Mycologist with a Microscope: Alan Rockefeller

Who doesn’t love a photo of a photographer taking a photo? Opposite, Mandy Hackney captured Oakland-based mycologist Alan Rockefeller as he was photographing some edible Kuehneromyces mutabilis mushrooms that had populated a stump near Eugene, Oregon.

By KO

Here’s a man who walks his talk. Alan Rockefeller says we can conserve nature better if we get out and spend more time in it, paying closer attention to what we see and sharing our finds online.

I spoke with Alan at the end of September as he was returning from Oaxaca, Mexico, where he’d co-led a mushroom foray as part of an Indigenous crafts and cuisine tour with chef/author Zachary Mazi. From Mexico City, Alan lectured to the Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF) by Zoom, and the next time I spoke with him, he was driving to Eugene, Oregon, for the start of a fall foray. From there he would return through Northern California to Oakland, where he would identify the samples he carried back from his travels using microscopy and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis.

Photo by Alan Rockefeller

Alan Rockefeller never studied mycology formally. As his interest grew, he noticed that most scientific websites used gene sequencing for identification, and in 2013, he discovered he could learn those techniques at Oakland’s Counter Culture Labs (CCL), which at the time was still housed in Ahnon Milham’s closet. On returning from a long South American foray, Alan learned that CCL had secured space in the Omni Commons in Oakland, where it has grown into a respectable open-source biology lab. Alan supports the organization with classes on microscopy and PCR preparation and analysis.

It was at CCL that I first met Alan. He didn’t talk much, but his work was fastidious. I was beginning to make petri dish cultures and quickly noticed I could learn more if I watched Alan as others did the lecturing. There was never any contamination in his work.

 

Back at his CCL bench, Alan identifies his finds, enters his photographs online, and verifies sightings on two easy-to-use apps, inaturalist.org (covers the broad spectrum of nature) and mushroomobserver.org (prioritizes mushrooms). His work helps others learn more about what they are seeing.

Famously generous with his time, Alan Rockefeller presents at mycology clubs from Washington to Los Angeles and beyond. He also leads occasional local forays. Photography sales are the main sponsor of his work, so look for his display at the January 23, 2022, MSSF Fungus Fair in Orinda, where he promises to talk about photographing mushrooms as well as his recent trip to Mexico.

For people foraging during the drought, Alan Rockefeller’s best tip is to look in spots with irrigation. He recommends Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast by Noah Siegel and Christian Schwarz and a Facebook group called the California Mushroom Identification Forum, so you will always know what is safe to eat or best to leave in the woods. The mushroom gatherers’ prime credo is, “If you don’t know what it is, toss it out.”

Find Alan Rockefeller on Instagram and Facebook as well as at inaturalist.org and mushroomobserver.org