Lust for fungi

A writer has a holy experience while mushroom hunting in southern Oregon.


"Hey, Hal, come look at this.”

“Is it a morel?”

“No.” Hammer laughs. We are often laughing.

A morel mushroom.
Danielle deLeon

We are only a few hundred feet from where we parked the truck, and Hammer is examining an orange cup fungus, a peel of neon on the forest floor. Seconds later, she is making pishing sounds and coaxing kinglets down from the canopy. “You know,” I say, “maybe if you focused and found more morels, you’d be willing to experiment with them. Dress them up a touch.” 

Hammer’s a purist. She doesn’t want to overpower the flavor of morel mushrooms. She sautés them in butter, adds a dash of salt, and serves them on a small side plate. But I am hungry for a big dish of pasta, for the recipe with nutmeg and Dijon and cream, and therefore I need to cover some ground. We spread apart and move sidehill through spires of true fir.

I scan the ground using the method I learned as a fire lookout: I take in swaths of 45 degrees and examine near to far. As I move, I filter the flow of images — moss-covered rock, cow pie, bark — through the baleen grill in my mind, searching for only one thing. I follow the trail of phenology: the wide white sails of trillium and the pink canoes of lady slippers. These passing features combine with the dappling of sunlight across the forest floor to make it seem, at times, as if the morel itself steps forward from the shadows. I stop.   

All else shies away. Birdsong drops. I stare as the honeycomb pattern emerges. Underneath a curtain of scrubby chinquapin stands a small figurine of ribs and hollows.

Morchella,” I say.

I kneel and compress the cap with my fingertips to test the integrity of its tissue. It’s firm. That’s good. The cavities are also well-developed. I use this as a sign that the little spore factory has performed its reproductive duty. Perfect. I open my pearl-handled pocketknife and cut the stem flush with the ground. I turn the morel over in my hand.

Flecks of pollen shimmer inside its cocoa-colored pits. A silken web blocks the entrance to one micro-cavern; with the tip of my knife, I pry into the private chamber and evict a grub. I peer into the open stem and look for ants. If necessary, I’ll blow them out with a few short blasts of air before dropping the morel into my cloth bag.

Morels have been found in World War II bomb craters and abandoned coal mines. They surged from the ash of Mount St. Helens soon after eruption, too gritty to eat. A scientist who surveyed the westward spread of Dutch elm disease reported flushes of these mushrooms around the base of dead and dying trees. Morels have a unique relationship with disturbance. But aside from that, much about them remains a mystery. For me, that’s part of the appeal, the surprise of when and where they fruit.

In temperate forests around the world, fungal threads bind detritus to grains of ancient bedrock. They wrap and weave around tree roots, forming loose sheaths; transport nutrients to a variety of plant species; and function in other ways yet unknown. Beneath our feet, mycelial networks expand with the intricacy and unpredictability of in-cloud lightning.

I break the internal tension of finding one by calling out: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” I say this as I turn in a full circle and look around. When I spot a whopper, a mushroom with a stalk large enough to stuff a prawn, I holler, “Toad!”

No one responds. Hammer and I have parted ways in the forest. I loop around and whistle our three-note call. I listen and wait. I begin tracking back to the last place I saw her, stooped over a sewer plate-sized stump, no doubt counting the growth rings and imagining the virgin forest. And then I find her.

She is half-hidden, frozen in a crouch beneath a young white fir with a full crown. Her bag lies open beside her. I can’t see the bounty, but I can tell she has found a patch. She parts the lowest limbs of the fir and looks out at me. Her eyes blaze with mischievous delight, yet she whispers to me, as softly as possible.

“Hal,” she says,  “I’m having a holy experience.”

Erin Halcomb writes (and hunts) in southern Oregon.

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