A question of morels

Only a few things do I dislike about early spring: rain and the mud it makes, that first mosquito bite, those last frosty mornings when I hold out hope for the daffodil hanging its head as if in shame for being hasty.

But with daylight saving giving me more time after work to actually see the greening grass, budding forsythia, exploding magnolias and dogwoods, I can't help but forgive my umbrella drying by the back door, my mud-caked shoes.

Down in Rhode Island, my sports-minded brothers look forward to spring for the return of baseball and the chance to play golf four evenings a week (and to not lose their Titleists among patches of snow). Here in rural New York, a place I moved to last summer, I love this first spring for things like the return of warblers and all their music, wood ducks looking for nesting spots, spring peepers keeping chorus from dusk to dawn in my small pond. To me, spring means birds and gardens and trout. And it means morel mushrooms.

Although I'm no mycologist, I have, in the many places I've lived in the last decade, anticipated yearlong the first week of May with thoughts of morels waiting somewhere in my mind like so many spores. The last week of April, I pray for warm days. I go on long drives looking for abandoned apple orchards and groves of old elms. Yes, and I even start praying for rain. Warm rain.

Morels are among the few mushrooms that can easily be identified without confusing them with toxic species. But they're a discriminating fungus. They're tentative, provisory. If the conditions aren't exactly right, they'll remain beneath the forest floor, biding their time, learning the mysterious art by which they burgeon almost spontaneously.

Every hunter of morels has his or her own inside information about where to look for them: along banks of streams, under hardwood trees, beside rotting trunks, out of recently cleared or burned ground. I've read that in the Middle Ages some folks in eastern Europe torched whole forests in the hope of encouraging the elusive morel, and that during World War II morels were numerous in the bombing sites of England - something good coming out of all the destruction.

Nowadays, here in America, these tasty gems are every bit as prized. Minnesota hosts annual festivals at which families turn out by the droves, baskets in hand. But most morel foragers are solitary and tight-lipped. They keep their secrets.

My first successful foray was in New Providence, Iowa, population 400, a town whose Main Street consisted of a post office, hardware store, bank, and church. I grew up in the outskirts of Providence, R.I., a place that, though there were plenty of woods, never brought to my boy-hands a single morel mushroom.

It could be that I saw plenty, for I spent many hours in the woods as a child, and either I encountered them but didn't recognize them for the magnificent creations they are, or I looked at them as I might look at any strange fungus: with great mystery, curiosity, caution, and (sadly) ignorance.

By some strange providence, I found myself many years later walking an altogether new terrain, a flat landscape made up almost entirely of cornfields. Iowa doesn't boast many forested parts, but I sought out what I could, and I asked around about morels. Heads shook. Eyes gleamed furtively behind looks of practiced ignorance. It turned out, however, that I didn't need their help. On that first warm day in May, my wife and I found enough morels for the two of us. We sauted and were sated. At least for a time.

I LIVE NOW in a sprawling village proud of its many apple orchards, farms, and hilly vistas. It's been too cold for an early morel season, and I'm expecting it'll be another week or two before the first of them poke their heads out of the leaves. I know better now than to ask the advice of my neighbors.

The people here are friendly, but they're not that friendly. According to the almanac, we're due soon for a warm rain. When we talk again, I'll let you know how my forays went. Just don't ask me where I've been.

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