Posts Tagged ‘morels’


April 17, 2020

It’s a compulsion I haven’t been able to indulge in for at least five years.

I realize this isn’t the greatest picture.  My tiny flip-phone, which already doesn’t take amazing pictures, downsized the image when I sent it.  Bah!

My obsession with morel hunting began in 2005.  I’d returned to Virginia the previous year and was working with a co-worker whose husband’s family had farmed along the mountains of what would come to be known as Shenandoah National Park.

When she shared this helpful rule, I was hooked:

“When the poplar leaves are the size of squirrel’s ears, it’s time to start hunting merkels.”

squirrel ear sized poplar leaf

We didn’t find morels that year although we raced through various landscapes trying to locate what we imagined would be the perfect environment for them.  That was part of the problem:  racing.  When you’re hunting for morels, you have to allow the world to narrow to four or five feet and slow to a glacial crawl.  What I recall of that first attempt was how we would crane our heads up to check if we were walking beneath tulip poplar trees and then look down at the forest floor.  It’s a surprising that we didn’t hurt ourselves during these dizzying tries, but we were younger then.

Another friend and I literally stumbled over morels 3 years later.  We ended up harvesting so many morels that I don’t really ever need to eat another one.  One night my boyfriend was late (again) to dinner so I ate the entire pound of morels in cream over croissants as a sort of revenge.  (see previous note on being younger)

These days, pandemic or no, I’m simply grateful for the gift the forest gives when a perfect morel reveals itself, its giggling barely muffled.  After a long winter and before the crowded vivacity of summer, the woods are a special domain, giving me the chance to stretch my muscles – slowly – and thrill in the signs of renewed life.  One of my favorite John Muir quotations captures this uniquely human understanding:

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.

guardian spirits

the message of morels

May 3, 2014

Yesterday, a Friday, while everyone else was running around getting tasks completed to make room for a perfect spring weekend, I had my own perfect day:  I was hunting morels.

Despite all the pleasures the beauty of the spring woods and the mystery of morels provide, I didn’t know whether I’d get a chance to enjoy them this year.  Last year, the signs that woods would be changing were unmistakeable:  scores of tulip poplars had been marked in blue paint by the landholder, eager to add a small profit to his bank account.

With too many other elements of my world shifting, I refused to investigate whether the landowner’s logging plans had come true until  2 or 3 weeks ago.  After a long, cold winter, the weather had briefly turned warm and rain had fallen.  But it didn’t take long walking down the path into my beloved forest to see it would take more than warm temperatures and rainfall to coax life out of the soil.  The devastation was more than I could ever have imagined.

The first image that came to mind was a nuclear explosion.  What else could epitomize the utter destruction man was capable of when he was consumed by the lure of profit?  For six years I’d wandered this forest, some weeks on a daily basis, but I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing with my memory of what had existed.  It wasn’t simply the mature poplars that were missing.  The logging had been completed during the summer, so the forest floor was bare even of the modest covering of last year’s leaves, so necessary in harboring the new spring’s growth.  This wasn’t a thriving ecosystem; this was a parking lot, scoured by earth-moving equipment of wildflowers, of briars, of rotting wood, of life.

That day I walked in a daze through the husk of the forest, crying, apologizing, hating the man who had done this.  Later, conditions for morels perfecting much later than usual, I wasn’t sure I could make myself return.  But on one of the last days of this morel season, I willed myself into the woods, reminding myself that the spirit of the forest, though bowed, could not be broken.  It was enduring, mysterious, beautiful, and healing in ways man could never be.

With a busy schedule, I’ve taken to wearing my watch more often than I should.  But I was happy to forget it yesterday.  Once I got into the woods and cautioned myself not to stare in the abyss of the worst destruction, I let nature talk to me, tease me, delight me.  I let her remind me that we aren’t solely our jobs, our pains, our dissatisfactions, our disappointments.  We are also our pleasures.  I drank the forest’s beauty like a thirsty woman at a well, grateful for this one day that will help me bear the remaining 364 with some semblance, I hope, of wisdom and patience.




Rain, Rain, Stay the Day, Come Again Another Day

March 24, 2012

That I have different objectives than most of the people I come across is an abstraction that doesn’t usually manifest itself in an easily observable manner.  But this Friday, as I worked my rounds in a large office building , this fact was illuminated like the score lit up on an electronic board:  Everyone vs. Tamara

“Be sure to do all your outside tasks early tomorrow,” one woman kindly counselled.  “It’s supposed to rain all day.”

Others, grumbled such things as:  “We were planning a hike.”  “Now I’ll never get that grass cut.”  “Why does it have to rain on the weekend?”

I assured all we needed the rain — that ground was frighteningly dry, that we needed to get caught up with rainfall before the real heat came and stayed.  But their irritation would not be assuaged.

Rather than being doused by the prospect of the forecasted rain, all day my enthusiasm was growing like . . . well, like a morel, waiting just below the surface for cooling temperatures and gentle moisture.  This morning these folks may still be glaring outside their windows, wondering if there will be a break in the raindrops (much like my cat Bandit, I imagine), but I’m vibrating like the green of the newly budded leaves, anticipating the mysteries the forest will unfold the next time I make my trek.

Some times being an oddball totals up as a loss.  But this weekend, I feel like I’m on the winning side.

March Morel Madness

March 20, 2012

which has more creases -- the mushrooms or my hands?

Spring is so forward this year that I found these small morels almost 2 weeks earlier than I’ve ever found morels before.  Unfortunately, it’s also very dry, so unless we have a string of cloudy days and some gently soaking rains, there might not be many morels for Albemarle County hunters.

Morels are funny.  Minutes before I found my first one, I reminded myself of the joy I always experience finding it, of how beautiful it would be.  While it’s nice to find many, finding even one makes me feel privileged, as if the spirit of the forest was trusting me with her treasures.  Hours later and I still feel celebratory.

All About This Shit

April 18, 2011

(I can’t figure out how to change the font on this piece, although I have tried several times.  For those of you who can see it and decide to read it, thank you.)

I’ve been hunting morels (successfully!) for a little more than 10 days now.  At first I managed to maintain some emotional detachment.  With three years of hunting behind me, I know a few things about morels.  One is to strike the right note of humility since you can never be sure if you’ll find them or how long the season will last.  By now I’ve found my fever is under weigh, having slipped its last practical moorings.  The only thing that seems real to me is being out in the woods as sunlight dances across the forest’s floor while I search endlessly for mushrooms.

It’s crazy how it’s taken up occupation in my mind, flooding into my dreams, my conscious thoughts, my schemes.  The other night I set my haul in a stainless steel bowl.  No more than 2 or 3 inches high and most of them much smaller, they were a jumble of polished river stones or ocean shells, their surfaces still damp from the earth.  With a palette of ochres, greys, and ivories, their lighter colored gills carved out intricate veined patterns, casting off the light from the bowl.   Their tracings of shadow and light reminded me of another dappled creation of nature that gives me immense pleasure to look at – my cat Clarabelle.  Because I can’t haul out my mushrooms every so often and appreciate them without the unfortunate side effect of mauling them, I’ve taken to cooing “my little mushroom” to Clarabelle.  To me it’s axiomatic – anything I think is beautiful reminds me of my cat.

My excitement caught fire when my friend Rachel took me a new spot 30 miles from where I’ve been hunting.  I hadn’t thought we’d find anything, mostly because I thought it might be a little early, and then once we got there, the floor didn’t seem right.  But there’s always something new to learn about morels, one more reason to love them, and Rachel found the first one, a small white.  After an hour or so, we left with a ½ pound and the indelible memory of the spring forest’s wonders. 

The first ¼ pound I found April 6th went into a frittata; the second ½ pound gathered a few days later was shared with Andy, Rachel and Isaac – local beef stew and garden asparagus and morels tossed with egg noodles.  Yum!  The first full pound I picked I decided to sell to a local restaurant.

I don’t worry about selling my morels, but I do spend time deliberating whom I’ll contact.  Last year I sold ½ pound to my landlady, not having to leave the property to complete the transaction.  My foodie friends would pay or barter as would the 2 upscale markets and my one or two extremely rich acquaintances.  Once I decide to sell to a restaurant, deciding which restaurant is a matter of happenstance.  This month Rachel sold some of her lamb to one, so I decided to call that number first.  I’ve recommended this spot to out-of-towners because I’ve been there enough to sense there’s always something on the menu worth ordering.  The cooks there don’t fail as often as some others. 

From my vague knowledge of the local restaurant scene, this new guy seems to be publicly grooming himself as one of the area’s several Local Food heroes.  I recall a picture that accompanied a food mag’s article where his arms are crossed, a study in a chef’s cockiness.  Still, he was laughing which made him a little less irritating than those who move through Charlottesville in their chef whites.  Seriously!  Chef whites are intended to be worn only in the kitchen to ensure hygiene, not to stroll around town in.  I saw one chef sporting them in the Monticello garden.

This guy answered the phone when I called (I no longer leave messages when I’m selling morels; I just go down the list until someone tells me “yes”) and immediately expressed interest.  Good sign.  I explained how I was pricing, that these were the first morels; that if the season went well, I could drop the price, but that $25 a pound was what I was asking.

“Let me check that price point on the internet,” he said.

 I was a little bewildered.  I didn’t know of a site where local foragers posted on the internet.

“I’m checking the prices in the Pacific Northwest,” he told me.  “Hold on just a second.”

Wasn’t this about using local produce?

I don’t know if he got a response to his price query, or maybe realized he was going at this bargaining the wrong way, but he didn’t take long to agree to the sale.  “You say the season’s just beginning?” he asked before we ended the call. 

I told him it was bound to get better with temperatures moderating and rain in the forecast. 

“Do me a favor and keep me in the loop, okay?  ‘Cuz I’m all about this shit.”

Something about this got under my skin.  Here was a guy who wouldn’t have even known morels were popping if I hadn’t told him, and he’s “all about it.”  “No,” I wanted to reply.  “Until your hamstrings are aching from trudging up slopes and you fall to sleep with images of morels in your mind’s eye, you’re not all about this.”

Later I told Rachel that this guy took himself a little seriously.  She agreed, adding, “I have a soft spot for people who take themselves seriously, having been one of them myself.”

It’s true:  there are much worse things to take seriously, and it’s easy to mock the newly passionate converts.  But what to me is the essence of something like morels isn’t to be worn like the newest fashions.  Morels have nothing to do with Facebook and Twitter.  You can’t “like” them with a simple keystroke.  Finding morels requires a total engagement with the natural world that is the point of eating, whether it’s local or otherwise – an engagement that humbles in what it reveals about how little we know of the world and blesses us with beauty and nourishment in spite of our shortcomings. 

Because I’m older and wiser, I’ll do my best to give this guy, and all those other local food acolytes, some time and space to learn.  Morels might be created perfectly, but the rest of us need much longer growing seasons.

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.