His most recent cache is pictured above. Last night he served Huxley and I an exquisite dinner of grass-fed beef topped with lemon balm compound butter (using leaves gathered from our plants), grilled asparagus (from nearby Hickory Nut Gap Farm) and Yukon potato slices, and morels served in the traditional style-dredged in flour and fried to perfection in butter. We all groaned and moaned in delight; Huxley even offered up his highest compliment-"'Licious!"-completely unprompted.
Ashley, Huxley, and I are very fortunate to live in a quiet, majestic clearing in the woods, nestled in the verdant mountains of Western North Carolina, part of the oldest mountain range in the world. This area is the only temperate rain forest in North America, outside of the Pacific North West, and because of all that moisture, along with the varying elevations and proximity between north and south, one study found it to be the most biodiverse region in North America. I don't know if that's true or not, but there is certainly no shortage of beauty and wonder in these woods.
A walk in the woods always makes me feel particularly alive, and it seems that every time I venture out into the woods, I feel a little more connected to nature. It takes some patience to walk in the woods with me, because every few steps, another natural wonder, be it a stone with an unusual shape or patina, or a plant with leaves of curious geometries, or a color creature slinking across the path diverts my attention. It awakens my senses like nothing else, and the experience is both wondrous and dreamlike.
I'm not a religious man, but I suppose in a sense, the woods are my church. That's why I was particularly amazed to find that hunting for morels brought the experience to a whole new level. Not that there is anything wrong with a glorious, aimless walk through the woods, but I found that something truly remarkable, and profoundly connecting, happens when my attention is focused on the goal of finding those gastronomical gems that nature has cleverly hidden in the subtlest of nooks and crannies of the forest.
I would have guessed that a walk through the woods with such keen intention would come at the expense of stopping to smell the flowers, and noticing the magical details that usually catch my attention, but as it turns out, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, it focused my attention on details that normally would have been glossed over by the vastness of information all around, like the subtle difference in the patterns of bark between a big old oak and a tulip poplar, or the shock absorbing crunch of decaying organic matter that has built up in one area, verses the springy bounce of moss on another.
I would also have guessed that I'd be so focused on the forest floor, I would barely notice what was in front of me, or what was above me, but quite the opposite has proven true. Morels grow best under certain conditions, like dead elm trees, or large old grandfather poplars, or trees that are slowly dying. In the early spring, when the leaves aren't all the way out yet, telling one from another often means a lot of careful attention directed up to the tops of trees, which leads to all sorts of other wonderful sightings, like reticulated woodpeckers and curious dendritic patterns where lightening or storm changed the angle of a tree that responded by growing back in an unexpected, determined direction.
One of the most interesting things is that it forces you to start noticing which plants grow next to each other The more you start picking up on those patterns, the more you start to develop an eye for where to find them. When you stop and really notice those patterns, of trees, of ground cover, of soil, of light, you start to have a much better sense of where to look, and your success rate increases exponentially.
I won't lie, it's frustrating at times, when despite your best efforts, you just can't seem to locate any of those sneaky morsels. But when you do find one, that makes it all the more exciting. It's like winning the mushroom lottery every time. For me at least, it's impossible not to feel thrilled every single time I spot one. But in truth, even those times when I come back empty-handed are rewarding in unexpected ways. Forcing myself to pay attention like never before always leads to new discoveries, like ferns pushing up through an old stone chimney that was all that was left of a house in the woods reclaimed by nature more than a century ago, fort-like little worlds under the rhododendron canopy, or a spring dripping down onto rose quartz from the moss covered roots of an old tree in the side of the ridge, looking like it came straight out of a faerie tale.
No doubt, this is going to be something that I look forward to every year. I suspect that over time, as I learn to be more in touch with nature's patterns, I'll get better and better at returning home with a treasure of spoils. I already know that, find them or not, I've learned so much I'll be taking with me whenever I venture into the woods, no matter what time of year.