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A View from the Woods

By Loni Kemp

Mon, May 7th, 2012
Posted in All Commentary

The Elusive Morel

I left the house as the air began to warm, after a night of rain, determined to check on every acre of our forest. With an onion bag in my pocket, I was going to train my eye, stay focused, and walk around every dying tree.

I have been skunked on my morel hunts the last couple of years. This followed nearly three decades of always finding a nice meal’s worth or two every year. I must admit that I’ve never found the mother lode that many hunters tell stories about—the day they filled grocery bags on one particular hillside or pasture. Yet my optimism had prevailed through several hikes this spring which had turned up nothing.

On this day I started slowly, searching for a color the same as the buff leaves on the forest floor. I searched for a texture somewhat similar to bedstraw and maidenhair fern. I moved down the hill, and lo and behold, I spied a little gray morel. Just one and no more. I left it alone, partly as a good luck charm, and partly because I wanted to return for a few days to watch it grow. A credible source wrote that, contrary to opinions that the gray morel is a different species, he observed the gray morel growing over the course of several days into a full sized buff colored one.

Buoyed with hope that I still had what it takes, I continued on. Along the creek, up the hill, along the ridge, down the valley, along the wooded floodplain. On and on. Nothing. I must have circled a hundred dead trees.

Success one year tells you almost nothing about the future. While the morel mycelium, yellow root-like fibers, might be growing for a hundred years nearly anywhere, the mushroom itself only pops up after a mysterious trigger. Rain and warmth and sun are part of it, but newly dying nearby tree roots are often considered to be a factor.

Morels have not been tamed or cultivated successfully by humans. They are one of the few foods, like wild salmon and maple syrup, that just aren’t suitable for farming. Hence the mystique and the passion of our annual morel hunts. I saw them for sale at the Decorah Co-op for $29 a pound last week, and their earthy, meaty flavor is well worth the price.

As I neared home at a faster pace since I was late for dinner, I thought I’d check one more tree with no leaves appearing yet. I hooted and grinned as my eyes fixed on one beautiful morel, then another and another. My heart was pounding as I collected maybe two pounds around that one tree. I tromped victoriously up the hill to the house, where my husband was happy for us too. We cooked up a dinner of leftover chicken with morel sauce that was truly memorable.

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