2.08.2021

THE BIRCH POLYPORE // Elspeth


I went swimming yesterday. We took a walk, with friends, in the woods near where I grew up on the coast of Maine. The walk felt almost normal—we didn't hug in the parking lot, and everyone's noses and mouths were muffled—but the kids screeched and slid down ice-crusted snow and after a few miles someone small asked every five minutes how long until we got to the bay.

We did get there, eventually. The water was so still and the sky was so grey, and I was overcome with a desire to go swimming. It's something I've been doing this year—I'm not sure why, exactly—only that it's become a way to cope with all the things we cannot do, a way to rebel, a way to embrace every season, every temperature, every day. I've swum in ponds and in the ocean, in every month since last summer, but it had been a while, and I was surprised to find that the bottom was so cold the little ripples on the flats had hardened, and when my feet hit them they did not give way. 



I'm holding onto discoveries like these. The colors in the sky over my sister's house when I let the dogs out in the morning. The way the air smells when snow is coming. New mushrooms—what they look like, what we call them, whether they might be good for cooking. 

On the way back to the car from the bay, I saw one of the mushrooms I've started collecting. It's everywhere around here—near my sister's in Maine, where we've been staying for a few months to pool childcare and germs and sanity—and it's called the birch polypore. My friend Nicole who runs Delicious Living Nutrition turned me onto it this fall, and it's one of those mushrooms you notice everywhere once you have a search image. On a walk in December I picked a bunch, dried them for a few weeks, and then sliced them up to keep in a jar for broth and tea. (Sidenote: drying and then slicing is decidedly NOT the correct order for this operation. Slice, then dry! Otherwise, you'll be sawing.) I've found birch polypores now in the conservation area next to my parents' house, on our land in western Maine and—unexpectedly—when I was skiing the other day in a glade. 



Getting to know another mushroom like this feels like another way to gain a tiny toehold on certainty. I don't know if you've met Dr. Wenowdis (as in, we know this)—possibly Kate McKinnon's best SNL character ever (!)—but as she says, for so many questions, the answer is, "We don't know dis." When are we going home? We don't know this. When are we getting a vaccine? We don't know this! Will life ever feel normal again? This, we do not know. But Nora has taken to building tiny pipes out of legos and impersonating Dr. Wenowdis, and wonder of all wonders, we do now know this birch polypore species. 

What have we been doing with it? Well, mostly I've just been making something you'd call either tea or broth, depending on how you plan to use it. I've been drinking it with my lunch, and occasionally  sneaking it into things like chili (shhh). It is touted to have all sorts of health benefits, which I suppose doesn't hurt at a time like this. But mostly I just like knowing it—seeking it out, bringing it home, and folding the knowledge of another living thing into my days. 

BIRCH POLYPORE TEA

I learned this mushroom from my friend Nicole—always, always double check with someone local and knowledgeable when you're collecting a new species. To make a tea, you simply take 5-8 grams of dried mushroom (depending how strong you want the flavor) and simmer it for an hour in 1 cup of water. Of course, it seems ridiculous to do all this work just for one cup of tea, so I usually use 20-25 grams and make a quart at a time. The "tea" also makes an excellent stock for soups. Some people say it's bitter, but I haven't found the bitterness overpowering. The tea smells like earth and mushrooms, with just a trace of bitterness. It's nice. 

Look for the birch polypore on dying or dead birch trees—they'll stick out like hard, kidney shaped shelves, and you should be able to easily pull them off. And, as always, leave some behind. 

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