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Call of the Wild (Mushroom, That Is)

March 25, 1993|BEVERLY BEYETTE

The intrepid hunters thread their way along a narrow path carved through the Santa Monica Mountains, gingerly sidestepping the poison oak hiding among the chaparral and manzanita.

Their prey may be lurking under a log or, garbed in nature's camouflage, posing as a leaf.

They are stalking the wild mushroom.

Armed with basket and garden tool, mycologist Florence Nishida leads the way. Digging up a fine specimen, she rolls it up in a sheet of waxed paper, twisting the ends: "This is the way you collect mushrooms."

In the next few hours, she will describe the sex life of fungi, their IQ ("Mushrooms are really clever. They don't want to be found.") and their treacherous tendencies (Touching a poisonous one, then licking your fingers, won't kill you--"You really have to eat about a full cap to get enough toxin.").

One of the hunters brings Nishida a tiny white cup fungus she has found. "Isn't that cute," says Nishida, with the enthusiasm reserved for one who's spent 15 years studying fungi (From 9 to 5, she's a researcher at People magazine).

What possesses these people to get up at dawn on a Saturday?

Martha Goode, a Hollywood film designer, explains, "I started with wildflowers. Then I got into birds. Then I got into mushrooms. I'm hooked." This is an antidote, she adds, to the make-believe world in which she labors.

But many of her fellow adventurers on the hunt--sponsored by Mountains Restoration Trust--seem to be interested only in which species are edible. Indeed, one of the finds of the day is a fine golden chanterelle, a pricey gourmet's delight.

There are coral mushrooms and common lawn variety mushrooms, albino mushrooms and mushrooms that turn blue when injured.

"It's like an Easter egg hunt," says Richard Smith, a retired engineer who lives in Beverly Hills. He's into photographing mushrooms.

Louis Selzer, a retired dentist, is taking copious notes. Having spent a lifetime studying the evolution of teeth, he is is fascinated with how mushrooms evolve to accommodate to their environment.

Back at base camp, Nishida spreads the bounty on a table. Like a professor, she describes each mushroom, slicing into specimens with her Swiss army knife.

She knows which are edible but vile-tasting. And she has found her guinea pig. Take a bite, she urges Bruce Kutler, an electrician from North Hollywood who is a first-time mushroom hunter. Ugh , he says. Bitter.

"Those were just the maggots," a veteran hunter deadpans.

Another hiker has heard about a mushroom that glows in the dark. Has Nishida come across this one?

She laughs: "I rarely collect mushrooms in the dark." A man in the group thinks that the glow-in-the-dark mushroom was "probably the apparition of Elvis."

Finally, Nishida holds up the infamous Amanita: "This one is deadly poisonous." (Indeed, the genus accounts for 90% of all mushroom-induced deaths.) One cap will do it. It's an insidious killer, Nishida explains: You eat, you feel fine. Eight hours later, when it's digested, it's too late. It's destroying your liver.

"Heck," says one of the hunters, visions of a cold beer dancing in his head. "I do that every night."

Addressing a Note of History

Kenneth Rendell is a man of letters. To say the very least.

He has one from George Washington, written in 1789, a week after he became President, in which he confides his fear that "my Countrymen will expect too much from me."

And one from Elvis Presley, penned on a Las Vegas Hilton note pad in 1976. An exhausted and depressed King wrote: "How much longer can i (sic) keep on Doing the same old Stuff. I am tired of being Elvis Presley . . . ."

At the recent opening of the Kenneth W. Rendell Gallery in Beverly Hills, guests sipped wine and peered at autographs of Michelangelo, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sigmund Freud. Rendell--who wants $2.5 million for Washington and $7,500 for Elvis--talked about who's hot:

* Sir Winston Churchill: "The ultimate gift for a man." After all, Winnie was 65 and an outcast before World War II lionized him.

* Hitler: "People are fascinated with evil."

* Napoleon: "A lot of businessmen identify with him."

* Gen. Douglas MacArthur: No. 1 in Tokyo. "He is seen as the modern founder of Japan." (The Japanese, understandably fascinated with wide open spaces, also like Buffalo Bill. And, Rendell adds, "They love economists--no matter who they are.")

The one that got away from Rendell was a letter by Jesse James, demanding retraction of an accusation that he and brother Frank were bank robbers. Rendell's agent had been told to bid up to $21,000. It sold for $22,000. That was 10 years ago; today, he says, it's worth $100,000.

Saluting Monday's Academy Awards, the gallery has a star-struck exhibition. Among the treasures: A 1942 letter in which Humphrey Bogart sends chess moves for an ongoing game with a friend in Brooklyn during the filming of "Casablanca." It's not known whether Bogie used the same moves in his on-camera match with Peter Lorre.

. . . Or We Could Simply Panic

Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, talking earthquakes with KPCC's Larry Mantle, suggested that a computer-driven early warning system is not far-fetched:

If an earthquake moves at the speed of sound, and news of that quake could be transmitted at the speed of light, Los Angeles could be alerted to a shake on the San Andreas Fault as much as half a minute before quake waves actually hit here.

And what might that sophisticated computer system do about it? Well, Jones likes to think that "it would move elevators to the nearest floor and open the door--a place I would not like to be in an earthquake."

Me, either.

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