Clarence and Adeline walked out of their cabin heading for an old battered pick up. Clarence had already mixed the fuel for his chainsaw. The saw, tools, gas, an extra chain and a few red oil soaked rags were tucked in the corner of the pick-up bed and the old man flipped up and shut the back gate, giving it a tug just to be safe. It was only a quarter mile up the county road to the entrance of the woods but why take a chance of spilling everything on the roadway. Clarence was getting older but he still had his routine. The Woods had to be checked. There had been a storm the day before and with each storm or high wind came the possibility of downed trees or branches that had to be cleared from the two-track paths. After years and years of this routine there was barely any need to deliberately cut down any of the trees- even the standing dead were left alone unless they posed a danger. Along every one of these paths the old couple drove slowly, stopping every so often to pull a leafy branch off to the side through the thick leaves and ferns until the road was clear. Clarence’s work boots and Adeline’s slip-ons scuffed up the leaves sending dust motes floating through the rays of morning sunlight. The high whine and up and down moan of the working chainsaw biting into the wood cut through the air. Woodchips flying, Clarence worked his way down the tree cutting small limbs away then with a practiced eye and ease cut the limbs and trunk into 14-inch pieces while Adeline, cleared the brush and stacked the wood next to the road.
They finished at this spot and slowly made their way through the forest tracks cutting and stacking, walking into the pathless areas when a downed tree is seen to be only ‘half-down’ and is hung up on another tree. Those are the dangerous ones. Who knows when it would give way and drop heavily to the ground? They had too many grandchildren, (like me), who might think about climbing such a tree now that the branches are more accessible. Cut branches, sliding brush and every footfall churns up the leaves and bracken. Insects flew about and spores and particles from degraded plant life swirled through the air catching the dappling sunbeams as they cut in and out of the leaves and branches high overhead. Soft breezes and shifting currents in the air spinning wide around trunk and bough caught the microscopic spores sending them ‘downstream’ to rest in other places; other fertile grounds, waiting for their time, waiting for their season.
Winter was always a waiting time for us. Closing the cabin in December for winter, my Grandparents would move back to Grand Rapids to their house on Diamond Avenue. There were times we went to the farm during winter. The big hill was made for sledding, but for the most part The Cabin and The Farm were ‘summer’ places. The weather usually turns in April. My grandparents Clarence and Adeline pack up and head back to the cabin once they are sure the pump won’t freeze. In April the woods can still be impassable with snow. Soon, though,even the darkest of hollows sees grassy turves and moss through the increasingly shallow snow. Cold days with snow flurries turn into cold days with rain flurries until the southern sun creeps far enough north to warm the air and soil and all that lies dormant. May is the spring month; new growth and rain and warm breezes. May is the month for mushrooms. Every spring we’d wait for word that the time was right and the woods were full. My Grandma had clients from Indiana and Ohio who would make the trip up to buy Morels from her.
I suppose that if I disliked mushrooms I would look at those trips differently but The Woods were always an adventure. When we were young grandma would ‘flag’ patches of mushrooms for us to ‘find.’ Knowing she did this didn’t lessen the thrill we felt as we drove up into the woods and made our way slowly down the two track roads to the spots that only she recognized. She used sticks to mark the places she had seen mushrooms the week before. To us a stick was a stick. The woods were full of sticks. My dad would stop the car and we’d all pile out with our bread bags and dull paring knives she kept just for grandkids to use. Excited and antsy to begin we quickly scanned the ground looking for the right sticks and the mushrooms that had to be by them but we were too eager and as I said before, ‘a stick is a stick.’ Grandma pointed the way while mom and dad cautioned us to be careful and ‘listen to grandma.’ ‘There,’ and ‘there,’ we squealed and jumped about finding one then another of the pre-found ‘shrooms. “Stop!” said grandma. “Take a moment to look around,” she said. “Running from one to the next you may miss some or step on them. You’ve found one, now stay still and look around. Crouch down if you have to. You may see mushrooms hidden under a cap of leaves.” She taught us to use our knives to pinch-off the stem so that the bottom and root would be left to seed the next year’s harvest. As I grew older I would just walk through Mr. Pike’s cow pasture and hay fields and into the woods. Breathing deep the oxygen-rich air brought the familiar heightening of the senses and at the same time a sleepy lethargy that had to be ‘shaken-off’. The woods became for me a place of calm and quiet. As a boy the woods were all adventure and exploration. Mushrooms were just an excuse to run through the woods, to climb trees, to shout back at my own echoing voice bouncing through the trunks. By the time I was in my late teens entering the woods was like entering a sanctuary. Aside from the wind in the trees the only sounds came from chirping birds and chittering squirrels. Deer flit like ghosts through the trees, their white tails still down; they weren’t concerned about me. I would scan the forest floor to find the tell-tale white or black waffle texture of the Morel. Finding one, per grandma’s orders, I stooped to pick, then I’d look around for others. There were always more.
Morels are social fungi. Where there’s one there’s bound to be more. I worked quietly through that part of the woods usually bringing a few pounds back with me. At the cabin, Morels were everywhere. Fresh picked mushrooms hung from hooks in bread bags, Shallow cardboard boxes were filled and stacked on chairs. Pans sat on the old Franklin stove filled with water and soaking mushrooms. The smell of Mushrooms being sautéed in butter wafted through the rooms. Mushrooms as a side dish, mushrooms in the gravy, mushrooms prepared then frozen for later use. Attempts have been made to commercially grow Morels but with little success. Restaurants and stores want them and they still have to rely on local providers like my grandma.
The long weekend done, Mushrooms picked and packed for use at home a misty rain falls as we kids pile into the car after hugs and kisses are given. Grandpa and grandma stand by the door and watch us roll out onto the gravel road. Mike, Shannon and myself, looking back, waving, watching the cabin disappear below the hill are already wondering when we’ll be returning. Baby Kelly Jo sleeps in the front seat. Soon the car becomes a van as Denise and Carl become, in turns, the sleeping babies, and Kelly’s face joins ours looking back over the hill wondering when we’ll be back.
A misty rain falls as the cabin door opens as Adeline walks out and to the waiting pick-up. The rumbling truck idles. Clarence has already put his chainsaw in the back and closed the gate giving it a tug. The truck slowly roars to life as it rolls out the drive and onto the county road heading for the entrance to the woods.