There’s More Than Mushrooms “Up on the Mountain,” A Documentary Review

mountaiunPlaying at Devour! Food Film Festival on Oct 29, 11:00am

Al Whittle Theatre
450 Main St, Wolfville, NS

Olivier Matthon‘s fly on the wall approach to looking at the problems “commercial” mushroom pickers have in Up on the Mountain is very eye-opening. While we as consumers love chanterelles, morels and lion’s mane, we don’t know the story behind how it got to the dinner table, be it in a restaurant or home-made. 

In British Columbia, those mycelium grown in farms most likely follow strict guidelines in terms of when they’re food ready. But to get them from the lands, the Crown posted guidelines for those wanting to pick and sell. But to be a watchdog is impossible; I suspect the issues are the same as it is Stateside. That is, there’s not enough staff in the Forestry department to go around. With this documentary, we follow in the footsteps of three groups who travel on the “mushroom circuit,” and have to fend for themselves against other poachers and local enforcement.

In the official synopsis, “[They travel embark on] a year-round migration that can take them anywhere from Alaska to California, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming—to harvest wild mushrooms from public forests.

“When commercial mushroom picking took off in the 1980s, it immediately attracted some of the most disenfranchised groups of society: Southeast Asian refugees from the Vietnam War who had difficulty finding work because of poor English skills and discrimination; Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants escaping poverty from their countries only to be taken advantage of by U.S. employers; rural Americans out-of-work due to the decline in the logging and fishing industries; and back-to-the-landers who didn’t fit in the 9-to-5 lifestyle. Having little to lose, they took to the woods, hoping to regain control over their lives. They have created a subculture of outcast gatherers who depend on a deep knowledge of nature and, most importantly, on one another.”


What we learn is that it’s tough to survive. Francisco, Alpine and David Thepsomphou and Chris Florence are just one of many who try to eke out a life to keep themselves afloat. They aren’t swimming in the money after a day’s harvest. It’s barely enough to keep them going for a week after what they got is sold to local chefs or to a buyer ready to send them out by jet to the fancy establishments out in Western Europe and elsewhere. That is, not everything stays local. It’s sad to see.

This documentary puts into spotlight the lives of those who will challenge authority. The Forest Service will charge those who gather more than they absolutely need. When they recognise someone hiring foreigners to cherry-pick, that’s very problematic. That haul will get confiscated, as this doc shows, and is sometimes dumped or sold to another buyer. 

Instead of having someone narrate the greater picture, what’s presented here is left for us to decide. It has me considering that I’ll only buy from specific sources now, rather than at a road stall. It’ll cost more, but at least I’ll know it wasn’t stolen from private land. It’s difficult to say whether governments would be interested in opening up more land for fungi collectors. This work weighs the pros and cons. Also, indigenous tribes living on their traditional territories are gathering for their winters and have the right (i.e. first dibs) to what’s there. 

As for other parts, where the logging industry operates, it’s dangerous for man and machine to work together. Someone has to monitor what’s going on. It’s not just about regulation. But at the same time, for the layperson wanting more sustenance from the forest than farm, where’s the fine line? We’re left to decide for ourselves.

Thankfully, one ambiguity not left up in the air in Up on the Mountain is in how to be sustainable. Everyone knows its best to leave something behind to grow for picking next year.

5 Blokes out of 5


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