Archive for April, 2010

Another mushroom search

April 13, 2010

Since starting this blog, I’ve come to regret not owning a digital camera.  If I’d had one this past Sunday while we were out looking for morels, I would have been able to post a picture of one of the weirdest mushrooms I’ve ever seen.

My friend Scott and I had left the main trail in Sugar Hollow, a river ravine that leads up to the Blue Ridge, and had quickly separated.  I knew this was going to happen.  Last year we’d gotten separated on a mountain we were both familiar with, but it doesn’t matter how deeply you know the topography – when you can’t find your hiking partner, when he doesn’t answer after you’ve screeched out his hard syllable name again and again, you’re probably not going to see him for a long time.  On that occasion I hiked back to my car, drove down the mountain and picked out some cute clothes at the Goodwill before I tried calling him on his cell phone.  Luckily for him, his phone had come back into service, and I picked him up.  Otherwise he would have had a long walk home.  Tip:  always stay close to the person with the car keys.

This time while we were still in the car, I’d suggested we come up with a plan in case we got separated.  His solution was to note the color of the clothes I was wearing.  In the interest of experimentation, I left it at that just to see what would happen.

When we’d both been hiking in opposite directions for long enough, I called his name.   I could hear him barely in the distance.  The next time I screamed his name, I could only hear the suggestion of sound.  I knew he wasn’t going to start moving closer to where I was.  That’s not the kind of guy Scott is.  When he gets in the woods, it’s like he’s 10 years old again, staying out in the West Virginia woods until it gets dark.  And he’s already dangerously childlike to begin with, turning his head to see some funny architectural feature when he’s driving, for instance, and then running the truck off the road.  In the woods this characteristic is accentuated.  I’ve never seen anyone get as excited by differently shaped rocks (he invariably carries out as many as he can hold), tree ears and leaf shapes.

Irritated, I decided to keep going straight uphill in the opposite direction.  “Having a plan doesn’t mean I’m the only one who follows it,” I thought.  “Two can play this game.”  I’d grown up in the woods too, mostly in Minnesota, and with the Moormans River cascading below, I could easily stay oriented.  I figured if I went too high, I could track over to meet the trail that ascended up to Skyline Drive.  I knew by then that the forest floor was all wrong for morels; that’s what I had wanted to communicate to Scott the second time I’d yelled.  But I also knew that I wouldn’t be bushwacking in these woods again this year.  One can really only hack around enjoyably during early spring before the vines and brambles start to clog up the forest floor and spiders start spinning their webs and gnats begin flying into your eyes.

I’d seen no fungi at all when I walked up to this pale salmon-colored growth, completely unlike the gilled-top mushroom silhouette most people are familiar with.  “What the heck are you?” I asked, continuously amazed by nature’s odd expressions.  This growth seemed twisted upon itself, its wrinkled surface translucent and smooth.  Once I knelt down to pick it, I realized that it constituted two mushrooms, grown so closely together that only after I’d released them from their stems did they fall apart, having fitted together like puzzle pieces.  Yesterday at the library I identified it.  A false morel.  I remember when we first found morels how my girlfriend had been afraid they were the false ones.   Now that I’ve seen one, I can say that these things look so unlike real morels that I can’t imagine anyone mistaking the two.  The only similarity between them is that they’re both in the forest around the same time of the year, although the only false morel I’ve seen so far grows in a completely different forest than the real ones.  Anyway, here’s a link that gives you a sense of what it looked like:

I hate going downhill, so I’d kept climbing, a mistake I needed to rectify and did so by falling on my butt numerous times down slick rock faces.  I scared a grouse out from the underbrush, but otherwise saw no other wildlife.  When I finally made it back to the trail, probably ¾ of a mile from where I’d separated from Scott, four hikers passed me by asking if I was looking for a guy in a blue hat.  “No,” I told them, “but I figure I’ll run into him eventually.”  One woman told me he’d described me to her as wearing a white hat.  So much for his “plan” – my hat was green.

He had been carrying lunch, a fact I’d kicked myself for while we’d been apart.  “Next time make sure you’re carrying your own food,” I said to myself.  I’d had the water, though, and when my stomach growled, I had placated myself by repeating that people can live without food but not without water.  Once we met up, I sat on a cool rock by the cascading Moormans satisfying my hunger, and Scott played in the cold water, collecting rocks.  We would be on the trail at least another hour, hiking past columbine, nettles, and wild ginger just coming up, and we’d detour in the level areas with poplar trees and spice bushes, the signature growth for morel territory at least in central Virginia.  We wouldn’t find a single one.  But it was a glorious day that can sweep so many bad ones out of consciousness and has its own, unanticipated pleasures.

2010 Morel Season Officially Opens

April 1, 2010

April 1, 2010

Yesterday was my first hike in the woods this Spring.  I’d been forced into idleness by a twisted knee through the weekend, an inactivity I could scarcely handle.  Even with the rest, I made myself buy hiking boots yesterday to keep my foot stable.  I got a blister on my heel from the new boots, but that’s an acceptable trade for no knee pain.  It’s amazing what the correct shoes can do for you.

Being a self-proclaimed shut-in, I had little idea what stage of bloom the woods southeast of here would be in, but looking at the forecast, I knew I had to get out.  Temperatures for the next six days will be in the 70s and 80s with no rain.  Not so good for morels – too warm too fast and too, too dry.  Even the rain we had Monday quickly evaporated with the 30 mph winds that followed.  I figured if no morels were popping yesterday, nothing was going to happen at least until we got another rain.  Anyway, even if I found no morels, I was chomping at the bit to get into the woods.

I’ve been hiking these woods for three years now.  I once lived downhill from them, and after my friend and I literally stumbled across morels one overcast and soggy April 2nd day, I trekked up there almost every day for a month, hiding the paper bags I used for my haul beneath my sweatshirt in case hikers passed by.  That year, 2008, we were blessed with a bonanza of morels we didn’t realize wouldn’t necessarily be repeated.  For one month, each time the temperature climbed into the 70s, the rain would come to dampen and cool everything down, teasing out additional crops of morels.  Together my two friends and I must have gleaned over 15 pounds of mushrooms from a single mountainside.  Last year the three of us probably found 3 or 4 pounds total.

These woods are among the lowest in elevation in the area, among the first pockets of predominantly poplar tulips woods rising out of the coastal lowlands.  Rule of thumb with morel hunting is that morel fruitings move 100 miles north and 1000 feet in elevation each week, which means the lower reaches of the Blue Ridge won’t see morels for a least a week if not more.  The temperature and moisture cues for morels to fruit seem to be so exact that if they’re not hit exactly, nothing will pop.  Last year in Central Virginia we had a cold dry Spring; the first morels we found were easily 10 days later than the year before.  After that, we found hardly any, thanks especially to the turkeys who were nesting and feasting up there, and finally 90 degree weather.  Too hot and too dry and too many freakin’ turkeys.  But north of here, there was a mushroom hunter searching in Loudon County who brought in pounds and pounds – the bounty we’d had in 2008.  Up there the temperatures and rain came together perfectly.

Despite our not seeing any morels on our walk up the mountainside yesterday, I talked happily about how I looked forward to having 10 seasons under my belt, even if some of those hunts were busts, knowing that each year would give my knowledge more breadth and depth.  As if in response, a tiny morel peeked out at me beneath a light cover of leaves.  Probably only 1 inch tall, it would have been invisible to almost anyone else, the color of the soil and leaves surrounding it, but my friend and I had been lingering over this particular spot, knowing that in the previous two years, morels had reliably popped up here.  With my still-stiff knee, I dropped to the ground as if to give a prayer of thanks, separating the tiny cap from the mushroom’s stem and cradling it in my hand.  We took turns sniffing its meaty, musty scent, as if arousing and familiarizing our scent memories for the search.  We would only find one more, another tiny one.  Much of the forest seemed too dry already; without a leaf canopy, the forest floor takes a beating from the sun.  And with no rain and unseasonably warm temperatures, that may be all the morels we find this year in our favorite spot.

The morels we brought home are too tiny to enjoy fully.  I might add them to the topping I make for a small pizza or maybe an omelet, and then they’ll be gone.  The blister I brought home as well will heal.  The hangover I had this morning from our celebratory drink has already dissipated.  What won’t leave me is the story of this year’s first morel find:  the tiny insight it has provided into nature’s wisdoms and the memory of joy.

2009 Morel Season

April 1, 2010

It was sad to Fanny to lose all the pleasures of spring.  She had not known before what pleasures she had to lose in passing March and April in town.  She had not known before how much the beginnings and progress of vegetation had delighted her.  – What animation both of body and mind she had derived from watching the advance of that season which cannot, in spite of its capriciousness, be unlovely, and seeing its increasing beauties from the earliest flowers, in the warmest divisions of her aunt’s garden, to the opening of leaves of her uncles plantations, and the glory of his woods. 

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

from May 1, 2009 

Today is the first day after this year’s morel season has ended for me.  At least once today I thought about going to look over on the Blue Ridge to look for more, but it was so hot – over 90 degrees – that all I finally felt was grateful I wasn’t sweating as I scrambled up and down hills in the still unshaded forest.  I’ll probably hike up there tomorrow for one more go and will no doubt take countless detours to peek behind as many tulip poplars as I can.  But the acceptance is slipping in.  Unless we go north and up in elevation, I can expect to find no more morels in the forest.  Summer has arrived, and the morel season was what it was – slim-pickings in the former apple orchard that last year proved such a bonanza but this Spring was devastated by turkeys, grubbing and nesting throughout the protected grove.  But each hunt held its own mysteries and beauties:  the delicate thrill of the cutleaf toothwort, the first violets, a parade of turkeys proceeding ahead, two turkey feathers left on a path (“Come out and get what’s coming to you,” I threatened, partly angry that the turkeys had grubbed out my prosperity though still appreciating the gift), and even turkey eggs, just pecked out, the remaining yolk still shiny on the inside.

Becoming obsessed with finding morels has changed my attitude and level of attention to Spring.  It seems I once only noticed those Spring days warm enough to allow me to wear some recently acquired outfit.  As I’ve aged, I’ve added to this initial recognition of Spring the welcoming of birds in their all-night revelries, noting the timing from each blooming tree’s ascendance to the descent of the honeysuckle’s heat-heavy fragrance, registering the cool denseness of the earth changing over to a radiating heat.  With morels I’ve added another layer of significance.  As I’ve joked more than once on those cool, rainy days most people were weary of, “It’s a good day for a mushroom.”  That’s how morels have altered my life for the last two Springs. 

At the simplest level, my love of morels is tied to my recognition of nature’s bounty.  It’s less about finding something edible for free, but that nature provides these fruitings without recompense, without concern over wasted, unappreciated effort.  It’s about beauty:  they are some of the most beautiful creations in the woods, pushing up fully formed from the moist ground, a subterranean glow emananting from the delicate ridges that pattern their caps.  It’s about rarity, evanescence, the very something that makes all life significant – its inevitable passing.  Of course being in those translucent woods early in the season before pest and brambles overgrow, walking more slowly than I will ever do throughout the rest of the seasons, watching more carefully as each plant take its place on the stage – the uncurling Jack-in-the-Pulpits, the multiplying comfrey:  all these things make morel hunting the best way to participate in the seasonal ritual of reawakening.

But morels are even more than this.  It’s their sense of humor that makes me want to be in their company.  For instance, last Tuesday, convinced I would find no more than the two or three small morels already in my mesh bag, certain I had come too soon after a thorough search on Sunday and too soon after a nice rain on Monday, I sat down on a log to eat the lunch I’d packed, vowing not to come back until Friday.  As I sat munching and reformulating my theories on morels (more on this below), for some reason I looked behind me, as if I’d heard some creature approach.  Indeed, something was approaching – a morel slanted toward me, sneaking up behind me, mocking me for my inadequate vision and faith.  Around me soon I saw several more, 7 all told when they were finally plucked from the ground and added to my bag.  What wily organisms!  How often they have appeared to me at the moment I’ve convinced myself of the impossibility of seeing “what isn’t there,” as I’ve said to myself. (And having announced this aloud to the forest, I immediately find one.)  It’s not just my experience, either, as fellow seekers have talked of the same thing.  We have anthropomorphized morels beyond reason, but this ties us to thrill of procuring them even more strongly.

There’s no end of theories we devise when out seeking mushrooms.  As we hunt together, two friends will go on and on speculating about what kinds of conditions morels like, theories that mainly rationalize their appearance or absence during our hunting excursions.  I enjoy teasing my friends for their “mushroom theories.”  Sure, morels in Virginia can grow beneath tulip poplars and spice bushes, and soil temperature and moisture are factors to consider.  But besides these, as to why they appear one place and not another is a pleasing mystery for me.  And though I can find myself rationalizing a bad hunt with my own mushroom theories, I generally do my best to enjoy the pleasure of finding morels as a gift and not a science.