My conditioning regimen

The floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, in the days before electronic trading

My husband is a commodity trader and spent most of his career on the exchange floor, trading coffee and crude oil. When you trade in a pit, you have to be aware of everything that’s going on in a ring that’s about fifty feet in diameter and contains some 300 traders.

Who knew that commodity trading was excellent training for mushroom hunting?

Kevin is always aware of what’s going on in the periphery. He’s the one who sees the rabbit run under the bush over there on the left, or the kid steal the Snickers bar down the aisle on the right. “Did you see that?” he’ll ask me, and I’ll look – but it’s always too late.

Unless it’s a mushroom. They don’t move very fast.

Last week, he spotted a black-staining polypore from a moving car and, last fall, his mushroom-spotting skills landed us a beautiful hen-of-the-wood that was growing at the base of an oak tree at the edge of a parking lot in Hyannis.

Which brings us to one of the problems with mushroom hunting that no one ever talks about: it’s hell on your carbon footprint.

Back in the 1940s, B.F. Skinner was experimenting with operant conditioning in pigeons. When a food pellet came down a hopper every time the birds pecked a target, they learned, in short order, to peck the target. When the food stopped coming, they also learned quickly to stop pecking it. When the food only came down the hopper intermittently, the pigeons still figured it out, but it took them longer both to learn to peck and to stop pecking when the reinforcement stopped.

Things got interesting when Skinner changed the rules so that the pigeons got a pellet every few minutes, at random, regardless of their behavior. The pigeons believed that whatever they happened to be doing when the food arrived had made the food arrive, and they kept doing it in the hopes of making more food arrive. They’d hop on one leg, spin in a circle, bob their heads, sway back and forth, all because they couldn’t believe in randomness.

Pigeons in a Skinner Box (actually, it's probably only one pigeon, three times)

As smart as pigeons are, I’ve always liked to think I have the edge in the IQ department. Mushroom foraging has made me less sure. Once I find a good mushroom in a particular spot, I can never go within seven miles of that spot without taking a detour to check and see if the mushroom has reappeared. Mushrooms do reappear in particular spots. Not all the time, but often enough so that pecking the target – oops, I mean, checking the spot – is not completely unreasonable.

Although I’m not silly enough to believe that my behavior makes the mushroom come up, I do, like the pigeons, look for causal links. Maybe it’s the rain, or the humidity, or the temperature, or the time of year. 

I’ve already burned several gallons of gas – literally – in pursuit of that one particular hen-of-the-wood Kevin found last fall. I’ve been driving around to check that spot just about every time I’ve been within shouting distance of Hyannis, in the hope of finding this year’s mushroom (and out of fear that it’ll come up and I’ll only find it when it’s too old to be eaten).

I came up empty until last week. And then, miraculously, there was something growing where my mushroom ought to be. The problem is, I’m not sure it’s my mushroom.

It’s a light-brown, fist-sized fungus with a velvety texture, soft to the touch. I know that a hen-of-the-wood has to start as something other than a full-blown hen-of-the-wood, but I can’t find any photos or descriptions of the embryonic state. This might be it, but it might not, so all I can do is keep checking.

But maybe if I bob my head and spin in a circle …

3 people are having a conversation about “My conditioning regimen

  1. That was funny AND I totally relate to it.
    I have been checking a special spot for weeks hoping to get a puffball.
    Last Monday I got lucky and found 4 huge ones!

    Love your blog BTW! Very interesting and funny!

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