My mushrooming roots run deep.
About the time that spring turkey hunting season winds down, my forays into the national forest shift to searching for another wild delicacy, the morel mushroom. I come by this pastime honestly, as I was exposed as a teenager to the wonders of mushrooms by my mother and grandparents.
Grandpa Elden Johnson in particular was a brave explorer into the world of wild fungi. He was known for occasionally trying what he called “just a small sample” of an unknown mushroom to see if it was delectable, barely edible or would make him sick. This is definitely not a recommended way of learning about mushrooms, but as a result of his style Grandpa’s suite of mushroom species that collected for the table was a lot broader than mine.
I know morels, king boletes, shaggy manes and corals, but I remember him also talking enthusiastically about oyster mushrooms, chicken-of-the-woods and slippery jacks, none of which are on my positive go-to list.
Somewhere in my collection of papers I have a manuscript he wrote about the wonders of mushrooming in the Blues. He challenged the reader to take time to meander slowly among the trees soaking in the sounds, smells, and feelings of the spring woods. His words resonate in me every time I step into the forest in search of mushrooms, and I find it is easy to fall into a meditative state. No wonder mushroom hunters get lost so often.
What I wouldn’t give for one more chance to go with my grandpa to some of his favorite mushrooming spots in the Blues, for his haunts are lost to memory now. But I have started to develop my own mushrooming spots, and I like to think that some of them are the same pieces of ground that my grandparents used to walk.
This spring has been incredibly dry, and while turkey hunting I noticed how the forest floor was crunchy, more like August than May. But last week we had just a bit of rain, and my good friend Matt and I decided it might be time to look for mushrooms. We found the woods to be teeming with people heading out for Memorial Day weekend, with camps tucked into small forest openings and vehicles parked in wide spots along the forest roads.
Undaunted, we slipped into the woods and moved from one known honey hole to another, and after an hour of searching had collected exactly one medium-sized king bolete, one morel and one fresh coral mushroom. We moved down the road, parked at a road closure gate and hiked 20 minutes to another spot I had marked last year with my GPS. As I entered into the stand, my eyes were first drawn to the abundant corals.
These are not my favorite, so I continued my mushroom meander when I was rewarded by — a morel. I bent down to cleanly sever it from the stalk and saw another, and another and another. That’s how morel hunting goes, and by crawling on hands and knees I was able to collect several dozen in just a few minutes.
The best part? There was no evidence of other pickers. My secret spot was and still is mine; Matt can be trusted to keep it to himself. A mushroom spot is a secret worth keeping close, and mushroom hunters understand that it is an honor to be taken to another’s favorite spot, a sacred trust that is not to be violated.
There are some places in the Blues that hold mushrooms but that are off limits to me — private lands, the Umatilla indian Reservation. Fortunately for us, the national forests have millions of acres of ground to search for these delicacies, and it is there for all of us. You don’t even need a permit if you are just picking mushrooms for your personal use.
My grandparents and mother had their mushrooming spots, I have mine, and our daughter is developing her own. While my grandparents left me their books, their writing and some of their knowledge, they made no maps. Perhaps it is better that way, as I collect my own places to wander each spring.
I encourage others to the same while the spring flowers are blooming, the sun is shining and the birds are singing. It’s a fine time to enjoy our public lands.