A father grasps at the nature of wonder
by Chris Dombrowski
Photographs: Randy Beacham
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TO REACH THE HONEY HOLE I have to cross a channel of knee-high, silt-stained river with twenty-month-old Luka, my mushroom-picking partner, on my shoulders. I wade in: the soles of my sandals clambering for purchase on the moss-covered cobbles, the cold flow kiting my pant legs, Luka’s knees tightening around my neck. Ashore, cuffs draining, I tell the boy, “We’ll beeline it for the old burn” where I sense the freshest morels are poking out in droves from the undergrowth. But ten yards into our beeline, I’m crouching to pluck a three-inch-tall yellow morel from a patch of Solomon’s seal, then two, thimble-sized, from the dappled shade of a ratty cottonwood.
A red-shafted flicker’s call slits the quiet of the wet May woods.
“Wha’s that?” Luka asks.
“That’s a flicker,” I say, mimicking its call with a whistle.
“Flicka,” he says, then tests the air with his own scream-like rendition.
The bird responds to neither.
Shifting, squirming on his perch, the boy wants down. I let him off, my shoulder muscles uncrimping—then spot a small gathering of the honeycombed, conical caps on a south-facing ditch bank, a little board meeting of morels. “Look, Bud—mushrooms!” I say, nearly diving to slice my stationary quarry off at the stem. “And how about this one?” I’m marveling at a hand-tall specimen. None too impressed, Luka stares into the budding branches, their wide grasp of sky.
IT’S A STRANGE CREATURE whose pulse quickens at the sight of a fungus. Hunched and creeping over the old overgrown road, I must look strange indeed to my son who seems content to watch sunlight-loosened beads of dew slide down blades of grass. I must look stranger yet to the eyes of the woods—the deer we don’t see but that certainly see us, the pair of red-tails casting their shadows intermittently alongside ours: a two-legged with a smaller two-legged by his side, bowing now and then to gather something from the leaf-rot.
For a week now the weather—hot spell after hard rains—has had me thinking mushrooms, and almost daily I’ve been bringing Luka into the woods in search of the mother lode we haven’t quite found yet. To date we’ve picked a few baseball caps full. Mostly I pinch off the hollow stems and place the moist morels where the boy can find them, so that I can hear him say “and a mushroom!” but he’s also found a few on his own, surprising me with his keen eye.
We’re not looking for the Aunt-Edna-lode, though; we’re searching for the gnome’s stash, the Shangri-La from which we can fill a double-layered paper grocery sack as quick as we can pick. I’ve gotten gluttonous, I know, but I can taste the sliced caps cooked down in butter, salt, and pepper and piled atop a jack-cheese omelet. I’m thinking: mushroom reduction over elk backstrap. I’m thinking: stuff the trophy ‘shrooms with poached Oregon salmon and fry them, ever so lightly, tempura-style. I’d like to give a few bowlfuls, too, to our eighty-two-year-old neighbor, Frank, who, before his knees went bad, loved to hunt the hard-to-find fungi. Most of all, I’d like to harvest a few extra pounds to trade with the best chef in town for two meals at his bistro—to which I would take the well-deserving mother of my picking partner on a date I couldn’t otherwise afford.
“WHERE ARE WE?” LUKA ASKS.
By now we’re deep in the old burn, stooped over stumps whose charred bark flakes off in scales—the morels are everywhere, thickest in the thickest nettle patches. I cut farther in, not answering the boy I hold on my hip, bending over at every other step to pull morels from the pithy soil. Not worrying what effect these inane, imbalanced calisthenics will have on my hernia; not pausing to smell each fruit’s damp, nutty scent, or to break a piece of burnt bark from a tree and mark our faces with it; not stopping to look at the scratches the whipping, thorny branches are leaving on Luka’s arms and legs.
The ground blurs: a Monet of thistles, grass, and crumbling tree trunks. I can tell from the rhythm of my twig-cracking steps that I’m moving too fast. I backtrack, stare at the ground again: old stumps of ’shrooms I just picked. Seemingly everywhere a moment ago, the morels have disappeared, slunk back into the ground. Could I get any further ahead of myself? Could I move any more hurriedly after these fruits of mulch and fire that do not move? Often while prepping for a meal, I’ll slice open a cap and find along its inner walls a slug. Slug always finds his ’shroom, an oldtimer once told me. Slow down: move at Luka-pace. He’s stumbling through the brambles with his lips pressed together, pushing a motorlike sound from his mouth, trying to imitate, I assume, the racket-causing, maple-boring pileated woodpecker that startled him a few moments ago. May light, soft as the underside of a leaf, falls on his face, on his head, which must be warm. Go on, Great White Mushroom Hunter, run your fingers through the dark mat of his hair and feel the sun collecting there, press your nose to his scalp and smell spring arriving.
KANA: A WORD OR FIGURE the Japanese haiku poets used as a kind of wonder-indicating syllable (it translates loosely into English as an exclamation point). Poet and haiku translator Robert Hass calls it “grammatical intensification.” That heart-stutter we receive when an image of the world takes root in us: that’s kana. A salient snap in time that arrests the senses or emotions enough to sear itself on the mind’s otherwise distracted, refractive surface. Something to which our awareness has just been tuned—a small, stick-colored fungus that appears (there, look down, next to your boot), and becomes metaphoric of anything desired or worked for and simultaneously right before our eyes.
A winter ago I drove my then horse-obsessed son to our friends’ small spread in the Bitterroot Valley so that he could see and perhaps feed a live horse. The whole drive up, he studied drawings of horses in books and pointed out the window at the pastured roans in snowy fields, saying, “Nay-nay, Nay-nay.” When we reached the ranch, David brought out his daughters’ toy horses and Luka galloped them around the close-cropped carpet meadow, looking over now and then to remind us of the equine presence: “Nay-nay, Nay-nay.” But when we walked outside to the stall and Rose, a large chestnut mare, cantered up to the fence to greet us, I felt realization shiver through the body I carried. The big horse, nostrils dilated with curiosity, long face cocked inquisitively, stared the boy down. Luka gazed for a long while into the glossy brown eye that harbored his reflection, then turned to look at David and me, and decreed: “Nay-nay. Nay-nay.” Now that’s a horse.
Seventeenth-century haiku master Basho would’ve rendered that anecdote in a three-line poem, perhaps something like—
in the horse’s eye.
—but more precise, of course, more resonant. Because the haiku is wedded to “the instant” and to speed of comprehension, it serves as an ideal poetic net for the mind hoping to capture such minnow-quick moments of bafflement or awe. And because a good haiku mirrors the swiftness of the world it describes, the result is often a paradoxical slowing down that allows poet and reader alike to meditate on a single intrepid moment. Picking morels today with one eye on the ground and one eye on Luka, I keep thinking that the haiku poets, with their uncanny sense of detail—Beads of dew / on the caterpillar’s / hair, wrote Buson—would have made amazing morel hunters. But Issa, who was enamored of children, chides my task-oriented brain in the face of Luka’s goallessness:
The moon and the flowers—
walking around, wasting time.
Better to keep my eyes tuned to my young Sherpa, spirit compass:
Closer to levitating
than any monk—
boy gazing at hovering hawk.
SOME DAYS the double-layered paper grocery bag that is the heart, or the heart’s memory, brims over with images such as these: moments of kana at Luka’s kana, his amazement at the everyday (use the commonplace to escape the commonplace, Buson wrote). And some days I can feel Luka’s wonder spurring me into deeper relation with the world, despite the too easily found ironies and horrors that tend to knock my romantic impulse on its rump and cause me to retreat into a spiritual hesitancy. This morning, for instance, I can’t stop wondering if the soil from which my beloved morels have grown is laced with the same mine-tailings—arsenic and lead—that have made the upper portion of our valley an EPA Superfund site: the irony of the organic meal that leaves toxic grins on the foraging family’s lips. This line of thinking quickly gains a dangerous momentum.
Gripped by casual cynicism, I pull back, disengage. But the boy’s moment-to-moment discoveries pull me back in, drag me, the way he’s dragging behind him a newly found whitetail antler: Come along, now. Toppling the coveted morels ($35 per pound in Chicago markets!) as he goes, he is either in a daze of boredom or he is walking kana, penetrated each step by the world, not penetrating it. It’s tempting to call this spirit naïveté, but it’s not: it’s wisdom we lose along the way. Polish poet and Holocaust survivor Czeslaw Milosz echoed this dichotomy when he wrote:
Pure beauty and benediction: You are all I gathered
from a life that was bitter and confused,
in which I learned about evil, my own and not my own.
Wonder kept seizing me, and I recall only wonder.
I know the world is dying from my eyes, and that my affection for the world contributes to its destruction. I know also that it is emotionally safer to lie estranged beneath the false warmth of cynicism’s down comforter each morning rather than venture into the world with a posture of openness, ready to receive, to live, rather than simply emote. Yet here I am, for starters, walking atop centuries of dead cottonwood leaves, while overhead new buds, sticky to the touch, smell like this: a sweet long-steeped tea, the sweaty neck of a lover, an infant’s head. Last night, after soothing a nightmare-stricken Luka, I fell asleep alone on the couch and dreamed I was still holding his small frame to my chest: his heartbeats, beating into my heart, sent a raw blue wind pulsing through my dream-body—I awoke quickened, a layer of the infinitely layered veil blown away.
Now, just now, Luka scrambles out from underneath a deadfall he’s been referring to as his cave and hands a brittle leaf to me: “And a mushroom!”
“Oh—thank you,” I say, and place the leaf with what we’ve gathered: a heaping load of morels, a bright orange flicker feather, a few rocks, a fork-horn whitetail shed.
Midafternoon—sun high, birds loud, dewdrops hard to find—Luka’s nap is calling. I zip the bulging paper bag inside my backpack so our cache won’t spill when we wade the river channel again. We’ll cross the river and still be here, our existence intensified through our attention to the particular moments we inhabit.
Where are we? What canopy of clouds and birdsong have I lived beneath?
Submit your own haiku in the discussion area.