C.W. Gusewelle

Hunt for morels brings back happy memories and rush of grief, gratitude

Charles Gusewelle and daughter Jennie mark the end of a successful morel hunt.
Charles Gusewelle and daughter Jennie mark the end of a successful morel hunt.

It is said that time is a human construct — a fiction we use to make sense of our lives. Really, according to the physicists, all time exists at once, and there is nothing linear to it at all. Recently, when I was walking in a part of the woods that my father and I spent so much time in together, I felt for a moment what I think the scientists are talking about.

Spring — late coming to our part of the country — is finally here. Tender shoots of green are just now poking through the dried leaves and matted grasses. And expectant buds have appeared on the branches. It was the first day of the season it was reliably warm, and I could feel my shoulders release their clenching to the cold.

Friends and I were gathered for our annual pilgrimage to the place that — when moisture, sunlight and season all perfectly align — offers up the Ozark delicacy known as morel mushrooms.

We arrived at the woods’ edge about 2 p.m. and girded ourselves with all manner of tick repellent — garlic, sworn to by the locals, and toxic pesticides alike. Then we headed, bags in hand, toward our reliable spots.

The woods were alive with songbirds that day — they were as happy as we were to have survived the seemingly endless winter. And branches with their new leaves were bowing and fluttering in the breeze.

My friends and I fanned out, scanning the earth for hopeful signs as we made our way carefully through the blackberry vines. The birch grove, which my father affectionately called the “honey hole,” revealed nothing but an abandoned turtle shell. So we moved to some less likely areas, each of us going in our own direction.

Mushroom hunting is a meditative practice. As a friend noted, it is not so much about attending to every detail in the woods as it is about learning to soften how you see. Honing your ability to walk slowly, noticing a mushroom’s luminosity against the flatness of the dried brown leaves, is an all-encompassing endeavor.

And therein lies the magic. You can’t be good at spotting the mushrooms while simultaneously worrying about deadlines or bills or any other troubles that await you tomorrow.

Then there was one — just one — on its own pushing mightily through the leaves in a very unlikely place. One of our friends had never hunted morels, so I called him over to do the picking. I showed him to the general area and then let him spot the mushroom on his own. Watching him see it and pick it was better than if I had picked it myself.

The wonder that happens in finding that first one is the same no matter how many times you have done it. It strikes me that part of the allure of morels is that they are never sure to be found. You are just as likely to come up empty handed after combing the woods for hours as you are to find one, or ten, or more.

And it is in that uncertainty — as with much else in life — that the magic comes when you find them.

Having found one, the hope of others drew us into further parts of the woods. And in a place where we had never found them before, they littered the green shoulder of a field — some small, some large, some joined at the stem like sisters — prized in all their forms.

After nearly two hours of prowling the woods, and heavy with an indecent harvest, my friends began winding their way back toward the car. As is often the case, entranced in my hunting, I lost track of time and did not see them go.

When I looked up and noticed I was alone in the woods, I stood still in the sunlight and closed my eyes, wanting to remember the moment.

And in that instant I was there with my father, as I had been on so many first-spring-days just like this one. I could remember the feeling exactly — our calling to each other across the woods with joy as we made our discoveries. And I could almost imagine he was there — just out of sight — over a bend in the hill.

Then the crushing reality of his loss and the longing for him came rushing back. But for the first time since losing him, I also felt enormous gratitude for all those days we had together.

It was all there — the joy mixed up with the grief — all existing in the same moment in a way that hardly makes sense to the conscious mind.

And oddly, it felt that everything was just as it should be, and exactly as my father would have hoped it would be.