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Monday, October 21, 2013

Fall Chaga

Autumn comes, the leaves fall off the hardwoods, the forest opens up. One can see distant hills and mountains, and the rays of the setting sun penetrate the bare branches near sunset and scour the back of the eyes with a deep orange.

Perfect time to gather Chaga. I say 'gather' but it's more involved than that. The Chaga polypore fungus is actually a very sturdy mushroom growing like a lump of black sclerotic cork out of the side of a birch tree. It seems to take hold where the tree has been injured, bruised, or lost a branch. The Chaga fills up the void. Sometimes a Chaga mushroom can get very large. I've cut some down that weigh nearly forty pounds.

Doing this is not always easy. Most of the time, it will be within reach of my pruning saw, but not always. I've seen them a full thirty feet up. To get these monsters, I have to construct a ladder of saplings in the forest, lashing together small pieces of beech with clothesline, and lean it securely against the trunk of the birch. Hopefully this extends the reach of my saw just enough so that I can, on tiptoe, reach the sacred mushroom.

And then establishing a sawing action by activating the calves, and feet, . . . up, down, up down.

Soon I'm dusted with a fine Chaga rain. I've worked on some that have taken three sessions to get down, the first to establish a platform to cut from, and the second to do the cutting. It's an incredible strain on the neck, looking up and working the arms or feet up and down.

Eventually the big mushroom comes off, and if it is over a few pounds, you want to be well out of the way.


Usually it takes me two or three hours of looking to find the first Chaga, then, as if they were in touch with each other, I find seven or eight in a row. Even a random walk into a new section of woods five minutes before sunset leads me right to a monster Chaga.

I always wonder about this. My cousin Wyeth spent all summer searching a section of state forest for Chaga, and had no luck. Then one morning he leaned his bicycle against a healthy birch with no Chaga growing out of it, and went for a long hike.

When he returned, the largest Chaga mushroom he had ever seen was growing right out of the tree above his bicycle. He swears to this.

Perhaps Chaga is a master of camouflage, and can trigger neuronal activity in the brain, thus hiding itself. The Siberians consider Chaga a god, hence the capitalization. Chaga is a King, who marries the princess Birch tree. Like Raven, another deity of the north, Chaga seems to control what you see and hear.

Done right, both the Chaga, and the birch tree, will take no notice of the harvesting. The sclerotium will continue to grow in size provided the base is left intact.

Chaga culture has spread through our little community in the Adirondacks like wildfire. Everyone's drinking it, brewing it in different ways, making alcohol extractions, serving it hot and nutty flavored with maple syrup and raw milk, or cold and thin like ice coffee in the summertime.

I have some cousins that are roaming the woods marking the location of every Chaga they see on their GPS.

I never seem to remember my camera when I go Chaga hunting, perhaps because the added weight makes carrying the Chagas, and the pruning saw out of the woods that much more difficult. But a harvest of Chaga is a thing of beauty, like a bucket full of blueberries, or a creel full of trout. I'll wrap them all up in an old sheet and carry them out like Santa's sack, over one shoulder.

More hard work comes after I get them home. They have to be cut into small pieces, though lately I've been keeping one or two larger chunks to use directly in the kitchen with a wood rasp to make a quick expresso-like infusion.

Busting it up into chunks is hard. It doesn't respond well to sawing unless bolted down or held in a vise. Some chop it up with an axe, but that sends pieces flying everywhere. The best way is to get to it quickly with a butcher's cleaver or a chisel. This year I used a pile of boards set on a thick carpet covered with a sheet to catch the dust and smaller bits, and a heavy mallet and old broad wood chisel to do the breaking. It took about two hours to chop up the load pictured here into one inch chunks.

Chaga has an interesting structure. The inside is laced with whitish veins that connect to the tubules in the birch tree bark. From this it gets the sap. The very base is circled usually with a few spirals of birch bark, the result of the Chaga growing and expanding inside the hole made by the downed branch. Most of the polypore structure is orange-brown and cork-like. The outside is covered by a thick black very porous layer rich in melanin. I believe this layer evaporates water constantly, acting like the leaves of the branch that fell off. This preserves the roots assigned to that branch, keeping the anchorage for the birch, and at the same time, ensuring the Chaga's supply of sap.

While cutting it apart I notice more Chaga rain all over my clothes, dust that flies off with each blow of the mallet. The powder makes an excellent super strong drink, great for brewing right away.

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