Sunday, May 6, 2007

In Praise of Wild Mushrooms, Old Friends, and Tenth Birthdays

Note: I wrote this story in 2002, when we lived in Montana's Paradise Valley. It originally appeared in the Park County Press.

Until I met Olen, I never thought about what to do in my spare time. If there had been any questions, the answer would always have been the same: fish. Deep in the mountains or back behind the gravel pit, along head-high willows or through foot-thick ice. Just fish.

Olen loves to hunt trout too, but his expansive definition of fair game opened my heart to other pursuits. Deer and elk, of course, grouse, fossils, huckleberries, sapphires, mushrooms. Especially morel mushrooms–those wrinkled, pitted beauties whose flavor has come to represent everything fresh and fine about the spring.

Our favorite variety grows along rivers, streams, and ditches. They are sometimes the drab color of a dried cottonwood leaf or an overwintered pine cone, sometimes an almost luminescent orange or gold. These latter ones gleam like lanterns in the new grass. Finding them inspires a greedy sort of joy, the grabby happiness of a child collecting Easter eggs.

Although we have found them in late April and early June, May has been consistently our best month. I associate the taste of these morels with the scent of lilacs in the backyard, the sight of arrowleaf balsamroot on sunny hillsides. The flavor is both elegant and unrefined. In a bountiful year, we like them with eggs at breakfast, with elk at dinner. When havests are meager, we parse them bite by bite, savoring each morsel like a kiss.

On the day that Olen and I struck the mother lode of morels, my son Dave was born sixteen weeks prematurely. We found the mushrooms in a section of floodplain owned by a local veterinarian. They sprouted so thickly that you could fill a bag without leaving your knees. Olen alternately picked and cheered, cheered and picked, or maybe that was me who did the shouting. In any event, we were back at the house by noon, leaving the most abundant patch intact on the forest floor, for Sarah.

But Sarah wasn’t at home. In her place, the answering machine blinked. I met her at the hospital in Missoula that afternoon. Before midnight, Dave would be airlifted to the neonatal intensive care unit in Seattle, a boy not much bigger than a trout.

None of us ever tasted those particular morels. I went with Dave on the Learjet, strapped in like a smokejumper alongside the portable incubator, with its mystifying array of lights and monitors. Sarah remained at the Missoula hospital for a few more days, her fever spiking at 105 degrees. I don’t know why Olen didn’t take the mushrooms, but I can guess. Some other friends eventually claimed the treasure. By all accounts, they were very good.

Dave is ten years old now, and his birthday still reminds us of morels and other things. We spent six weeks in Seattle, learning the ABCs of prematurity: apnea, bradycardia, and cynanosis. Apnea means that the lungs stop breathing, bradycardia that the heart stops beating, cyanosis that the skin turns blue. During that time we occasionally saw wild mushrooms for sale in the Pike Place Market, but they were stale, shriveled remnants of their former selves, and at fifteen dollars per pound we were scarcely moved to buy them.

This spring it snowed on Dave’s birthday. And again the following week—which explains why we waited nearly until Memorial Day for our first morels of the season. Even then we found only three, after hours of searching. But if the streambank was unproductive, the stream itself was not. We fried the mushrooms in the same pan with five rainbow trout, collected by Dave and his younger sister. The fish were compact little battlers, densely spotted, still in spawning colors. The kids rejoiced with each capture, and Sarah and I did too.

Together, the trout and mushrooms and a brace of dry martinis made the kind of dinner which should not be repeated too often, lest you grow numb to its beauty.

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