I never believed that whole equinox thing — spring never arrives in March in the Hudson Valley. For a time I thought April first (opening day of trout season) was the real first day of spring, but that, invariably, was a cruel joke for flyfisherfolk. Consequently, I’ve given up on calendar dates for such an important beginning. Spring officially arrives with the first morel of the season.
In late winter, I search intently for any sign that spring is coming. I peer intently into the woods, searching for a slight swelling of a bud — anything at all. Then, when it actually does arrive, it’s everywhere at the same time. What had been a slight change in birdsong becomes a predawn cacophony, with every bird on the planet singing his fool head off. What was an oh-so-subtle greening becomes an explosion of flowering trees and wildflowers.
Then, before I know what’s happening, I notice that the apple trees are in bloom. The scent in the orchards is intoxicating, but knowing that when the apple trees bloom, the morels are about to appear makes me delirious. I grab my mushroom bag, pocket-knife and camera and bolt in to the woods.
Alas, I search for a couple of days, to no avail. Then the weatherman promises a few days of rain, followed by warming — just the sort of news an amateur mycologist wants to hear. So, even on a day when it’s still cool and gray, I enter the woods in search of the wily Morchella.
There’s some botanical promise: field pussytoes bloom on the rocky ledges where I often find morels. An occasional dog-tooth violet and bloodroot show their blossoms against the dead leaves of the departing winter. Finding the first morel is never easy, so I look for other signs that the season is right. Wild columbine — which usually blooms at the same time as the mushrooms poke their heads through the forest leaf-litter. It’s a great relief and encouragement when we see the flowers nodding along mossy outcrops.
Picture me, stooped over, mushroom bag in one hand, a small knife in the other, creeping through the woods. Have you ever watched a robin hunting for worms? The morel hunter looks very similar. Both take a few hesitant steps, stop, then take a few more. Every once in a while, each freezes in his tracks, cocks his head to get a better angle with which to view his potential quarry. When the game is found each swoops down, lest the worm, or mushroom, effect an escape.
OK, morels don’t actually escape — but if an unwary hunter takes his eye off the mushrooms, even for a second, or changes his angle of view even slightly, their natural invisibility takes over and the hunter is foiled.
It doesn’t seem reasonable that something as empty-headed as a morel could not only recognize potential predators, but organizes strategies for out-witting them — but it’s easy to imagine that they do just that.
It sometimes seems like these fungi have the ability to disguise themselves — as if guided by some pre-vegetal intelligence. Their color and texture certainly aid in their deception — but their tendency to emerge from beneath the edge of a rock, or in the shadow of a decayed stick, or at the base of some thorny shrub, suggests the sort of protective strategies that can only arise from self-awareness. Logic compels us to believe that this is not the case, but the search for morels — especially the unproductive search for morels — can lead a mushroom hunter to some unusual suppositions. Occasionally, morels can be found in the open — foolishly sticking their heads into the spring sunshine — but far more often they are hiding — as if they know that there is an omelet in their future.
I’ve always known how important it is to go back over the same area where I’ve just looked for morels. Sometimes the slant of the light, or angle of view, will reveal their formerly unnoticed hiding places. But another odd phenomenon is less obvious — and it has more to do with the hunter than the hunted.
One can only look intensely at a patch of ground for a minute or so before the mind begins to wander. The eyes seem to lose focus — and, just then, a morel appears. It’s usually in plain sight, but just at the edge of the area I’ve just scanned intently. It’s almost as if the unconscious mind continues the hunt — more effectively — while the conscious mind drifts.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us