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BOOKS AND AUTHORS Self-Taught Mushroom Maven Travels World for Fungi

December 30, 1993

APPLEGATE, Ore. (AP) _ David Arora hopes that someday someone will document his theory that the legend of Santa Claus sprang from the toxic and hallucinatory mushroom Amanita muscaria, used for centuries by shamans to bring on dreams of revelation.

″These mushrooms come from the Far North,″ Arora said while tramping through the southern Oregon woods. ″Santa Claus is dressed like them,″ with a red cap. ″He’s always going, ‘Ho, ho, ho,’ as he might if he had eaten this mushroom.

″Reindeer are also fond of eating them, and getting sort of drunk and wobbly, and Santa Claus has got these reindeer that fly.″

The story is one of many startling departures from the grim standards of mycology to be found in his latest book, ″All That the Rain Promises and More ... A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms″ (Ten Speed Press).

The cover sets the tone with a photo of a chamber musician in a tuxedo with his trombone under one arm, his hands filled with chanterelles, and his face bearing a look of devilish joy as he stealthily steps through a clump of live oaks.

″I firmly believe in stressing the fun in fungi,″ Arora writes.

The book is salted with jolly mushroom hunters dancing through the woods with mushrooms on their heads and telling stories of memorable hunts.

He tells of a murder solved by a clue left on a fungus called Artist’s Palette, and a mushroom society lottery decided by which patio brick is displaced by the annual eruption of a puffball known as Dead Man’s Foot.

People recount how they dye sweaters, a dog and even their own hair with mushroom pigments.

″Initially, I think his work was resented by many of the professional mycology group. He was not a trained professional mycologist. Yet his key is the best out, by far,″ said Mike Amaranthus, an ecosystem team leader for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Patrons of The Book Stop in Grants Pass concur, voting with their wallets.

″We sell tons,″ said co-owner Helen Scott, many to people who hope to make extra money picking wild mushrooms.

Arora, 40, first became interested in mushrooms while growing up in Pasadena, Calif.

He now lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., giving private classes on identifying mushrooms, and selling his books.

He spends a lot of time on the road, whether in southern Oregon selling books out of the Toyota hatchback he shares with his two dogs, Haycorn and Tina, or in the African country of Malawi, where he communicates with local mushroom hunters by showing them pictures.

″I believe in creatures doing what they are designed to do, and one of the things we are really good at is foraging,″ he said. ″The most ancient questions our mind asks, even before we started inventing tools, would be questions like, ’Why is there all this fruit on this tree, and none over there?‴

Arora has less in common with scientists than with Siberian villagers who fill crocks with mushrooms they find in the woods and salt them to make a crunchy condiment for vodka.

″I’ll eat a lot more nuts if they’re on a tree and I have to pick them and crack them, than if they’re just sitting there,″ he said.

He dismisses the fear many Americans have of wild mushrooms.

″If kids in Africa and Mexico can learn them and pick them without getting poisoned, there is no reason to fear them,″ he said.

Mushroom hunting attracts people who tend to be bold and curious, and sometimes a little strange.

Arora recalls one time when a woman called asking if he would lead her to a patch of matsutake, a mushroom that is relatively rare in the West and highly prized in Japan for its spicy cinnamon aroma. Knowing of only one patch near his home, he agreed to take her, but only if she agreed to be blindfolded.

″I said that thinking she would refuse, but she said, ’OK,‴ Arora recalled. ″We were really afraid the cops would pull us over and want to know why these two men had a woman blindfolded lying on the floor of their car.″

They drove around in circles and led the woman through the woods to the secret patch, where they let her pick some. Then they put the blindfold back on and took her home.

″Two years later, this woman who knew her called me. By this time I had found some nicer patches, and this one had been discovered. So I said, ‘I will take you there. And I won’t have to blindfold you.’

″When I said that, she lost interest.″

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