The moral of our mushroom search

I'd tallied just one morel in a dozen years. This singular mushroom had been uncovered as I weeded a flower bed nearly four years ago. I'd left it unplucked beside a thicket of peony stems in hopes that more morels would be lured to poke their heads out of the earth. Days later my solitary morel shriveled into a dark skeleton and shrank back into the earth from whence it sprang.

I experienced my first morel morsel 20 years ago at a summer home on a bend of eastern Iowa's Wapsipinicon River. On one of our early dates, my husband-to-be and I were invited to dine with the parents of a good friend.

This genteel couple were avid mushroom hunters, known to travel across state borders in search of these woody delights. As guests at their cottage, we were served steaks awash in morels, garlic, and salt and pepper, seductive seasoning for our young romance.

Smitten, we learned the walk of the fungus hunter: eyes on the ground, scanning, toes gingerly probing musty mounds of dried leaves at the bases of rotting oaks. We scavenged when May apples bloomed, fiddleheads unfurled, and early dandelion crops blanketed yards.

Our first child was carried through the mushroom fields in a backpack. Soon his baby sister joined us on the trails. Together, we snapped up morels, soaked them in salted water, and turned them into fried wonders, marvelous soups and sauces.

When a career change relocated us across the state, we searched for new mushroom-hunting grounds - a daunting effort because morel haunts are closely guarded secrets and the drought conditions of the late 1980s had stunted yields. Year after year, in spite of our best scouting tactics, the gnarly-headed fungi remained hidden. But even barren morel adventures can be memorable.

One crisp May, I loaded my preschoolers into the car for a country drive. I was in my third trimester with child No. 3. I had an urge to go moreling. It had been a rainy spring, ideal for sprouting spores. Optimistically, I pulled into a handy farm and was granted permission to hike the farmer's private timberland a few miles down the road.

Minutes later, I turned into a weedy stretch of pasture surrounding the wooded promised land. About a quarter mile across this terrain, my vehicle abruptly came to a standstill. We were caught in fresh, viscid mud.

I pictured myself: an immensely pregnant mud-caked woman, shuffling down the gravel road with disheveled children hanging on each arm. I knew the kids would soon be hungry and thirsty. How long before we found help? What if I went into labor here in the muck?

Trying to get a grip, I pushed the mental images aside. I gave each child a brown paper grocery sack and orders to find our mushroom gold mine. Although the mushrooms continued to elude us, a bygone physics lesson popped into my head. The paper bags could provide traction. I slid them underneath the car's tires. Slowly we inched forward, at last pulling free of the sludge.

Now I have four children. Racing along their paths keeps me from sweeping the forest floor for coral caps. Still, I hold onto the memory of the buttery fungi and am uplifted by the morals I've gleaned over the years: Be patient. Be watchful. Life's mysteries and joys encircle us.

AND last April, just a block from home, the fairy's ring shimmered for me again. My husband and I were at a stop sign, waiting for traffic to pass. His fingers drummed on the steering wheel as he stared casually at the street. Suddenly, he blinked, shook my shoulder, and pointed down the block.

Morels were nestled among new boulevard plantings, tucked beneath street lights, erupting boldly beside the curbing. "City" morels had sprung up overnight, following heavy spring rains. The mushrooms were cradled in new mulch that had been laid down the previous fall by a landscaping crew.

The shavings, made from trees in a faraway forest, were apparently rich in morel mycelium. We gazed in open wonder then stepped into the charm to feast on 20 years of love, life, and dreams.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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