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Touching grass with Pa.'s renaissance woodsman

Plus, UPenn's 'wildly popular monk class.'


Spotlight PA was honored with eight awards by the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in this year's Keystone Media Awards, including the prestigious Public Service Award for 2022 gubernatorial race coverage.

The annual contest is a showcase of the best journalism being done across the commonwealth. In addition to winning the Public Service Award for a third straight year, Spotlight PA was also recognized for its coverage of Pennsylvania's broken compassionate release system, the cozy ties between lawmakers and casino lobbyists, and other vital public-interest topics.

Learn more about Spotlight PA's winning entries here.

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Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen

June 9, 2023
Inside this edition: "Monk class," state song, bird cuffs, waterfall stamp, parking champ, and eating off the forest floor. Thanks for checking in.
🏆 PA POP QUIZ: Put your news knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Opioid money, teacher shortage, and Womens Veterans Day.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The longest Pride flag in Pennsylvania is how long? 

A. 50 feet
B. 100 feet
C. 200 feet
D. 500 feet

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth sharing: U Penn Professor Justin McDaniel’s wildly popular “monk class," formally called Living Deliberately, requires its 14 students to “observe a code of silence, abstain from using all electronic communications and limit their spending to $50 a week," per CNBC.

» One bill worth following: State Rep. Joe Ciresi's bid to replace Pennsylvania's state song has cleared a committee hurdle and is headed for a floor vote. The Montgomery County Democrat, speaking with PA Local in March, said he knows there will be controversy: "People get angry at everything."

» One thing worth reading: PublicSource explains how a magnolia warbler, after journeying across the Gulf of Mexico and most of the U.S., was equipped with a tiny cuff in the woods of Pittsburgh that could ultimately help scientists save local ecosystems along the route.

» One stamp worth mailing: A postage stamp series on iconic American waterfalls will include one from Ricketts Glen State Park in Luzerne County. Speaking of stamps: Did you know the world's largest nonprofit dedicated to stamp collecting has a museum in Bellefonte?

» One thing worth trying: Congrats A.J. Arnett, 2023 grand champion of "the world's first and only parallel parking championship" at a Pittsburgh Busy Beaver. I tried my hand at the competition in this newsletter last year and was instantly disqualified for mounting the curb.

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Corruption arrest imperils Pa. town merger

» Pa. officials spent $12.6M on school funding fight

» Your guide to fast-approaching Pa. budget deadline

» Spotlight PA wins prestigious Public Service Award

» WATCH: Panel on Pa.’s troubled guardianship system
Man in overalls crouching on forest floor to examine plant.
William Padilla-Brown. (Photo via @mycosymbiote)

“Pennsylvania is amazing. Like, Pennsylvania is a national treasure.” 

William Padilla-Brown is talking about mushrooms here — really all manner of wild edibles found scattered throughout the ancient woods that gave the commonwealth half its name.

Padilla-Brown is a foraging guru, budding mycological influencer, and one in a wave of eco-entrepreneurs of color urging a collective recalibration of maybe the most fundamental aspects of earthly existence: what we consume to live and heal and how we get it. 

Distilling his bio into a single (long) paragraph might be impossible, but I’m going to try: 

Padilla-Brown was an Army brat who roved the planet before putting roots down in Cumberland County when his father retired from the service there. With his grandfather dying of cancer, a young William discovered the medicinal properties of cannabis and, in turn, the natural world’s various skeleton keys — tools capable of unlocking a wide array of physiological responses, including with his own persistent stomach troubles, he says. He set out to learn everything he could about fungi and flora, devouring books, cornering experts at conferences, and eventually building a reputation as a self-taught citizen scientist. That would lead to his own “decentralized” research business, MycoSymbiotics, based out of an eco-village-in-progress in an abandoned Harrisburg high school

There were lots of earned media along the way. 

Over the course of the hour he spent talking with PA Local, Padilla-Brown sounded like Timothy Leary’s Mechanicsburg cousin, urging folks to tune in to the liminal spaces all around us, turn on by quite literally — in internet parlance — touching some grass, and dropping out of our cloistered lives to find and eat something off the forest floor. 

He says we’re in the right place for it, continuing to wax on the virtues of Penn’s woods: 

“We don’t get forest fires or earthquakes. There’s literally spring water shooting out of the sides of mountains, even when it’s dry. You can go to these spring ecologies and find mushrooms, edible plants, and also, because we’re part of the original colonies and because of the emphasis on colonization here, so many people from around the world have brought their food here.” 

He expands on this:

“We’ve got all sorts of Chinese edibles. All sorts of European edibles. We’ve got watercress, wineberries, all sorts of mulberries, cherries, ramps, and garlic. We have reishi, cordyceps, chaga, porcini — every mushroom you can think of. Chanterelles! We have truffles that people don’t even know about. We got so caught up in our hubris that we started cultivating European truffles here before we realized there were native truffles!” 

He’s often asked about magic mushrooms, to which he deadpans “all mushrooms are magic.” (He’s particularly partial to cordyceps, a class that includes the “zombie fungus” from The Last of Us and photos of hijacked, Gwar-ish-looking insect bodies like these.) 

But the man knows his way around a psychedelic experience, having done consulting work on the subject in states where psilocybin is newly decriminalized. Pennsylvania — despite its abundance of potent wild psychedelic mushrooms — is very much not one of those states, and his business is on the up-and-up, focused on researching new uses for legal ‘shrooms and turning them into mail-order products that “support overall health and wellbeing.”

Pennsylvania isn’t particularly New Agey, and a foundational reevaluation of food and medicine chains may seem implausible in a place that often looks like this. But Padilla-Brown says a little time away from our indoor routines would do us good, adding: "This is literally the fucking meaning of life. If people are questioning what’s real in this world of screens, you need to go outside."

Convenience culture, work ethic, the postmodern condition … Padilla-Brown is one in a very resolute group of people who unflinchingly believe a parallel universe — slower, happier, healthier — is out there, right there, in fact, behind the treeline. 

If you don’t believe him, there’s a chance to find out. A few weeks from now, in August, Padilla-Brown will lead another sojourn into the woods, this one for the 9th annual MycoFest in State College. The hike is part of the days-long “mushroom and arts festival” that he founded. In past years, participants have found 200 to 300 types of mushrooms that are shared with inquiring local college students. There's only one caveat:

“I get so many people out in the woods and they’re like all right let’s go find the mushrooms and they’re going all fast. And I'm telling you that until you slow down you won't be able to understand the language of nature." 

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"Please note I may be slower to respond to email in the months of June, July, and August due to the United States' inability to provide affordable child care for working mothers."

—Pittsburgh journalist Meg St-Esprit's email signoff, the explanation of which recently went viral; St-Esprit told Good Morning America about the response

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Susquehanna Lady Liberty — a "prank turned town icon" — near Harrisburg, via @yatsko. Have a photo to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
A Statue of Liberty replica in the Susquehanna River.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The longest Pride flag in Pennsylvania is 200 feet and arrived in Pennsylvania's largest city last week. 

Per The Inquirer (paywall)

To kick off Philly Pride Month, LGBTQ-serving organization Galaei partnered with the Philadelphia Visitor Center Corporation to unveil the largest Pride flag in Pennsylvania at Independence Mall Friday.

It’s a 200-foot-long rainbow. That’s the length of some city blocks or about two-thirds of a football field, and double the size of New York City’s largest Pride flag, which taps out at 100 feet.

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
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