Before the Morels

Some places have a mushroom season but Pennsylvania experiences something more like a mushroom storm and does so annually. The storm rises and falls as the morels, oysters, chanterelles, chickens of the woods, etc., etc. come and go, rising to a tempest crescendo around late September as it seems every log is sprouting something mysterious, colorful or delectable. I’m caught in this whirlwind year after year but have made no effort to seek shelter or escape.

This being said, we’re now in a sort of calm before the storm, feeling the first “drops” of marginally edible mushrooms but awaiting the onslaught of the morel tempest. First will come the intrepid half-free variety of true morel, arriving alongside early varieties of false morel. The black morel might appear only a week or so later (with Morchella diminutiva, if you can find it) and about 3 to 4 weeks after the half-free, the magnificent, stately yellow morels will punctuate the leaf litter of sacred hollows, emerging alongside dead ash trees, or anywhere else they see fit. The air seems still now, the fertile soil pregnant with fungal potential.

 I feel I’ve waited long enough but the Pennsylvania forest seems to have just now thrown off her frosty blanket and has no sense of my urgency. There’s a little green coming into the understory and trees are budding but leaves are still hard to find at this late date. The wood remains lethargic from hibernation, not feeling at all like exerting energy in the production of my favored edibles. It’s April 21 and there was a little blizzard and snow on the ground two days ago.

Still, though, I have enjoyed watching the signs of spring come on. The snow was mostly gone by the beginning of March, seeming to portend an early spring. Then the frost returned. Yesterday morning, April 20th, there was a heavy frost on the cars in the morning.

The maple sap was flowing a few weeks back and even in the Pittsburgh suburbs, a few buckets could be seen draped from old maples. The spring peepers began to sound around mid March, always seeming inadvisably early for their courtship rituals. Not only does this portend spring but also healthy enough wetlands locally to perpetuate frogs, a matter that’s often in question around old mine sites like this. Magically, buds appeared from nowhere one morning on most of the trees along the rail trail here in town, buds that would have to endure several more rounds of the freeze/thaw cycle before unfurling and beginning the business of photosynthesis. About ten days ago I began to see buds protruding from the forest duff which I could identify as May apples. These have now taken on their characteristic shape, absorbing sunlight as fast as they can before the canopy closes above them. And May apples are a welcome thing to encounter because morels follow close on the heels of May apples.

It seems that most years I’d have been finding at least a few black morels by now but again, this year the spring chill has been especially persistent and nature herself has been particularly unmerciful. What good can it possibly do to force patience on rabid mushroomers like me?

Well, I really hate to admit this, but it forces me to watch the evolution of things very carefully, to see when the worms first break through the frost on a rainy March night, to watch when the chickadees begin to carry back twigs to tiny caverns cut by hungry woodpeckers, to see when the minnows begin to ascend the swollen rivulets that drain the woods and to watch the rise of the unglamorous early fungi – the amber jelly roll, the elf cups and the bleach cups (all edible). And, in fact, this is exactly what a preoccupation with mushrooms, all the year round, forces on a woodsman: Close scrutiny of the dynamic natural world around us – learning the patterns even while marveling at the exceptions – the species that might appear two months early or two hundred miles north of its known range.

It’s about learning. Learn from literature and the internet, yes, but learn the most from walking, sitting and watching this spring.

And maybe it’s also all about learning to appreciate the things that aren’t morels – aren’t the most glamorous, desirable, well-publicized organisms out there, the stuff that’s often walked right past, crushed into the ground below our heels as we keep up a good pace to the morel patch, checking again today for first signs of disturbance in the thin leaf litter.

Postscript:

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