? Safety and what not?
There’s no general rule of thumb that says just because a mushroom is a certain color that it will be good or bad for you. There are fewer toxic mushrooms than there are edible mushrooms. I recommend everyone join the North America Mycological Association or NAMA. If you join you can see what your regional mushroom club is, you can find what club you have, and then meet a lot of different people. Mushroom people are always really friendly. You’ll go out once a month in a forest near you (except in the wintertime), pick mushrooms, and identify everything.
Every month there’s different stuff, so you can go out, see what your area has to offer, and be around people who really know their stuff. That’s the best way to learn how to safely consume.
I also recommend getting a field guide, finding a local expert, or taking the mushroom licensing online. Mushroom Mountain offers one where you can get a license to legally sell wild mushrooms.
How did you conceptualize Mycosymbiotics?
I started the brand in 2015 after I had a huge acid trip. I had this experience of what would happen if I made multiple decisions. If I do this with my life, this is what the outcome will be. I was in a state of mind where I could really clearly see the patterns of my actions. I wanted to stay in alignment with my health. I distilled that experience into this quote that I wrote that goes, “Homeostasis can only be achieved via symbiosis with local systems — both ecological and social”. I wanted to find the balance between myself and the ecosystem outside of me and the people out there. I was be trying to feed myself, clothe myself, heal myself on my own — but nature and the people could do it for me if we’re all connected. So I figured out how to get connected.
How do you envision the future of mycology?
Mycology is moving to a point where it will reach some level of general botany. Where everyone knows about it from the time that they’re a little kid — like apples and broccoli. However, Mycology is new to humans, globally. Humans have had interactions with and attractions to mushrooms, but I think right now, mushrooms are hitting the way that agriculture hit in Northern Africa. Once agriculture hit, humans were different for the rest of forever. It’s going to be part of a general conversation. People will know about mushrooms, what mushrooms they need, and so on.
Will is a professional forager, a self-taught, bonafide mycologist. He also wrote the first book in English about Cordyceps — a project many said he wouldn’t be able to complete. From there, he founded Mycofest — an accessible space for all people to learn about mycology and ecological literacy. You can keep up with Will @mycosymbiote.
Edited by Rey Joaquin. Photography by Parker Thornton.