Okay, that’s it. Morel season is over. Done, finished, kaput. Oh, there are probably still some ‘shrooms out there, but I won’t find them because I won’t be looking. At this point, the undergrowth is so thick that searching for morels would be almost like work. Where’s the fun in that?
It was weird Spring — weird in a lot of ways; weird weather, weird things happening in the world — and I didn’t get to hunt nearly as often as I’d have liked. Four times. That was it. Four times between May 1st and May 19th. The video above was shot on the first hunt of the season. Last year I’d been hunting three or four times by May 1st. Two days after the video was shot, it snowed. Snowed. Like I said, weird.
Mostly I went morel hunting with my cousin Scott, who’s like a brother to me. He’s an ideal ‘shroom hunting partner because he doesn’t fret. I’ve been hunting with other folks who are uncomfortable in the woods. They always want to be near you — in sight of you, in shouting distance. They call out to you periodically. Not Scott. He assumes you know what you’re doing. He says stuff like “I’m gonna walk along this hill line, see where it leads. You try another direction, I’ll meet you somewhere in about an hour.” He trusts that in around sixty minutes he’ll find you or you’ll find him. Somewhere in the woods.
This second video was shot ‘somewhere’ in the woods — in the same general vicinity of the first video. In fact, all the videos here were shot in the same general vicinity (we hunted other spots, but we always included this area because we knew we’d find morels there). Here’s the thing about the woods. ‘Somewhere’ looks a lot like ‘everywhere else.’ Once you get far enough into the woods, everything around you looks pretty much the same.
It’s not uncommon for me to be searching for ‘shrooms, then look around to get my bearings, and realize I have no fucking clue where I am. I have to stop and think about the terrain I hiked — or any unusual features I noticed on the way — and figure out how to get back to where I started. Or how to locate the ‘somewhere’ I was supposed to meet Scott. Yes, a compass would help resolve that, but my compass is in a box in Ohio and I never seem to remember to buy a new one. But I’m comfortable enough in the woods to assume I’m not actually lost. I may not know where I am — but that’s not lost. I’ve always managed to find my way back, or to find Scott ‘somewhere’ in the woods. So far.
What I like most about hunting morels (aside from the morels) is this: it’s tranquil. It’s not exactly quiet because there are always birds, and wind in the trees, and the occasional critter moving through the underbrush, and sometimes the chuckling of a brook. But those are peaceful sounds. The tranquility allows your brain to do double duty. On one level your brain is monitoring the search for that particular shape and pattern that indicates morel. The little bastards can be hard to spot, but once spotted are easily identifiable. So there’s always a part of your consciousness that’s scanning the earth, engaged in primary pattern recognition. But another part is placidly turning over other thoughts. Nothing too intense, of course, or it overrides the pattern recognition process.
I often think about writing. Sometimes it’s my own work — mulling over any issues I’m having with a story I’m working on. Sometimes I think about whatever I happen to be reading at the time. Sometimes I think about the work of my students. For example, I’m working with a former student who’s writing a wonderful story that revolves around the murder of a nun, but also delves into a such complex social issues as the sexual abuse of children by clergy, drug trafficking, and corruption in public housing. I’d be searching for morels and thinking of ways to simplify her story without sacrificing its scope and complexity. All those thoughts are periodically interrupted by the brain suddenly alerting you to the possible presence of a morel. It’s like a little alarm — morel alert morel alert, all brain functions report to duty stations.
My fourth — and last — hunt was less than three weeks after the first. As you can see in the video, the undergrowth had grown significantly thicker in those three weeks. The trees still weren’t fully leafed out. By now, they are.
That matters, because what you can’t tell from these videos is how increasingly difficult it becomes to move through the woods as Spring progresses. Early in the season you can pretty much wander at will. You have to wear a thick flannel shirt and jeans because of the thorny bushes, but so long as you carry a stick (and all serious morel hunters have a mushroom stick) you can usually work your way through them without much damage. But as the undergrowth gets thicker and the trees and shrubs and bushes get leafier, it not only makes movement more difficult, but you can’t see nearly as far. It becomes even harder to tell where you are and where you were. And, of course, mushrooms become much harder to spot.
On my last hunt, I spent much of my time bent like a dwarf, duck-walking along narrow deer tracks, struggling with thorns, looking less for morels and more for a small clearing where I could stand up and stretch out the kinks in my back. And even though it was fun and interesting, I’m in no hurry to do it again. That’s why I’m done for the season.
It was a good year for morels. An odd year, given the weather. Where morels grew, they grew in profusion. If people found them at all, they found them in staggering amounts. They collected bags full of morels. Pounds of morels. The shock absorbers on pick-up trucks were distressed under the weight of all the morels.
How many did I find? None. Not one. I found other mushrooms, but no morels.
I’m okay with that. Mostly. I love morels. Hunting them, finding them, cooking them, eating them. But so long as I get to do that first part — hunting them — I’m mostly satisfied. Mostly. But even though my ‘shroom bag remained empty all season, I enjoyed myself. Not just mostly, but always.
Your woods are so different from out here in California. Early May, and things are just starting to leaf out? They should be long and luxuriant and going brown already! And where are your big trees? It’s all so… deciduous… where are the really big trees? Where are the pines and the redwoods?! Where are the hills and mountains to get your bearings? Must make it hard to find big easy landmarks as you go. I confess I have no idea what morels look like either, or if they even grow around here. What do they taste like?
Beckett, there are old growth forests here (though, sadly, no redwoods), but most of the old elm trees have died — which is why we hunt in this particular area. Morels tend to grown near old, dead elm trees.
What do they taste like? I never know how to describe a taste. But let me just say I saw morels for sale at the farmer’s market this morning, and they were selling five of average size for twenty dollars. That’s not evidence that they taste wonderful, but it’s suggestive.
Oh I remember your stick that had the carved morel on top of it! That went missing when you moved to PA.
Young Jo! Yes, that stick disappeared (along with my shepherd’s crook) during that move (and thanks again for helping with that move…and for everything else). But I have a new stick now, a heavy bastard that’s brilliant for banging my way through thorns.