Photographer Eirik Johnson is no stranger to foraging mushrooms. As a child, his family would go on seasonal hunts for edible mushrooms searching for Morels in the Spring and Chanterelles in the Fall. But the simple trips that he took with his family were a world of difference away from the subject of a project he calls, The Mushroom Camps.
Each year a community of foragers gathers in the wilderness of Oregon to hunt for a prized strain of mushroom known as the Matsutake. For those who come in search of these little brown fungi, this annual tradition is far more than a walk in the woods. “I’d heard wild stories,” Johnson says, “about the commercial hunt for Matsutakes in the mountains of Oregon and just set out on a hunch and desire to explore.”
When he finally arrived, Johnson found a community built from the forest around it. At first glance, the most striking thing he saw was the skeletons of unfinished shacks which would be home to the foragers for the duration of the season.
Johnson describes the community as a uniquely American mix of diverse backgrounds and motivations. Southeast Asians, Mexican migrant laborers and members of the counterculture all gather in this makeshift village.
Among them, a former military commander from Laos, a nail salon owner from Stockton, and a runaway from Portland each with their own story to tell and their own reasons for coming to the camps, but most of all they have come to gather. In the daytime, the camp empties into the woods as the pickers chase the daily harvest. When they return in the evening the camp comes to life with the sound of Vietnamese pop music and rancheros as the smoke and aroma of hard-earned meals fill the air.
But why leave behind the comforts of civilization for a mushroom hunt? Each picker has his or her own reason as diverse as the camp itself. For some, the reason is as simple as money. The Matsutake is a delicacy in Japan and can fetch a high price as the markets in Tokyo fluctuate daily, but it can also be a great risk.
“Some years, a good picker can make a windfall.” Johnson says, “Other years, it’s a slog just to pay for your expenses.”
So money is not the only motivation. For many, the mushroom hunt is a way of life and there is something that just draws them back to the forest each year. “Some [pickers] I met had fallen in love with a sort of rugged individualism that commercial foraging offered,” Johnson explains.
For returning foragers, the mushroom hunt can also be an opportunity for a family reunion as many who come for the months’ long experience bring their extended families of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Even Eirik was a returning forager having spent two seasons within the camps in order to complete this project. Two years later, he followed the Matsutake to Tokyo, to witness the process in its entirety and meet the people who bought and sold these favored fungi.
“I felt the project wouldn’t be complete without my traveling to Japan itself.” He says, pointing out that it wasn’t until he saw the mushrooms being sold in a Tokyo market that he understood the hyperlocal and global effect of what the mushroom hunters of Oregon were doing.
The mushrooms themselves are small and brown and packed into small wooden crates garnished with pine leaves for the market. Johnson points out that the taste and smell are quite distinct recalling that renown mushroom expert, David Arora, once described the aroma as somewhere in between wet socks and red hots. In any case, he insists they make for an excellent addition to rice dishes, despite the socky smell.
In Japan, the Matsutake has been a seasonal delicacy for hundreds of years, so the foragers of Oregon are not alone in their hunt. In the busy markets of Tokyo, the mushroom is highly sought after, though it’s not because they come all the way from America. In fact, the most sought-after Matsutake mushrooms still grow in Japan, but they don’t come with their own community of forest-dwelling foragers.