Features and Occasionals

Ardean Watts: Porcini Patriarch

By Katherine Pioli

A relaxing retirement is well earned by Ardean Watts. But he doesn’t seem keen on spending it reclined in an overstuffed chair. Watts, after all, has always been a man of activity and engagement. One of Salt Lake’s living institutions, Watts spent the greater part of his long life in this city nurturing and growing the arts. Despite his numerous achievements it’s Watts’ peculiar admiration for mushrooms that has earned him, more recently, an extraordinary amount of attention.

A relaxing retirement is well earned by Ardean Watts. But he doesn’t seem keen on spending it reclined in an overstuffed chair. Watts, after all, has always been a man of activity and engagement. One of Salt Lake’s living institutions, Watts spent the greater part of his long life in this city nurturing and growing the arts.

For 11 years, Watts served as associate conductor for the Utah Symphony, a position he grew into after being hired by conductor Maurice Abra­va­nel in the 1950s as the symphony pianist. For 22 years, Watts played as the official pianist of the Utah Symphony Orchestra (though now he declines to play for an audience, explaining, “my playing never matched my own standards”).

Outside his work with the Utah Symphony, Watts’ list of achievements and enterprises only grows longer. He served as musical director and principle conductor for Ballet West, taught music at the University of Utah and founded the school’s opera company. Even in retirement Watts’ service has not ceased, serving as chair of the Utah Arts Council and a member of the board of HawkWatch International.

Despite his numerous achievements it’s Watts’ peculiar admiration for mushrooms that has earned him, more recently, an extraordinary amount of attention. Queried by journalists from Sunstone Maga­zine, followed by reporters from the Salt Lake Tribune, talked about by the San Diego Mycological Society, it seems that many people are curious about this white-bearded patriarch and his fondness for fungi.

When I called him up this spring, eager to explore like so many before me Watts’ passion for and unparalleled knowledge of our state’s wild mushrooms, Watts was casually welcoming. “Don’t bother calling,” he told me. “I’ll be home after two. Just stop by when you’re free.”

It was warm and breezy, trees not yet leafing out, the afternoon that I knocked at Ardean Watts’ door. A delicate looking woman answered. Above our heads came a booming voice from the second floor. “Elna, who is it?”

Elna kindly helped me with my jacket and bicycle and guided me upstairs where I shook hands with Watts, a tall man as strong and commanding in appearance as his voice seemed to suggest.

“I never considered myself an athletic man when it came to the outdoors,” Watts said as the three of us settled into chairs in a dim living room packed with books. “My father believed that God set Sundays aside for fishing and hunting. Our table always had wild pheasant and trout and venison, foraged asparagus and watercress, and so I always had a great respect for what the earth could provide.”

Born Ardean Walton Watts in the little town of Kanosh, Utah, in 1928 and raised in Idaho Falls, Watts’ early experiences hunting and foraging were common among the pioneer families that had settled the Mormon territory. But as Watts grew older, his attention turned increasingly towards music instead of the land. He returned to Utah to attend Brigham Young University where, after a brief hiatus to serve his church mission in New England, he graduated in 1952 with a degree in music theory.

He married Elna who, like her husband, had grown up in the rural West. Raised in the town of Bear Lake on her family’s dairy farm, Elna spent summers foraging raspberries and huckleberries, and as she and Ardean began their own family they agreed that they should raise their children close to nature. The couple chose to settle in Salt Lake. It was a unique place, they felt, with ample opportunities both for work and school and with easy access to the outdoors.

As the years passed and their family grew—eight children in all—demands on the couple’s time never ceased. Watts, a man of unparalleled energy and talent, remained heavily involved in both work and community service. While employed with the Utah Symphony, he earned a master’s degree in performance at the University as well as maintained an active presence in civic clubs and church committees.mushrooms

He also found time for nature.

Watts’ friend Warren Woods, writing in his blog, once recounted stumbling across his old friend Ardean in the Salt Lake Canyons. Woods had just finished a vigorous hike and was fully satisfied with his excursion—refreshed by the perfumes of the woods, warmed by the sun, punctually returned to his car as planned—when he was surprised by the sight of his friend Ardean sitting quietly by a stream. Woods approached to see what his friend was doing.

“Get down really close. See,” Woods recalled Watts saying. “I’m watching a spider spinning its web.” Humbled and a little bit envious, Woods said he couldn’t remember a time outside of childhood that he had let go of the cares of the world long enough to watch a spider spin its web.

“I have always looked for alternative ways to relate to nature,” said Watts, whose sensitivity for animals and plants led him for 15 years to avoid eating meat, paying off what he considered a heavy debt to the animals he had killed. Even before becoming temporarily vegetarian, Watts, unlike his father, could not enjoy hunting or fishing. Neither was he partial to skiing or biking. So he searched for another part of the equation by which to experience nature and, eventually, found mushrooms.

It was the famous forager Euell (pronounced yule) Gibbons who first pointed the way for Watts. Though today’s foodist elite often act as though wild food foraging is a new en vogue trend in haute cuisine, the movement is actually a revival of the ’70s back-to-the-land movement of which forager-naturalist Euell Gibbons was at the forefront, authoring a series of foraging books including Stalking the Blue-eyed Scallop and Stalking the Wild Asparagus.

Gibbons, Watts admits, was not an expert on mushrooms. Very little of his writing was devoted to mushroom foraging, but it was just enough to catch Watts’ attention. A thorough man, Watts bought all the books he could find on mushrooms. He poured over texts on the science of fungi. He learned mushroom identification. He ventured out into the forest.

He became a serious student, some in Utah’s mushrooming scene have even called him a protégé, of Kent H McKnight, author of A Field Guide to Mushrooms: North America. In an arid state averaging little more than 15 inches of rainfall a year, Watts learned from McKnight of the surprising hidden diversity and potential for mushrooms—well over 2,000 fungi species, McKnight estimated, in the Wasatch and Uinta ranges.

Watts began to explore. He discovered oyster mushrooms growing on cottonwood trees in Salt Lake’s canyons. He found morels and puffballs. He remembers once seeing a pickup truck loaded high with 500 pounds of wild porcini. “A glorious mushroom,” he tells me. “Buttery and tender and succulent. Heavenly. Arguably the best mushroom of North America.”

As his independent study continued, Watts quickly became not simply a mushroom hunter, but a notable amateur mycologist more interested in the science of mushrooms than in eating them. “Why do they grow? Where to they grow?” he asked, excited to finally delve into the real meat of mushrooms. “The science is so complicated. All life on earth depends on fungus. If they disappeared, the forests would be gone in a few years as would everything that depends on the forests, even humans.”

The relationship between fungi and forests has been important enough to earn the attention of the U.S. Department of Energy whose Joint Genome Institute released findings from a 2008 study exploring the potential for carbon sequestration in forests. Interested in finding the necessary components for supporting and sustaining healthy forests for this cause, the report focused on trees’ symbiotic relationship with fungi.

“Plants gained their ancestral toehold on dry land with considerable help from their fungal friends,” the report states. Beginning with soil microbes called mycorrhizal fungi, these small organisms gather scarce but essential nutrients like phosphate and nitrogen and transfer them to growing trees. Given that competitive advantage, the tree flourishes and as it does, the fungi establishes itself as part of the tree root, gaining “protection from competition with other soil microbes and gaining preferential access to carbohydrates.”

“To me,” Watts says, ” that relationship is a metaphor for everything good in world. Cooper­a­tion is what survival is all about and fungi are the perfect partner.”

During summer months when, as he says, “things really started exploding and begging to be harvested and eaten,” Watts encouraged others to share in his fascination of mushrooms by hosting wild-food dinners at the house. By 1994, a year after his retirement from teaching at the University of Utah, he had garnered enough interest in fungi to found the Mushroom Society of Utah.

Many of the group’s early members came from the Native Plant Society, who already shared Watts’ interest in wild foods and, especially when it came to mushrooms, a desire to know which were safe and which were not.

Loosely organized, the group, which is still active under the leadership of Stephanie Cannon, has always welcomed newcomers. Seasonal events feature group forays into the mountains, where society members wander off to gather mushrooms and then re-converge with their findings to help one another identify and learn about the species they have harvested. Often, observes Watts, members only remain active for a few years, long enough to learn the ropes. But according to Watts, sometimes that’s all it takes to bridge the gap between humans and the natural world.

“People who are curious about mushrooms are often purely motivated by the prospect of eating them,” Watts says. “But for some, if they stay with it over time, there is an evolution. They realize that mushrooms should not be seen as merely through the lens of edible versus poisonous but as beautiful and aesthetic attractions, the same as flowers in bloom. Not trivial, but spectacular.”

At one time, Watts recalls wistfully, mushroom hunting in Utah was as simple as a slow attentive amble under streamside cottonwoods. Empty fields in the center of the valley yielded bags full of porcini, gathered by local families still mindful of old world knowledge.

“You have to go to Wyoming now,” says Watts, “to find areas that produce enough. In Salt Lake a good season for morels these days is no more than a plateful.”

It was 20 years ago when Watts first began noticing the change. About the time, he says, that the reservoirs started declining. Utah, after all, has only a marginally good climate for mushrooms, nothing like the Pacific northwest where commercial harvesting of edible wild mushrooms has become a multimillion dollar industry. In Utah, it only takes a slight change in rainfall or snow pack to make a huge difference.

“It’s very much like the coral reefs,” says Watts, “where even a slight change in water temperature can mean death to the ecosystem.”

Encroaching development up the canyons and across the valley has also done its part in destroying mushroom habitat in the area, as has general over harvesting. Some­times, when Watts checks one of the few mushrooming areas left, places he still shares with people, all he finds are stumps. It’s a prospect that would make any amateur mycologist sorrowful, maybe even bitter.

But Watts is a man who has learned to appreciate earthly miracles wherever he finds them. He reminds us what is good, funny, surprising and beautiful about life. Sometimes, that includes mushrooms. After all, Watts reminds me before we part, “without fungi there would be no yeast, no bread, no wine, no cheese, no penicillin.” All things to be grateful for, and protect.

This article was originally published on May 4, 2014.