MIKRON, Russia -- Few experiences nourish and satisfy the Russian soul as deeply and completely as a day spent gathering mushrooms.
Maybe that's because mushrooms so fully permeate life here. It's difficult even to discuss Russian culture without thinking of the mushroom culture.
"You need pickled mushrooms for vodka," says one Muscovite. "So of course Russians gather them." At festive tables across the nation, Russians toss back their glasses of vodka, then reach for a forkful of pickled mushrooms.
While children in the United States are said to grow like weeds, here they say they grow like mushrooms. When the sun shines through a downpour in Russia, it's a mushroom rain.
TC Mushrooms can foretell the future. When there are huge crops of them, beginning early in the summer, war is inevitable.
So the columns of tanks that roared into Moscow to put down a hard-line uprising earlier this month came as no surprise to many Russians. The summer was cool and rainy, and huge quantities of mushrooms could be picked as early as June instead of the more seasonable August.
In August 1991, many Russians went uninformed about the coup attempt for days -- they were out in the countryside, picking mushrooms. And only a tiny fraction of Muscovites were involved in this month's battle. Most
were out in the woods on a perfect mushroom day, filling their baskets.
On these fall weekends, anyone who can clears out of Moscow early on a Saturday morning, taking streetcars and subways to the suburban electric trains, then riding for two hours or so to a country bus stop. From the bus, there's often a walk of a half-hour or more. On these last weekends of the season, it seems as if all of Russia is on the march.
Country roads are lined with people trudging along for miles, backpacks laden with supplies, cloth bags bulging with provisions for the weekend. They are on their way to their dachas, which sounds much more splendid than the reality -- usually a humble cabin with no indoor plumbing.
Here in Mikron, a typical dacha community 75 miles east of Moscow, the nearby woods are full of mushrooms, making it all worthwhile.
The mushrooms are irresistible. They offer a socially acceptable excuse for a quiet walk, a moment's relaxation -- privacy, even, in a country where the concept is so foreign that the word doesn't exist in the language.
They are reasons enough to surround yourself with silvery birch trees instead of crumbling concrete, to walk cushioned by carpets of green strawberry vines instead of tripping on chunks of broken asphalt.
"Here I feel myself part of nature," says Nikolai Golovin, looking up at a patch of brilliant blue sky framed by tall, leafy birch trees. The woods are quiet, fragrant with pine, and for a moment, there's no need to hurry.
Like most Russians, Mr. Golovin, a 34-year-old journalist, spends every moment rushing -- except when hunting mushrooms.
As he walks along, his experienced eye finding mushrooms where the neophyte sees only grass, he recites the fond pet names Russians have given their mushrooms. "Blackie, porky, grandpa's pipe." The latter is not eaten, but when tapped, it puffs out a lovely halo of smoke.
"Poisonous, of course," he says, pointing to another.
Russians are brought up hunting mushrooms, and strangers to the hunt risk sickness and even death if they go off without an expert.
Every summer and fall the newspapers print running totals of mushroom fatalities. Last year, near the city of Voronezh, 300 people were hospitalized from mushroom poisoning, and 20 of them died.
Mushroom hunting is a family affair, an art passed down through the generations. It's one of the few things whole families happily do together.
On this bright day, 14-year-old Alyosha Kuroschkin has been out with his mother. Each is already filling a second very large basket.
"I like to pick them," Alyosha says. "And my father likes to eat them."
They show off their baskets -- red mushrooms, ferociously yellow ones, blacks and whites. Alyosha impulsively plucks out an enormous, coveted, black mushroom and hands it to a stranger -- a gift straight from the heart.
"Sometimes it's so beautiful just to see the mushrooms shining on a hill," Nina Kuroschkin says.
Galina Chikanov and her husband, Ivan, emerge with overflowing baskets of their own.
"No secrets," says Mrs. Chikanov, a 45-year-old epidemiologist. "Just remember, at every step, you shouldn't be reluctant to put your head down."
Nina Kochanovskaya, an elderly woman in a pink fuzzy hat, walks by and calls out a greeting. Her basket is full, evidence of several hours spent bending, stooping and cutting. "It's so relaxing," she says, beaming. "Don't you feel good just to be here?"
The day ends with a soul at peace.
"When you go to sleep after a day spent collecting mushrooms, you dream of shining fields of mushrooms," one Russian says. "Everyone does."