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Enfield Man Stalks a Pricey Medicinal Fungus

  • Chris Martin, of Enfield, looks for chaga in a birch in Enfield, N.H., Sunday, April 9, 2018. The fungus is commonly used for its antioxidant effects and some studies suggest it may inhibit tumor growth in mice. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chris Martin, of Enfield, right, looks over the remaining growth of chaga after removing a piece from a birch tree as Scott Ibey, of Enfield, rests at left, in Enfield, N.H., Sunday, April 9, 2018. Chaga grows on birches in cold climates and has long been used as a folk remedy in Russia. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chris Martin spots chaga high in a birch tree while searching for the fungus in an Enfield, N.H., forest Sunday, April 9, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chris Martin examines a large piece of chaga after chopping it off a birch tree in Enfield, N.H., Sunday, April 9, 2017. After drying the mushroom and breaking it into smaller pieces, Martin will sell it on Craig's List for $15 - $20 per pound. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Christopher Martin, grinning in anticipation, raised his ax over his head and brought it down hard on the mushroom, which was also a medicine, which was also rock-hard to the touch. It broke off from its host birch tree with a satisfying thwack, sending fungal shrapnel flying.

He picked up the largest piece, which resembled a jagged, grapefruit-sized hunk of charcoal with an orange-gold center, and tucked it inside his camo-printed backpack. Later, he’d dry it out in front of his pellet stove until it was light as cork, and sell it to someone on the internet.

“Normally I wouldn’t take so much, but the tree is going anyway,” he said, pointing to where the birch was starting to die, from the top down. “If you come back in a couple years, it’ll probably be fallen or just a stump. I wouldn’t be surprised if (the mushroom) was what killed it.”

For Martin, who lives in Enfield, this was a pretty run-of-the-mill Sunday morning. He’s been hunting the mushroom, called chaga, for the past three or four winters. It mostly grows on birch trees in northern climes, and is said to have powerful medicinal properties: treating vitamin deficiencies, reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and boosting energy, to name a few.

There’s even some evidence out there — not airtight and irrefutable evidence, mind you, but evidence — that suggests chaga may treat and prevent cancer. A 2016 study in Tokyo, that administered chaga extracts to mice afflicted with certain types of cancer, suggested that an “extract of (chaga) could be used as a natural remedy for cancer suppression by promoting energy metabolism,” researchers wrote. A 2009 study in South Korea also reported “potential anticancer activity” against specific kinds of melanoma cells in mice, and attributed this to chaga’s potential ability to curb reproduction in cancer cells and induce “apoptosis,” or programmed cell death.

These studies on chaga seem to come primarily, if not exclusively, from outside of the United States, which has stricter protocols for scientific research. Though chaga is a long way off from becoming an FDA-approved medicine in the United States, Martin — and many others, based on the sheer amount of anecdotal evidence on the internet — is sold on the fungus’ health benefits.

“It’s full of trace vitamins and minerals that we don’t always get,” Martin said during a conversation at the West Lebanon Panera, a meeting place he politely agreed to despite not drinking coffee. “In our culture today, we don’t usually think about vitamin deficiencies … but for indigenous people, if you don’t get (the right vitamins), you’re going to get scurvy and die.”

Winter is the best time to hunt for chaga, he said, because the cold weather “locks those nutrients in” by keeping them in the body of the mushroom, without dispersing them to the tree. Sunday’s hunt was one of the last of the season.

The fungus, scientific name Inonotus obliquus, has long been used as a folk medicine by indigenous people in Siberia, where the name originates. Because chaga in its raw form is not the most digestible of Mother Nature’s bounty, it’s usually ground up and brewed as tea. (That’s what Martin drinks instead of coffee.)

It gets its flinty composition from a substance in its cell walls called chitin, which also gives lobsters and some insects their tough exoskeletons. Chitin is among the strongest known organic materials on Earth, and is rumored to offer a number of health benefits when taken as a dietary supplement, many of which overlap with the reported benefits of chaga.

“I started hunting it mainly for exercise, though,” said Martin, 39, in the woods Sunday. “I used to be a big guy in high school.”

But he also just likes tromping around in the forest, near Bog Road, in Enfield. It makes him feel happy and centered. If by some awful turn of events he ever ended up homeless, he likes to think that he could live OK out there, he said.

His friend Scott Ibey, also of Enfield, has started coming along on the hunts. He doesn’t make any money off the hunts, as Martin does; he just likes a good tromp, too. He also drinks chaga tea, which he jokingly called “homesteader’s speed,” for the energy boost it provides.

To prepare the tea, you take the dried-out chaga, crush it up and steep it in hot water. Ibey suggested using a hammer and screwdriver to break up the fungus into smaller chunks, a lesson Martin learned the hard way after wrecking a blender or two, he said.

“It tastes earthy,” Martin said. Ibey would, separately, describe its flavor the same way. They both like to add natural flavorings or sweeteners, such as cinnamon and maple syrup, to complement (or perhaps mask) the flavor of liquid forest.

Once it’s dried out, which causes it to lose about half of its weight, Martin sells it online for $20 per pound, less if purchased in bulk. One woman, from Salem, N.H., just bought $200 worth.

Martin’s chaga earnings supplement his income from working in the warehouse of Provisions International, in West Lebanon, and help take the sting out of childcare costs for his two kids, ages 1 and 3. Because he’s a father, he doesn’t risk climbing trees to get to the higher-up growths, even though according to his research, Siberian people considered the higher-growing chaga to be more nutritionally dense.

“If I fall and break my leg, who does that help? … That said, I have done a lot of stupid (stuff) to try to get it down. Throw my ax. Use a weight and rope. That came right back at me,” he grinned.

Besides, he does pretty well for himself without shimmying up any trunks. A successful hunt can yield 70 to 80 pounds of the mushroom, Martin said. As he and Ibey continue to refine their methodology, they’ve begun searching for patterns in the mushroom’s growth.

“We’ve tried to figure out if it prefers a certain side of the tree, like north or south, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it,” Ibey said. Rather, chaga — which reproduces through spores — tends to grow in the wounds left behind by fallen branches. It also seems to prefer yellow birch over white, for reasons that remain unclear to the Enfield hunters.

And it does, eventually, kill the tree. One birch, from which Martin hacked off some 35 pounds of chaga that day, had the fungus growing from its roots all the way up to its midsection, slowly consuming its host.

“We like to call it birch cancer,” Ibey said, chuckling at the irony of chaga’s anti-cancer potential in humans. And there is something vaguely tumor-like, or at least malignant-looking, about its bulbous, unforgiving form. Really, the foragers are doing the birches a favor, they reason.

As much as he enjoys the thrill of the hunt, though, Martin isn’t big on catching live game. For meat he raises chickens and turkeys, which he also butchers himself. (Not pigs, though. “Their eyes are too close to people’s eyes,” he said. “Too people-like inside.”)

Twenty minutes into Sunday’s hunt, Martin and Ibey had ventured deep enough into the woods that the trees and snow and random boulders and streams seemed, to an untrained eye, to mirror themselves endlessly in every direction. Martin consulted a topographical map on his phone from time to time, but he and Ibey more or less knew how to get around: to the rockface where they’d once found an abundance of chaga; to the scenic spot where Martin had, as a student at Lebanon High School, “partied”; to a road that circled back to the one where Ibey parked his truck, two hours ago, when the hunt began.

“Chris,” Ibey called. “I found a good one.”

Martin bounded off in the direction of Ibey’s voice, tearing through the underbrush in excitement, stumbling a little in unexpectedly deep patches of snow. Ibey was perched atop a boulder, pointing at the specimen.

Thwack.

“It has a nice shape to it,” Ibey noted approvingly. Viewed from the right distance and angle, the bulbous growth did have a rather elegant curvature, like that of the body of a guitar. “It’s a pretty one.”

Some might struggle to see the beauty in a hard, misshapen lump of fungus. But hunting for chaga is all about seeing beauty where there may not be much of it to behold. It’s about taking something destructive, a parasite, and turning it into something meant to heal.

“You’ve got to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right weather conditions,” Martin said. But it also takes a willingness to take things, even ugly things, at more than face value. Beneath the surface, “there’s a whole lot more than what you can see.”

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.