A Wild Feast

I drop to all fours, a supplicant at the gnarled altar of cedar roots before me. It is an old tree, roughly chiseled and stripped by the elements; its branches twisted and knotted, skeletal despite their evergreen foliage. I have hiked through this gully in the Shawnee National Forest dozens of times, always giving this particular tree a nod, but also always on my way to somewhere else. Today, though, its offerings have brought me to my knees.

Borne on thick, bone white stems topped by conical, wrinkly caps in the dull yellow color of dead leaves, a precious handful of Morchella esculent - more commonly called yellow morel mushrooms - have emerged from the tangle of exposed roots, moss, and wet earth at the base of the old cedar.

There are many feral foods we've managed to domesticate over the centuries. We've demystified the hunting and gathering process to such an extent that there's no need to really even get our hands dirty anymore. For instance, much of the salmon we eat is now raised in crowded pens in the sea. Rabbits, game birds, and even deer can be successfully bred and harvested on farms. Once-foraged herbs such as lovage and wood sorrel are now grown in tidy garden plots. And thanks to advances in plant breeding that have given us high-yielding, thornless cultivars, now, we don't even have to bleed for our blackberries.

The untamable holdouts are mushrooms. We have learned to cultivate the varieties that can be grown on rotting logs (oysters, shiitakes, hen of the woods), but the mushrooms that spring seemingly fully formed from the ground - the most prized of all edible mushroom - remain a mystery. These include chanterelles, morels, hedgehogs, porcinis, boletes, and truffles, none of which spread easily via spores, but rather are connected to an intricate underground network of threadlike strands called mycelium.

So complex is the relationship between certain trees, their colonies of mycelium, and the mushrooms they produce, that science has yet to unravel its mysteries. Which makes mushrooms one of the last truly wild foods left on our planet. Like a windblown and wizened shepherd, the cedar tree before me cultivates and nurtures his odd flock of fungi. And reverent though I may be in light of all this mysticism, I am also the wolf at the gate. And I am hungry.

Of all the bounty the wilderness offers, mushrooms alone fill a liminal niche unoccupied by any other living thing. They are not plants, with succulent leaves and sweet, sun-ripened fruits; nor are they animals, warm and bright-eyed, thrumming with blood and a heartbeat and meat that fire transforms into nourishment. They are something else entirely - not quite alive in the way we think of living things, but certainly not un-alive.

It is their life cycle that is perhaps most alluring, if not unsettling. There is no predictability to their coming or going. They arrive without warning - usually in the middle of the night - and grow to fairy tale proportions. Then, as suddenly as they came, they're gone. They simply disappear, as though a hand groping beneath the leaf litter took hold of their stems and yanked them back under the ground again.

And while all living creatures on earth are here because something else passed away, it is mushrooms that make that connection wholly apparent, popping out of the trunks of diseased and elderly trees or rising from the rich mantel of decay on the forest floor. For their ephemerally short time on earth, they feast on death.

And we feast on them.

Once an act necessary for human survival, hunting and gathering is no longer considered a literal matter of life or death, but rather a pleasant ritual practiced by those who find themselves occasionally disenchanted with the orderly, fluorescent-lit aisles of the supermarket. Like illustrations from a 14th century grimoire, the hunt for wild fungi appeals to a primeval part of our beings unsated by demure little button mushrooms in cardboard cartons.

With fantastical names (Black Trumpet, Dryad's Saddle, Devil's Urn, Destroying Angel, Witch's Butter) and characteristics to match (polka dots, warts, shaggy beards, pustules, glow-in-the-dark gills), they are, at their best, fascinating and, in some cases, delicious. At their worst, they are terrifyingly poisonous.

In between is all manner of uncertainty, as many of the most insidious mushrooms will grow right alongside their safe and edible counterparts. As such, it takes a certain type of person to sit down to a meal of foraged mushrooms. And even when you are dead certain you've identified your quarry correctly, there's always a niggling doubt that makes the first bite feel like a thrilling gamble.

Driven by risk and reward, I make these muddy-kneed pilgrimages into the woods, pocket knife in hand, mesh bag tied at my waist. There are hunts I'll remember for their almost ridiculous bounty - baskets overflowing with golden, apricot-scented chanterelles during a season foragers thought might never end; a mossy slope carpeted with velvety black trumpets, fluted and redolent with an earthy, fruity fragrance; a pine-crowned hillside after a thunderstorm, the elven caps of black morels thrusting up through the fallen leaves in such number, the forest was ringing endlessly with shouts of “Found one!” from bands of thrilled hunters.

And then there are the expeditions - many of them - when there are no edible mushrooms to be found. I walk for miles, eyes trained on the ground. I kneel down to rummage through the wet leaves. I move quietly, as though mushrooms are easily spooked. Maybe they are.

I spent one particularly languid afternoon in the woods of southern Indiana hunting unsuccessfully amidst the too-dry undergrowth. I had foolishly worn new hiking boots, and a blister formed on the back of my right ankle. I unlaced my boots, tugged them off, and peeled away my sweaty socks. The half dollar-size blister had already broken, a flap of skin dangling over the raw sore. I twisted the skin until it came off, flicked it aside, and set about dabbing on ointment and bandaging my ankle. My minor medical needs seen to, I leaned back against a tree and closed my eyes. The only sounds were the occasional, distant admonition of a crow or jay and the rising and falling drone of a katydid.

There was the barest rustling in the leaves to my right. I opened my eyes and found I had been joined by a harvestman (also known as a daddy longlegs). He used his spindly limbs to prod experimentally at the piece of skin I'd removed from my ankle just minutes before. He stepped forward, testing it with his mandibles. Then he skittered off, returning moments later with a companion - another harvestman. I laid down on my stomach in the leaves. Together, the two creatures investigated my discarded blister. A third appeared. Then a fourth.

Within ten minutes, there were five harvestmen chewing methodically on what had only recently been attached to my person. They eventually divided it into pieces, each taking a bit for himself. Apparently, harvestmen are diplomatic like that. Over the course of an hour, the skin was fully devoured, and the harvestmen retreated back to their copses of fallen leaves as surreptitiously as they'd come.

As with any hunt, apprehending one's quarry is the practical end goal. But if all I truly desired were some wild mushrooms to eat, I'd go to my local co-op and buy them. When I go into the woods, I go to be disarmed. The things that make us feel safe and in control - our smartphones, the sodium lights lining our streets, the gleaming grocery store with its acres of endless food options - are stripped away.

Once we re-wild ourselves, our eyes and feet and minds turn to the living and dying earth beneath our feet, the sky above us, and everything in between. The heart of the hunt is in the witness we bear and the part we play. It's in the tree frogs losing their minds with desire, mating and laying thousands of quivering eggs in puddles that may or may not evaporate before the next good rain. It's in a coyote carcass, picked clean and white, with jack-in-the-pulpits sprouting up through its vertebrae. It's in the buttercups that emerge every spring amidst the crumbling foundations of long-gone homesteads. It's in my open blister already healing, even while a team of delicate scavengers converts the skin to compost. Finding what I went looking for is a bonus side effect of finding everything I didn't know I needed to find.

​Back at home with my freshly harvested morels, I crack open two beers - one for myself and one for the mushrooms. A quick soak in a bowl of pilsner will drown any insects that have made their home in the hundreds of nooks and crannies for which mushrooms are known. I pour on the beer. An entire ecosystem of gnat larva, slugs, and beetles are swept away in the froth. Adding the mushrooms to a cast iron skillet, I apply liberal amounts of grass-fed butter, cream, garlic, and bourbon and pour it all over a pan-seared ribeye. It is almost indecently decadent.

A few deadly sins and a full belly later, I can't imagine ever being hungry again, though I know I'll be starving when I wake up. Before a shower and bed, I remember to check the shadowy creases of my body for ticks. There are always a few there. After all, we are all consumed by something. We all have to eat.