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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


A Day at the Dacha
Text Drew Ingersoll

Uggg… 5:30 am. It’s not the fresh air of the Russian countryside south of Moscow that has awoken me, but a mirthful mushroom enthusiast named Andrei. The night before, he somehow convinced me to go mushroom picking with him early Saturday morning. I was in it for the long haul.

As an American, our emblematic escape to nature — commonly referred to as an RV Park — accompanies our corpulent, Ol’ Glory attitude equipped with 4x4s and jet skis. In Russia, there is the dacha, and I was lucky enough to score an invitation for a weekend at a friend’s dacha. What I found was not just mushrooms, insects, vodka, and a lack of modern conveniences, but a getaway disparate from our American cousin. I digress, however, from my mushroom-picking saga.

After a cup of hot coffee and some kefir with muesli, my eyelids no longer required toothpicks and we emerged from the dacha with knives and baskets at the ready. The dewy morning air told me mushrooms would be as easy to find as cigarette butts on Tvervskaya Ulitsa.

As we entered the forest, there were already people springing up right and left. As it turns out, these people sauntering amongst the curtains of birch and pine, were on the same crusade as Andrei and I. The idea of competing for a full basket of wild fungi sparked my attention a little more. They wouldn’t be out here for nothing. So be it — today was a bad day to be a mushroom.

I clumsily float through the ferns and Queen Anne’s lace. Dodge the low lying branches. I see my enemies ducking and weaving all around me. They can’t be scoring mushrooms while I come up empty-handed. I keep my cool and remain vigilant. My amateur eyes dart left and right, scanning the brush for any hint of mushroom. Suddenly, I spy with my little eye something the color white… I greedily snatch up my treasure and run off to Andrei to get his approval of my fresh pick. The coveted porcini mushroom! I feel as if I’ve just found the Holy Grail.

Wait, how did this transformation to mushroom-induced euphoria occur? Not more than an hour ago I was dreading the thought of mushrooming all day — and now I am struck with mushroom fever? Can’t think… must find more mushrooms. I continue to sift through the forest, looking here, there, completely losing myself in the quest to fill my basket. It was just me and the mushrooms.

I am not a particularly an “outdoorsy” type, but on that morning I felt I was a part of the forest. The deerflies hovering overhead were no longer a nuisance. The dirt on my hands — no longer dirty. It’s a good thing I kept going back to Andrei for second opinions, or I would have surely eaten something called “trip to the hospital.”

After heading home and having time to debrief myself, it did not occur to me that Russians simply really love mushrooms. Russians love nature. They love fresh air. The loving picking mushrooms — an unmediated convening of man and nature. They love the dacha because it provides unequivocal access to the outdoors. At the dacha, Russians become, as Thoreau wrote, “a part and parcel of Nature,” they achieve “absolute freedom and wildness.” And I too was absolutely free on this day.

This is what Americans fail to accomplish. We are not absolutely free and we will never be a part of nature. We are, and always have been, the great pioneers — the conquerors of nature! And sadly, this has planted an irrevocable “human versus wildness” mentality in us. It contravenes our perception of nature, destroys any ethos of unanimity we could hope to enjoy — a far cry from what the dacha epitomizes.

Maybe I didn’t fully debunk the dacha. But I looked it in the eye. I was able to get a sense of its soul, and I escaped my American mentality for a day.

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