Notes from Underground by David Rose

An Informal History of COMA

This column originally appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            Weren't those the days, the late seventies? Leisure-suited John Travolta cut a snappy figure in 'Saturday Night Fever,' John Belushi jived in 'Saturday Night Live', discomania numbed the nation recovering from its bicentennial bash, and we all drifted off into the stupor of eternal Saturday. Yet there were signs of life - mushrooms were growing everywhere! Hardly anyone noticed this, except, of course, a curious tribe of mushroom-lovers in the suburban fastnesses of Connecticut and Westchester County. They were on a mission. With Swiss Army knives, collecting baskets, and wax paper bags at hand, they announced to the world that 'Mycology, the Great Goddess of Decay', had lapsed into a COMA. Yes, they declared, "build it, and it will sporulate!" This is the story of that great tribe.

For those of us who were not there at the very beginning, the Connecticut Mycological Association (later adding 'Westchester') was formed on 6 March 1975 and held its first meeting in May at the nature center in Westport. The group was treated to a talk by Marge Morris entitled 'An Introduction to Mushroom Hunting.' Marge, of course, proved thoroughly acquainted with the subject already for it was she (and Diane Bontecou) who found 34 morels on COMA's first mushroom walk a week earlier. Jo Russell led this trip in a wooded area near Weston. The club's records indicate that besides the morels, 'one clump of Collybia velutipes, one cluster of Coprinus micaceus, and one Entoloma sp' were found. After the scorching summer we've had this year, I'd settle for an Entoloma sp just to see a live mushroom.

COMA's roots (should I say hyphae?) are the several people who attended the mycology courses of Dr. Samuel Ristich and Dr. Clark Rogerson at the New York Botanical Garden. Some were members of the New York Mycological Society. Fortunately for the club today, many of these founding members are leading the club still, after years of dedicated service. We all know who they are, but let me state the obvious that Sandy and Jerry Sheine, Sylvia Stein, Marge Morris, Roz Lowen, Sam Ristich, and Gary Lincoff are highly respected and greatly appreciated for their enthusiastic guidance of COMA since the beginning. If it weren't for them, I, for one, might still be puzzling 'Is it a chicken or a hen?' or watching re-runs of 'Saturday Night Live.'

Ann and Bud Schwartz were COMA's founding members and the first co-directors of the group. Though I did not know them, all of their COMA colleagues have praised their enthusiasm for mycology and their leadership in the formation of the new club. One of Bud's achievements was his photography of Pilobolus, the 'hat-thrower.' "Bud was a passionate photographer - a real wizard!" according to Sam. If you are interested in his study of Pilobolus, see Mushroom the Journal, Spring 1994, Vol 43, no 2. Sandy became president when Ann and Bud moved to Maine in 1978, and COMA threw a grand farewell party, but they were both sorely missed. And, as many of you know, Bud died just last year.

From the beginning COMA was all ferment and activity. We held mushroom walks, annual forays, mycophagy events, and identification workshops - and a lot of them. Bud, Sylvia, and Marge gave 'teach-ins' at the nature center in Westport. Gary provided workshops on identification of wild plant foods as well as fungi. Field trips were as far away as Long Island and Pennsylvania. There were talks on spore art, preserving mushrooms, taxonomy, photography, and cooking. We created and swapped recipes - anyone for 'Cream of Shaggy Mane Soup?'

COMA's first foray was held at the White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield, CT, in September, 1975. Litchfield became a regular and favorite foray site before it was held in Hebron. Sam gave a talk 'From Caesar's Delight to Mortician's Joy,' and Roz Lowen won an award for finding the largest gilled fungus, a Pholiota spectabilis, among the 162 species collected. In these 'pre-Audubon Guide' days our field guides were Mushrooms of North America by Orson Miller and A Field Guide to Western Mushrooms by Alexander Smith.

Our first newsletter, the COMA News, ran from May, 1975 to April, 1985, when it was superseded by Spores Illustrated. Naomi Stern, then editor, was responsible for the clever title. She, in turn, gave some credit for this to Gary's slide show, 'The Wild World of Spores.' The first masthead of Spores Illustrated depicted a baseball-puffball releasing its spores to the wind from its apical pore. Susie Arnold, our present editor, has published 'Spores' since 1988. The articles and features of the newsletter sparkle with wit and helpful information. Notable are Susan Blair's 'Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen' and 'Stinkhorn: The Horn that Reeks, Not Beeps!' Such titles were only outdone by Sam's 'Exciting Experiments with Fungi and Dung' and 'Everlasting, Piggy-back, Gargantuan Phlogiotis helvelloides.'

In an article, 'Exploding Fimbriated Caps of Clitocybe clavipes,' Sam wrote, "Into the primeval forest of white pine I strode with the mycophagy-minded class and beheld the spectacle of the century! As far as the eyes cold see the pine needle duff was festooned with unearthly entities - Clitocybe clavipes with exploded caps. My conservative guess was about 10,000." Such expressiveness and humor always enliven mycology, but his approach also shows that enlarging our knowledge of the world of fungi is our primary purpose. COMA has always insisted that everyone interested in eating wild mushrooms study the poisonous and edible species very carefully. Gary once made this point explicit in a talk, 'The Case of the Purloined Liver.'

COMA has not existed in a vacuum but has enjoyed collaborations with many organizations. Foremost among these is the New York Botanical Garden. Dr. Clark Rogerson, Curator of the Mycological Herbarium of the NYBG, has been a close and beloved advisor to COMA. Our annual foray is named in his honor. We have joined forces with the Greenwich Audubon Center to sponsor classes and with the New York and Boston mycological societies for field trips and exchange of speakers. We have also made friends with "the Friends of the Farlow' herbarium and library. Just recently Carol Levine led a fern and mushroom walk at the Bartlett Arboretum in Greenwich. Most important, of course, is our affiliation with NAMA, the North American Mycological Association.

The scope of our study has been literally the entire world. Many have traveled with Gary Lincoff to places like Madagascar, Borneo, Turkey, and Kamchatka. Sylvia Stein and her late husband Philip, endeared to so many as the 'Poet Laureate of COMA,' visited Paris in 1980 to meet the famous mycologist Henri Romagnesi. Philip Stein, by the way, in an early review of Gary's Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms, commented, "no self-respecting mushroomer can afford to pass up this new addition to the literature. It may indeed become your 'bible'."

In 1982, Sandy wrote in the COMA News, "Sylvia and I have been President and Vice-president for over 5 years now and we feel that no organization is a viable one if no one else is willing to share the duties of office." Three years later she wrote, "Even the president of the U.S. has to retire after 8 years!" Sandy is still our leading light after 22 years. Space does not allow me a proper tribute to Sandy (to come later this year), but I conclude here with sincere thanks and cheers of appreciation for all COMA people who have welcomed me, my family, and scores of newcomers to a wonderful experience. As incoming president I plan to continue a tradition of promoting and sharing the excitement of mycology with all of you.


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