We went searching for morels. We knew, vaguely, where to find them– in moist woody areas along dead and rotting trees. We knew, more or less, what they looked like– small vertical sprouts with a white stalk and a dark cap. We knew that the time was right– more than a few of our tree-hugging Instagram friends had been showing off their bounty, and then there was also the man with waders and camo pants who had the decency to break the first rule of mushroom hunting and show us where to look. But that didn’t mean we could actually find them.
Last year, Jeff invited me to go hunting for mushrooms with him. He said he knew I’d like it because it would be like doing a jigsaw puzzle (damn, how well he knows me!). Despite the tempting offer, I declined. I was trouncing around Detroit and didn’t want to complicate things with a deep-woods adventure. So for us to be hunting for mushrooms one year later felt rather significant. Look at us! Here together, scrambling through thorns and branches, rooting around for fungus. How far we’ve come.
I tried the tactic of looking along rising hillsides where the earth was closer to my eye-level to avoid having to truly getting down in the dirt. I tried using a stick to clear away the crumbling tree bark and soggy leaves. I tried sweeping my eyes over vast swaths of forest floor, like a searchlight in a crime drama, back and forth and forth and back. I saw nothing. Morels remind me of a fish whose shading conceals him from different angles: a light belly blending in with the back-lit sky and a dark top that blurs with the sand and muck below. The morels dark top is easy to miss from above, framed by the rotted leaves and crumbling tree bark on all sides, and, well, the light bottom would be a nice indicator if you managed to get your eye low enough to see it from the side. I’m not a very good fisherman either.
After 30 minutes of fruitless (fungless?) searching, I was beginning to feel like a hormonal teenager who is involuntarily abstinent. Frustrated. There were signs everywhere of those who had come before and I jealously imagined the great harvest that had taken place there not long before. Their routes were made obvious by trampled paths, granola bar wrappers and straight-edged shelf fungi that had been culled with a knife– would I have more luck going where others had? Maybe they were just as aimless as I was, but if these litterbugs knew more than I did, should I then follow the same path or avoid it? Would they be picked over or still prolific? Did I want my first time to be from someplace “easy?” I considered the alternative, the prickle brambles and the unpromising expanses of woods. My ego took over with the vague notion that I might “discover” something previously unknown and I dove in snag-first.
We thought of puns. “There’s no fungus among us!” “What’s the morel of this story?” “I’m just a fun girl looking for a fungi.” “if you want to find a mushroom then you have to think like a mushroom and if you want to think like a mushroom you gotta eat some [mu]shrooms.” But how to eat something to find something you can’t find? That’s what I wanna know.
In the end, we went back to the spot where camo-pants man pointed out those first mushrooms. And as Jeff was cracking a joke about how the photo in the dictionary next to “how to find a mushroom” is the same as the photo for “how to get poison ivy” he found one! I made him wait to pull it out of the ground so I could appreciate the full effect. It looked like a shriveled mummy penis, or a soft coral reef or an over-inflated bulbous mole on the face of an old man. It was invisible until it was not. I was excited. It turns out that, while there are plenty of places where others haven’t looked, mushrooms are where mushrooms are, and it’s nut such a bad tactic to just stick to the spots that worked for such-and-such or so-and-so.
Encouraged by Jeff’s success and enlightened by knowing what I was looking for and driven by a crazy competitive surge, I had an actual need to find one for myself. I dropped to my knees and, sure enough I found a tiny shrunken pecker of my own not 10 feet away from the last one had been spotted in sprout.
The glory was great. I had broken my celibacy, and it felt wonderful. Maybe this is why people like fishing, because the longer you don’t have what you want, the better it feels to get it. And because it makes you feel clever and even tricky to find (for Free! In Nature!) what others have not. I was instantly greedy for more. I loosely clutched the weightless delicate glob in one hand and used it as a hoof as I rooted around for more.
Well, there were no more to be found that night but it was alright. It was enough. We had the success of finding what we were looking for and the humility of finding very very little. And before we could even eat them, we had the taste for finding more.