The Morel of the Story
Sometimes you go into the woods looking for something. And sometimes, that something finds you instead.
That’s the distance I drove over the last week.
Given my predilection for walkabouts these days, it should’ve come as no surprise.
“You’ve only been home a week.”
“But I’m so terribly ill with wanderlust right now.”
I’d been invited to go mushroom hunting.
I needed to get back out and explore.
And so I got in my car and I went.
We live in a society where you can click a few buttons on your phone and have a meal delivered to your doorstep in under an hour.
A society in which you can drive or Uber or bike or walk to the corner market or grocery store and practically fill your belly with little more than a handful of loose change.
So why on earth would someone with that level of access and ease when it comes to food make the conscious decision to spend a week of their life traveling all over the country just to wander through the woods in search of a few edible morsels that may barely make a meal?
Then again, nothing about intentionally choosing foraging for a particular seasonal crop is truly rational.
Much like treasure hunting, it’s inexplicably done for the love of the game.
From the outside, foraging can appear to be a frustrating sport. And once you’ve signed up to play, it’s not really any less frustrating than it looked before- you simply learn to view it differently.
You’ll bathe in bug spray, and find yourself knee deep in stinging nettles one day, and surrounded by poison hemlock the next. Your heart will race as you scramble up and slide down muddy river banks to poke at fallen logs and between the roots of trees, carefully searching for context clues from the forest.
Like a gambler in a casino, you know you could hit the jackpot at any moment, or go home days later, exhausted and with practically empty pockets.
Such was the case with this last trip.
1,998 miles later, I finally decided to pack up and head back home, with only a few mushrooms in tow.
And yet, somehow I still felt fulfilled.
I had learned a lot in the process.
I had a newfound respect for people who did this full time.
And I was happy.
I’ve always loved driving long expanses of open road by myself: I enjoy the solitude and the ability to stop whenever I want to. Wandering alone in the woods presents a similar opportunity. While initially there are many things that you think you should be afraid of, these fears quickly pass and are overridden by the beauty and joy that come with such quiet endeavors.
Not to say that you should drop your guard completely once you’re out there in the brush. Nature generally wants you dead, and will present a multitude of ways to try and make this happen.
Learning to hone and use all of your senses: being able to identify risky footing, poisonous plants and fungi, insects, snakes, even track marks of large animals is necessary for your safety and survival (and will make you feel like you have superpowers once you get back to civilization.)
“But what if you don’t find anything?”
This question was asked a few times before I left, and ultimately, there were many days that I didn’t “find anything.” But what I did find was that a deeply satisfying sense of peace came from letting go of the expectation of finding anything, and the moment that I accepted I might go home empty handed was the exact same moment that I usually stumbled over a few more specimens, ripe for the picking.
Moreover, I found that there was a better way to manage these expectations: not by trying not to have them, but by catching them as they appeared, and choosing to shift focus toward everything else in front of me instead.
The wild violets covering the forest floor, the sharply spined currants dotting the brush, the birds hopping from tree to tree, the sound of the river running alongside my path, the fascinating mosses I didn’t know the names for, or the wild lettuces that I did. Appreciating the now helped to avoid existing in a constant state of disappointment and regret on those long and tiring mushroomless afternoons.
Spending hours of your days searching for needles in haystacks requires a certain level of constant focus, lest you overlook exactly what you’re looking for. You have to slow down and be immensely present, and learn to view the trees through the forest.
As my journey came to a self-imposed end and I parted ways from my fellow hunters who were heading further east, I caught myself looking at everything around me with more awe and wonder than I ever had before, and listening to everyone around me a little more closely… including myself.
“It’s not what you look at that matters- it’s what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau
On the drive back home, I found myself seeing the world differently, daydreaming about how much treasure was possibly hiding in every grove of cottonwood trees along the rivers off the road, wondering if I should humor that urge to stop for a moment, if I should exit the next offramp or pull over on the shoulder and go explore the woods for a while.
And while I didn’t, I still smiled at the thought of it.
Suddenly, not only was I was fully and completely welcoming of the unknown- I was relishing the opportunity to embrace it over and over again.
Because at the end of the day, this trip wasn’t just about finding the mushrooms.
It was about finding a little bit more of myself.