Self-Care tips for journalists

How a former war photographer finds peace in foraging

Photo by Ben Brody. His wife, Becca Brody, with two Hen of the Woods that she found in Easthampton, Mass.

For military veteran and photographer Ben Brody, self-care is about paying attention to the seasons and weather. It’s also about finding tasty treats in nature that you can’t purchase at the store.

We asked Brody — director of photography for the GroundTruth Project and Report for America — about how he got started foraging for mushrooms and its relationship with self-care. 

How did you get into foraging mushrooms?

Brody: I always liked the idea of being able to find delicious food in the woods, but growing up north of Boston no one ever taught me how to hunt or forage and I assumed it was difficult and dangerous. It turns out that foraging is neither. One day about 5 years ago I came across a really spectacular-looking fungus in the woods, with huge bright orange brackets growing from the base of an old oak tree. So I looked it up online, and it turned out to be a Chicken of the Woods, which is both very tasty and impossible to mistake for anything else. After sauteeing several pounds of it in butter and garlic, I was determined to find more of them, and soon started looking for other species as well.

What does a successful day of foraging look like?

Brody: A good day of foraging generally entails having a nice walk in the woods, taking in the smells and sounds, and finding a bunch of delicious food that you absolutely can’t buy in a store. Sometimes I’ll see a bear or a deer, or sometimes a red squirrel will scold me in a hilarious way. Each species requires a different approach to finding it — it’s best to plan what you’re looking for before you start. Chickens are big and bright orange, so in overcast light they’re easy to spot from far away. You’re walking long distances and looking for them at 100-200 feet away. Black Trumpets are small and blend in with dead leaves, so you’re basically looking at your feet searching for them. But they tend to grow in clusters, so when you actually spot one, there are usually 200 more within 10 feet of you.

What makes foraging a good component to self-care?

Brody: An essential component of foraging is paying attention to the seasons and the weather, and getting to know the trees around you. All these mushrooms associate with trees, so you need to learn the different trees, and that starts by seeing them as more than tall leafy things. Just opening yourself up to that information is really grounding. And when you find a big Chicken of the Woods, a bunch of it should go in the dehydrator or freezer, so you know you can look forward to lots of tasty stews and risottos through the winter, with a taste of your summer’s forage.  

Can you share some resources for those who are interested in trying it for the first time?

Brody: I would focus on the most delicious mushrooms, and the ones that are difficult to mistake for toxic or unpalatable species. The best place to start is with Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) and Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa). Chickens and Hens strongly associate with Red Oak trees, so first you need to learn to recognize that tree and frequent them during peak season. In New England, Chicken season generally runs from July through September, and Hens pop up in September and October. Search for pictures online — they’re unmistakable. A few days after a cold snap is when I have the best luck. Black Trumpets and Morels grow in the spring and early summer. You can find Oyster mushrooms and Chaga all year long. Remember that all wild mushrooms need to be cooked thoroughly, and don’t collect (much less eat) anything you can’t positively identify.  

What are some other ways you are taking care of yourself during the pandemic?

Brody: This year I spent my vacation time brutalizing myself on a construction site learning how to build timber frames, which was really rewarding and also engenders a deeper connection with trees. My book Attention Servicemember just entered its second printing, and I’m of course enjoying all the buzz and interacting with people who dig the book. I spent most of my adult life at war, so taking care of myself doesn’t come easily to me. But I have a job I love at The GroundTruth Project and Report for America, training and mentoring early-career journalists, and their dedication and energy gives me a lot of energy.

For those looking to start foraging, check out this map.


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