Saturday, April 28, 2012

Morel Uncertainty

Once you find yourself cast under the heady spell of the morel mushroom, things can get a little out of hand.  You roam the woods, undeterred by sheets of rain and creepy little ticks, dreams of morels resting on rare venison loin swirling around in your head much as the partnered pinot will swirl in the glass.  Miles click by in the truck and on foot, fueled by the future memory of that one perfect meal.  It is spring after all, time to be in the thick of it with all the promising new green and furtive songbirds returned from winter haunts, even if your mushroom bag might remain unfilled sometimes.  Should you be lucky enough to find the meaty springtime morsels, you'll need not search high and far to meet company willing to join you at the table.

There are many ways in which one walks through the woods, from the jostling rush of the weekend hiker to the controlled, glacial pace of the stalker.   A still-hunter crouches and creeps, often crawls as a stalk reaches its climax, his movement almost undetectable, his wish to meld completely with his surroundings.  As his title denotes, he spends more time still than moving, yet he slowly makes his way forward in search of prey.  I once read the still-hunter should imagine himself as the minute hand of a clock, in motion but nearly imperceptibly so.  A day hiker, at the other end of the spectrum, covers much more ground, making time over terrain to reach a predestined goal.  Our friendly day hiker (birder, backpacker, has miles to go and pressing matters to attend to, it would appear.

Somewhere in the grey middle we find the wanderer.  I've been both the still-hunter and the rambling hiker, as have many who make their way through the wilds.  I enjoy the entire range of purposes and their relative velocities, but the happy caste of the wanderer is where I most often find myself.  We uplanders pass days following working dogs, we fly fishermen spend hours fighting current and stubbing toes, and we deer hunters invest small eternities simply waiting for a deer to happen by.  Still, as a bloke who enjoys as much time outside without a rod or gun in hand as with, much of my time is spent happily bushwhacking as one of the wanderers.

It behooves us to remember here, as Tolkien taught us, not all those who wander are lost.  Many times, a good ramble can and will put us in the hunt, whether it be for mushrooms, a cute Badger girl in pink Wellies, or fresh cheese curds.  Though I suggest hopping in the truck to find the curds.  This, then, is precisely where the morel hunter finds himself, a wanderer.

Morels are supposed to grow most commonly in certain places, near certain things.  Any article or forum discussion on the topic will quickly lead the casual reader to believe the he or she need only seek out dead or dying elm trees.  Or fruit trees and the shady side of poplars.  Or the un-glaciated sand of a dry creek bed where a prehistoric heron once took a crap.  The lording mysticism can get a little daunting sometimes.

The truth is, morels can pop up nearly anywhere within their native range when they deem the weather acceptable.  Almost every year, somebody within our little mycological cult has a story of morels being discovered in somebody's lawn or down in the sand by the dump.  It happens.  Often, the only way to find them with any consistency is to put your boots in the dirt, and get to gettin'.  So the hopeful morel hunter ambles slowly from one likely looking haunt to the next, stopping often to peer into the thick brush or under the may apples.  Wandering with purpose if there is such a thing.

Confession time: I've got a ringer.

I want to say that I've been under the morel spell for six or seven years, which probably makes it about a decade in truth, considering the way memory works.  Those first years were spent happily hiking, but not often finding.  Though I can't recall the exact year, I know the total keep from my rookie season of seeking morels amounted to only the left-side shed from a six-point buck.  As happy as I was with my find, it was pretty crunchy sautéed with spring onions.

Only through the willingness to cover a lot of ground in likely areas did I manage to eek out a few earthy fungi for my dinner in the early days.  Morels began to grace my plate slightly more often than they had, thanks to experience and plenty of walking in the rain. I slowly added a handful of semi-reliable spots to my list of likely check-ins, and a few more that always look good but never produce.  Left to my own devices, I was an avid hunter and opportunistic gatherer of morels at best.

That all changed one day a few years ago.  I was at the University of Wisconsin Varsity Band Spring Concert, a place one might not expect to find a lot of inside information on morels, but they came up in conversation.  As I was happily relating my find of a few morels earlier that week, my friend Woody invited me out to his farm, which happens to be outstanding morel country.  He assured me that if I wanted to up my take from a plateful here and there to something much more substantial, I could do so out at his place.  It was too late for a trip that year, but I made my way out there the following spring, and he hasn't been able to get rid of me since.

To a guy who was used to gathering enough morels in a day to feed himself and a single dinner guest, Woody's farm was an eye-popping revelation.  Morels were measured in pounds, not single digits.

Right on, Woody!

With him as my guide, we scored a few pounds of mushrooms from the soggy slope of a ridge in just a couple short hours that first year.  I couldn't believe it.  He doesn't know this, but I stopped on the way home from that trip at the boat launch on the Wisconsin River to answer the call of nature.  Business taken care of, I suddenly gave an almost involuntary whoop and fist pump to the universe, standing there alone in the gravel turn-out.  To that point in my life, I hadn't known a grown man could fist pump for mushrooms like Kirk Gibson gimping around second base in the '88 Series.

I've been out to the farm three times now for morels, I believe.  Every year we are greeted by rain and thunder in the steep green woods, every year his kids have grown another foot.  And every year morels are gathered by the bag full.  He's more experienced than I am, sees them more readily hiding in the grass, always has a bigger bag at the end of the day, but I'm catching up.  I only need another decade of practice, Woody.

There has come from all this mushroom hunting an unexpected outcome I'm grateful for.  Before he invited me to pick morels, I hadn't been seeing Woody much at all.  The addition of one trip a year to walk in the woods together isn't a lot, we really should do more, but it's more than we were getting together before.  And "The Morel Dinner" has become an annual rite in my immediate family.  I call to remind the lucky ones that it's coming when I start to find the first few morels of spring.  They get another call or text when Woody lets me know it's time to head out to the farm with my rain gear.  Finally, we gather to celebrate the harvest of morels every year now, with venison and risotto, fresh asparagus and fiddleheads, wine and cheer.

Little doubt exists in my mind that the morel is the king of the spring mushrooms around here.  The legendary profile, honeycomb obelisk on a stump, leads to ease of ease of identification, the deep musty aroma that fills the truck as I carry them back home, the simple joy of a few of them in an omelet with a dab of goat cheese... all of it is well earned by the humble little fungi.  I believe, though, that I'm most thankful for the fellowship garnered by the hunting, gathering, and eating of morels together.



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