Wednesday 16 October 2019

When my husband died, mushroom foraging helped me out of the dark

After losing all sense of hope and home, hunting in woodland with other mushroomers got me through my grief

I was a bright-eyed 18-year-old, just one month into an international study exchange in Stavanger in Norway when I met Eiolf. I stood next to him at a party and we spent the whole night talking. It helped that he was one of the few Norwegian students I met who could actually point to my home country of Malaysia on a map. After that night I’d hang around the library hoping to cross his path. Luckily, he had the same idea.

Eiolf was knowledgeable and read a lot, but he also had a goofy sense of humour. He was very kind, too, the sort of person who children and animals gravitate towards. I had assumed that at the end of my exchange I’d go back to Malaysia, but instead I relocated to Norway to be with him; it just felt right. Norway was very different to my homeland, but I settled there and enjoyed a fulfilling career as an anthropologist, while Eiolf became an architect. We were together for 32 years, and I never lost that sense of joy in our relationship. He made me a better version of myself.

Eiolf always liked to get to work first and put coffee on for everyone in the office. When he left as usual at 7.30am, it was a completely ordinary summer’s morning. I had no way of knowing it would be the last time I would see my 54-year-old husband alive.

Fortunately, a few other people had also gone in early that morning. One of his colleagues saw Eiolf fall. At first he thought he had just tripped, but he very quickly realised something was seriously wrong.

I was awake, just out of the shower, and about to start breakfast when the phone rang. It was a doctor from the hospital. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” the doctor said. My heart froze. “I’m so sorry, but your husband has died.” Out of the blue, the words were like a slap in my face. “Your husband lost consciousness immediately. He didn’t feel a thing,” the doctor continued. “It’s the best death any of us could wish for.” I felt a wave of protest rise up inside me. I didn’t agree, not at all, but found it impossible to speak.
 Gathering strength: Long’s sorrow eased as she connected with the environment. Photograph: Johs Bøe

 What sort of people got involved with fungi and useful plants?
Eiolf died suddenly from heart failure. I found myself endlessly wondering whether he realised what was happening. What was his last thought? Although I knew Eiolf was dead, it was hard to comprehend. I couldn’t help thinking, maybe the doctors had got it all wrong; maybe he would still wake up.

That fantasy was dispelled by the funeral. There were umpteen practical questions to be answered. Which coffin? What date? Who had to be informed? I was in pieces, but I had to make decisions. The phone never stopped ringing, no one could believe it. I was in shock, but I had to comfort and support others. On autopilot, I heard words issuing from my mouth yet had no idea where they were coming from. The days raced by as if the fast-forward button had got stuck.

I think I must have collapsed after the funeral. It was then that the grief really hit me. Sitting alone in the flat with only my sad thoughts for company, that was when it struck me that Eiolf would never come home from work again. My sorrow swelled until it took over my life. I was swamped by grief: I woke in the morning but had no desire to get up. I viewed the world through one single, solitary peephole, that of my loss and pain.

A great era in my life had ended. Everything I had thought of as fixed and permanent was vanishing from view. I missed my old life and wished endlessly that there was a switch I could flick to turn back the clock. On top of that, as an immigrant who had stayed in Norway because of a Norwegian, I found myself asking: “Should I carry on living in this country?” Eiolf’s death had destroyed my sense of where I belonged.

It was in this state that I found solace in the most unexpected of places. One of the last things Eiolf and I had done before his death was to sign up for a foraging course with the Greater Oslo Fungi and Useful Plants Society. Neither of us had experience of mushrooming but, ever-curious, Eiolf had been keen.

The antiquated name of the body running the course had caught my attention – it sounded like a sister organisation to the Norwegian Women’s Hygiene Association. What sort of people got involved with fungi and useful plants? To be honest, I wasn’t sure what constituted a useful plant. And what about useless plants? After Eiolf’s death, I had no good reason to attend the course, but then again, I had no reason not to.

A lot of people had signed up for the course. They were of all ages and came from across the city; the wealthier west side and the poorer east side. As a social scientist, I found this interesting. We associate certain economic classes with particular hobbies. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to discern this pattern in Oslo, although Norwegians value their image as an egalitarian nation.

But there was something genuinely classless about the mushroom community that immediately appealed to me. I soon realised you can spend endless hours in their company, but never even find out what mushroomers do in their day-to-day lives. When you are struggling to get through the days, it is liberating to spend time with people who won’t ask you endless questions about your life. Not that mushroomers aren’t chatty, but talk of fungi crowds out everything else. Trivial matters, such as life, death, religion and politics, take a back seat.

“So, what are mushrooms?” the course leader asked at the first class. Most of us said nothing in answer to his question and tried to avoid the teacher’s eye. Surely that was obvious. But I soon discovered there was a lot more to the answer than meets the eye.

 Trivial matters like life and death took a back seat to mushrooms
What many people think of when they imagine mushrooms are, in fact, just a small range of fungi, many species of which are microscopic. And they are everywhere – fungi account for almost 20% of the 44,000 species recorded in Norway. By comparison, mammals are only 0.2%. The mushrooms one sees are only a tiny part of a much greater organism. The bulk of this is formed by a dynamic, living network of long, shoestring-like cells which spread underground or through trees and other plants. What we see growing above ground is the mushroom’s fruit, with the same relationship to the whole organism as an apple has to the apple tree. When conditions are right, wild mushrooms drive upwards through the soil with a force that can split tarmac. From the course leader we learned that, far from growing only in forests, mushrooms grow everywhere. You just need to know how to look.

A walk through the woods became a very different experience. Suddenly, I was seeing mushrooms everywhere; they were popping out at me as if I had been given 3D glasses. Roaming the woodlands around Oslo, I had the impression that I was seeing my surroundings with full attention for the first time since Eiolf’s death. Released from behind the screen that grief had erected between me and the world, I once more connected with my environment.

As children, we have all known what it is to be utterly absorbed by something. Mushrooming evokes that state. You switch off from daily trivia and intrusive thoughts of sadness or stress. The hunter-gatherer instinct is kindled, the concentration is sharpened and the tension mounts: will I find that treasure or not?

Athletes talk about “flow”. In east Asia, the term “Zen moment” has long been used for what happens when you are able to give yourself up to an experience fully. In many ways, flow and Zen are related states. That’s what I discovered I could feel in the peace of the forest. If you want to find mushrooms you have to turn off your mobile phone, switch to mushroom mode, and simply be there – in the woods.

I found myself longing to go to those dark-green forests again and again. I relished the sense of focus that I found there, and the relationships with new friends that sprang up, almost without my noticing, as we hunted together. Now, nine years later, I’ve passed the Norwegian qualifications to become a certified mushroom expert, and I am once more living a life that feels satisfying and meaningful.

(Source: The Guardian)

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