In John Stilgoe's beyond brilliant book about why our world looks the way it does, Common Landscape of America, 1580 to 1845, Stilgoe begins by examining the medieval European landscape that our American landscape eventually began to diverge from. In small European villages like the one I just visited in Bavaria, Haag an der Amper, the farmers do not generally sit in the middle of their land the way American farmers do. Since time immemorial, they have huddled together for protection, living with their animals and vegetable gardens in small yards within the town, with their fields fanning out from there, and then beyond that the terrifying wilderness represented by the forest.
Stilgoe writes about the fear of this wilderness, with its wolves and wild boars, who would occasionally make a meal out of a farmer making his way home from his fields too late. Then he adds,
But it was the human evil of the forest and mountains that humans feared too, eldritch hermits who honored goety, rape, and theft and who snatched children for unspeakable purposes. Gypsies with lurchers, crazed magicians, and countless vagabonds, especially those in organized bands, terrorized the whole of rural Europe…. Respectable people bolted their doors and windows at nightfall and prayed for deliverance from the supranatural creatures and human criminals they linked with impenetrable thickets, twilight ravines, and bewilderment.
If you want to see this medieval horror of the forest turned into high art, have a look at Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film The Virgin Spring, which is set in the middle ages and is basically Little Red Riding Hood without the heroic huntsman.
It's not as if this fear of the forest disappeared with the Age of Enlightenment, either. My Bavarian mother and her sisters were forced to take a road through the forest alone as children. They were frightened out of their wits by the gypsies living there.
The poor gypsies, of course, were driven out of the forest and out of this world by Hitler, and were soon replaced by American GIs, who could be just as menacing to pretty little girls. Even today, the forests near my Bavarian relatives are both beautiful and unsettling. Some of them are so big that people have been lost for days in them.They are not privately owned like the woods on my country road in Washington County, New York, so you are never sure of whom you'll encounter there. My aunts, having run into some very strange strangers, do not go alone.
Why, you may ask, are ladies in their seventies even interested in stumbling around in a drizzly forest at dawn?
For the boletes, naturally. The forests are full of the most delicious wild mushrooms, which my aunts turn into an amazing soup. There are what they call "rooster's comb," a tough little orange fungus that looks like coral, whose toothiness I love in a soup. There are also what they call "brown caps," a slightly slimy bolete whose spongy yellow underside turns blue when pressed. But the real prize is the king bolete or Steinpilz, which has a matte brown head and super-dense and firm white flesh that is just ridiculously aromatic and delicious.
I LOVED mushroom hunting as a kid. I wouldn't get up at 5 in the morning for anything, but I'd get up to hunt mushrooms. I loved the forest, the smell of the soil, the darkness, and the silence. I loved the soup, too. I was never afraid and was perfectly willing to crawl into the blackest, closest spaces under the younger trees. Of course, I would always go with my Uncle Fritz, who with his slicked-back black hair, piercing blue eyes, sharply drawn profile and genial beer belly, was the handsomest and funniest man who ever lived. He was also a policeman, the charismatic sort to whom you'd confess anything, so of course I felt safe.
On my trip to Germany last week, I went mushroom hunting again, with Fritz's son, my cousin Friedi, and his mother-in-law. Like his father, Friedi is handsome and funny, and he also works for the police, but as a detective. He exudes the same air of generosity as his father. It's pretty clear that in any adverse circumstance, he'd do everything to protect the people around him and never once think of himself.
So, I made like the super-successful kid I once was, who found pounds of king boletes in the dark spaces under the youngest trees. I crawled around in this weird silent confinement while the others stuck to the open forest near the path.
But they were soon out of earshot as well as eyesight. I'm an adult now, so the old fairy tales are naturally more terrifying than they were when I was 11 or 13, now that I have some sense of mortality. I was not happy to be alone there. I stood up, brushed off my pants and began shouting after the other two.
I only found one king bolete, but lots of brown caps. Nonetheless, the soup we had for lunch, cooked by Friedi's wife Brigitte, was just as fragrant and satisfying as I'd remembered. Wild mushrooms are so complex. In the same spoonful, they taste like both the uncanny forest and the safety of home.