BRONNITSY, Russia -- Knives in hand, boots on feet, eyes glinting with the thrill of the hunt, Russians across this great forested land are out in the woods these autumn days, engaged in the obligatory ritual of the season.
They're gathering mushrooms.
As with most rituals, there's far more to mushrooming than the mechanics of it suggest. Picking mushrooms is as much a journey through the Russian soul as it is poking around trees, scrutinizing underbrush and filling a basket with the day's forage.
Drive out here, to the countryside about 50 miles southeast of Moscow, to search for mushrooms, and you'll quickly find yourself exploring the intricacies of the Russian character. Here in the woods, Russians reveal their basic hard-working nature -- cleverly hidden during the Soviet period, when people loved to say, "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."
Fatalism, warmth, cunning, self-reliance, inexplicable contradictions, it's all there, and more. Mushrooms say it all.
Some people, like Vladimir Sedov, a 50-year-old clerk, arrange their lives around mushroom opportunities. Over the years, his family has grown exasperated, says his daughter, Svetlana Sedova, 26.
"My father waited for mushrooms the whole summer," she says, "and he would only take his vacation when the mushrooms had arrived."
Like many families, the Sedovs have a modest cottage, called a dacha, in the countryside. Everyone who can decamps out here on weekends, furiously growing fruits and vegetables for the winter ahead, and searching for mushrooms as the growing season ends.
"My father gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and leaves the dacha at 5: 30 to go mushrooming," Sedova says. "He comes back about 3, has some lunch, takes a short rest and goes back to the forest. In the morning he'll walk eight to 15 miles. His feet ache when he comes back, but in the afternoon he is out in the woods again."
Every day, he accumulates more and more mushrooms, huge quantities of them. He has done it every summer, as far back as his family can remember. There's only one problem. Sedova's mother is in charge of cleaning them, frying them, pickling them, drying them, freezing them, marinating them. And she's sick of it.
"Sometimes, when he is asleep or out mushrooming," Sedova says, "we throw some of them away. Once he found out what we had done, and he was furious. He said we were ungrateful."
He often repeats, mournfully, "You will never understand how high you can get collecting mushrooms."
Sedova sighs. "It's something you're born with," she says, staring at several huge jars of mushrooms. "He's a sick man. Mushrooming is his disease."
Her father absolutely never eats the mushrooms he so laboriously gathers. He doesn't like them.
"We keep them for guests," Sedova says.
On a warm, bright Thursday, Pyotr Khanov, a 39-year-old driver from the nearby small town of Malakhovka, has taken the opportunity of a day off from work to beat the crowds who will be combing the woods over the weekend.
He parks his small gray car, a Sputnik, at the side of the road and plunges into the woods, green pocket knife and large, well-used woven basket at the ready.
Khanov has already made one stop and has a layer of mushrooms in his basket. He's reluctant to say where he found them. Just as fishermen are not inclined to tell the world where the big ones are biting, so mushroomers are reluctant to reveal their most fertile grounds.
Khanov, lean, bearded and blond, shows off several coveted white mushrooms, part of the boletus family and prized in other countries, too.
Russians give their mushrooms cozy little pet names. One is called piglet, another little fox. There's goat and buttery, under-the-birch and eaten-raw. Others are musical enough to the Russian ear to be called as they are elsewhere, such as chanterelle and champignon.
Children grow up learning to pick mushrooms, their parents carefully passing on vital knowledge: how to recognize the edible and pass up the poisonous.
"My parents say I was a year old when I picked my first one," says Khanov. "It was a white one. It's true. We have a picture. It was this big," he says, gesturing in a manner also evocative of fishermen.
Some people joke that they spend more on gasoline to go out to the countryside than it would cost to buy the mushrooms. The cost-conscious take the subway to a suburban train station, where they can take a commuter train out to a village. Then they walk.
Andrei Savoskin, 38, and his wife, Zhenya Yeramina, 29, had driven out in their battered little blue Zhiguli, despite the cost of gas. "You can never get mushrooms in the market as delicious as the ones you pick yourself," Savoskin says.
As with many Russians, they have a nagging doubt that they might be about to poison themselves. But black humor is cherished here, and there are often jokes about the year's poisonings as a party gathers over a mushroom dish. This year, 16 people have died in Russia and 225 have become ill from eating mushrooms.
Many proud mushroomers believe -- despite scientific claims to the contrary -- that mutants of their favorite varieties exist, looking innocent but ready to kill. They're also convinced that some are undetectably radioactive. They don't like to believe they could make a mistake.
Scientists assert that when people are poisoned, they have not encountered a mutant but have made a mistake.
"To be honest," says Savoskin, "we are a little afraid of getting poisoned."
Other more powerful forces quell the fear.
"It's our birthright," his wife says.
"Maybe it's dangerous," Savoskin says, "but what can you do? They taste so good."
Some doubters get an opinion from Lev Velikanov, mushroom professor at the prestigious Moscow State University. Recently, a man brought Velikanov a huge mushroom, 20 inches wide, which happened to grow in his garage. He was afraid it would poison his garage. The professor assured him it was safe.
"Mushroom-hunting is in the Russian blood," Velikanov says. "I cannot explain it logically. It's like a sport."
Tatyana Busyreva, a 39-year-old translator, has been gathering mushrooms since she was 5. "My parents taught me," she says, "and when I grew up I started to read about them. I was very happy to find out that there are a great number of edible mushrooms and only a few, maybe 10, poisonous ones."
Many Russians, she says, like mushrooms because they're the perfect accompaniment for vodka. A healthy drink of vodka requires the immediate consumption of food, especially something pickled, and mushrooms do the job admirably.
"But even more than eating, they like the process of mushrooming," she says. "When you eat them in the winter, you can think back to the summer, and how you collected them."