Archive for August, 2012

  • Blog
  • August 30th, 2012

Empty Promises


By Joel M. Vance

                As a concerned alumnus of any university, which would you rather have—a vibrant, respected University press, publishing books of note in many interest areas…..or a $200 million football team?  Sounds like a no-brainer, but the ones with no brains are making the decisions.

                Thus the University of Missouri football team will be playing in the Southeast Conference for big  bucks (after abandoning the Big 12 where it had been since being a charter member of the league’s first incarnation in 1907), while the University of Missouri Press, in business for 50 years, with 2,000 titles and 1,000 authors, is defunct because of an arbitrary decision by a president who had been in office for just three months.

                After a loud and sustained chorus of objections from Press authors and friends of book publishing in general that reached national proportions, the University stumbled backward and after a high-level meeting on Aug. 29 tried to make it appear that it was caving in to the objectors’ demands.  It was so half-hearted that it might as well have not been done at all.

                What the Administration did is what all bureaucratic monoliths do when confronted with an unpleasant situation—form a committee and study it to death.  Under the newest new plan there will be an advisory committee to determine the course of the Press.  Government by committee.  Or as it is otherwise known “the kiss of death.”

                President Timothy Wolfe’s draconian decision left a staff of 10 professionals jobless.  He cited the cost of subsidizing the Press, but the entire rationale was specious—much of the alleged $400,000 annual shortfall was because of accounting acrobatics ($100,000 was an accounting write off).  The actual amount was far less—and the Press was actively working to streamline and become if not profit making at least break-even.  Meanwhile, the University will shell out $200 million to upgrade its athletic facilities (read that “football”).  Is there a hint here that the state’s flagship university has its priorities screwed up?  As an example of just how screwed up, football coach Gary Pinkel got a $650,000 annual raise, considerably more than the alleged $400,000 Press shortfall. 

                Nobody consulted with the Press staff, especially longtime editor in chief Clair Willcox.  In fact no one in administration even hinted that the ax was poised until it fell.  And increasingly it is obvious that the underlying motive was not money, but a naked power grab by Speer Morgan, editor of the University’s literary magazine The Missouri Review, and almost certainly some of his allies in the administration.

                Morgan was named the editor-in-chief of a “new” incarnation of the Press which would emphasize electronic publishing, with a staff mainly of graduate students—unpaid and untested in book publishing, editing or any other facet of this demanding profession.  The whole plot reeks as if someone had decided to scuttle the Titanic on its maiden voyage…without waiting for the iceberg.

                Morgan has no book publishing experience and it’s doubtful that any assortment of graduate students, no matter how talented, could substitute for a professional, paid staff.  For one thing, carrying a book to completion is a distance race, not a sprint, and most grad students are gone before the timetable for a book expires.  It’s unlikely any would have previous book publishing experience, so it would be a case of learning on the job and that definitely would not be in the best interests of the authors.

                As of Aug. 29 the University created more uncertainty than it solved when it appeared to have backtracked.  But President Wolfe’s statement is the epitome of bureauspeak, worth quoting in full: ““The decision to move the University of Missouri Press to the Columbia campus is an important step in ensuring its full potential is realized and integrated into the academic and research missions of the university,” Wolfe said. “My goal is to develop a Press that is vibrant and adaptive, but I realize that change is often difficult. I have been listening to the support and dedication the community and others have shown the Press, and make every assurance that university administration is working to create the kind of Press of which the academic community and those that it serves can be proud.”

                The last time you heard anyone talk like that was on a used car lot where the salesman said, “Trust me, this baby runs like a top” ignoring that it doesn’t run like a car and the fender falls off when he rests his hand on it.  Nothing is mentioned about Speer Morgan , there is no mention of Clair Willcox, the respected and fired editor in chief of the old, legitimate press and there is no guarantee that any reconstituted press will resemble in any way the established one.  And there is no guarantee that the University, once the hubbub died down, wouldn’t do exactly what it originally planned.

                What does come through is that the University has taken over operation of the Press and any promises to keep it viable are totally empty.  Most of the protesters with legal experience feel that the administration’s announcement mostly is to stall for time and to prevent authors from demanding rights back by using the argument that the contract they signed was with a Press that no longer exists.

                Predictably the news press bought into the U-propaganda.  Our local newspaper praised the announcement as if it wasn’t a trial balloon, filled with hot air.

                More than 50 Press authors have demanded their rights back from the Press by contacting Wolfe and as far as I know none has received the courtesy of a reply (I know I haven’t).  Others have fled to other university presses.  Still others are in limbo, their manuscripts in production with no idea what will happen to them.

                A sizeable group of authors gathered Aug. 20 in the university’s Jesse Wrench auditorium to listen to readings from past U-Press books and discuss possible ways to unbend the University from its arbitrary decision.  All it would take is an announcement by Wolfe that the dismantling of the Press was a mistake (and he doesn’t even need to add “stupid” to “mistake” although he should).  Instead we got the weasel-worded statement of Aug. 29, as meaningless as smoke on the wind.

                As a sidelight, Jesse Wrench auditorium is named for a professor who taught at MU from 1911-53 and who was a campus institution.  He organized a pep group and often led cheers at football games.  He also was prone to take the side of the underdog in any controversy—he championed students who chose to live in dorms (GDIs or God damned independents) rather than pledge a fraternity.  It would be interesting and no doubt educational for President Wolfe et al if Professor Wrench could be around today to jerk a knot in their respective tails.

                At the Wrench get-together one logical, attainable and popular proposal was to establish an endowment fund which would make up the annual Press shortfall.  Columbia author William Least-Heat Moon (who has no books with the Press, but has a deep love for books and especially the university presses which cherish authors who otherwise would languish) has pledged $5,000 to such a fund and about $100,000 already is pledged.  “This is not an issue about money,” Heat Moon said.  “The money figures are distorted and some are downright fictitious.”

                Paraphrasing Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev about the Berlin wall, one Press advocate snarled, “Mr. President [Wolfe] tear down this ridiculous decision you have made.”  Another proposal to fatten an endowment included a petition for students to sign and pledge “a buck a book” as they signed.  Still another would encourage University donors to divert their pledges to the Press rather than to their usual targets.  Donors coughed up one billion dollars to the University in recent years so the money is out there.

                None of these possibilities surfaced in the administration’s Aug. 29 response.  Instead the statement vowed to “maintain the backlist” which is an obvious try at spiking the cannon of the authors who want their rights back.

                Chances are the American Association of University Presses will take some condemnatory action against the University, although that would be like being gummed by a lion.  Still, it’s symbolic.  Most Missourians are unaware of how monolithic the University is.  They follow the Tiger sports teams with fierce loyalty, but ignore the academic side of the school….which, after all, is the reason the place exists.

                Aside from the fact that the University Press published one of my books, I have a long-standing if tenuous connection with it.  Dr. William Peden, the founder of the Press, was my teacher in a short story writing class and an inspirational and kind one.  The first book he published was “The White Hound,” a collection of short stories co-authored by Dr. Ward Dorrance and Thomas Mabry.  Dr. Dorrance was my beginning French teacher and the best instructor I had in four years at the University.

                Apparently arbitrary decisions by the University are nothing new.  The University forced Dr. Dorrance to resign in 1953 because he was gay.  In recent years I’ve filed two Freedom of Information requests for paperwork about his resignation and have been stonewalled by the school each time.  Odd for a school that brags about hosting the national office for the Freedom of Information Center.

                The third book published by the Press was “Wild Mammals of Missouri,” by Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz with whom I worked for many years at the Conservation Department.  Charlie and Libby were role models for my wife and me and their landmark book serves as a shining example of the high standards established and quality productions offered for half a century by the Press.

                Could Speer Morgan and his crew of kids turn out a “Wild Mammals,” either in electronic or print form? 

                Not in a million years.


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  • Blog
  • August 22nd, 2012

Achin’ From Akin

By Joel M. Vance

Every time I think that man has managed to rise from the primordial sludge and become civilized, someone comes slogging along to give it the lie.  Todd Akin, a Republican candidate for the United States Senate from my home state, Missouri, is the latest male to remind folks of Alley Oop, only not as refined.

                Speaking on his adamant opposition to abortion, he told a radio interviewer that doctors (unnamed) say that pregnancy from “legitimate” rape is rare and anyway, a woman’s body has mechanisms that naturally reject a potential fetus.

                This is so biologically weird, not to mention wrong and insulting to women, that the outcry was immediate, including many Republicans who urged Akin to dump his candidacy and head for the hills.  Akin, a sitting Congressman, wanted to replace Claire McCaskill, a fine and progressive senator and actually was running even with her in polls—which makes about half the Missouri electorate suspect of brain damage.  Why retain a proven legislator when you can elect Neanderthal Man?

                Akin has a long history of treating women like property and he also says he’s opposed to Social Security in any form.  He didn’t, he says, have anything to do with it (“I don’t like it—I didn’t design it”)—it was that Roosevelt guy.  He also opposes government help for students, likening it to “a spreading cancer.”  So he’s managed to offend women, the elderly and students.  Why would any woman or anyone receiving Social Security or anyone in college even consider voting for this dreadful slimeball?  Probably because Missouri is a red state, filled with folks who would vote for Pontius Pilate if he ran as a Republican against a Democratic Jesus.  It’s a delicate balancing act.  We have a Democrat governor, Secretary of State and Senator, but just as often we elect folks who lean so far to the right that they risk falling over sideways—like John Ashcroft, a governor (who was beaten in a Senate race by a dead man, Democrat Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash shortly before the election).

                And then comes Todd Akin who makes Ashcroft (who, as Attorney General, ordered the statue of a woman representing Justice covered because it had a bare breast) look like Mother Teresa.  Given free rein, Akin and his ilk would outlaw not just abortion, but birth control in any form.  No more Pill or morning after pill, no more condoms (a form of birth control that has been around for centuries).  The result would be unfettered breeding and the result would be a race of idiots. The mind reels.

                . In 2011 Akin and Rep. Paul Ryan (yes, that Paul Ryan, the one who is running for vice-president of the United States) co-sponsored a Personhood bill,  the push in the House of Representatives to redefine rape as “forcible rape” in order to further restrict rape survivors’ access to abortions. As a state senator, Akin questioned whether anti-marital rape laws would be abused by women in messy divorces.  Under the Akin system, it would be just fine for an abusive husband to beat the crap out of his wife and then force her to have sex because there would be no such thing as marital rape. 

                These guys have dreamed up a concept of “consensual rape” which is not rape at all but a blissful sexual encounter in their fevered nightmare.  Under this weird definition of rape, a drugged or drunk girl who is too feeble to resist, would not qualify for an abortion if she gets pregnant because of a gangbang.

                It’s unfair to put all the blame on Todd Akin.  He’s merely the dumbest one of a whole slew of Republicans who believe exactly what he said—that life begins at conception and any form of birth control or, God forbid, abortion, even in the wake of rape or incest, is murder.  Some intimate that a woman who has an abortion after it is outlawed should be arrested and jailed: “illegal is illegal.”

                Paul Ryan co-sponsored that Personhood bill which says a fertilized egg is a person.  Mitt Romney is running on a platform which specifically would ban abortion with no exceptions.  They are no better than that idiot Akin….just more craven by sanctimoniously denying their own track record, even though their history is identical to his. 

                Akin, after an apology mostly notable for its avoidance of real regret (it just was poor word choice, not a gut-deep male chauvinism), blamed the “liberal media for the whole hoo-rah, ignoring the fact that liberals would be more than happy to see Akin continue in the race, crippled and painfully stupid.  No—it was the elder rats of his own pack fleeing the sinking rat….up to and including his fellow Missouri disease germ Rush Limbaugh, the pestilent pundit of right wing radio who called for him to quit.

                The government has no business in the business of social engineering.  It didn’t work with Prohibition, which did more to create organized crime than the Al Capones of the world ever could.  Illegal birth control would have the same result—back street abortions, under the counter birth control devices and pharmaceuticals and a whole new group of seedy entrepreneurs.

                Can you imagine a world where the Pill is outlawed?  Where teenage boys couldn’t carry a billfold with the telltale circular bulge in the leather to keep them from making a huge mistake with a girl who likely would not be a life mate?  Where the girl would become a single mom with a kid she didn’t want?  Where a woman could be assaulted and be forced by the government to bear the spawn of her rapist? 

                Ask yourself how many of the pro-lifers are involved in starting and maintaining wars.  If Romney and Ryan are so damn dedicated to preserving life and if, God forbid, they get elected, who among their pious flock will demand they immediately stop all military action in Afghanistan and bring the troops home and also quit talking about putting youngsters in harm’s way in Syria or Iran or some other Middle Eastern sandbox.  Why should the life of a teenage kid be more precious than that of a barely fertilized egg? 

                The hypocrisy of these self-righteous egomaniacs is so monumental as to be brain-numbing.  How can they get away with it?   How can so many people, most of whom are literate and relatively intelligent humans, buy into their crap? 

               There are women who would vote for the Akins regardless of how hostile they are to their self-interest.  One woman interviewed on NPR said she would vote for Akin because “he shares my values.”   Let’s hope that no one sticks a knife in that woman’s face and forces sex on her.  What would be her options?  Fight and wind up dead?  Or submit under duress, thus defying the Akin definition of rape, risking an awful pregnancy (because, contrary to the Akin belief, her body wouldn’t cooperate with a convenient casting out of devils), and having no recourse under the law which would not consider her passivity as “forcible” rape.

                That Akin and his Congressional soul mate Paul Ryan would make such social engineering a centerpiece of their political lives is frightening.  If government is allowed to dictate how a woman treats her body, it also can dictate any aspect of life, man or woman. 

                Already the plans to do away with funding for Planned Parenthood threaten to make a good bit of women’s health care unaffordable—breast cancer screening and many other services offered by that good group would be victims of right wing+ legislation.  Ryan, Romney, Akin and the gang would kill Obamacare and with it the law’s coverage for about 30 million citizens who couldn’t afford health care before the bill and who would presumably be in danger of dying along with the coverage if these self-righteous prigs have their way.

                Half the American electorate is operating with blinders, seeing only the narrow beacon of misinformation bought on television by the evil Koch Brothers and Karl Roves of the money world.  They don’t give a damn about pills, no pills, health care, no health care….but they do give millions of dollars to elect Romney, Ryan and Akin so they can pull the strings of government.

                Sure it’s a conspiracy theory, but there’s ample evidence that it exists.  If you think Karl Rove is motivated by religious belief, you’ll probably vote for Romney….and years down the line when you need Social Security but it’s gone, Medicare is but a distant dream and the country is mired in misery, you can look back and blame it all on that black guy who once was president. 

                That will be a time when you can take your narrow convictions to church and pray for relief. 

                Lots of luck.


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  • Blog
  • August 9th, 2012

Save the Last Dance


For me it has been more than 50 years of hanging around with greater prairie chickens. I worked at a newspaper in what once was a solid tallgrass prairie county where the grass covered a horse, making a rider look as if he were hovering above the grass.  I got interested in prairie chickens through a conservation-minded friend (who later helped found the Missouri Prairie Foundation)

            That historic prairie is all gone now, plowed under, and the few chickens who still remained as a fragment, also are gone.  The last male challenged a speeding car a few years back and lost.  I wonder if it wasn’t suicide when he realized his lonesome dance never would attract a mate.

            That’s why I was eager to participate in a new book that was ten years in the making.  The book details the perils faced by the nation’s prairie grouse, birds who were almost as important to pioneers as bison.  Already one of the seven species covered is extinct and at least three others teeter on the brink.

            The 204 page book has more than 200 photographs by award-winning Department of Conservation photographer Noppadol Paothong, and words by me, a retired Department writer.  Paothong, a Thai immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, fell in love with prairie chickens a decade ago when he worked for the Joplin Globe (he also worked for the Springfield News-Leader before joining the Conservation Department staff).

            Since, he has pursued various prairie grouse from coast to coast, border to border (14 states and more than 80,000 miles) totaling more than 30,000 images of prairie chickens (pinnated grouse), sharp-tailed grouse, and sage grouse.  He snowshoed into a Wyoming sage grouse area and endured three days of bitter cold to get incredible images of the big birds.  He is one of very few photographers ever granted access to photograph the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken—including closeups of a chick struggling its way out of the egg.

            “If there are a number of incidents that could change one’s life, the morning I made my first observation of prairie chickens in 2001 was surely one of them,” Paothong says.  “What I didn’t realize was that it was the beginning of my 10-year journey to document all North American prairie grouse.”

            Paothong came to America from Thailand in 1993 to study graphic art at North Idaho College before he switched to journalism.  He got interested in photography as a young boy and worked on the college newspaper.  Well-known outdoor photographer Tim Christie introduced him to wildlife photography and was a mentor.

            Within a week of issue the book had gotten orders from 42 states, including Hawaii.  A host of prairie and grouse-oriented conservation groups have bought the book.

            I retired from the Department in 1990, after 21 years as the lead writer on the Missouri Conservationist magazine.   I’ve been president of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and was the group’s historian for six years.  I’m also is one of only three members in the 85-year history of the organization to be awarded all three of its major honors.

            Researching this book was an eye-opening experience for me.  Like most I assumed that things were okay with most of the prairie grouse species, but I found that they’re in decline and the future is grim.  Nop’s wonderful photography is at the same time uplifting and a sad visual epitaph for birds that played a huge part in the nation’s history.

            The title Save the Last Dance refers to the mating “dance” of male prairie grouse on “leks” or areas where they gather in spring to show off and attract a mate.  It also is a reminder that the dance may soon be ended for those magnificent birds.

            Among the pitfalls facing the grouse are human development, oil and gas exploration, sagebrush destruction, wind farms and even fire ants which plague the coastal plains favored by Attwater’s prairie chickens.  Rodney Dangerfield used to joke, “It’s not easy being me.”  That could be the plaint of the grassland grouse as well.                 

            Information on the book is either at or



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  • Blog
  • August 1st, 2012

By Joel M. Vance

It was delicious, with an almost meat-like consistency and earthy flavor.  Just like the button mushrooms you get at the supermarket.  I savored the flavor and swallowed the mushroom.

Then my imagination kicked in.

Intellectually I knew better, but my imagination shouldered certainty aside and shouted, “What if you just ate a Destroying Angel!”  My throat went dry and my heart leaped. 

          I knew the inside of the cap I had eaten was pink which is supposed to identify a harmless meadow mushroom.  The gills were not the ghostly white of a deadly Amanita, terrifyingly called the Destroying Angel.  But what if I somehow had made a mistake?  What if I were suffering from a weird color blindness and white looked pink?  What if….

          I knew just enough about mushroom poisoning for imagination to be my worst enemy.  I knew that if I had eaten a Destroying Angel my liver would liquefy and I would die screaming with my bird dogs around me, licking me and not understanding… and…oh, geez, what a dummy!  I’ll never eat mushrooms again! I vowed.  Just let me survive this one!

I did survive, of course.  It was a meadow mushroom, cousin of the familiar supermarket button mushroom, gathered from the wild, innocuous and tasty.  Many other mycological misfits have not been so lucky.  Every year across the country some folks die from eating poisonous mushrooms.  There are few mycologists who have not become ill from eating mushrooms and at least one nationally-recognized mushroom expert died from eating the wrong one.  Some react to mushrooms that would not affect most people.

          The American Association of Poison Control Centers gets reports of about 10,000 mushroom poisonings annually, of which a quarter are potentially life-threatening.  The Destroying Angel’s Latin name is Amanita phalloides and half a cap from one is enough to kill you.

          Mycology sometimes seems on a par with alchemy, astrology and perhaps political science.  Experts agree on little except that if you swallow a bite of the Destroying Angel you’d better get your affairs in order.  Among the killer mushrooms are the Amanita virosa, Amanita verna, and the Angel, Amanita phalloides.  Minor differences among them become insignificant on an autopsy report. 

          A Cornell University web site has the most succinct and accurate description I’ve seen: “The Amanita are primarily identified by the presence of a universal veil completely covering immature mushrooms, a volva or cup around the base, a partial veil which may be in the form of a ring on the upper stalk, free to slightly attached white/cream colored gills, and a white spore print.

“Unfortunately, some of these identifying characteristics are delicate and can be removed by rain, wind or animals. This is only a major problem if you are trying to eat the edible Amanitas. It is essential that all the identifying markers be in place to differentiate between deadly Amanitas and edible ones. If after all this, you still insist on eating Amanitas, then you’re on your own!”

There are an estimated 70,000 mushroom species and of those perhaps 250 are edible and another 250 are poisonous.  Many of the rest are unidentified.  Mycologists live for identifying a new species and some live (or die) to test its edibility.

          Mycologists are, like devotees of anything, fiercely dedicated to their avocation/vocation.  “You see evidence of hostility, a fear of mushrooms,” says Dr. Manny Salzman, a retired radiologist from Denver and a mushroom devotee.  “If you go to a park, it’s very common to find a mushroom kicked over. No one would ever think of kicking over a flower.”

          I confess to having kicked over mushrooms, not through fear, but because they have a certain inherent kickability.  I also avidly search for the elusive morel in the springtime and will eat as many as I find—but morels are the easiest of all mushrooms to identify, the tastiest and the least likely to result in projectile vomiting.

Like most dangerous items, poisonous mushrooms are not all bad—they contribute to vegetative decay and thus to the forest floor ecology.  And, proving that one man’s poison is another creature’s meat, slugs and rabbits are unaffected by the Angel/Death Cap poison, just as buzzards are unaffected by anthrax and other toxins that would turn a human inside-out.  Is there, in the gut of a slug, the solution to biological warfare?

Mushrooms in their edible form are an economic benefit and in Wyoming a social one as well.  The prison honor farm at Riverton has developed a mushroom farm, raising edible portabella, button and crimini mushrooms that produces about 65,000 pounds a week.  Most of the nearly $200,000 raised annually by the program aids victim’s compensation, child welfare or Department of Corrections operating cost.

All three species are familiar to supermarket shoppers.  Some wild species, every bit as edible, have not been tamed, either because they can’t be farm raised or because their shelf life is so short.  Some edible varieties are harmless to almost everyone, with emphasis on “almost”.  Other fungi, even if edible, would turn a prospective diner off either by their appearance or their name (think of the Dog Vomit Slime Mold).

Even shaggy manes or morels, supposedly safe for everyone, have caused reactions in a few diners, though not fatal ones.  Inky cap mushrooms (of which the shaggy mane is one) are excellent eating but if you drink alcohol near the time you eat them you are likely to become ill.  The culprit is a chemical called coprine, similar to the drug Antabuse, used to treat alcoholics by making them ill when they drink.

          The False Morel contains a chemical identical to one type of rocket fuel and will poison a person unless the mushroom is boiled at a high enough temperature to vaporize the “fuel.”  The Amanita muscaria contains a kind of human rocket fuel—it is the “magic mushroom,” used by some native tribes and by some counterculture types as an hallucinogen.  It will fly you to the moon faster than a Frank Sinatra ballad, but you’ll suffer a crash landing at the end.

 Lewis Carroll apparently indulged in A. muscaria while writing Alice in Wonderland.  Given that the Mad Hatter probably was a victim of mercury then used in making hats, it’s a fair leap of logic to think the Dormouse was a proscribed chemical space cadet and the Cheshire Cat really didn’t fade away—it was Carroll himself who zoned out.

According to mushroom legend, a shaman would eat A. muscaria  and his tribe then would drink his urine– apparently the bad side effects of the mushroom are neutralized by the urine, but what neutralizes the bad side effects of drinking urine?

A. muscaria also can be used as a pesticide (its nickname is “fly agaric”).  Break small pieces into a shallow saucer of water.  Flies drink of the lethal brew, fly off in a fatal frenzy and die.  Flies and humans alike are well advised to stay away from the Amanita genus, even the ones that probably are safe.  “Probably” isn’t good enough.

          There is no North American plant as deadly as the Angel, possibly no animal.  One mycologist claims more people have died of mushroom poisoning than have died from rattlesnake bites.  Certainly the fabled black widow spider is a poisonous piker compared to virosa.

          What makes the Angel so insidious is that it masquerades as other wonderfully edible mushrooms.  A young Angel may look like a young meadow mushroom or a young puffball, both often described as “edible and choice.”  All mushrooms in an area may not be of a single species.  You could find a little Amanita lurking among a flock of meadow mushrooms. 

          Ike Forester, president of the North American Mycological Association, said with unintentional irony, “What’s not to enjoy about wild mushroom hunting?  Sometimes you find a bounty of culinary prizes, high priced in the gourmet shops, and dinner can be an unbelievable experience.”  That last would make a fitting inscription on the tombstone of a gourmet who dined on the wrong mushroom. 

The only sure preventive is to discard any unfamiliar mushroom.  Stick with morels or shaggy manes.  Let a competent mycologist check out any unfamiliar mushrooms you collect (although competent mycologists have become statistics themselves).  Alexander Smith, who literally wrote the book on mushrooms, The Mushroom Hunter’s Field Guide (University of Michigan Press, 1958), says “Those who do not intend to pursue the study of mushrooms beyond the scope of this book should never eat any of the edible Amanitas.  The dangers of a mistake are out of all proportion to the enjoyment of a new dish.”

          What are the dangers from the most dangerous of the poisonous mushrooms?  Something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.  The Angel poison seems to last forever and there is no way to de-toxify the mushroom to make it safe to eat.

          The poison is protein, composed of amino acids.  More than 95 percent of all mushroom fatalities involve Amanita mushrooms.  The cyclopeptide has two deadly agents, but the effects of neither show up until as much as 24 hours later, too late for a stomach pump or anything short of prayer.

          By the time the first stomach pain, vomiting and distorted vision occurs, the poison is in the bloodstream and is besieging the liver.  The victim probably will survive the effects of the faster-acting poison, called phallotoxin, and may even think he is recovering.  Then the other agent, amatoxin, sets in and lasts for several agonizing days.  Death rate is estimated from five to 40 percent or more and even survivors may have permanent organic damage.

          There are a number of treatments, none of which is surefire, and the most dramatic and last-ditch is a liver transplant.  Disregard any old wives’ tales about how you can tell poisonous mushrooms from their peace-loving cousins or how you can de-toxify a lethal one.  None are true. For example, silver coins or spoons do not necessarily change color if a poisonous mushroom is in the pot. 

          It’s possible to get a handle on mushroom identification by making a spore print.  Mushrooms propagate by spores.  To make a print, cut the cap of a collected mushroom in two pieces, moisten each and put one piece on a sheet of dark paper, gill side down.  Put the other piece on a sheet of light paper.  Cover each piece with a drinking glass to hold in moisture.

          In a couple of hours the mushroom should have deposited enough spores on the papers to show color.  Amanitas invariably have white spores which would show up on the dark piece of paper.  Other mushrooms, depending on species, may have pink or rusty brown or purple spores.  Colored spores in no way guarantee edibility—any mushroom, like peanuts and dairy products, can be toxic to someone with an allergy.

          Mushroom poisoning goes back a long way.  Euripides wrote of a mother, daughter and two sons “destroyed by pitiless fate” after they ate mushrooms and “strangled by eating of them.”  The Roman emperor Claudius, stepfather of Nero, supposedly succumbed to an Amanita.

                   Let‘s hope it would be less dramatic and disgusting than the remedy espoused by Nicander of Colophon who wrote of a potion that contained, among other things, the dung of a domestic fowl, after the downing of which you stick your finger down your throat and “vomit forth the baneful pest.”  I’ll bet!

          It’s estimated there are more than two million as-yet-unidentified fungi giving mycologists plenty of room for discovery, experimentation and the potential to become a statistic. 

          Caution is the key word.  Don’t eat unfamiliar mushrooms or any about which there is any doubt.  Discard old or frost-bit specimens.  Better yet, stick with ones you absolutely know are harmless and keep your imagination in check. 

          Remember, the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap were not named out of affection.  They have been proving their right to the names for thousands of years.


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