Archive for Sunday, May 2, 2004

Morel hunting offers metaphors for life

May 2, 2004


They say that even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle. I'm not so sure. I've been pursuing morel mushrooms (Kansas truffles) for years. I have yet to find one.

My wife and daughter have the gift. I have to listen to their cries of triumph -- Bingo! Yee-Haw! Trotting over, I peer into the mass of stinging nettles, death camass, deadly nightshade. And all I see is a copperhead, coiled to strike.

"There! There!" they cry. "Right in front of your eyes." But the morel is invisible to me until they pick it and bring it to bag.

Short attention span and lack of patience contribute to my problems. As with fishing, if I don't hit the jackpot in the first five minutes, I start to lose focus. I think about all the important television programs I'm missing or the nap I could be taking. Soon my brain is a hive of anxieties. I begin to pace. At last the girls return with their bounty. All I have to show is a great harvest of ticks.

An aura of mystery hovers about mushrooms. They belong to the realm of elves and fairies and their appearance seems to be the work of a wand. Eating them is an adventure which may result in visions -- or a painful death.

Finding morels requires a Zen Buddhist cast of mind. Your western, Judeo-Christian, goal-oriented, clock-punching work ethic will get you nowhere. You must shed the straight-jacket of your ego and overcome your obsession with success. In this sense, mushroom hunting is a path to wisdom.

Captain Ahab destroys his quadrant in pursuit of Moby-Dick. Ike McCaslin discards his watch and compass, hoping for a glimpse of Faulkner's bear. Something of that attitude, apparently, is required of the morel mushroom hunter. You must lose yourself to find yourself. What you seek will be revealed when you peel away the onion's last layer. Only then may you hear the sound of one hand clapping -- or find a mushroom. When you are ready, they will come to you. Or so I'm told.

"You have to get in the zone," said Gary Culley, owner of Culley's Liquor in Baldwin, known as Mr. Mushroom. "You gotta take in the whole scope of things. When you see something that's not supposed to be there, that's what you're looking for. It's like seeing a nickel in the driveway."

Ask a mushroom hunter about these homely delicacies and the passion pours forth.

"You look forward to it all year," said Culley. "You even dream about them."

But don't get too nosey. Mushroom hunters guard their secret spots with a passion too.

"If I took you out, I'd have to blindfold you," said Culley.

Mushroom zealot Joe Eberhart once confessed to me that he hadn't been out looking that day.

"You probably had more important things to do," I said.

"Nothing is more important than hunting mushrooms!" he cried.

Eberhart hadn't found any morels for several days. It had been too cold.

"But with the sun today," he mused, "they'll be popping out. They're out there right now!" The more he talked the warmer it got. His voice began to rise. The mushrooms were singing to him like the sirens sang to Ulysses: Come to us, Joe. We're ready to be picked.

"Go tomorrow," he ordered me. "They're out there, I promise you. They're out there now."

There's more to mushroom hunting than the delectable prize, he said.

"Why do I go out?" he said. "It's the best time of year to be out in the timber. It's spring time. Last year I saw a pileated woodpecker when I was out hunting. How often do you get a chance to see something like that?"

"It's a skill," said Gary Culley. "It's something you can do that not everyone can do. It's a high. When you find a big bunch of them, you go bonkers."

Eberhart advises seeking morels in the vicinity of dead elm trees. The soil ought to be a little sandy, he said. When the may apples are out, it's time to look. He admits that he's found his share of morels.

"But I walk over them like anyone else. You have to look under leaves. They like to hide."

"People find them under dead elm trees, because that's the only place they look," said Culley. "Mushrooms are like love: they're where you find them."

Even though I have no aptitude for mushroom finding, I think I get the point. We go through life scheming, worrying, adding and subtracting and we fail to notice that the ground we walk upon is strewn with gems. The red buds are blooming. The turkeys are gobbling. Nature's beauties are free.

Once or twice, I've forgotten what I came for and had a moment of deep awareness. My breathing slowed down. I remembered the wise astronomer's words: Not to have, but to be. I felt a kind of peace. Still, I found nothing in the way of mushrooms

The other day, I saw an ATV at the edge of my neighbor's woods.

"Get your boots on!" I called to my wife. "Mushrooms are out!" We raced to the timber across the road and found -- nothing, of course.

When I came back empty handed I called my neighbor.

"I suppose you found so many that your ATV could hardly bear the weight," I said.

"The only weight was my own, Retta Lou's and the two dogs," he said. I know it's not nice to rejoice in the failure of others. But I admit I was relieved.

Mushroom hunting is a metaphor for life. The joy is in the hunting, not the getting. According to a proverb, to obtain your heart's desire is a curse. I console myself with the thought that just because I can't find morel mushrooms doesn't mean I'm a bad person. And the knowledge that, in season, you can buy them for $25 a pound.

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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