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Close to Home: Mushroom hunting is an adventure

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I have been crawling through the woods since April, hunting for pheasant back mushrooms, also known as dryad’s saddle. I check dying elms and the box elder logs lying alongside of the Blackberry Trail, then climb down to the creek bed. Our little spring-fed creek has so many washes that flow into it during flooding rains, that a foray down the creek can take a couple hours as I take another turn to the right to explore each eroded wash.

I’ve finally learned that what I am really looking for is little more than a wort on a log, which, given one more day, is just the right size to pick. My first adventures collecting these delicious mushrooms had me collecting big, gorgeous displays that did, indeed, look like the tail of a pheasant, but in reality, were as tough as a leather saddle. I now look for the smallest of the species.

This May day, I had taken a turn to the right, and was surprised by a patch of morels, the elusive mushroom that typically hides itself whenever I search for it. My morel hunting endeavors are reminiscent of the scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” where we find Bilbo and his dwarf companions deep in Mirkwood. It’s dark, and they are tired and cold and hungry. They see flickering lights off in the distance, and with hope in their hearts, run toward the lights, in hope of warmth and food. As they get nearer, they see wood elves in a great circle around a fire, “eating and drinking and laughing merrily.” The aroma of roasting meat draws the dwarves into the circle, and — the elves with their campfire have disappeared! But the dwarves see them again, deeper in the woods, and the chase begins, again.

That’s what it feels like when I intentionally hunt morels. I go from one dead elm to the next with hope in my heart, and come up empty. Then, disgusted, I declare that I will never hunt morels again because it is just a waste of time. But, as nearly always happens when I vow that there will be no more morel hunting for me, I see one, and I’m off on the hunt, again. Not a perfect analogy, the wood elves and morels, but while I’m out there in my woods morel hunting, it does feel at times like there is a trickster afoot, playing games with me. But now here they were, and a little beyond the morels was a fawn!

Oh, how lovely. This was the third time I have come across a tiny, speckled creature tucked up tight in a place where normally no one would find it. It watched me, nose quivering, beautiful doe eyes with long lashes, unblinking. A little closer to the fawn was a pheasant back mushroom. I moved slowly forward, drew the knife from my pocket and bent over to cut the mushroom from the box elder log. Slipping it into my mesh bag, I looked up at my little friend and wondered. Should I go closer? I was in the process of walking right by the other fawns when I noticed them, and they stayed so still. To reach it I had to duck under a fallen log that spanned the width of the wash. As I came out the other side, up jumped that spotted bag of bones, heading away from me, even as it rose from the ground. What a thrill! I knew its mother wasn’t far away, and that they would find each other. I made my way out of the wash, collecting the seven nice sized morels along the way.

Not every venture into the woods is so nice and calm and sweet. Further down the wash, I spotted a mushroom on a fallen elm tree. Reaching to cut it, I was startled by a sudden movement. My hand was inches away from a four-foot-long black snake. I don’t know how to put into words the almost inhuman eruption that came from somewhere deep within me. The snake didn’t seem too upset, though. It just slithered up a sapling and disappeared. I had to laugh. Just minutes before, as I stomped through squishy, buggy, pickery places, I had been thinking about rattlesnakes, how years ago someone from around here told me that the snakes are always on the other side of the river. Must be true, because I haven’t come across one yet.

Doreen moved to the woods from Green Bay in 1984, married back-to-the-lander Steve O’Donnell, and stayed to raise their three children after he died in 1997. Dave Short joined her there in 2016. Doreen welcomes feedback at dmshort1984@gmail.com.

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