TERRE HAUTE —
I went for a walk in the woods one day last week after work. It was a warm and green afternoon, and a fresh blue breeze blew in from the west like a new spring friend. I had the intention of finding a few mushrooms — perhaps a frying pan’s worth for a supper an evening or two later. My wife loves them, although I am one of those rare folks who, despite needing a minimum daily requirement of both salt and butter, thoroughly enjoy the hunting far more than the eating.
A few minutes after I had pulled into the drive to shed myself of my grown-up clothes and dress shoes, I slipped into a pair of now-not-so-blue jeans, an old ball cap, and a ratty T-shirt; I wore my most comfortable boots. Optimistically, I grabbed a few bags from our recycling box, located my favorite mushroom-hunting stick — a broom handle I’ve had for years — and headed down the hillside behind our barn.
It has been a discouraging mushroom season this year. I have not seen — at least of this writing, anyway — photos in the local papers of dedicated hunters standing behind the bushel baskets of morels they’ve found, huge grins plastered on their faces as if they’d hit the lottery.
The mushroom chatter I’ve heard so far has been about how far the woods seem to be lagging behind Aprils of the past, that perhaps we’ll have a season that runs longer into May, that maybe this will be an off-year. I didn’t get much of a positive mushroom vibe in my woods; there was simply too much bare ground about to think I’d be stumbling across a mother lode of fungus anytime soon; even my redbud trees were less than enthusiastic about showing color.
Mushroom hunting is an art, one that I’d like to think is acquired genetically, although hours of practice can’t hurt. Many good mushroomers claim to be able to smell the delicacies in the air, often hunt among the decaying flesh of elm and tulip poplar trees, and are willing to crawl on hands and knees in the rain over just a few yards of earth just to get the rush of discovering a patch of the coveted sponges.
I’ve hunted mushrooms since before I could walk. I am told that my mom, who must have had the stamina of a longshoreman, carried me to the woods to hunt rather than do without. In fact, I come from a long line of “roomers,” but discovered fairly early on that just being in the woods, whether I found a bread sack full or not, made me happy.
That was the feeling I had within minutes of walking the slopes of my woods. Fooled into thinking I’d seen a mushroom more than once by the walnut hulls and sycamore tree “buttonballs” that had been discarded by squirrels — the Oscar Madisons of my property — I decided to make mushrooms my secondary goal and just enjoy a few hours without papers to grade, problems to solve, and noises to hear.
Although my acreage is primarily one of either descent or ascent, the woods were particularly beautiful, the late afternoon sun sifting through the newly leaved trees so that I walked in and out of shafts of warm light and cool shadows. The vivid greens of a grove of young buckeyes caught my attention, as did the bright orange of a huge splintered hedge apple tree that, like so many other trees, had dropped dead in any one of the dozen or so good winds that blew through my place over the winter. As I stood on one promontory (I live on one of the highest points in my county), I could look far into the woods , across a wetlands, to the fields beyond, accompanied by the honks of a few geese who were vying for turf on the pond below me.
I sat for a while on a blackened tree stump, staring at just a few yards of forest floor. That small bit of earth was an amazing place, really. It was a microcosm of hundreds of living things: the red ants that scrambled for cover after I had flipped a bit of sandstone on its back; the grubs surprised by the sudden sunlight; emerging ferns and hairy mosses that provided color; the now-fragile corpses of countless brown leaves being lifted by sprigs of honeysuckle and wood anemones that were trying to catch a few rays for themselves. Nearby, an outcropping of rock, spotted with gray-green lichens and musky soil, invited a look as well.
I wandered through a hillside of Mayapples, too early to have their tell-tale white blooms on display, for those come on later in the spring. In that spot, I found an Osage-orange tree, still young, its trunk less than the thickness of my leg. It was growing out of a fallen parent, feeding itself on the dead, reaching long and hard for the soil that sat a foot or so beneath it. As I sat there, listening, thinking, mulling over nothing in particular, I spied a half-dozen young beech trees growing on a slope, a green-red chunk of stone lying nearby where it had washed down from the top of the hill. Within view, too, was a pile of slag leaf coal, undoubtedly left behind years and years ago when shallow mines dotted the hillsides. The trains, I am told, that rode the deserted and rail-less grade that now borders my land, used to stop, at least for a few years nearly a century ago, for loading from those mines. The scars of all of them are filled in and grown over now.
Before I turned for home and supper, I broke out of the woods to visit the wetlands. I spooked a notoriously crabby and long-legged Great Blue Heron and the geese that had been doing all the squawking. They all took off in a huff when I emerged from the woods, but not a green heron, who must have realized that all I was shooting was pictures. He flitted to a half-submerged log, then sat there preening and day-dreaming until I got a little too close for comfort.
I headed west and for home then, but like a late-hour shopper still searching for bargains, I inspected horsetails and cattails and dragonflies, all the while accompanied by a red-headed woodpecker that was tapping a tune and giving himself a headache a half-acre away. It had been a good walk, one spent exploring grapevines and tree bark and last-year’s birds’ nests. I had served as cartographer of deer paths, an observer of paw paws and blue jay feathers, a meanderer and gadabout.
It was time well spent.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall.