The Agricultural Co-Involution web series explores farming and food as multispecies relationships. In essay, dialogue, art and story our contributors follow the traces of an ‘agriculture beyond the human’. If you’d like to contribute to the series or the upcoming zine, contact Jonathan at email@example.com
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Program in History, Anthropology and STS
If On a Late Fall Day a Forager…
If on a late fall day a forager comes into a grove of oaks or hazelnuts, what does he see and seek? A biologist by training, a naturalist by inclination, a gourmand by stomach and a classifier by boredom, his eyes are looking for signs of truffles, in hopes they may soon be on his plate. Boots kicking through fallen leaves, the scent of unfallen rain and distant woodsmoke in the air, he may first identify the Suillia tuberiperda.
The truffle’s volatile organic compounds, pushing up into the air, attract the senses of multiple species, for a moment uniting fly and human. Perhaps this softly buzzing gnat-like fly has always been an indicator for humans on the hunt for ripe black truffles. Late-Autumn forests can be thick with these flies and, upon following them to their hovering grounds, mere inches from the damp ground, the forager too will pick up the mysteriously pungent aroma. Suillia detect in soft, ripe truffles an ideal place to lay their eggs, while the forager, not so different, detects dinner.
Or perhaps it will be the Sus scrofa our forager first comes across—and in this fellow mammal, competition!
Truffle hunters of centuries past also followed these wild boar as they revealed plots of ripening truffles. Black Truffles mimic pig pheromones (or is it the other way around?). This makes Sus scrofa able and willing to locate truffles far and wide. For the more ambitious of human foragers, spending an entire season trekking the expansive swaths of Europe on the tail of these swine was a worthy pursuit; by marking a map of their peregrinations, networks of truffles would emerge. As the swine travel long distances, digging up, romping on, and otherwise mutilating ripe, globulus fruiting bodies, they disperse spores, encouraging the proliferation of fungus and tree. When truffles are in season, these porcines are covered in spores just as bees in pollen.
For our shrewd forager, a glimpsed snout would not be unwelcome, knowing that a wild boar could well lead him to densely-populated truffle lands. The trick is beating the hog to the delicacy. But, with neither hog nor fly in sight, the forager chooses to blame his companion, the Lagotto romagnolo, who jumps about sniffing, bounding, ruckusing. Disruptive and pleasure-seeking. Confident but not always diligent. Having brought Lago along, best to keep in step with her.
When the nose of the forager’s companion is trained on a truffle scent, she becomes single-minded. Presumably, the scent hits strong amidst the other forest flora and fauna. And while swine may have more of a proclivity (a libido!) for truffle hunting, rarely will they hunt truffles as pleasantly as canine friends. The hog’s passion may simply be too much. Our forager can only recall two, maybe three, trained pigs willing to give up their truffle finds to human hands. Thankfully, all dogs, not only those bred for the pursuit, have a sense of smell far better than any truffler could ever want. The rare canine trait is sustained attentiveness. A dog can ignore the lingering aroma of deer droppings or the criss-crossing scent of squirrels for only so long. More difficult still is training a dog to only pursue truffles of a certain ripeness, and of a specific species. It is said that the Italian Water Dog, the sort now by our forager’s side, has been bred specially for these feats. But why, amid forests littered with burrs and irregular bunches of underbrush, would any forager want a dog with such curly hair? Was this breed suited to a time when Europe’s lands were more thoroughly trammeled—centuries ago, when peasants combed these hills for firewood and other products? Our forager’s sentimental thoughts go back to Bella, his former truffle dog, an undistinguished mutt with matted fur and of calm disposition. The Lagotto that is now a hundred meters ahead of our forger yelps. Caught again, in a thick and thorny patch! Freeing his panicked dog, he recognizes this thicket as one vastly overgrown Corylus, intertwined with sundry vines and shoots.
Having freed Lago, our forager stands back to examine the thicket, more bush than tree. Hazelnuts are dripping everywhere. As he fills his pockets with the golden-brown pellets he notices another, slimmer Corylus some fifteen feet ahead. He goes there, where the pickings are easier before noticing another hazelnut, and another, all growing in a straight row. Surely this is the work of human hands. Even so, no hands have groomed these trees for decades, not since they were spindly suckers. Our forager knows the work it takes to train a hazelnut sapling—which always wants to be a bush—into a tree. What happened on this plot? Who was its one-time steward and why have they not returned? While the forager knows the vast quantity of truffles that often grow under Corylus in this region, Lago has yet to sniff anything out. He then recalls the dry spring, which likely prevented the months-long underground development of truffles. But still, who, decades ago, would have planted a truffle orchard with Corylus, back when farming tradition was clear and strictly followed: to create a truffiere, sow the acorns from truffle-producing oak trees.
Looking up, our forager sees them—the tree species most beloved and respected by truffle orchardists, and nearly all in this region, running back many generations.
He walks toward a stand of trees, feeling the oblong leaves. How to describe them—abrasive or like velvet? With hardly any roughness, he recognizes the species by touch. This is not Quercus cerris but pubescens. He feels in these oak forests the highest beauty, something of grandeur, of collective flourishing. Walking on, he notices that the oak now dominates all other species. He ascends the slope they grow upon, southeast-facing and of an ideal degree for the cultivation of grapevines. Remnants of the land’s past life or lives are in evidence here: carved chunks of limestone, the remains of a chateau sticking up from the already rocky, sandy soil. The oaks were likely planted here by truffle-hopefuls at one point, after the vineyard would have certainly died from aphid blight.
This particular aphid came from North America to Western Europe in the nineteenth century. The insect feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. Without an evolved defense system in the vines, the aphid becomes a parasite. Worse, it is a pathogen. Despite our forager’s professed love for the geographical waxings and wanings of diverse flora, he cannot approve of this aphid’s crossing the ocean. It decimated life, and joy! So much wine lost, livelihoods destroyed. With this loss came fallow grounds for new plantings. Many farmers responded to these ruined landscapes of abandoned vineyards by planting oak. To what extent they knew truffles would follow is debateable. Many at the time believed truffles would grow from any acorns planted from successful oak trees; others believed using the soil from the base of older oaks would do the trick. There was, long ago, a whole mythos of secrets, science and superstition surrounding how to conjure the truffle.
At last, slavering Lago yelps the signal, and the forager follows her to the base of a distant oak. And there it is, breached and bulging above ground—the one simply described as the Black.
Carefully, with one finger, our forager clears the sandy loam from around the truffle’s exterior. Being taxonomically-minded, our forager recites the name of the beloved fruit aloud: Tuber melanosporum—le Noir. French cooks (Brillat) and kings (the Sun King) declared only this variety of black-colored truffle to be of any worth. The forager takes a moment to marvel over its rough texture and surprising weight. The peridium is completely intact; no insect has had the chance to bite through this tough outer layer. Just larger than a golf ball, and irregularly shaped, it feels a bit like a palm full of valuable coins and a bit like the pleasure of sport. Even after the specimen is securely in his hip sack, the smell envelops him for the rest of his outing. The question will come soon enough: to sell or to savor (and to savor alone or to share)? Shaved over fresh pasta or atop a simple omelet? On sliced bread with the neighbor’s precious foie gras or with a creamy risotto?
There she goes again! Lago isn’t particularly discriminate in her hunting—provided she gets a bit of smoked turkey or emmental cheese from her master’s pocket with each find, she’ll keep on her sporadic loops around the trees. She doesn’t go far before stopping again, scratching the ground, then pausing, looking wild-eyed back at her master. The way Lago places her paw to tell him “Dig here,” indicates Tuber aestivum, the deeper-growing truffle. This one’s about a foot down, directly under the thick elbow of a root and several stones. While le Noir fetches from four to six times the price of aestivum or borchii, there’s still a keen pleasure from pulling up any truffle—and this one is nearly as large as the first. Nearby, Lago is already digging toward more aestivum. There are over twenty species of Tuber native to southern Europe, and our forager’s Lagotto has specific commands to find brumale, macrosporum, magnatum (when in those cherished southern lands), mesentericum, and multiple variations of the rufum clade. Walks through productive truffle lands are a veritable dog dance!
To hunt truffle is not to reduce one’s sight to truffle and host alone. Lago yelps and rests her paw on a bare patch of earth. This time there is no breached truffle, nor even a hump or crack in the surface. He feels frustrated with Lago as there are no trees around them, therefore presumably no truffles. Lago persists, demanding he dig where she indicates. As he kneels down to the ground the aroma is unmistakable. There is no visual cue, but humans too can train their noses—a Black Truffle is in range. And then our forager sees the host: a species from that ground-hugging genus Cistus, a humble and ordinary bush. It is not uncommon to hear stories of Cistus-melanosporum pairings, but our forager has never before seen it for himself—he thought it was more truffle lore. He digs, pulling up a small Black, slightly marred but a good omen. Twenty feet away, Lago barks in impatience—she has found more! He can see two, no four, breached truffles next to yet another Cistus, and there are more all around. What is this place? Cistus’ habitat is still a hundred miles south of here. Could this be a Cistus truffiere, a wildly successful experiment by some no-name farmer? Would collecting here be theft? He looks farther off, and feels lost. What strange land, nothing but pines in the distance, shaped like parasols.
Pinus pinea, Lactarius deliciosus
The parasols rise high in the sky before him. After collecting most but not all of the truffles, feeling so rich as to be jittery, our forager continues his walk in their direction. He couldn’t possibly hurry home now, he’s too excited. More trees come into sight, arranged in neat rows. Pinus pinea for sure. Even if they were planted centuries ago, just a glance at the immense girth of these trunks, bare of foliage for the lower hundred meters, says so much—the intentionality behind this stand of trees is obvious. All of this land seems intentional!
Pinus pinea has the softest pine nuts, and cones filled with the delicacies now litter the ground. It doesn’t take long for our forager to fill the last corner of his haversack with cones (though the work of prying the nuts free without crushing them will be tedious). When he decides to pick up one final cone, this one more pregnant than any other, he sees them crowding the ground before him, in bold ochre hues, with pronounced dimples in the cap’s center. There are hundreds of these delicious mushrooms, so delicious, in fact, that their Latin name is deliciosus! Here it is, the most successfully cultivated of mycorrhizal mushrooms. He picks one of the largest, larger than his palm, and brushes the lamella to watch the lactarius milk drip onto his fingers.
After removing his outer shirt to create a sack to carry a dozen of these fleshy mushrooms, our forager decides to make his way home—there is simply no more room to carry any more plunder. But he has absolutely no recognition of his surroundings. As he turns around, he sees to his left a smaller, younger grove of young pinea, no more than five years old. The bottom branches have clearly been freshly pruned away. A feeling of guilt rises in him. This orchard is a labor of love, does this mean he is a thief?