The morel’s a most fêted fungus. Its phallic shape, firm feel, and earthy taste imply, and not subtly, fertility. Its appearance in spring is celebrated in mountain forests across the country. While most mushrooms appear in the late summer and fall when there’s more for them to grow on, morels take advantage of spring’s first sweet stirrings, sucking sugars from the growing trees’ first photosynthesis and in turn providing the trees with digestible nutrients. This fungus is more ancient than the plants whose flowers and fruits are easy pickings. And yet in a couple of weeks they’re gone, to appear ever farther north until the spring finally ends. If unpicked, they’ll dry up or in spring rains deliquesce and the spores that line their fibrous caps will be dispersed on the wind.

By the time we reached the summit of the little slope, the dog was already shaking off the water from her swim. We’d begin to search in the forest duff beneath the elms for a sighting. We knew they were there, but morels are always there and yet not there. They don’t show themselves. Camouflaged among the fallen leaves and twigs, there could be fifty and you wouldn’t see one. But their smell, musky and languorous, wafts up with the mist from the falls.

Finally, to see them, we’d lie down, all of us on our bellies, flat out on the ground, and turn our heads in the hope that by scanning the dark palette of the forest duff from this vantage, we’d see, against our low horizon, morel mushrooms standing. If at this moment a hiker came through the woods, I don’t know what he’d think. I don’t know what we’d tell him. Anything, I guess, but that morels grow here. I remember realizing that the mushrooms were not quite as important as the ritual. Of the going out in the woods in spring. Of our children pressing their cheeks to moist warming soil and knowing the exhalations of the spring earth.

And then they’d appear, seeming to arise magically before our eyes.

“I see one!”

“I see one!”

“There’s another!”

“Dad, don’t move, there’s one right by your foot!”

We’d gather what we could, place them into the wicker basket, and then sit scanning the ground for any we might have missed. Only after our attention left the ground did we notice the sun through the canopy of elms and once again the sound of the meltwater pouring through the limestone karsts of the hillside and spilling out from the rocks -- the purging of winter.

Bruce Stutz, Chasing Spring

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