Christian, you are quite busy these days. What is keeping you so hard at work that you can't come to my house party this weekend for some liver conditioning?
Indeed. In 2010, I embarked on a project that has put my health, sanity, and relationships with other humans at great risk. Noah Siegel and I decided to write a new field guide to California mushrooms. Mushrooms aren’t like birds though: We don’t know how many species live here, many of them are still unnamed, and we don’t even know how to reliably identify a lot of the ones that are named. There has been much wrangling of primary literature. Minutia have been scrutinized. DNA has been sequenced. Beers have been drunk. After six years of work, we’ve settled on around 750 species to include in the book, and even so, it won’t be comprehensive. Thankfully, Ten Speed Press picked up the project and Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast is scheduled to be on bookshelves early next year.
There's a million bird books out there...some are indispensable, most are highly dispensable. What is the field guide scene like in Kingdom Fungi? Where will your work fit in to the canon?
Currently, the mushroom field guide scene is blessedly simple to navigate. Arora’s Mushrooms Demystified is the gold standard. There will probably never be a better book for beginners (although it is in desperate need of updating). Lincoff’s Audubon Guide is excellent for the East Coast. Desjardin, Wood, and Stevens’ Mushrooms of California is the Johnny-come-lately, but promises to be a significant step forward. As for Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast, I have no qualms saying our book is going to be the best one for identification-minded mushroom folks in California. I think the fact that we’ve spent a shit-ton of time in the field will be apparent. Noah’s photos are the best around. That said, it might be a tough book for beginners who aren’t highly visual learners. But who knows, maybe people will hate it? Only time will tell.
Sclerotinia sulcata, by Christian Schwarz.
Aside from duff-diving, you are a confessed birder. How did this come about exactly? What drew you to the feathered ones?
The ongoing drought has had a lot to do with it. If I hadn’t been able to gaze at ducks and sparrows during those parched and rainless January days, I probably wouldn’t still be among the living. Then again, even in wet years, sometimes you’ve just been down in the duff too long and need to come up for air. Bird are obviously way more behaviorally interesting than mushrooms. That’s a big draw for me. I value birds for their soothing and hilarious properties especially.
Interesting...if true. Describe your average birder for us. What do they look like? What do they think about? What are their fundamental flaws?
Oh god. My role as myco-outsider has given me the privilege of choosing to have infrequent encounters with the birding “community”. Thankfully, as a young man first coming to terms with my ornithophilia, I was adopted by a Fellowship of Nerds who lived at the King Street Refuge for Naturalists. Although now a countrywide diaspora, the fellowship remains close to this day. I don’t think they’re really like other birders, but since I primarily go birding with them and their associated hangers-on, I’ll describe them. I wanna keep it short, though, so Imma do a haiku. Here goes:
Kids on the spectrum
Love for life’s chaos
Whoa...what happened? I think I blacked out. That probably wasn’t my best work. I need a beer.
Please indulge us with your worst birding memory.
Getting robbed of everything I owned (including my passport) while birding in southern Mexico was pretty horrible. It pains me to think of the journal I lost, which I had filled with watercolors of extravagant Chiapan moths. Thanks to my fellow Bigoteros who did me a solid, I survived and made it back to the United States wearing a Hello Kitty Backpack with a grand total of 5 US dollars and 5 Mexican pesos to my name. But I did not die. The Gods decided Otherwise.
I love birding in Santa Cruz. The patches are charismatic, and it gets occasional Vagrants of Exceptional Quality. The birders here are good folks, the drama is minimal, things are relaxed. Biggest downsides are lackluster habitat diversity (which is to be expected for such a small county), and the unreliability of getting pelagics to spend time in our waters (I’m a bit of a home-county lister). Visiting birders should head straight to Watsonville. For numbers, diversity, and an all-round pleasant time, south county is hard to beat. I particularly like visiting the CARE Park on the Pajaro River in spring (migrant Passerines), and Harkins Slough and College Lake in mid-winter (waterfowl and sparrows).
How do the mushrooming and birding communities differ? What are their similarities?
Honestly, they’re pretty different scenes. For one, there isn’t enough known about mushrooms (in our area) to support much compulsive twitcher-type behavior. There’s common ground to be sure, but Christ, mushroomers are a lot weirder. Less disposable income, more often in trouble with the law, scruffier. But mushroomers really know how to cook, a lot of them brew spectacular beer, and boy can they party. I feel right at home.
Pycogonum stearnsi, Stearns' sea spider, by Christian Schwarz.
Aside from birds and mushrooms, you are known for your turnstone styles, lurking in tidepools. What world awaits you in the intertidal?
I was a tidepool fanatic before I got distracted by mushrooms. The siren song of saltwater has recently led me back to the brine. Looking for invertebrates along the rocky shore is very similar to hunting mushrooms - my brain falls into the same groove. But once you learn about the ecology of the intertidal, the similarity stops. I can barely fathom the life cycles of some of these crazy invertebrates. As for what awaits me? Brilliantly-colored soft-bodied things. Things with hard, articulating exoskeletons. Octopi that are smarter than some of my college classmates. Delicious mussels. Fish to fuel nightmares. Inspirational sponges.
Flabellina iodinea, spanish shawl, by Christian Schwarz.
Inspirational sponges...I believe there is a market for that. You recently started an eco-tourism company of sorts. Tell us about it, how it came about, how you like it so far.
Right! It’s called Redwood Coast Tours. We lead outdoor walks and workshops focused on local organisms and their ecology, mostly geared towards adults. I got the sense that there was a desire not being met - I heard people saying “Hey! I’d really like to know more about these organisms!”, but not really having anywhere to turn. So I’ve been working to build a network of natural-history nerds who are really excited about their organisms of interest, and who love to teach people about them. Whether it be mushrooms, birds, snakes, butterflies, squirrels, whales, spiders, plants, or sea slugs, I want people to come to us and find their curiosity engaged by excellent naturalists. As a company, we’re brand new, but so far I’ve had an amazingly fun ride. It’s been a privilege to work with the naturalists who’ve led trips so far, and the participants have been uniformly lovely folks. When I see people get super excited about weird little organisms, Life Is Not Pain.
Obligatory question: If one were to go birding under the influence of select mushroom varieties, what might transpire?
Hypothetically? Well, one might have a really good time. One might feel profoundly affected by the songs of vireos. One might see behind the mask and recognize the Wrentit for what She Really Is. One might bask in the wholesomeness of a bathing junco. One might see undulating waves of grassland rise to meet the ocean’s horizon whilst surrounded by the bizarre songs of meadowlarks. One might feel content at one’s core.
Photos of Christian with dead pintail, dead Blue-footed Booby, and live Bird Policeman by Adam Searcy, Amy Patten and Lindsey Mercer. Thanks to Christian for doing this interview, and for showing us the incredible bonds that can be forged among the half-dead tilapia and swirling flocks of the Salton Sea.