The tasty 'morel' of this story

By April, the threat of sustained cold weather is over in south-central Indiana, and tornado season is upon us. Today a "watch" was on as I planted six frail basil starts in the garden under an unsettled sky. The ground had been plowed by the Belgian horses, who leave traces of their thick honey-colored coats on everything they touch - hames, harness straps, fence posts, and the hands that feed and groom them. They are shedding with a sweet vengeance and rightly so. The forsythia have peaked, the redbuds are coming on, and the magnolia tree behind the farmhouse is flooding the place with its giddy fragrance. The cows haven't had to come to the barn for hay for a few days, sustaining themselves on the thin but steadily deepening green of the back pasture.

All of which is to say, it's getting time to look for morels.

I love to walk in all weathers, but I seem to levitate above ground in early spring. Like the Belgians, I've been shedding - long underwear, then sweaters, then coat. With nothing weighing me down but the hay chaff in my pockets, I feel as if I'm gliding over the farm, and I traipse it these days for the sheer pleasure of moving through the soft air - yet always with one eye on the ground for what might have popped up overnight. I've never seen a morel break ground, but they must do it all at once. It pays to cover the same territory two days running.

Though I am hooked on morels now, I had never seriously hunted - or eaten them - before moving out to the country. Charlie had to explain what they looked like as he handed me a plastic bag and pointed vaguely toward the brush that first spring. I sauntered off along the hedgerow without much confidence I'd find anything, and almost immediately struck fungal gold. I hadn't even moved out of sight! I filled my bag and headed back for another. Was this all there was to the fabled quest for morels?

Charlie watched me coming and grinned indulgently as I asked him for another bag.

"You can't have found any so soon." He truly wondered what kind of counterfeit I had in my bulging bag. Looking in, he went very, very quiet.

"Where?" he finally managed to whisper, his eyes sweeping the immediate vicinity.

I had in fact stumbled upon a new hot spot, and come up with the largest morels ever to grace our 80 acres. A beginner's-luck triumph I savor to this day, because it's never been quite that good again. I find one or two new clusters each year, but never again have I plucked a dozen mushrooms, all the size of ice cream cones, from one small patch of earth.

Today, I came up empty. But it was my first hunt of the season, and I could not keep to the slow deliberate pace of the serious search. I skimmed the ground and sniffed the air, my hands still smelling of the basil I'd set in the dark furrowed earth. It was a bit early for its planting and for morels, but it had been a long winter and I could not keep from the garden plot or from self-designating this the ceremonial opening of mushroom season. I needed just to touch on the pockets of pasture where mushrooms have more or less faithfully surfaced in years past. A kind of "Hello? Anybody home?" passage. When my real search gets under way in a week or so, I'll slow waaaay down and cover the ground with dedication.

By late afternoon the arriving front swept in; fortunately a tornado never materialized, but as I watched from the cover of the workshop, slanting sheets of marble-sized hail pummeled the farm, half whitening the pastures in less than a minute. When it was over a rainbow stretched from the cedars to the barn like a burst of quiet applause.

It's just as well the morels are safe in the ground yet. I'll have to replace my battered basil. Still, I'm not sorry I pushed the envelope of spring today. I plan to keep on pushing. Who knows? Maybe a little human encouragement is just what the morels need to break ground.

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