On Hunting Morels and Other Elusive Critters

did you notice the morel next to the bag?

Did you notice the morel next to the bag?

We live in the sort of place morels also like to live, coniferous forests. This is a very happy coincidence. But we’re not so special, as it turns out the habitats of morels are as diverse—as polymorphic—as are their forms. We do, however, have the considerable advantage of being surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of coniferous forests. There’s lots of places to look.

Morel fever is common this time of year. I’ve watched folks wander away mid-conversation, heading towards a clump of firs, eyes cast downward, on the prowl. The other day a friend and I were walking together when I spotted a beautiful brown morel peering up from a thick carpet of fir needles. A surge of joy swept through me: that elemental,  animal pleasure of the hunt. I took out my knife and cloth bag, knelt down, cleared the needles from around its base, and neatly cut the morel as low on the stem as I could. Before I bagged my treasure, I showed it off to my friend who, until now, had only seen morels on the plate.

A minute later he saw a cluster of 5 large, perfect morels. Dropping to his knees, he claimed his prizes, and then, sporting a big smile, he said that he needed another hobby like he needed another hole in his head, but maybe, just maybe, he might do a little morel hunting.

That’s the fever talking.

For me, anyway, half the pleasure is in the hunting, which sends me (and Aktis, of course) out into the coniferous woods around our home, looking for that conical, brainy shape that blends so easily into the detritus of the forest, a lookalike among all the fir cones. They’re easy to miss, especially when you’re a novice, as I still am.

But I’m getting better fast, as is often the case when you’re highly motivated by some pleasure (or some pain). As I hunt I can feel my brain doing what brains are designed by nature to do: acquiring a specific pattern or form, which in this case allows my eye to distinguish my quarry, that cortex-textured conehead, the magnificent morel, amongst all the other cones and detritus of the forest floor.

I am acquiring other patterns as well, including details of times and places I found morels in the past. Like all life, morels have a way of being in the world, a discernible pattern which good hunters skillfully discover and use to find their quarry. Hunting is best in mild weather after a day or two of sun has warmed up the ground following a good soaking rain. I’m likelier to find them amongst large fir trees than in sunnier open places. Conditions must be shady and moist enough, neither too cold nor too warm and dry.

Once I’ve dialed in the spatiotemporal coordinates, I fall into this pleasurable morel meditation where my attention is keen but relaxed. As a Tibetan meditation master has said, “Good relaxation brings good meditation; bad relaxation, bad meditation.” I walk slowly, eyes in a relaxed middle-ground focus, gaze gently roaming the ground, hunting the elusive morel. I’m looking for a form that matches the pattern I’ve laid up in my soul. (This is how Socrates sometimes talks about learning and recognition.)

We are exquisitely accomplished pattern-seeking, pattern-recognizing, and pattern-making animals. Some of the patterns we hunt are not even modeled after any physical form that can be apprehended by our senses.  The equations describing quantum mechanics and propositions articulating philosophical principles such as the principle of non-contradiction are examples of purely formal patterns apprehended only by the mind’s eye.

However, we’re hunting no such rarefied beings here. Our quarry are earthier critters that bring simpler pleasures, like the one that comes directly after washing, slicing, and then slowly sautéing fresh morels and thyme in butter before adding a couple eggs mixed with a little whole milk, a dash of salt and pepper, and some fresh parmesan, then folding the wonderful concoction to make an omelette. Which is absolutely delicious and definitely lights up my brain’s “reward circuits.” Which in turn sends me back out on the hunt.

The treasure is the obvious reward that reinforces the pleasure of hunting. But it’s not just their delectable wholesomeness that makes me want to hunt morels.  Again, the hunting itself is half the fun. In Plato’s dialogues, philosophical conversation is often compared to a hunt, where the questioning and seeking are as vital (and very often as revealing) as the wisdom being sought. Dogs and other hunters also love the hunt and chase at least as much as the quarry. (No wonder I call the game Aktis and I play “Seek!”) In such hunts, there’s the pleasure of active cooperation and the excitement that comes from the uncertainty and surprise common to all treasure hunts: will you find a motherlode or return home empty-handed? While the role of that whimsical goddess Fortuna is considerable, accomplished hunters find that Lady Luck is of the sort golf great Gary Player famously referred to when he said, “It seems like the more I practice, the luckier I get.” A golf swing, like the form of a morel or the shape of a guitar chord, is just another pattern laid up in the soul through practice.

I’ve described morels as critters to be hunted. Usually hunting refers to hunting animals. Yet my choice of words here is more apt than you might think. Mycologists are discovering that the Fungal kingdom has more in common with the Animal kingdom than with the Plant kingdom. That’s right, folks, mushrooms are more like animals than plants! (Hat tip to Science News for this tidbit, which I found in a recent cover article detailing the efforts of mycologists to put this complex, fascinating and poorly understood kingdom in order.)

 

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