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'The Way Through the Woods': Mourning Author Finds Comfort In Mushrooms


These days, as baby boomers age and face their own mortality and that of loved ones, we're seeing a lot of books about death and dying, but we've never seen one quite like the one we're about to talk about. It's about mourning and mushrooms. Long Litt Woon met her husband Eiolf when she arrived in Norway as an exchange student. And when he died suddenly at 54 after a very happy three-decade-long marriage, she didn't know what to do with herself. So she signed up for a beginner's course on mushrooming. And amazingly, she found comfort and a sense of community wandering through forests and parks in search of mushrooms.

Long Litt Woon has written a memoir about it. It's called "The Way Through The Woods: On Mushrooms And Mourning." And Long Litt Woon joins us now from Oslo. Thank you so much for being with us.

LONG LITT WOON: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Can I call you Woon?

LONG: Sure.

MARTIN: And first, I do want to say I'm so sorry for the loss of your husband. It sounds like you had a lovely, long marriage.

LONG: Thank you very much. It was a shock not only just to me but to everyone. Yeah. You know, he went to work one morning, and he didn't come home. So it was - it left me in a very dark place.

MARTIN: I can imagine. You know, I mentioned that you moved to Norway from Malaysia to study anthropology. And you took this mushrooming course in part because it's something that you and your husband had talked about doing together when you retired. But like, why? I mean, is mushrooming a big thing in Norway like, I don't know - I don't know, ballroom dancing or something like that?

LONG: (Laughter) No. But, you know, we had always enjoyed eating mushrooms. And we knew some people who forage for mushrooms. And it was just something we, you know, talked about. When he died, I was desperate. And I just did anything anybody suggested. I just tried that, you know - meditation, yoga. Mushrooming for beginners? Yeah, why not? I just did everything, just trying to look for some kind of peace, you know.

MARTIN: Yeah. You know, I learned so much from your book about mushrooms. I mean, I never realized there was that much to know. Which I take it you were the same. But, like...

LONG: Yeah.

MARTIN: So what are some of the things that you study in a mushrooming course? I mean, I assume, like, lesson one is how not to die, right?

LONG: Well, when you start - you know, lesson one is, what is a mushroom? You know, what are the different parts called? And then very quickly you learn about poisonous mushrooms. And basically the thing is there's no easy way out here. There's no easy way of knowing which mushroom is poisonous and which are edible. You just need to know your mushrooms. And that is the reason, as I wrote in the book too, why a lot of immigrants get into problems, you know, because they go foraging, and they see a mushroom, they think, oh, we know this. And then it's not what they think it is. This is not only Norway. In the U.S., too, you have that problem.

MARTIN: So on a more serious issue, how is it that mushrooming became such a compelling way to deal with your deep grief at the loss of your husband?

LONG: Well, for me, you know, one, it was the joy, the first time I felt joy at all after my husband died. I didn't know it was - that this was how it felt. I thought, oh, my goodness, this is what joy is. The first time I felt joy after my husband died was when I found this mushroom - edible mushroom, a choice mushroom on my very own.

But then, of course, there's a community that you mentioned. I got to know a lot of new people. And it woke me up too because I write a lot about how I need to use my senses to identify mushrooms, especially the sense of smell. And after my husband died, I was dulled. You know, all my senses were dulled. And in order to identify a mushroom, you have to, you know, be present. You have to use all your senses. So in many ways, for me, I was saved by my mushrooms.

MARTIN: Do you think you have some broader advice, like, for people who maybe they don't - OK, I know this is a sad thought, but some people don't like mushrooms. And maybe some people live in an area where there aren't any good mushrooms or there's nobody like the Greater Oslo Fungi and Useful Plant Society, which helped you learn, to help them learn how not to die from eating them. But I sense that you have a broader message about loss. Do you have some advice for people who perhaps don't have access to a forest or parks? Do you have some something you could pass on from your experience that - how to think about how to deal with loss?

LONG: Well, I can just talk about what happened to me. And for me, definitely getting out of the house, getting interested in something new that I had not thought about. It brought so many other things with it. You know, I went in the forest, and I came out of my grief, you know. But I also, in the book, you know, am very impatient and angry about the way society looks at mourning, that we who mourn don't get enough time.

And I just want to say too that this is a process that takes a long time. And it doesn't move forward in a linear kind of way. It's like a big mess. You know, you go round and round. And it takes time. So that is both for the mourner and the people who are around this person whom they want to help maybe - it's actually to give this person time.

MARTIN: Finally, Woon, you know I have to put you on the spot. What is your favorite mushroom after all of this?

LONG: This is an easy question for me (laughter). I love the morel, the true morels, that's my No 1. I love them because they're so - well, they're very difficult to find. But they're so absolutely delicious. We were just frying some up the other day, and someone came into the room, didn't know that we were frying mushrooms and said, oh, it's somebody frying bacon. You know, it has that kind of umami kind of taste, you know, and aroma you know. So it's wonderful, need just one, and it will lift your dish.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I will go find some today, hopefully, maybe later at the fancy store because I am not ready yet to go finding my own. I am not ready to risk it. So...

LONG: Good luck.

MARTIN: Thank you. That is Long Litt Woon. Her memoir is called The Way Through The Words: On Mushrooms And Mourning." And we reached her in Oslo. Woon, thank you so much for talking with us.

LONG: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.