Today’s Photo Friday theme is Bright, so here’s an eye-popping glimpse of a neon orange fungus I spied at Goose Pond a couple weeks ago. This year has been a particularly fecund one for fungi: there have been mushrooms of all shapes and sizes popping up everywhere, and last week I even saw an old, dead mushroom covered with furry mold. When you have fungus sprouting fungus, you know you’re living in an especially ripe time.

Last night I finished reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the final section of which includes an account of several mushroom-foraging expeditions Pollan pursues as a neophyte mycophile. Pollan’s book is a delight regardless of your diet, for it’s chock-full of intellectually enriching food-for-thought. Wild mushrooms pose a quintessential omnivore’s dilemma, Pollan explains, because we can safely eat some but not all of them. Faced with an odd, neon orange fungus, does instinct scream Eat or Don’t Eat? In the case of less colorful species, how exactly do you distinguish an edible chanterelle or morel from a toxic lookalike, and would you trust a field guide to steer you true?

Pollan initially chooses not to eat a chanterelle he identifies with several field guides; later, he willingly eats another specimen foraged with an experienced friend even though he admits the latter technique isn’t as scientific as the first:

    As the case of mushrooms suggests the omnivore’s dilemma often comes down to a question of identification–to knowing exactly what it is you are preparing to eat. From the moment Angelo handed me that first mushroom, what is and is not a chanterelle suddenly seemed as plain to me as sunshine. I knew right then that the next time I found a chanterelle, anywhere, I would recognize it and not hesitate to eat it. Which is peculiar, when you consider that in the case of the chanterelle I found in my neighborhood, a half dozen authoritative field guides by credentialed mycologists had failed to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt of something I now was willing to bet my life on, based on the say-so of one Sicilian guy with no mycological training whatsoever.

The eating of mushrooms, Pollan suggests, is more a matter of lore than it is a matter of science. Old World mycophiles like Angelo didn’t take botany classes to learn which mushrooms they should or shouldn’t eat; instead, mushroom foraging would have been something you learned from a family member who took you into the woods to give you an old-fashioned face-to-face lesson without any books.

Although I’ve eaten and admired plenty of wild mushrooms, I’ve never gathered any on my own. I don’t know anyone well-versed enough in mushroom lore to lead me true, and trusting my life to a field guide seems risky. As someone who knows how difficult it can be to identify wildflowers, I recognize that fungus ID is even trickier…and even when you know how to identify normal mushroom specimens, what do you do with a freakishly deformed fungus like this one with its oddly split stem?

Unlike Pollan, I’ll willingly sidestep the Mycophile’s Dilemma by being content to look at the colorful and diversely shaped wild mushrooms popping up everywhere these days. I snapped this photo of a pair of freshly sprouted mushrooms at Goose Pond last week because I thought the one on the left looked just like a miniature pumpkin…but just because this fungus looks like a mini-pumpkin doesn’t mean I’ll assume it tastes like one. Sampling an unknown lookalike just doesn’t seem like a very Bright idea.