Mushrooms

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.

Swinger of Beeches

 

“One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cowsSome boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.” -Robert Frost

Pushing out on the screen door it seemed as natural as breathing to yell over my shoulder into the cabin, “I’m going up to The Woods! ” the long spring nailed to the door brace and jamb ‘twanged’ as it stretched out and the door slammed shut. I barely heard the “ok!” from my mom as my red ball jets scuffed up the gravel running across the road and diving under Mr. Pike’s electric fence. There were no second thoughts about safety or worry about criminal activity. It was a different time and The Cabin was in the middle of nowhere. Down in Grand Rapids I’d given my parents scares when I’d ride my bike from Plainfield and 5 mile to my great Aunt Dolores’ house near Monroe and Ann street; a small matter of a few miles and quite a distance for a 10 year old, (I pretty much lived by the philosophy that Its better to apologize than ask permission). Dodging under the electric wire I Ran through the pasture, cows scattering as I passed. I’d only met Mr. & Mrs. Pike a few times. This was decades before cell phones and the Pikes had the closest telephone. If anybody needed to reach my grandparents or us for that matter, they called the Pikes, and usually Mrs. Pike would walk the message over. I remember being amazed at how much Mrs. Pike could do, years before she’d lost her hand above the wrist in a Combine accident but she was very adept around her house the couple times I’d gone with my mom and grandma to visit.
Beyond the pasture the hay fields rolled like waves in the sea as gusts of wind swept through the grain. The field was alive with grasshoppers and other bugs that jumped forward away from my legs like waves rolling away from the hull of a ship. The ground sloped upwards as I approached the fence line. Standing on the edge of the woods everything was sunshine and sound. Lowing cows, bells clanking as the herd moved slowly through the grasses, the occasional car speeding down the county road, the monotone droning of crickets and grasshoppers playing their own symphony of language. The sun warmed my neck and scalp as the day progressed to noon. Inside the woods slender saplings stood their ground against more ancient trees, their wide gnarled trunks, some smooth some rough barked marched along the fence line and on into the deeper pathless ways where all color turned to a dark grey haze. There is a trick to passing an electric fence and sometimes getting a slight poke is inevitable. The ‘crouch-hop’ can be difficult when there are trees in the way. For a split second as I lift my leg over the middle wire and crouch under the top I think of a dog marking his territory and my ‘hop’ brings my back into contact sending me dancing into the trees. Shaking off the electric charge I continue further into the wood. The change is startling, sunshine and insect life, cow sounds and the occasional car recede quickly. Some sunlight trickled down through the rustling branches high above but mostly the woods were bathed in muted light. The biggest change is breathing in the oxygen rich air that comes from being surrounded by so much plant life. I almost felt like I was swimming in the air. Greenhouses and public gardens can give the same effect. The woods were made up of mostly maple, oak, and beech. An occasional stand of cedar created an almost magical scene since those conifers were so different from the rest of the wood. Sunlight didn’t penetrate a stand of cedar. The ground beneath the branches was dark and mossy, and if it were possible the area seemed to gather silence; a quiet place within a quiet place. Almost everywhere I went in the woods I could find beech saplings. Beech trees grew tall and in the woods all the branches were high up in the crown probably searching for sunlight. In Frost’s poem he swung from Birches. There were very few Birch trees in our woods. Beech trees were plentiful and served the purpose. It was nothing to climb up a tree as close to the crown as possible until the shaft could no longer bear my weight and, hanging on, the tree would bow down until my feet lightly touched the soft loamy ground and then snap back up through the other saplings…then on to another, and another. It could be quite exciting if a sapling is chosen that had a bit of starch. I would climb up and up until, sometimes, 40 feet up the tree would finally bend and carry me spectacularly down. How does one discover this pastime? Like me most probably learn it from their fathers who, in a moment of remembrance, tells his child to start climbing, and like me the boy or girl looks at dad a little crazy. ‘Just do it,’ dad says. And we climb. ‘Keep going,’ says dad, ‘you’re not high enough yet.’ We think, ‘he Is crazy.’ And we keep climbing. ‘Now,’ says dad, ‘hang on tight and don’t let go. Kick out with your legs and hang on!’ Such a simple thing in which to find enjoyment but once back on earth, breathless and grinning in excitement we scamper like squirrels into the next tree and dad stands smiling, perhaps remembering days long past when he did the climbing and grandpa stood earthbound smiling in a moment of remembrance.
I stayed up in those woods doing nothing and exploring everything; swinging from Beeches until the Sing-song call of my mother sent me back. I don’t know how her voice penetrated the vast, heavy wood but it did. Many of the kids I knew at home heard that call carrying the ‘home’ command from the top of the hill on 5 mile road down through the neighborhoods. Bursting through the tree line I could look down the hill, through the grasses and meandering cows and see my mom and grandma in the garden, probably picking kale. Grandma was big into kale long before they started putting it in shakes. Putting hands beside my mouth I called back and watched my mom straighten and wave; and leaving the beech saplings bent askew and the darkened heavy woods for the sunlight, flinging a wave of grasshoppers along a sea of hay, the ten year old me pelted down the hill.

Springdale Farm

Even as I write this, fingers flashing across the screen of my phone-slash-computer-slash-camera, I am amazed at progress and technology; amazed at what we can discover about our world. These days we stab the Google icon and we are transported across the globe to discover the ‘why’ or ‘how’ of something, information is at our fingertips and we seem to accept that information as ‘good enough’. While we are young and as we are growing we touch, we taste, we listen, we feel; we participate in our world. It seems that as we grow older and busier we tend to settle for conceptual learning rather than experiential even when the opportunity is there to actually ‘do’ something, i.e. reading about dodgeball rather than actually playing the game. There’s nothing quite like the sound of a well-thrown red playground ball as it flattens around your head and drives you into the dirt, (that’s not a legal hit by the way- Torso and limb shots only). Perhaps that is why some memories are so vivid. It is seared into our minds by touch and sound; we remember the taste of salt in ocean water, we remember feeling the sunburn from a particular 4th of July day.  We remember the taste of wild strawberries on a hillside at midday. Every summer we would spend a few weeks at my Uncle and Aunt’s farm near Empire, Michigan. Springdale Farm was paradise to children brave enough to explore their world. At the Farm the nearest neighbors were a quarter mile away, woods and meadows dotted by horses and cattle nestled in with summer cottages and the tourist shops such places engender. Many times we arrived late in the evening. Now I see the wisdom of my parents as they set off for the Farm late in the day. My brother and sister and I were already in pajamas fast falling asleep amid blankets and pillows in the back seat of a Dodge Dart or Plymouth Fury, (my dad’s favorites) my baby sister Kelly Jo was usually in my mom’s arms or lap for the three hour trip from Grand Rapids. ‘The faster you fall asleep the sooner you’ll get there,’ my dad would say. We didn’t believe him but he was right. Sleep brought my dad a peaceful trip and us a quick passage of time. Mom would wake us as we neared The Farm and we’d sleepily hear the tires crunching the gravel of the driveway. Barely conscious we stumbled into the house lulled even closer to sleep again by my Aunt’s quiet tones or my cousin Betty’s soft touch giving direction to warm beds with dreams of forest paths, sunshine, sand, and Petoskey stones.

Waking in the morning brought a momentary disorientation followed by recognition and a subsequent dash down the stairs and across the living room to look out the big picture window framing the barn, and beyond it the old schoolhouse. If I were lucky I could watch as a group of wild turkey made their way through the back yard and along the driveway, oftentimes following Aunt Louise like chickens as she spread corn around and into the feeder. Still in my pj’s I’d make my way out the screen door and down the porch stairs that led into the back yard. The dew covered| grass was cold on my feet as I walked through the yard looking out toward the woods for deer. Many mornings we’d wake to find Aunt Louise looking out the kitchen window at a handful of does and one or two majestic looking bucks as they made their way along well used paths. In my excitement I wanted to do everything now! Ancient apple trees and plum trees laden with fruit beckoned, raspberry bushes marched in an orderly line in the garden, rows of corn filled a larger garden beyond the yard, outbuildings and old cars sat waiting with grasshoppers, snakes, and toads! I looked up beyond the garden and outbuildings,

up to the top of the big hill where a massive tree had fallen during a storm: my own personal jungle-gym, and woods and valleys to explore. My earliest memories of Uncle Frank & Aunt Louise’s farm had hay in the barn and cows nearby or grazing on the big hill behind the barnyard.

I remember too, at some point the cows were gone, the barn sat silent , Uncle Frank painted houses and a life done right rolled on. He would come and go while we played around the fields and hills, sometimes waiting anxiously for his return. ‘today Uncle Frank is going to make ‘tree whistles’ for us!’ or ‘today Uncle Frank said he’d make us ‘berry pie!’
Even now, making the trip North and rolling into the driveway Uncle Frank and Aunt Louise have passed but my cousin Betty stands at the door with a wave and a smile. The Farm pulls me in close and wraps itself around me. Memories of childhood excursions filled with laughter and joy fill my heart and rest comfortably in the corners of my mind. I see my brother Mike and Sister Shannon running ahead, up the hill, calling out at every discovered wild strawberry patch and tart dewberry. Mom, with a basket, follows with baby sister Kelly Jo in a backpack chair. Aunt Louise packed us a picnic lunch to eat at the top of the hill. The fallen tree, my personal Jungle Gym, is calling and the sun is shining.