Coping with grief, loss with the help of fungi

The Way Through The Woods (above), by Long Litt Woon (left), is full of mushroom recipes.
The Way Through The Woods (right), by Long Litt Woon (left), is full of mushroom recipes.PHOTO: JOHS. BOE

Mushroom foraging helped Malaysian writer Long Litt Woon find joy in life again after her husband's sudden death

When Malaysian writer Long Litt Woon suddenly lost her husband of 32 years, she found solace in an unusual source: mushrooms.

In the fog of grief, she took up mushroom foraging in the forests of Norway, where she lives. The first time she found an edible mushroom on her own, her heart leapt.

"It was staggering to actually feel an emotion I thought had gone for good when Eiolf died," she writes in her non-fiction debut, The Way Through The Woods.

"Was it possible to feel a delight so scintillatingly clear when everything seemed so vague and hopeless?"

Long, 62, will be in town this week as part of her book tour.

"I was saved by mushrooms," she says over the telephone from Argentina, where she is now doing research for a second book.

"I was in deep grief and I went into the woods and slowly, slowly, mushroom by mushroom, step by step, it got me out of this tunnel."

Long, an anthropologist from Taiping, Perak, met her husband Eiolf Olsen when she was an 18-year-old exchange student in Stavanger, Norway, and moved there for good to be with him.

On a bright summer morning in 2010, he collapsed on the way to work. His heart had failed. The phone call from the hospital, Long recalls, sliced her life in two.

"I had to work out again who I was without him. The mushrooms allowed me to test out a new identity because the mushroom people don't talk about anything else but mushrooms and so, for a long time, a lot of them didn't know that I'm a widow.

  • VIEW IT/ READING AND DISCUSSION WITH LONG LITT WOON

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"My old friends see me as part of a couple, with one big part of me missing. However, when I'm with the mushroom people, I get a chance to be a new person."

Long got herself certified as a mushroom professional by the Norwegian Mycological Association, which means she can help others pick and identify mushrooms and tell if they are poisonous or not.

In the book, she waxes lyrical on fungi, from the common stinkhorn to the coconut milk cap, and describes the patterns of mushroom hunters, who can be fiercely territorial or surprisingly generous with their secret spots.

She has discovered mushrooms in places as unexpected as the beach, or coming out of the asphalt by the road. Once, she found lingzhi mushrooms in New York's Central Park.

The book is also full of mushroom recipes, from shiitake mushroom bacon to chanterelle and apricot ice cream.

People should not overlook the humble mushroom, says Long. "They have medicinal uses. You can use them to clean up oil spills. For life on earth to go on, you need mushrooms because they decompose organic matter, otherwise things would just pile up. Mushrooms are part of the whole life cycle."

Her favourite mushroom is the true morel, which is tasty but also very difficult to find. On the anniversary of her husband's death, she found three growing in the flower bed of her cottage.

"I've lost my husband," she writes, "and by this most people understand that my husband is dead. But when I say he's lost, what I mean is that I look for him, for signs that he is still a part of life here on Earth, of my life.

"I have a secret hope that maybe he blows me a kiss now and then or waves to me, in some ingenious way that only he could devise." Like a morel, or three.

  • The Way Through The Woods ($35.26) is available at bit.ly/Way_through_woods
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2020, with the headline 'Coping with grief, loss with the help of fungi'. Print Edition | Subscribe