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Mushroom guru sets his sights higher

‘If you want to learn mushrooms, learn mushrooms. If you want to learn birds, learn birds. But if you want to learn everything, learn trees.’

| 28 Mar 2022 | 01:55

He was a thrash metal drummer, then a Whole Foods nutritionist, then a self-made YouTube foraging sensation. Now Adam Haritan is on the tail end of a two-and-a-half year project: to teach us the trees of the Northeast. Whatever he does, he does it obsessively.

You’ve talked about your “range,” how you only like to travel in eastern North America. Why is that?
I feel very faithful to Pennsylvania, because that’s where I live and that’s where I grew up. I did a lot of traveling, but I only spent one year living somewhere else. But the more I learned about Pennsylvania, the more I felt like I need to learn more of it. There’s just so much here, and rather than go broad with all the mushrooms around the world, I’d rather spend the time learning the mushrooms that grow here because nobody could ever master every single one. But whenever I do travel and get far away, my knowledge base goes down, so doing this kind of work actually keeps me very faithful to Pennsylvania. I don’t really see it as a detriment. It’s a limitation but not necessarily a detriment.

You started Learn Your Land in 2014. Do you have a sense of where you want to take it next?
Right now I have a mushroom course out that guides people through the seasons, and I’m working on a tree course, which is trees of Northeastern North America. So I kind of evolved away from doing strictly live events and YouTube videos to doing more curated content. I’m starting to use a lot of the proceeds that I’m making through Learn Your Land – which is 100% for profit, it’s not a nonprofit organization – funneling that back into land conservation. And as I continue to make more money, I continue to donate more money – to teach people the importance of giving back, and do it through my actions first. So people see me doing that and then they feel inspired to do it.

Is there a downside to being a solo entrepreneur?
Yeah there’s a lot of downsides [laughs]. I think it’s part of my personality to want to have control over everything in my life, but the beautiful thing about being involved with nature and spending a lot of time in nature is you realize how small you actually are. How out of control you actually are. And how nature is actually in control. So I think it’s perfect that I’m pushed into this position of being in the wild, yet wanting to be in control and realizing that I can’t be in control all the time.

There are a lot of downsides to what I do. I mean, I want to do everything and I know I can’t do everything. So for these online courses and all these videos, I shoot everything, I edit everything, I write all the emails, I answer all the emails. I don’t have anybody working for me, and so it’s hard for me to bounce ideas off of people. And sometimes I miss things because I don’t have people to check the errors. But there are a lot of upsides as well, which is I get to do what I want with the money I get. And it’s not like I live in a mansion or anything. I mean, I rent an apartment on a main road and I don’t have many expenses. But at least I know I can give this money back because I don’t have to answer to anybody who would want to do something else with it.

As a fellow flip phone owner, we have to talk about the fact that you operate your own business without a smart phone. Is it more of a financial or lifestyle decision?
I guess I do save money by not having a smartphone, but it was never a financial decision. Never. I mean, I can afford it, and it would do nothing to my expenses if I had a smartphone. I mean, I’m very slow to make decisions, but when I make them I’m very confident and firm in my decisions and it takes me awhile to change that decision. What’s interesting is that whenever smartphones started coming out, and people started jumping on the bandwagon, getting smartphones, that’s when I started getting into nature. It was at the same exact time. So I just found so much joy and comfort and relief in the peace and serenity of nature, and I was becoming so swept away by this passion, that I kind of insulated myself from everything else that was going on in the world. And so I think while that was happening, while I was spending all this time in nature and building Learn Your Land, everybody was getting a smartphone. And I just thought, I don’t want to change anything in my life right now because I need to focus on this passion of mine.

I don’t know about you, but people are always telling me: ‘Oh, I’m so jealous that you don’t have a smartphone.’ People seem to want to be free of them, although they can’t disentangle themselves.
Always everybody says that, you’re right! I mean, when they find out that you don’t have one, they say oh I wish I didn’t have one, or I wish I didn’t spend so much time or that’s amazing, that’s awesome. And then I say, well you can do it too. And then they kind of mumble. I mean, I know when I get one it’ll be really hard to go back. Right now it’s very easy to maintain a flip phone in this kind of life, but if I would ever get one, I think it’d be difficult to give it up.

What’s the biggest inconvenience about not having a smartphone?
Everything’s being catered to people with smartphones now. If you travel or if you fly, it’s just a lot easier to show them your smartphone where your ticket is, to get into venues and concerts and stuff like that. I just gotta print everything right now, which is fine because people printed things for a long time before smartphones. I guess another thing is when I go out, I have to plan a lot, because I need to know where I’m going. I can’t change things too much while I’m traveling, because I don’t have a smartphone to check a map or anything like that. But the benefit of it is, I’ve become very good at navigation, like I can memorize directions very, very well. I can get around very well because there’s not a machine telling where to go. So this has helped me in nature as well, because I don’t use a GPS system or anything like that. I just go off, and I always have to know where I am, relative to where I parked or relative to where I went in. So I’ve become much better at navigation by not having a smartphone.

You didn’t grow up this way. Do you talk trees with your family?
I don’t talk about it at all. I mean, they know what I’m doing to some degree. They’ll ask how I’m doing, what’s new with it all, but I don’t really talk about this stuff, even with my friends. I think I do it so much with the work that I do, that if people want to find it they can, but I’m not that aggressive with it. I’m actually quite an introverted person.

What do you do when you’re not working, to recharge?
Working? [laughs] I mean I don’t say this to brag, but I haven’t had a day off since January 1. And I took it off because it was New Year’s Day and I went on a walk with my girlfriend, and we stayed up late the night before to watch the ball drop so we kind of slept in a little bit.

But my life is very different right now because I’m in the midst of that behemoth of a project which is that tree course. I’ve been working on it for two and a half years. I mean maybe in a year I could take a couple days off. I really don’t take time off until the project’s done. Because this project has been two-and-a-half years in the making, I’ve been working on it almost every single day.

Before that, I was in between projects and had more time off. And once I release this course, I will take some time off in June. But my mind is constantly thinking about: what’s the next video going to be, what’s the next project going to be, or what tree is that, or what mushroom is that?

I don’t try to compartmentalize work and play and downtime. But I know what you’re asking, and if I would have a complete day off, I would work out. I would go to the gym or I would work outside. I do a lot of calisthenics stuff and ring work. I would read and I might go to a library.

Do you read books about plants, novels, all of the above?
Yeah all of the above. I keep mentioning that I’m working on this tree course and it’s taking up my whole entire life right now, but at the end of the day I’m reading a massive biography on something that has nothing to do with what I’m doing right now. It’s the biography of John D. Rockefeller Sr., like the oil tycoon from the 1800s. But that’s what I’m reading and it helps me unwind. But I do read a lot of ecology books: botany books and mushroom books and all this stuff. I think it’s because I’m so focused on trees right now that I kind of need something that’s completely the opposite of that.

That wouldn’t be my first choice for a bedtime unwind. Are you a history buff?
Kind of. I guess I’m moreso interested in how he ran his business, and his philanthropy. I do like history though, and I’m very focused on the history of Pennsylvania, so I read books on that as well.

Any fun facts?
I’m just curious what the land looked like before Europeans came here. And so I like looking at pictures of what Pittsburgh might have looked like. And I just keep thinking, why did they have to build a massive city there? Because that could have been such a beautiful, like a national park. It’s got these three rivers that are surrounded by these massive hills. I can only imagine what it would have looked like if we would have just kept it forested.

How do you choose what you’re going to do next?
As far as a big project, it’s very slow. It’s a long process to decide on something like that but once I do decide on it I’m very firm in my resolve and I don’t waver from it and I become obsessed with it. But I’m not even sure that I’m the one that chooses. At this point I almost feel like I have to do it, I’m being forced to it. It sounds weird to say that because I don’t have a boss, but I think it’s much greater than just me deciding myself, I’m going to do this thing. It’s just an inspiration that overcomes me, and I have to do it before I can move onto the next thing in life.

You’re lucky. Not everyone has that clarity.
Sometimes I think it’s a curse [laughs].

In terms of the pie chart of your time: how much do you get to spend outdoors, and how much are you chained to the computer?
So it just fluctuates. Right now I’m behind the computer maybe 10 hours a day, and I hardly spend any time outside, because I’m editing. But all last year it was outside because I was filming all the content. So it was 6, 7, 8 hours a day outside, filming trees, learning trees, and just walking through different areas to become familiar with the land. But right now, January through mid-March, is pretty much all indoors. But I planned it that way because here in Pennsylvania it’s kind of cold, there’s not much going on outside. So I would rather do it now than have to be behind a computer when it’s like 75 degrees out and the wildflowers are blooming.

Pitch us the course!
The course is called Trees in All Seasons. It’s an online course designed to teach people how to identify over 100 trees, mostly they grow in Northeastern United States. Unlike a field guide where you get two, maybe three pictures tops, you get lots of video content on each tree, in every season. Many times if you open up a field guide to look at, like sugar maple, you might get a picture of the leaf, the bark and maybe the fruit, but what about young bark? What about old growth bark? Some species there’s female flowers and also male flowers? What do the seeds look like? What are the fall colors? So I’ve documented all these trees throughout the year. Not only is it identification but you get ecology lessons, you get anatomy lessons as well. It’s meant for people who are the beginner to somewhat intermediate level.

Is there a certain kind of person you expect to take your course?
I imagine homeowners, who have property, who are interested in identifying their trees, because I get a lot of emails requesting my services to come and identify things on their property but I can’t always do that. People who like to hike in general. Mushroom hunters – because if you hunt mushrooms one of the best pieces of advice is to learn how to identify trees, because mushrooms grow in association with certain trees. It isn’t so advanced where it’s just for adults, so I imagine some people who want to homeschool their kids in nature would find value in this course as well. I know it sounds general to say anybody who has an interest in the outdoors, but I think with trees, it’s more all-encompassing, rather than learning edible plants or learning mushrooms.The thing about trees is I find that people don’t discipline themselves to learn trees. They’ll just learn through osmosis – like if I spend enough time outside, I’ll just learn them one at a time, maybe a couple here and there. But I think it’s way more effective to actually sit down and spend a year or two just learning the trees, and then you’ll never forget them. And so this course can help people discipline themselves in that way.

Yeah, I can’t believe I don’t know more trees, the amount of time I spend outdoors. How does it enhance your experience of being outdoors to be able to identify trees?
I think it makes you feel connected to a particular piece of land. There’s a huge push to just be global – to go bigger, greater, and do all these massive things, to appeal to everybody. But I’m not so sure that works, because the world we have today is a result of people who think that way. And I’m not sure this is, like, the best that we can do. So just learning things kind of roots you in a particular place. But trees in particular, there’s a couple reasons I like to learn trees. Number one, there’s not that many of them, relatively speaking. If you want to learn all the mushrooms that grow where you live, you’ll never do it, because not every single mushroom has been identified at the species level, and there are thousands of them. The same thing with plants, there are thousands of them where you live. Trees, there’s probably, in your state, maybe 150 different species that are native. That’s doable, you can actually do that. And they’re around all year long – it gives you something to do all year round, doesn’t matter which season it is. And they’re big – you can see them. It’s not that hard to, like, find a tree. Mushrooms are a little harder than that; edible plants you don’t really have a winter season for that. And another thing is that whenever you learn trees, you kind of learn ecological concepts, I think, to a greater degree than if you just learned edible plants or if you just learned mushrooms. I like to say now, if you want to learn mushrooms, learn mushrooms. If you want to learn birds, learn birds. But if you want to learn everything, learn trees. Because it just has this way of showing you much greater things out there than just trees. You realize that they are connected to a lot of different things, lots of organisms rely on trees, that we wouldn’t have this world today without trees. And I know you can say the same thing about birds and mushrooms, but the trees are just in your face. You can’t miss them. They’re just there all... year... long.

And literally dropping things on your head each fall to remind you they’re there.
Yeah. But I think because they are so common and ubiquitous, we just overlook them. Because we’re always looking for the novel, the new, the sexy. And going back to that sense of feeling lonely: if you know things you don’t feel so alone, because you realize, just because you don’t see humans, or you don’t have many friends, or you don’t always see your friends, there are lots of other organisms that share your home, and it’s not just humans. There’s other forms of life.

Sign up here for the tree ID course, coming out late May.