“Beyond words. Just astounding..”
..I heard myself say while taking in the view of blooming forest understory. A few days ago my little family was checking out a streambank in the mountains. This place is blessed with a remnant of the kind of diversity that was once common in Appalachia. Solomon’s seal and bloodroot, maidenhair fern and several kinds of violets. Spicebush leafing out. So many different kinds of trees. I was going into full plant geekery. I’ve been riveted by this strategic timing of spring awakenings since someone first pointed it out to me…the way that for weeks before the canopy of a hardwood forest leafs out, a lush herbaceous understory, many of which disappear shortly after, eat the spring sunshine. Then from the ground up, shrubs then mid story then canopy trees unfurl flowers and leaves. And the early heralders of spring, who’ve feasted on light while the trees slept, now hide from the hot summer sun in their generous shade.
Emily and I were perched on a boulder at the edge of a drop off by the stream. My girls and one of their friends were playing well together by the water. But Morgan wanted me and Emily to come down and see his house, a sort of cave under a huge rock that had a perfect little nook for him. Emily went walking on her own and I went down with Morgan and got involved with helping him cross swift water from rock to rock on the way. I saw a sudden motion in the corner of my eye and turned to see Emily far away along the stream bank waving both hands. My heart thundered as I strained to spot the three girls somewhere nearby. I used to have vivid drowning dreams about Phoenix when she was an infant and have carried with me on some level a silent terror around water, especially before she could swim. When I saw all girls were accounted for, I looked again at Emily. This time she wasn’t in sight. Phoenix was running toward where Emily had been standing. A few moments later Sadie came up over a huge boulder as a messenger saying, ” Mama found them! Morels!”
Emily has for years had a talent for finding black trumpet mushrooms in the summer. They’re a kind of chanterelle that’s nearly invisible, looking just like shadows in the leaf litter of the forest. If she’s left alone she senses them. She describes it as hearing them calling. Her knack for tracking them down has meant summer dinners with black trumpets over pasta, and other delights for the palette.
So now as I spotted the yellow morels she’d found popping up so subtly as to easily be missed, I looked at her wondering. She said that with the children and me being otherwise occupied she heard something tell her to go right. Down that path she went, running into the morel patch within a few yards. I told her I felt like I’d married the miller’s daughter who could spin straw into gold (ok, so a little man did it, but you see what I mean).
There’s a certain something intact in Emily. I suspect it’s hibernating in all of us and served our ancestors well when they lived off the wild bounty. An extra sense. An ability to “hear” the call of what we’re seeking, to read the land even as its secrets are written invisibly around us. And it’s not only about mushrooms. I once needed scotch tape to finish a project when I lived in the Olympia neighborhood of Columbia. I went walking. I wasn’t sure why. It was Sunday morning and most stores were closed. It just seemed like the thing to do. Something told me to take the railroad tracks into town. Not ten paces along the tracks I stumbled on an old school solid metal scotch tape dispenser full of tape that somehow hadn’t been rained on. How can I make sense of that? The tape or the morels could be chance, but what of the clear sense to take an unexpected route? How often have I needed to talk to a particular person, then turn a corner and there they are, as if summoned? It happened to me once in Manhattan. I was trying to live in NYC and was currently living on someone’s couch. I’d met a friend of a friend at a party in Brooklyn and got the idea afterward to see if he needed another renter (me) to split the former watehouse space he was living in. I stepped into a shop in uptown Manhattan, in a random neighborhood I’d seldom been in, and there he was, many miles from where each of us were living. This, in a city of millions. Life is full of these odd encounters. Emily says you think of something or someone and a “Dr Suess finger” reaches out and taps the shoulder of the object of your intentions, linking you in time and space. I once would have scoffed at such an idea. But I’ve seen what I’ve seen.
We carefully cut the gorgeous morels so their underground mycellium would stay intact. Maybe they’ll make more morels. We carried them home in my shirt. Sliced and sautéed in butter for a few minutes until soft, they’re among the best mushrooms you’ll ever taste.
There is a false morel to look out for, which pops through the leaf litter in the fall. I’ve never seen it, but it’s out there. True morels are a gift of spring. True morel caps are usually connected to the stem and have clear pits and ridges. A long-ways cut reveals no chambers inside, but is simply hollow throughout. The color among varieties of morels ranges from pale khaki to black. As always, research this mushroom well. Don’t make assumptions about what you see. Cut a sample and line up it’s characteristics with those described online or in a good field guide, and/or go on a foraging walk with someone who knows what they’re doing. Happy hunting, and see you in the woods!