On Seeing Morels

In late winter, we search intently for any sign that spring is coming. We 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 one knows what’s happening, we 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 is makes us delerious. We grab our mushroom bag, pocket-knife and camera and bolt in to the woods.
Of course, finding the first morel won’t be easy, so we look for other signs that the season is right. From long experience we know that columbines bloom in the kind of places that morels like, and do so at the same time as the mushrooms poke their heads through the forest leaf-litter. We are relieved and encouraged when we see the flowers nodding in the dappled sunlight.
It doesn’t seem reasonable that something as empty-headed as a morel could not only recognize potential predators, but organize 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.
We’ve always known how important it is to go back over the same area where we’ve just looked for morels. Sometimes the slant of the light, or angle of view, will reveal the mushrooms’ 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 we’ve just been scanning intently. It’s almost as if the unconscious mind continues the hunt—more effectively—while the conscious mind drifts.

Gary Allen
Author and/or Editor: The Resource Guide for Food Writers (Routledge,1999), The Herbalist in the Kitchen (University of Illinois Press, 2007), The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries (Greenwood Press, 2007), Human Cuisine (Booksurge, 2008), Herbs: A Global History (Reaktion Books, April 2012), Terms of Vegery (Kindle, August 2012), How to Serve Man (Kindle, November 2012)

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