BOTTOM CREEK, southwest Virginia, late April. It had been a dry spring. Then, a thimbleful of rain.
Gentry and Percy and I were out hunting in the early afternoon. Turkey season had just opened. We could see where they had been: little scratches in the duff revealing the dark, rich soil below.
But we weren’t hunting turkeys. No, we and the turkeys were hunting the same thing. At least Gentry thought so. “Turkeys are our number one goddamn competition,” he said. Gentry is from out near the West Virginia state line, raised in the mountains, but he talks fast and clipped, as if always slightly perturbed about something. He was wearing camouflage and a straw cowboy hat, with his shoulder-length hair pulled back. He’s a forager, chef, farmer, and glassblower by trade, depending on the day. Today, he was foraging for what the thimbleful of rain may have brought.
On the online Virginia Mushroom Identification Forum—after several weeks of laments like I have found one so far, These cold snaps are driving me crazy, and Hopefully we’ll get some rain—reports were coming in from across the state: photographs of morels, that icon of edible fungi, in the hands of forum members. Prime spring grub, morels are surrounded by mystique and exoticism. The hunt inspires eager competition.
Gentry was hoping to sell his finds to local chefs, who were paying thirty-five dollars a pound this season, a price that would be marked up three times on menus. Percy and I are hobby foragers. We were there for the breeze as much as anything else.
“You want to move fast, and steady,” Gentry told us. Morels are found in and around old apple orchards, elm stumps, and oak and poplar groves, on slopes that are not too sloping. We were in a gently rolling tulip-poplar grove. Percy was standing off in a shaft of sunlight, dressed in a tie-dye t-shirt, closing his eyes. I was looking up into the canopy, listening for warblers.
“Just keep moving. Once your brain gets tuned in…” Gentry trailed off, both his words and his feet. His head turned in 180-degree arcs as his eyes scanned the forest floor.
When you hunt for a wild edible, you hold the vision of it in your mind’s eye while you sweep the landscape with your real eyes until the shape and form of your prototype clicks into view—a match, a double of the imagined one. I conjured the funny conical shape of the fungus, its interlacing ridges that are described in books as “honeycomblike,” though the cavities of a morel cap are nothing like that neat and meticulous geometry of bees. They are irregular, more… fungus-y. Morel, from the Latin maurus, means, simply, “brown.” I tried to picture what that brown might be, in contrast to the leaf litter—lighter, maybe, like the flesh of snails.
We spread out, each of us tracking our own vision of the thing. My eyes danced circles around the trees, scanned the length of rotting trunks on the ground. We crisscrossed the poplar grove. Now and then I looked up to get a distant glimpse of Gentry’s camouflage, Percy’s tie-dye, to see which direction they were going in, so that I could cover different ground.
While holding the vision of the morel in my mind’s eye, my mind also drifted and wandered. I thought of the network of mycelium below the soil, how the fungus is only the fruit of that vast filamentous matrix beneath. I imagined that if our feet were spooling out threads, all of our crisscrossing paths would form a net that would lie atop the leaf litter—a kind of mirror of the million-hyphaed network below. (Thinking of it, I realized that this, too, is the pattern of the ridges on a morel’s cap.)
The mycologist Paul Stamets calls these mycelium networks “nature’s Internet”—to look at an image of the internet’s structure is to see the structure of mycelium replicated. Trees and plants use the web to direct nutrients and send information throughout the forest. The web is alert to changes in the environment, such as rain, or the footsteps of animals. Each tree is not a tree in isolation, then; they are talking, networking. Each ash is not an ash unto itself, no elm is an island.
I continued through the grove, my footsteps threading the earth as my mind followed more threads of thought. I considered how an evolutionary branch of fungi led to the development of animals, which is to say that fungi, by way of a long and forking a-hundreds-of-millions-of-years’ path, led to Homo sapiens. Further, some have theorized rather convincingly that our highly advanced cognitive abilities developed due to the ingestion of certain species of mushrooms. It is these cognitive abilities that enabled us to create the internet. The mushroom forum of which I am a member is being used to report where and when morels are popping up, and to communicate the drought and the weather—while the mycelium network has been communicating much of the same, underground, for perhaps the last one billion years. Now, more and more images of morels are popping up online while fewer and fewer are popping up in the forest, due to overharvesting, loss of habitat, and, this year, drought.
As I wandered, looking, my mind felt rich, like the soil. I thought of how our astrocytic brain cells, which regulate the transmission of electrical impulses within the brain—the very mode of my thinking about astrocytes and mycelium—also mirror the structure of mycelial nets. Just as no elm is an island, then, every thought leads to another. I thought about how, after the Permian extinction, in which 90 percent of Earth’s species disappeared, “fungi inherited the Earth, surging to recycle the post-cataclysmic debris fields”—an image that stuck with me from Stamets’s Mycelium Running.
We didn’t find morels that day. We meandered and loafed through the afternoon. We dropped down to a drainage that tinkled out of the mountainside into a tiny, mossy pool, and we stood, listening. We shuffled back, kicking up leaves, Gentry disappointed.
“No fruit,” he said, shaking his head. I imagined how the mycelium under the ground could sense our footsteps, how it was slowly decomposing the leaf litter that rustled under our feet, building new soil.
Here where I live, in the northeast U.S., morels are maddeningly elusive. This is confirmed in a radio segment that aired on NPR’s Science Friday program in the spring of 2016. here’s the link: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/mushrooms-on-the-hunt-for-edibles/. A telling quote in this segment is when the President of the New York Mycological Society says, “I am always relieved when morel season is over”. Why would he say such a thing: because they are so hard to find.
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